In the months since a billionaire with a potty mouth was elected to the highest office in the land, ordinary citizens and institutions alike have struggled to make sense of it all. It’s fitting that in a world where real life blends with reality show, the Oxford English Dictionary would declare post-truth 2016’s Word of the Year.
This post-truth prominence forced more than a chuckle from mainstream media: they were ready to pick a fight with our new reality. The New York Times launched ad campaigns around the definition of truth, while Facebook announced a new war against the proliferation of fake news.
Many Christians, particularly politically conservative ones, have been skeptical of the media’s sudden eagerness to tear down the edifices of fake news without acknowledging the scaffolding of selective bias and reporting wrapped around them that they helped set up.
It’s been easy to recognize that the media is calling for the destruction of a tower they helped to build, far fewer of us have been willing to do the harder thing: take an honest look at how we each might have been complicit in spreading untruths in the name of sharing the truth.
It’s time to admit truth doesn’t belong to us—it belongs to God.
As Christians, the commitment to knowing and following the truth should be part of our spiritual DNA. But every time we click Share on a news story that we’re certain is true (even if fact checking sites prove otherwise), or when we unfollow a Christian sister or brother because their posts offend our political or sociological worldview (because they’re obviously wrong), we demonstrate that we’re not as committed to the pursuit of real truth as we claim.
When Christians affirm something because it conforms to our preferred ideology and reject something else because it doesn’t, we’re really declaring ourselves the arbiters of truth.
An honest look at our own behavior would likely call us to confess that we’ve fallen prey to the same sinful subjectivity we condemn in others.
And when we use the Bible to do it, our sin is only compounded.
Too often, Christians wield eisegetical prooftexts—a Bible verse out of context—to fight their ideological enemies with all the zeal and effectiveness of a six-year-old boy fighting imaginary dragons with a giant stick.
We think we “stand alone on the word of God” just like the Sunday school song taught us, when what we’re really doing is leaning against the word of God, using it as a prop to shore up our most cherished beliefs. Instead of using the Bible to find truth we use it to purport our human version of it. “It’s biblical,” we insist, convinced that we’re speaking for God, when in reality all we’re doing is talking like the devil.
From humanity’s first recorded interaction with Satan, he has been convincing us that we know what God said better than God does. It’s literally the oldest trick in the Book.
Since then we’ve had a bent toward believing him. So, from Genesis 3 on, the story of the Bible is the story of God telling the world the truth about who he is, who we are, and what he expects of us. And we see time and again that none of us, not even the ones Jesus most particularly calls, really get it until he makes it clear to us.
Ridding ourselves of the spirit of Peter, the know-it-all.
In the aftermath of Jesus’ feeding of the five thousand, he tells the pursuing crowds that he is the true bread of life, the better manna from heaven come down from the Father. Many of Jesus’ followers struggled to make Jesus’ commentary on what he had done line up inside their theological grid.
How could a carpenter’s son from a nowhere town have had anything to do with one of the most dramatic events recorded in the five books of Moses?
And how could a cryptic admonition about cannibalism possibly be in keeping with one of the most defining, inviolable tenets of the Law?
When Jesus’ words to the disciples so clearly didn’t line up with what they had been taught in the Bible, what else were faithful, discerning Jews to do except walk away?
Peter thought differently.
Jesus’ words were unquestionably difficult to understand, but what mattered more to Peter was that Jesus was the One who had said them.
Jesus was the Holy One of God and he had the words of eternal life, no matter how inscrutable those words were, or how contradictory they appeared. While others trusted in their understanding of theology more than they trusted Jesus, Peter trusted Jesus more than his theological understanding in that moment.
But only days later, Peter demonstrated that he was just as prone to sinful self-trust as all the rest.
After a moving Passover meal and worship service, Jesus startled Peter with the prediction that Peter, the confessor of Jesus true identity, and all of Jesus’ other disciples, was about to fall away from Jesus.
With his trademark zeal , Peter declared Jesus’ words to be “alternative facts.” Jesus may have known the words of eternal life, but Peter at least knew his own heart and mind. He knew he could never betray Jesus—he was ready to go to prison and die for him!
Peter was wrong. Jesus spoke no alternative facts. In actual fact, Peter knew nothing of what he was truely capable of, but Jesus did.
As terrible as the lies Peter did infact tell the next day, the most terrible one of all was the lie he told himself—that he was able to know his own mind and heart better than the One who had made them.
But the exposure of this lie, for all of its momentary bitterness, was what set Peter permanently on the path to knowing, and living, the greatest truth of all.
We don’t have to know everything because Jesus already does.
What Jesus knew was not just the truth about what Peter would do on one dark, spring night. It was also the truth about what Jesus had been planning to do, about sin from before the foundation of the world.
The one who could never lie was going to willingly die to atone for the sins of the one who lied about being willing to die for Jesus. And then he would come back to life, just as he said.
This was the truth that transformed Peter from an over-confident coward who boasted of embracing suffering and death, then lied to avoid it, into a fearless proclaimer of the gospel who wrote a book about suffering and then gladly embraced it.
We should look back and see that we, like Peter on the eve of the crucifixion, have a tendency to declare that we've arrived at full understanding. We have confessed Christ to have the words of eternal life without submitting our minds and wills to him. Our confession has given us confidence to oppose Christ, ironically, in his own name.
As Peter moved forward in the light of a new understanding, so should we. The One who made our minds knows us better than our minds can ever know him. God knows not only what we know, but also what we don’t know, yet are certain we do.
God’s ultimate knowledge frees us to trust God more and trust our own minds less. Christians are free to recognize that they don’t know everything, that they don’t understand everything, because they have become aligned with the One who does. We are freed to affirm the person of truth and walk a Spirit-led path toward understanding and call out to those around us to join us.
When we remember that the One who knows all things perfectly also does all things perfectly, we can acknowledge the fears that rise in our hearts as we consider the cost of having our ignorance or self-pride exposed, and give those to God as well. Then we will find our default is to the pursuit of actual truth not the proclamation of our personal ideologies and comfortable theology.
Cover image by Katie Fisher.
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