At the end of one of his recent films, Deconstructing Harry, writer/actor Woody Allen delivers a movie-ending confession that offers a perverted coherence to the film: “All people know the truth. Our lives consist of how we choose to distort it.” For believers, though, desiring truth—undistorted—is central to the process and experience of our salvation. Nothing is more fundamental in our striving for sanctification—our striving to be good as God is good—than our embracing the truth at every level at which it confronts us.
One of the most common names for the presence of God in our lives is the Spirit of Truth. He is the author and source of all that is valuable, good, pure, and true. It follows, then, that believers in the true Gospel—a work the Spirit of Truth authors in our hearts—will seek what is true. Our commitment to living according to what is true is a “litmus test” for whether we are authentically interested in knowing God and learning to love what He loves—truth, justice, and mercy. Are we interested in knowing God? Then, in the end, we will be open to following the truth wherever it leads us. This will be a lifelong process for us, however, because, like our distant ancestors Adam and Eve, we are more inclined to hide from truth than to seek it or to embrace its consequences. Our fallen, darkened hearts do not naturally respond well to truth, especially when it surprises and inconveniences us, when believing and acting upon the truth costs us something.
In his gospel narrative (John 18:28ff), the Apostle John portrays a powerful scene in which Jesus and his captor, Pontius Pilate, engage in a profound exchange over this issue of truth. Their conversation shows two levels at which truth confronts all humans. Both levels can potentially reflect a person’s moral disposition, but the second level proves to be spiritually crucial. Let me explain.
The first level of discovering truth involves whether or not a person believes truth exists at all in a practical and philosophical sense. Is there truth? If so, how do I know it? How can I be confident in what appears to me to be true? In the John passage, Pilate interrogates Jesus and his accusers, attempting to ascertain the true circumstances that led to Jesus’ arrest. At this level of truth seeking, Pilate assumes the truth can be known and assessed. His inquiry proves he believes truth is objectively available and can be sought and found. Having received adequate firsthand testimony, Pilate determines that Jesus is innocent of the allegations against him. The truth made itself plain to Pilate. Pilate then attempts political maneuvers to free Jesus, but he fails when Jesus’ accusers threaten anarchy that would put Pilate himself in political jeopardy.
Yet Jesus intrigues Pilate, who engages Jesus further, asking Him questions that lead Jesus to claim, “For this I have been born…to bear witness to the truth. Every one who is of the truth hears My voice.” Now the second level of our relationship to truth appears. Once we believe we know what is true, are we willing to embrace it and to act accordingly? Pilate was not willing. His reply to Jesus, “What is truth?”, enables Pilate to keep the conversation at the philosophical level rather than going to the second level of personal, existential response.
Jesus identified himself with the vital truths about a person’s relationship to God and eternal destiny. Jesus spoke the truth about God—who He is, what His will is, and how human creatures can align themselves with those truths. Jesus was concerned not only about the factual truthfulness of what one believes (truth at level one), but also about the deeply personal moral posture of one’s heart toward factual truthfulness. Does one’s heart lean toward or away from letting the truth have its way in one’s thought, choices, and behavior? For example, I can know and agree with the theological truthfulness of man’s sin and fallenness, while simultaneously refusing to allow its factual truthfulness to penetrate my personal conscience and thereby own the truth of my guilt and need for repentance.
We see the same two levels truth in the poignant conversation between Jesus and the woman he meets at a well in Samaria (John 4:1-42). First, they discuss what is true at the theological-philosophical level: Is authentic spiritual worship centered in Samaria or Jerusalem? Then, when Jesus turns the conversation to the woman’s personal moral choices and commitments, she attempts to keep the conversation at the philosophical level to avoid personally owning the truth of immorality in her life.
So then, “truth” exists as a philosophical issue on one level. On a second level, however, we are continually confronted with what we will do with the truth when we know it. This second level—the personal and existential—is spiritually crucial. Jesus continually links His person and His message of life and salvation to desiring and pursuing what is true.
The problem is that the same truth-resisting human nature that characterized Pilate and the Samaritan woman exists within us all. Like the people in the Bible and those who live around me now, I find I am a “resister” of truth. I resisted the truth about me being truly lost before I believed in and received Christ as my Savior. The Spirit of Truth converted my heart from being in total rebellion to truth to being open to truth. Yet, even after my conversion, except for the Spirit-imparted “openness” to the truth God imparted to me, I continue to be a creature who prefers to believe what seems good and convenient to me rather than what is objectively true.
This continued resistance to truth evidences the fact that, while justified by the work of Christ, I am still a creature being saved in my day-to-day experience. In point of fact, having a heart willing to repent when the truth of sin is revealed to me is perhaps the single “evidence” of my status as a child of God rather than of the devil. To slowly realize the “criminal under my hat” is a difficult, even agonizing, experience. Yet the truth of this fact is the foundation for receiving the gift of the mercy of God. It is a miracle of God’s kindness that fallen human creatures who are willfully blind and ignorant of their monumentally insane rebellion against God can be transformed into creatures willing to own up to their own corruption and learn to repudiate it.
Romans 1:16ff makes it clear that spiritual rebellion against the Creator-God who is the source of truth results in creatures whose hearts hate truth and attempt to twist it on every occasion. It is also clear that the Creator will not permit us to live comfortably as twisters and suppressors of truth. God has made a universe that confronts us in its every warp and woof with His existence and our createdness. This proof places tension into every human heart: God has designed and created humans for a glorious destiny and existence, apart from which we suffer a profound incompleteness; yet despite this awesome and wonderful potential, we are creatures who often love being and doing evil things. In our fallenness we foolishly believe evil things can fulfill our deep longings and emptiness. God uses the tensions created by crisis, loss, tragedy, and death’s inevitability to point to our profound “lack.” We are daily aware of the sometimes subtle, sometimes obvious and painful fact that things should be good but something in us and in the world is terribly wrong.
All humans are able to know what is true. Theologian Walter Brueggemann put it like this: “[There are] orders, limits, and boundaries within which humanness is possible and beyond these there can only be trouble.” And further, “Life has a certain evocative quality, a certain connectedness about it, a dynamic, an intention, a direction, a presence, a meaning. And we are creatures who are an integral part of that life and we respond instinctively to it even if we rebel at its qualities” (quoted in Truth Is Stranger Than it Used to Be by Richard Middleton and Brian Walsh, p.162). In other words, humans experience the world as having a certain “givenness” or truth about it. All humans—regardless of their individual and subjective worldview—experience this truth, or “fixity,” though it often lies at a very taken-for-granted level of life. Gravity is fixed. Our biology is given. The way humans need to relate to one another with mutual respect, justice, and kindness is observably universal. Sometimes nature and human nature are cruel, tragic, and overwhelming. All human beings are confronted with these facts about the world, which are all elements of truth built into creation, and we all must learn to respond to them by seeking explanations, meaning, and ways to survive their reality. We were created to know the truth and have it fill our lives with the satisfaction of its solidness. Learning to seek it and love it is inherent to our salvation.
Here, then, is a critically important question: If I understand that I am a creature who in my most fundamental nature has a love/hate relationship with truth, what can I do about it? If I now understand that my God and Savior is the author of truth and that being saved from sin is directly related to coming into harmony with truth, if I see my need to be a person who desires the truth of God and His creation, what will get me to be one who does, in fact, desire it?
Having embraced the bad news, we now come to the good news. Our salvation to becoming truthful creatures is grounded in God’s loving and merciful commitment to us. Only the Spirit of Truth is able to overcome the deeply embedded resistance to truth in us all. This gift of being recreated to love truth and not fear it, even while I remain one with severe tendencies to run from it, is both the evidence of God’s work in my life and a proof of my maturing inner self. Put differently, God is actively committed to transforming, over time, what the Apostle Paul refers to as my “inner man,” my deepest self, into one that increasingly desires to know, understand, and personally embrace the truth.
Even as God performs this miracle deep within me, my new, growing desire for what is true will often be in profound conflict with other sin-based desires within me—for safety, for security, for acceptance by those I admire or who hold power over me. At times, my desire for and recognition of the truth will directly contradict old, evil habits of mind and heart—especially those that show me my own flaws and moral brokenness. This realization is disturbing and unsettling until I remember that the Gospel never promised an “instant fix” of my character. I am “in process.” I am working out my salvation with fear and trembling. The event of the cross should encourage us all, for in it God has promised His mercy and has proved His intention to complete His job of transforming me—even if I have only begun to understand and to learn to love truth’s work in my life.