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Truth is becoming an increasingly rare commodity in our world. Former US President Barack Obama certainly thinks so. In a speech in July 2018 celebrating Nelson Mandela’s 100th birthday, Obama took the opportunity to warn against a dire trajectory in world politics. The very idea of truth is being thrown out the window, and in its place, raw power is taking over. Obama identifies various factors. “Censorship and state control of media is on the rise.” Social media has become a tool for “promoting hatred and paranoia and propaganda and conspiracy theories”. People aren’t interested in reasoned debate; we simply “surround ourselves with opinions that validate what we already believe.” And because of this, nobody is calling politicians to account for their lies:
Unfortunately, too much of politics today seems to reject the very concept of objective truth. People just make stuff up, … We see the utter loss of shame among political leaders where they’re caught in a lie, and they just double down, and they lie some more. Politicians have always lied, but it used to be if you caught them lying, they’d be like, “Oh, man.” Now they just keep on lying.Barack Obama, “Obama’s South Africa speech, annotated”, The Washington Post (ed. Eugene Scott, 17 July 2018)
This is Obama’s take on the world. Truth is dying. And this situation may well have serious consequences for us all: in fact, it may destroy democracy itself.
Obama’s warnings ring true, don’t they? Unfortunately, it’s hard to see what can be done about it. After all, for at least half a century in schools and universities throughout the West, the idea of “objective truth” has been relentlessly dismantled and ridiculed. Generations have been taught that there are really no objective standards of right and wrong that apply to everyone. This idea has had its day. Truth is an individual thing. What’s true for me is different from what’s true for you. This is why there’s something a little strange about hearing a twenty-first century thinker and leader such as Obama talking about the loss of objective truth, almost as if it’s a new thing that’s happened since he left office. The idea isn’t new. But Obama is right, because there is something new. This loss of objective truth has permeated so far that it’s now starting to have serious consequences for the way we run our society. The students of the postmodernists have grown up and become majority voters and world leaders. They’ve learnt their lessons well, and they’re now running the world, with social media as the perfect tool for running it. They’ve learnt that there’s no such thing as objective truth. That means, logically, that there’s no such thing as a lie. The voters simply listen to the leaders they like to hear, and the leaders understand that their words are simply tools to achieve their goals of power and influence. Power, not truth, wins the day each time.
The gospel of Jesus Christ stands in stark contrast to this situation. The gospel is itself a claim to objective truth. And it’s a truth that stands above us all. It’s a truth that humbles us, disciplines us, and severely limits our designs on power. We are all held accountable to this truth. And we can hold others accountable to the same truth. It’s not that there’s one truth for me, and another truth for you. There is a truth for us all. This means, of course, that there are lies. And Christians, says Paul, are people who don’t tell lies. They tell the truth. Especially to one another:
Therefore, having taken off lying, speak the truth—each one of you—with your neighbour, because we are members of one another.Ephesians 4:25
The truth of the gospel
In Ephesians, the fundamental “truth” is the truth of the gospel. Close to the start of his letter, Paul describes his readers as those who have heard and believed “the word of truth, the gospel of your salvation” (Ephesians 1:13). The gospel is the message about Jesus Christ. It proclaims that through Jesus’ death and resurrection, God has saved us from sin, death, and judgment. The gospel tells us that we’ve been humbled by God’s grace and can be confident in his love for us. This fundamental truth teaches us the truth about God, the truth about the world, and the truth about ourselves. So it changes everything about our lives—particularly our lives together as believers. Being a Christian means holding on to this truth and living it out. Rather than following false teachings, we need to be “speaking the truth in love” to one another, as members of Christ’s body (Ephesians 4:15). We are to learn and teach this to one another (Ephesians 4:21). We are also to change and grow, as we seek to live righteous lives, devoted to God, all based on this truth (Ephesians 4:24).
Speaking the truth
Truth, then, is foundational to who we are as Christians. That means that truth must permeate our relationships with one another, and especially our speech with one another. Paul says here: “speak the truth—each one of you—with your neighbour”. Paul is quoting here from the Old Testament book of Zechariah. Zechariah chapter 8 is a vision of God’s people as a community of truth. God promises that he will dwell with his people in a “true city” (verse 3) and that he will be their God “in truth and in righteousness” (verse 8). So God’s people should each “speak the truth” to their neighbour (verse 16) and “love truth and peace” (verse 19). If this is the case in Zechariah’s vision, how much more is it the case for those of us who are members of Christ’s body—those who are living in fulfilment of Zechariah’s vision! As Paul puts it here, “we are members of one another”. We belong to Christ—together. So truth is to permeate our lives and our relationships.
What does it actually mean to speak the truth to our neighbour? Most fundamentally, it means speaking the gospel to one another, reminding one another of these key truths about Jesus. But it doesn’t stop with rehearsing the facts of the gospel. The gospel tells us the truth about ourselves. That means we should be speaking the truth about ourselves to one another. For example, the gospel tells us that we are saved sinners. So we should never deliberately hide our sin from one another and make ourselves out to be better than we are. The gospel tells us that we have nothing to boast about when it comes to our salvation. So we should be humble in our speech about ourselves. The gospel teaches us that God has saved us to be a new humanity, changed and constantly renewed by God’s Spirit. So we should be prepared, humbly and in appropriate and edifying ways, to point out areas where our brothers and sisters have done wrong, and to encourage them to become more and more like God in the way we think and act.
Taking off the lies
Speaking the truth rules out lying. We lie because we don’t value the truth highly enough. We think that a lie will achieve some greater good, normally for our own benefit. A lie might make me look more intelligent or interesting or powerful. A lie might stop me feeling awkward in a situation where the truth is hard or uncomfortable. If I’ve sinned in a serious way, a lie will ensure I don’t get found out and can continue to be respected. Some lies can be devastating for the body of Christ, can’t they? But in fact, all lies are serious. If you make a habit of telling small “white lies” that don’t seem to hurt anyone, all you’re doing is laying down habits of deceit in yourself that make it so much easier for you to lie to cover up bigger things.
Speaking the truth will sometimes involve not speaking, especially if you don’t know all the facts. In a church family, it’s all too easy for rumours to spread. We hear somebody tell us a few one-sided fragments of information about somebody else, and assume we’ve heard the full story. We pass it on, thinking we know it all. And we use our “inside” knowledge to gain prestige or a following for ourselves. We too easily talk about each other, without talking to one another and listening to one another. This is called gossip, and it’s one of the most insidious forms of self-deception around. It makes us feel like we’re speaking “the truth” to one another when we’re actually speaking lies.
It’s worth taking time to reflect about your daily life and asking yourself how you’re going at telling the truth, minute by minute and hour by hour. But be warned: it’s an uncomfortable exercise! Deception is so often part of the air we breathe. You can see it in the expression “To be (perfectly) honest…”. We use this expression at the start of sentences when we want to indicate that we’re being straightforward and down to earth; telling the truth without any embellishment. But why do we need to say it? Because most of the time, we’re not being (perfectly) honest! And we all know it. Our habit is to use our words, not primarily to speak the truth, but to achieve other goals: to increase our own prestige, to get people to do things for us, etc. Well that’s what I do, to be perfectly honest.
Tragically, we can even end up being deceptive in evangelism. Since deception is part of the air we breathe, we can start to treat evangelism—sharing the gospel with outsiders—as an exercise in PR and persuasion, where bending the truth a little is allowed for the sake of the salvation of sinners. This is something we must never do, even in small ways. Evangelism means speaking the gospel, and the gospel is the “word of truth”. How can we speak the word of truth in an untruthful way?
No, Christians are people of the truth. We are people who believe in the greatest truth of all: the word of truth, the gospel of our salvation. And that gospel teaches us—demands, even—that we must speak the truth in every situation.
In what situations are you most tempted to lie rather than tell the truth?
How does knowing the truth of the gospel help you to speak the truth to your neighbour?
This post is part of a series of ~70 reflections covering every sentence in Paul’s letter to the Ephesians. You can see all the posts so far, and subscribe to receive updates via email, audio podcast, and social media, by following this link.
The academic details behind these reflections
In this series, I don’t go into detail justifying every statement I make about the background and meaning of Ephesians. I’ve done that elsewhere. If you’re interested in the reasons I say what I say here, and want to chase it up further with lots of ancient Greek, technical stuff, and footnotes, check out my book Reading Ephesians and Colossians After Supersessionism: Christ’s Mission through Israel to the Nations.