Handling the Truth
By Audrey Stallsmith
I’ve still been enjoying the Joan of Arcadia show, though a few of the thoughts expressed on it are either silly or patently untrue. One character’s remark that Christians, Moslems, Buddhists, etc. are all worshipping the same God, for example. Or the implication that extramarital sexual relations are okay as long as the male and female involved are both "ready."
But the show also makes me think--which is almost always a good thing! A recent episode had God telling Joan it is always better for people to know the truth, no matter how much it might hurt them. That had me responding with a somewhat skeptical "Always?"
As my pastor pointed out last Sunday, all of us tend to fudge a bit to avoid offending each other. In Beyond Our Selves, Catherine Marshall calls this "sloppy kindness--a desire to please." We females are probably most guilty, since we want people to like us, and since we are trained from childhood to "be nice."
But often we are only deceiving ourselves about the reason for our prevarication. You may think you are protecting the other person’s feelings when, in actuality, as Marshall states in A Closer Walk, "You do not tell the truth because you want to protect yourself from another’s antagonism."
Actually, we are most likely to be blunt with the people we know best, since we can feel confident they will continue to love us anyway. "Truth," Fulton Sheen states in The Power of Love, "becomes loveable only when it is flesh and blood." He was speaking, of course, of Christ. Except for the hypocrites, most people were able to tolerate Jesus’ frankness, because they could sense he cared about them.
When a friend wanted to know if she should rebuke a certain person in her church, I asked whether it was somebody to whom she was close. When she said, "No," I advised against it. In Living with Death, Helmut Thielicke writes, "We can tell them (the dying) the truth only if our relationship with them is in the truth. . .only if it is determined by participation with them in their destiny, by loving address and solidarity."
We find directness much easier to take from--and give to--those we love. In fact, relationships generally start falling apart when those involved become less and less honest with one another. But, with mere acquaintances, it is easier to do some fancy stepping around the truth.
"Among us," Thielicke points out in Life Can Begin Again, "there is a tacit openly secret understanding that certain things we say are not binding." After all, as Kierkegaard writes in his Journals, "Every man is more or less afraid of the truth." So, Keith Miller posits in The Taste of New Wine, "We have an unspoken agreement not to press the truth."
There is often also an understanding in society that it is just easier to go along with certain falsehoods rather than to challenge them. In Descent of the Dove, Charles Williams relates of ancient Rome, "It was embarrassing to everyone when the Christians solemnly and formally anathematized (condemned) what no had ever dreamed of believing." (The deity of the Roman emperor.)
It is also embarrassing to our modern society when Christians "solemnly and formally" denounce sexual immorality. Most people, I am convinced, know that is wrong too, but think they can still get away with it as long as nobody is tactless enough to bring up the subject. Even we "religious" people often hesitate to stick our necks out that far, since we know how easy it would be for us to fall into the same kind of sin. When Dan Quayle addressed the issue head-on several years ago, I suspect even some believers were discomfited.
Society tends to view such forthrightness as "primitive," while sophistry seems so much more sophisticated. But one of the dangers of so-called "white" lies is that concealment of our true feelings can become habitual.
We all want to look poised, competent, like we have it all together. But, as Chesterton points out, that is a form of pride. "To hide your feelings. . .is making too much of them." Our refusal to admit our doubt, indecision, and vulnerability can also give other Christians the impression that there must be something wrong with them if they feel those things.
And, if we continue this façade long enough, our inclination will be, as Henri Nouwen writes in A Cry for Mercy, to also "show our Lord only what we feel comfortable with." That is, of course, ridiculous, since, as Pierre Wolff points out in Is God Deaf? "The Lord hears what we express not with our lips but within our hearts." In other words, he doesn’t give ear to our elegant phrasing; but to what we really feel. Or as Augustine puts it, "Your very desire is your prayer."
Finally, as we should never attempt to lie to God, we should never feel a need to lie for Him either. If there is something about our Father we cannot accept and love, we obviously do not understand Him well enough. And we should keep asking questions until we do.
As Job says, "Does God want your help if you are going to twist the truth for him?. . .No, you will be in serious trouble with him if you use lies to try to help him out." (Job 13:8 & 10) "He is not a God," George MacDonald states in Unspoken Sermons--Series II, "to accept the flattery which declares him above obligation to his creatures; a God to demand of them a righteousness different from his own. . ."
If we could all really feel how much God loves us, we would have less need for reassurance. And those around us wouldn’t have to fib to us so frequently.
In a famous movie line, one character declaims, "You can’t handle the truth!" Actually, mankind did handle--and mishandle--the ultimate Truth over two thousand years ago. If we still haven’t learned to deal with it, perhaps it means we simply haven’t learned to deal with Him.