I’ve been involved in many conversations recently about the importance of truth and love. The phrase that we frequently hear is that we need to “speak the truth in love” as a means of balancing honesty and care. Many times, though, it seems that we either fall so far on the side of truth that we lose compassion or we fall so far on the side of compassion that we never speak the truth.
It shouldn’t be this way. I believe love and truth can live together in beautiful harmony. In this article, I will explore the value of truth, and in the follow-up piece I will look more closely at the impact of love.
In an age when reality is becoming gray, seeing the world in black-and-white is increasingly taboo. Stating your belief that something is necessarily wrong is a certain way to be labeled a hater, bigot, or worse.
American society has become a place where we are almost unable to believe anything at all with conviction, but the gospel of Christ teaches us that we can — and should — rest in truth.
The Bible has a lot to say about truth. Over and over we read that “[God’s] word is truth” (John 17:17) and that Christ is “the way, and the truth, and the life” (John 14:6). We read that truth is an integral part of the armor of God (Ephesians 6:14) and that the Church is to be a “pillar and buttress of the truth” (1 Timothy 3:15).
According to Scripture, the truth is an important part of the Christian faith. We are told explicitly that “the truth will set [us] free” from slavery to sin (John 8:32).
We should never abandon the truth, and we should never walk in fear of expressing the truth — no matter how unpopular it becomes. Truth is a foundation of the Christian faith, and we cannot abandon it.
How do we know the truth?
Here in John 8, Jesus is speaking to a group of educated Jewish religious leaders (scribes and Pharisees) at the Temple in Jerusalem. At the beginning of the chapter, the Pharisees brought before Jesus a woman who had been caught in adultery. By Jewish law, she deserved to be put to death, but they asked Jesus what he thought should be done with her.
He started playing with the dirt at his feet and told them that whichever of them was without sin should cast the first stone. When they all turned away, Jesus told the woman that he wouldn’t condemn her either.
Then Jesus turns back to the Pharisees and declares himself to be the “light of the world” (John 8:12) and defends his claim that he is the Son of God.
It is in this context, as he is teaching these religious experts who knew the Scriptures forward and backward, that he speaks of truth (verses 31-32):
If you abide in my word, you are truly my disciples, and you will know the truth, and the truth will set you free.
He tells these educated, respected leaders of the faith that their knowledge of the Torah and the Law was not the path to truth. If it was, they would certainly have known the truth already. Instead, Christ tells them they can only know the truth by abiding in him, the Living Word.
It’s important to note that the “Word” he mentions is not a reference to the Scriptures and traditions the Pharisees already knew so well — it is pointing to Jesus himself as the Living Word, the full and perfect expression of the gospel truth. The Reformation Study Bible explains:
Holding to the teaching of Christ who is the truth leads one to the truth that sets a person free from slavery to sin. Salvation is not obtained by intellectual knowledge as the Gnostics imagined, but by a vital relationship with Jesus Christ and a commitment to the truth He revealed.
Moments before his statement on truth, Jesus confirmed his divinity and offered himself as a light in the darkness of the world. He’d been given the perfect opportunity to display God's wrath and justice on a woman who had been already been condemned by the devout Jewish leaders; instead, he deliberately gave her mercy and compassion before she could even ask for it.
This demonstration is the gospel of Christ. And according to Christ, this gospel is where we find the truth.
As Christians, we are called to have confidence in the truth (Romans 1:16-17) and we are told we will know the truth by living the gospel. But that’s all very ephemeral — what does it mean in real life?
Applying Truth to My Life
Having confidence in the truth means that I stand firm in my beliefs, but it also means that I respect the beliefs of others when we disagree. The truth as Christ describes it is not a right doctrine, but a right relationship.
Confidence is the virtue at the center of a spectrum — on one end of the spectrum is insecurity and on the other end arrogance. I try to live in the balance of the two. When I start to feel superior in my self-perception of right-ness, I know I’ve allowed healthy confidence to swing into arrogance.
And let's be clear: confidence is not the same as truth. In many circles, the idea of being "certain in the truth of our doctrine" has trumped the inherent value of faith that leaves room for doubt. Frederick Buechner said, "Doubts are the ants in the pants of faith; they keep it awake and moving." Honest, sincere questions are signs of a growing, vibrant faith. Let us embrace them.
Living the gospel means that I demonstrate the mercy that Christ modeled, which requires extending grace to people who don’t deserve it. I believe leading with gentleness and humility is how we most effectively teach God’s message of hope and love to a broken world (2 Timothy 2:24-26, Philippians 2:3-8.
In closing these thoughts on living the truth of the gospel, I’d like to share something that one of my good friends, Austin Reed, wrote to me recently:
My goal is to not only be loving but to be gentle. I think more often than not when we speak of "love" what we mean is "gentleness." In other words, I don't have to compromise on my moral theological commitments to be gentle and humble with the person with whom I disagree. I know I don't always live up to that, but I'm more and more convicted of a need to live meekly trusting in Christ for any future vindication.
For Part 2 of this series, take a look at "In Light of Love."