"What Is Truth?"
1 John 5:20-21
Everything we do is shaped by words. We talk in words. We think in words. Virtually everything has a word or words associated with it. We even have words that explain words. That's what a dictionary is—words that define words. And each word in each definition has its own definition made up of words. It could be said that life is not only about words…life is words.
Words are used to define and shape our perceptions of the world around us and every experience we have in our world. Two people can have the same experience, maybe even go through it together, but each of them will use different words to describe what happened, and how they felt about what happened. Those words will then shape how we feel and what we think.
In one of Aesop’s Fables, a donkey walking through the woods finds the skin of a lion. Hunters had killed the lion and left the skin to dry in the sun. The donkey put on the lion’s skin and was happy to discover that all the other animals were terrified of him and ran away when he appeared. Rejoicing in his newfound respect, the donkey brayed his happiness—only to give himself away by his voice—or, at least for a donkey, his words. The words we use may do more to define who we are than any other way we try to cloak our identity.
So words define our perceptions and others perceptions around us. And those perceptions become our reality. What would happen if we changed our words? Exchanged one word for another. For example, instead of "loser" we use "risk taker." Or vice versa. With one word change, we have changed our perception. With that change of perception comes a change in our reality. A change of not only what we think, but how we think.
You can begin to see how important words are. Words are never just words. Words are world shapers. Words are power. The use of words are means of ultimate control. Words are the difference between what is true and what is false.
Those words—true and false—are the two I want us to think about this morning. Those two words are two of the most argued words in any language.
One of the main questions the philosophers discussed (and continue to discuss) is, "What is truth?" If the change of a single word can change your perception, and your changed perception determines your sense of truth, then what actually is the truth? What, then, is actually true? Is a thing only true by the words we choose to describe it? Is there anything that is true in itself in all times and in all circumstances? Or does each user of words shape and determine their own truth, so that truth is such, merely to each individual?
This is not just a philosophical question. It's not hard to see how every day life is affected by what, with our words, we determine what is true and false.
In a recent article about President Trump's constant pathological lying, the problem is not just with the president. We the people are also playing a role in untruth because we have been barraged with lie after lie to the point of not knowing what the truth is. From either side of any issue or circumstance. And we have given up trying to figure it out. In the article I just mentioned, titled, "When Everything Is Possible and Nothing Is True," political analyst Hanna Arendt wrote:
In an ever changing, incomprehensible world, the masses have reached the point where they would, at the same time, believe everything and nothing, think that everything was possible, and nothing was true…
Is that not a sad state of the human condition—that when lies have become the norm, we have given up the belief or the hope that nothing can be true anymore. What is truth?
Michael Edwards wrote a book titled, Toward A Christian Poetics. In that book he tries to pinpoint what original sin is, and how humanity passes it along.
Edwards comes to the conclusion that original sin is ultimately a sin of language, or the use of language. What Eve discovered in her conversation with the serpent in the Garden of Eden was how to use words differently to shape one's perception of truth. The serpent took God's words to Eve and Adam, concerning God's rule about not taking fruit from a certain tree in the Garden and reshaped those words for its own purposes.
What Eve and Adam learned from that conversation with the serpent was that you can alter truth with your words. You can make a lie sound like the truth. That conversation between Adam and Eve and the serpent opened up a whole new world—a whole new reality—for Adam and Eve. That whole new reality is the total misuse of words; and that is the original sin, according to Edwards in his book.
It's not hard to see how we pass that sin along. As the main character in the past television show, "House," liked to say often, "Everybody lies." That is, all of us are mainly about the business of constantly shaping or misshaping reality with our words, so that we keep others in such a state of confusion, we, in Arendt's estimation, "…believe everything and nothing…" at the same time. To be sinfully human is to be constantly about the business of spinning words that confuse and cloud the truth.
And you know what? It just makes everyone so weary trying to figure out what is true and what is false. So weary. Aren't you tired trying to figure it all out?
In our weariness we wonder, "Is there anything out there that is true?" Is there anything that is true all the time in all circumstances, no matter what? Are there any words, when put together, are the truth?
At the very end of John's first letter, those questions are answered. Let me read again what John wrote:
And we know the Son of God came so we could recognize and understand the truth of God—what a gift!—and we are living in the truth itself in God's Son, Jesus Christ. This Jesus is both True God and Real Life. Dear children, be on guard against all clever facsimiles. (5:20-21)
And there you have it. At the end of John's great letter, we read what we have all longed to read. We read the truth that Hannah Arendt also wrote: we live in a world of facsimiles. Facsimiles. Counterfeits. Knock-offs. Dupes. Falsehoods. Lies. That's our world.
But in that world of falsehoods, there is a lighthouse, a beacon of bright truth. In our world of constant lies, of words, words, words, fashioned and used to distort life, there is a truth. In this world that makes us weary with its barrage of wordy lies, there is truth. In the midst of all of our own lies and lying, all of the wordy distortions we create, all the facsimiles we project about ourselves, all the false world-building we do with our own words, there is Truth with a capital T that burns all that stuff up and turns it to ash.
We have built ourselves false houses with our words and we have lived in them too long. We need to move out and live in a house built by truth. That lighthouse, that new home, has to be the truth of God.
In the last two lines of his letter, John uses the word true or truth three times Three times in two sentences. "Truth of God…" "…living in the truth…" And, "…True God." Let's look at what true means by looking at its opposites, in the Greek in which John wrote. Something that is not true is imperfect, defective, frail, or uncertain.
So, for something to be true means it is perfect. What that means literally is that everything measures up. When they built the St. Louis Arch, they built both sides at the same time. So, everything had to meet in the middle at the top. They couldn't afford to be off at all for the two sides to meet and be connected. Everything had to perfect—that is, measure up, connect at exactly all the right places. In other words, be true.
Secondly, that which is true has no defects. It has to be exactly what it is with no distortions or aberrations.
Thirdly, because truth has no defects or distortions, it is not frail. It's solid and strong. No weak points in truth that might endanger the wholeness and integrity of itself.
And finally, there are no uncertainties in truth. No gray areas. No, possibly this… or possibly that… Remember in last week's sermon when I talked about the three qualities of faith: persuasion, conviction, and reliance. Those three qualities could also be said of truth in God, in terms of no uncertainties. Truth in God is something in which we are totally persuaded, convicted of, and rely upon.
What I always keep in mind with the true God and the truth of God, is that living in that house of truth with God, God will always tell you the truth. That's a good thing, but a scary thing. You have to be always ready for the truth with God. God's words will always ring true. As John wrote, "What a gift!" What a gift to know you're going to get the truth every time. No questions. No wondering if God is being straight with you. It's kind of disconcerting at first, because being around God, being with God is so different from being in the lying world all the time. But you get used to it and appreciate it for the gift it is.
There was a guy who was taking in the view of a deep valley at the edge of a cliff. He got too close to the edge and started sliding down and over the edge. At the last second he grabbed a scrubby bush and held on for dear life. The guy called up towards the sky, "Help! Is there any one up there who can help me?!"
"Yes," came a voice back from the heavens. "I can help."
"What do I need to do?" the guy called back.
"Just let go of the bush you're hanging on to," the heavenly voice replied.
The guy thought for a few seconds and called back, "Is there anyone else up there?"
If we want to live in the truth of God, and live as true people of Jesus, we have to first let go of the bushes that are made up of all the words we used to hang on to that held our life in place. The bush of lies. We have to let go of all those falsehoods and facsimiles, created by our own words and other's words. We have created our security by hanging on to the bushes made up of all those false words. But what we haven't been able to see is that those same words have clouded our sense of self and our sense of reality so much, we can't see that that bush we think we're hanging on to is a totally false security.
It's time to let go. It's time to move out of the house of falsehood we have all built, and move in to the brightness of God's lighthouse of truth, in Jesus Christ. And finally live. Finally be free to live an authentically true life.