Speaking the Truth in Love
When Pilate immortalized the question “What is truth?” he did so by asking it of the One who Himself was truth. The irony is so painful as to be piercing. But Pilate was doing what leading figures sometimes do: they say something far more profound than they can hope to realize, just as when Caiaphas asked, “Do you understand that it is better for you that one man should die for the people, not that the whole nation should perish?” It seems clear that these men “knew not what they said,” and had no idea that God was using them in their historic roles to prophetically speak truths of which they themselves were utterly and tragically unaware.
But Pilate’s infamous question comes to us. Do we know what truth is? Do we understand that truth and facts are not the same thing? Do we understand that truth is something so illimitably large and fathomless that it created the universe with a word, that it stands outside time and space, that it is a Person? Can we bear the answer to the question “What is truth?”
But somehow God-by taking on human form-asks us to bear it. He asks us to look to Jesus, who somehow in the lowly form of a man is yet God-to see the One who is Truth, to see Him as the standard bearer, and as the standard too. He is an image of truth itself, a battle flag for truth. His is the standard raised up amidst the choking smoke and deafening carnage of the battle between truth and lies. And we are to rally to that battle flag, to Jesus Himself.
So if Jesus Himself is Truth, then what? Then we know that statements of doctrine are not enough. Jesus is alive. Jesus is eternal and immortal. There is something far more to Truth than ideas. If Jesus really is Truth, then we know that truth inescapably partakes of love. The Bible tells us that God is love. So the One who is Truth is also the One who is Love, and it is not possible to separate them without degrading each of them-nor does God wish for us to try. Indeed, we must know that He is deeply grieved if we try to separate them in any way, which we often do. They are part of the very same thing, and by coming to us in human form God is making plain to us that our fallen human attempts to parse truth into something less than the Person of Jesus is to fall into the trap of reductionism. Just as we cannot contain the universe in a nutshell, neither can we reduce truth to syllogisms or even to creeds or confessions. God forbid.
So Truth is a Person. And God knows that unless we understand this, we have no idea what truth is. And unless we know that truth is inextricably intertwined with love, we also have no idea what truth is. Finally, unless we also know that love is inextricably intertwined with truth, we have no idea what love is. We always and ever stray from God in attempting to dissect truth or love in this way, and in so doing we must kill it every time. To follow the parallel, we crucify God every time. It is nothing less than sin to try to have our own fallen view of truth apart from love or love apart from truth. God demands that we deal with the whole, that we understand Truth and Love are God Himself, who is a Person. Of course, there is profound mystery here, but God requires us sometimes to deal with mystery.
Our Enlightenment minds cannot abide mystery. We have drunk the rationalist Kool-Aid and have in God’s own Church introduced the idea that His great and unfathomable mysteries can be reduced to creeds or statements of faith-as if we could reduce Him to that level, as if we could remake Him in our own image, as if we could have truth and love on our own syllogistic, bullet-point terms. After all, it’s so much neater than having a relationship with a Person.
But that is what God asks of us. Truth and love are united in Him. To declare any truth in a way that steps away from God’s love is to speak no truth at all, as well as to step away from the One who is Truth. But to claim we are being loving when we step away from the Truth of God is not to love at all, but only to fool ourselves into thinking we are being loving. It is also to step away from the One who is Love. And when we “love” in this fallen human way, we are not blessing those whom we claim to be “loving,” but are in fact cursing them and damning them. There’s no way around it. So not to speak an uncomfortable truth to someone who needs to hear it-and giving the excuse that we are loving them-is not to love them but to harm them.
So we see there are two ways in which someone can err. One is to speak so much “truth” with so little love that he is not actually speaking truth. We have seen and heard such persons, so obsessed with “truth” that whether they are actually communicating successfully seems immaterial to them. And actually, that’s quite the case. They are obviously more concerned with justifying themselves, with proving they are uncompromising purveyors of “truth,” than with actually purveying truth. They seem to believe they are earning points with whatever god they are serving by such behavior. They are not at all worried about pushing others away with what they are saying. Perhaps they even delight in the idea. But if one is actually communicating-or wanting to communicate-one is naturally not insensitive to whether what one is saying is actually getting across to the person or people with whom one is speaking. That lies at the heart of what it means to speak and communicate.
The opposite of this is an equal problem: to show so much “love” that you are misrepresenting the real love of God, and are forsaking God’s truth in the process. You are so afraid of saying something that might push away the one to whom you are speaking that you cease to say anything at all controversial or potentially disagreeable.
Bonhoeffer witnessed this when he first came to the United States in 1930. His fellow students at Union Theological Seminary seemed less interested in what he saw as truth than in some larger truth they believed more important, as though truth had become the hopelessly outdated obsession of the “fundamentalists” of that time. Bonhoeffer was hardly an American fundamentalist, but neither could he make sense of how the “progressive” American Christians of his time could take the fundamentals of the faith so lightly. He saw in time that many of them could do so because they had already dismissed them; such doctrines as the Resurrection and the Atonement were no longer taken seriously.
Sometimes there’s nothing wrong with wishing to avoid controversy. We are hardly called to constant contentiousness. The Scriptures talk about being “at peace with all men” and about “becoming all things to all peoples” so that Christ can be made known. But at what point do our efforts in this direction begin to backfire? At what point does our obligation to speak truth give way to what the Bible calls “fear of man”? Proverbs 29;25 says, “The fear of man lays a snare, but whoever trusts in the Lord is safe.”
So how has it happened that the secularists have so effectively caricatured Christians as “Bible-thumping moralists” that many Christians have internalized these criticisms and no longer feel the freedom to speak? How many Christians-and Christian pastors and leaders-are paralyzed for fear that they might say something to drive away the person with whom they are speaking?
We are obliged to wonder: Where are all of the leading American pastors today on the issues of sexuality and transgender madness? Are they afraid to speak? Do they not know that God has appointed them to speak on these issues fearlessly-as though He really has defeated death on the Cross and has freed them to do His will and share His love, come what may?
The first pages of Genesis declare that God created us male and female in His image. Can anything be simpler? Not to aver this at a time when it is being madly challenged-to the detriment of millions of souls-is to be silent in the face of evil, and therefore to partake in evil. Everyone in the world knows that a rooster cannot lay an egg and that a man cannot have a womb-and cannot menstruate or give birth or lactate or be a mother. But who will say it? Who will help lead the way through the carnage of this ideological warfare? Who will hold up the battle standard-which is Jesus Himself-so that others can see and follow?
Young women dedicate their whole beings to athletic excellence, only to be roughly shoved aside in what ought to be their long-awaited moment of triumph by a man who, to the applause of a hopelessly confused and broken culture, claims suddenly to be a woman. A young man is confused about his sexuality, but he only hears one message: that he must seize and celebrate his same-sex attractions as a gift from God. Is your pastor talking about these things? Are you?
We must be honest and admit that much of the time we are not living out our faith but are at least partially enslaved to public opinion over the truth. And this is the main reason we are silent when we should not be silent.
Do we fear that someone will think less of us if we say that we believe sex is made by God for men and women in lifelong marriage? Have we perhaps halfway been persuaded that this idea is outdated enough that it’s worth keeping silent about? Are we afraid that someone in a sexual relationship will feel judged by us, and will see us as religious legalists rather than as loving and compassionate followers of Jesus? At what point does our silence encourage someone along in their sin and in their path away from God?
Are we afraid to say that abortion is morally wrong, and that under no circumstances must we equivocate on it? Would we have spoken against slavery in 1850? Would we have spoken against the monstrously antisemitic actions of the Nazis in 1933? Why do we believe we would have spoken then if we are silent now?
If someone in 1975 or 1985 or 1995 or 2005 spoke about sexuality from a biblical viewpoint, and did so in love, the outcry against them would have been minimal. It was the time to speak. And of course it was vital that our words be seasoned with compassion. But it is because of what we earlier described as the “Spiral of Silence” that it is so difficult to speak now. Shall we arrest the downward spiral, or will we go along with it until we can say nothing about anything? Are we not already very close to that? Will we repent of our role in bringing things to this pass?
Again, we may take Bonhoeffer as our model. In his book “Ethics”, which he saw as his magnum opus and which he worked on near the end of his life, he touches on the touchy subject of abortion.
“Destruction of the embryo in the mother’s womb is a violation of the right to live which God has bestowed upon this nascent life. To raise the question whether we are here concerned already with a human being or not is merely to confuse the issue. The simple fact is that God certainly intended to create a human being and that this nascent human being has been deliberately deprived of his life. And this is nothing but murder.”
But Bonhoeffer was not some cold-hearted activist. He was a pastor and a man of God. He saw that there was more to the story, and says so:
“A great many different motives may lead to an action of this kind; indeed in cases where it is an act of despair, performed in circumstances of extreme human or economic destitution and misery, the guilt may often lie rather with the community than with the individual. Precisely in this connection money may conceal many a wanton deed, while the poor man’s more reluctant lapse may far more easily be disclosed.”
So Bonhoeffer spoke the truth about abortion, but did so with compassion and love. But he did not allow his compassion and his love to silence him on the facts. To be clear about the fact that love and truth are unavoidably connected, he ends his rumination with the following:
“All these considerations must no doubt have a quite decisive influence on our personal and pastoral attitude towards the person concerned, but they cannot in any way alter the fact of murder.”
Will we model our public witness on Bonhoeffer in this way? By God’s grace, let us do so.