During a sabbatical several years ago, I did research for what became a book on pastoral truth-telling and came across an intriguing idea authored by Sissela Bok, an ethicist and philosopher. “If, like truth, the lie had but one face, we would be on better terms,” she wrote. “For we would accept as certain the opposite of what the liar would say. But the reverse of truth has a hundred thousand faces and an infinite field.”
The next time you’re reading through the Gospel of John, take a pencil and underline the word “truth” each time it appears—26 occurrences, if I’m counting correctly. That’s an impressive number for any particular word in any of the Gospels.
One treasured instance: “I am the way, and the truth, and the life” (14:6), spoken to the famous skeptic, Thomas, who would eventually offer the most theologically mature confession about Jesus in the entire Gospel (20:28). Another favorite: “You will know the truth, and the truth will make you free” (8:32), Jesus’ promise to seekers.
Flannery O’Connor, the Georgia fiction writer who died in 1964, is often credited with a classic paraphrase: “The truth shall make you odd.” The current prevalence of the lie and the half-truth in public life render Flannery a prophet in retrospect. We live in an era when politicians are often fact-checked in real-time while speaking. Have we become numb to a tacit expectation of fabrication and deception?
Jesus stands before Pilate and candidly shares his personal job description: “For this I was born, and for this I came into the world, to testify to the truth” (18:37). Read that verse again, slowly.
As important as teachings describing forgiveness of sin, salvation and kingdom living, Jesus appears before a Roman governor—one of the most powerful men in the neighborhood—and offers a rather surprising summary of his central purpose, the very reason he showed up among us: to testify to the truth.
Pilate, the man who seems to hold all the cards, responds with a classic comeback (18:38), startlingly familiar to 21st-century ears: “What is truth?” As late-night host Stephen Colbert suggested years ago, has “truthiness,” a proximate attempt at honesty, become acceptable?
Don’t be too hard on Pilate. He could rub shoulders with many whose perception of the truth is rather fluid, including me on some days.
Deception is an ancient temptation. Paul had it right: “everyone is a liar” (Romans 3:4). Of course, some lie more consistently and flamboyantly than others. Perhaps it’s comforting that our biblical forebears also struggled with “alternative facts,” shades of honesty and downright fabrication.
Here’s some timeless veracity: “Everyone who belongs to the truth listens to my voice,” Jesus said to Pilate (18:37). Various voices daily compete for our attention, hearts and support. We live in a land flooded with words—many of them barefaced lies.
For a Christian, a couple follow-up questions are in order after we silence a television or radio and fold the daily newspaper for recycling. Whose voice truly commands our attention and primary allegiance? Whose voice do we trust and listen to the most?
One of the saddest lines in John’s Gospel appears early. “He came to what was his own, and his own people did not accept him” (1:11). His own people.
Jesus refers to the devil in this Gospel with a beguiling title: the father of lies (8:44). The Granddaddy of Deception.
I recall approaching my theology professor with a question concerning whether liturgical renunciation language was necessary for an efficacious baptismal rite. Back then, I wasn’t sure I even believed in “the devil and all his empty promises.”
The professor let the question sit in the silence awhile and then said, “Spend 20 years as a pastor then come back and ask your question again.”
I haven’t had to.