Being people of truth when lies generate fear, anger, & division

Here’s a good question to use as an Icebreaker, or as a chance for friends to get to know one another better if everyone feels safe in the group. What lie have you believed and when did you discover it wasn’t true?

Most people have stories of such things from childhood, but the problem of believing lies is not limited to childhood. Chances are good we all believe some lies or partial truths right now, regardless of age or maturity or level of education or love of the truth. We are fallen people (and so prone to falsehood) and finite as well (and so unable to know exhaustively). This does not suggest either complacency or just giving up—neither option is appropriate for the follower of Jesus who identified himself not merely as truthful, but as Truth. Faithfulness to him includes being a passionate truth seeker, embracing integrity, eschewing lies, and humbly loving one another in truth. In other words, one mark of a true disciple is to demonstrate a life-giving epistemology in all our thinking and believing. At such a time as we are living in, we would be wise to review what that looks like.

Believing lies may be ubiquitous in a fallen, finite world, but it always extracts a cost. The truth sets free, lies enslave; truth causes flourishing, lies diminish. Each time we embrace a lie—for whatever reason—something inside us dies a little, withdrawing into the shadows instead of subsisting in the light.

We may not be aware of the toll the cost extracts from us. And then, sometimes we are, like when a lie we’ve accepted is revealed as deception and the liar shown to be untrustworthy. Depending on what the lie involved and who the liar is, the revelation can be a confirmation of what we suspected or a shock that feels like a kick in the stomach. And when we continue to believe the lie, embracing untrue ideas, refusing to listen to reason or to adequately examine the evidence, we align ourselves with the father of lies (John 8:44) who seeks to devour our souls (1 Peter 5:8). Truth and lies shape our minds and hearts. This shaping either helps us flourish as persons made in God’s image or serves to undermine the direction of our lives, the prudence of our souls, and the deepest loves of our hearts.

Who told us the lie can be significant. I grew up in a family and fundamentalist sect that taught that “spiritual” activities were inherently better than “secular” ones. Reading the Bible, for example, was more pleasing to God than reading a novel; witnessing was more significant than cooking a meal; being a missionary was of greater eternal value than being a carpenter or an artist. “When Christ returned,” I remember my father asking, “would you rather be found leading someone to Christ or making donuts—something no one actually needs!?” This heretical teaching is all I heard growing up, and so I believed it until my teens. I still remember the sense of relief, freedom, and joy that swept over me when Francis Schaeffer explained how this wasn’t what the Bible taught and should be rejected as untrue. There is no secular / spiritual dichotomy because Jesus Christ is Lord of all.

Marilyn Chandler McEntyre argues we must be serious about Caring for Words in a Culture of Lies (2009).

I don’t know how many times over the past year I’ve heard students, trying to make sense of the news, lament, “I don’t know how to tell what to believe!” “How do I tell what’s reliable?” “How do I distinguish what’s true?” Their questions remind me of Wendell Berry’s observation that the two epidemic illnesses of our time, “the disintegration of communities and the disintegration of persons,” are closely related to the disintegration of language. “My impression,” Berry writes, “is that we have seen, for perhaps a hundred and fifty years, a gradual increase in language that is either meaningless or destructive of meaning.”
            We need to mean what we say. [p. 7]

As a professor of English, McEntyre is primarily concerned with how the meaning of words have been hijacked by a consumerist, politicized culture. She insists, correctly, that “we need to reclaim words that have been colonized and held hostage by commercial and political agencies that have riddled them with distorted meanings.” [p. 7] It’s a worthy and important task.

I suspect this period in American history will be remembered as a “culture of lies.” Many lies and half-truths and deceits in America are rooted in an unabashed attempt to achieve or hold onto political or commercial or ecclesial power. Others become increasingly attractive by being propelled by fear and anger about the future. Untruths are propagated, insinuated, suggested, and repeated in social media, the news, opinion pieces, memos, pastoral letters, speeches, and political and advertising campaigns. Repeat a lie enough times, by enough people, in enough settings—how could it not be true, if so many in so many different voices on so many different sites and platforms promote it as true?

We see this process unfolding in real time. Certain facts simply can’t be mentioned to some people, including some in the church. Donald Trump lost the 2020 election; it was not stolen from him. The American electoral system is not riddled with fraud and voting regulations should not be made more restrictive. There is not some conspiracy making vaccines experimental or dangerous or unnecessary.

It’s important to realize that reason, facts, and careful research seem insufficient to convince believers of these lies that they are untrue. This means these lies have become presuppositions, not propositions, taking on religious import.

This in turn means there is no easy or quick solution to this problem. We must take the long view, going back to square one to help establish and promote the growth of a life-giving, truth-seeking epistemology under Christ’s Lordship. And to that end I offer a few resources that will prove helpful.

The books of Christian philosopher Esther Lightcap Meek are a great starting point to lay a strong biblical foundation for our epistemology.
            Loving to Know: Introducing Covenant Epistemology (Cascade Books; 2011) is a scholarly study and will be of interest primarily to those who enjoy reading seriously thoughtful books. Loving to Know, Dr. Meek says, “is written for anybody wanting to think more deeply about knowing—for whatever reason, from living well and Christian discipleship, to professional excellence, and academic and philosophical scholarship.” [p. xiv]
            Longing to Know: The Philosophy of Knowledge for Ordinary People (Brazos Press; 2003). “This book,” Dr. Meek says, simply, “is written for all knowers.” [p. 7]

I want to explore the human act of knowing. I call this the epistemic act. The Greek root of this word means “know”; epistemology is the study of how we know. In our day-to-day affairs, we ordinarily talk about knowing math concepts or knowing sports, for example. Obviously in the process we make assumptions about what knowing involves. Epistemology scrutinizes those often hidden assumptions: How does knowledge come to me? What characteristics does a claim to knowledge have to possess in order to be, legitimately, knowledge? How do I tell if a claim is true? What truths can I be sure of? How, bottom line perhaps, do I keep from being mistaken? [p.24]

Since social media is so instrumental in propagating societal lies, reviewing our stance and use concerning it will need to be prayerfully considered. The discernment question we need to wrestle with in an ongoing way is What does faithfulness require in a world of social media and devices? Here the work of Andy Crouch is a wonderful resource, accessible and thoughtful.
              The Life We’re Looking For: Reclaiming Relationship in a Technological World (Convergent Books; 2022).
             My Tech-Wise Life: Growing Up and Making Choices in a World of Devices (Baker Books; 2020), co-authored by his daughter, Amy Crouch.
             The Tech-Wise Family: Everyday Steps for Putting Technology in Its Proper Place (Baker Books; 2017)

And finally, it’s important to remember that much of what we are discussing is animated by fear, apocalyptic imaginings, and anger. The followers of Jesus need to do some serious Bible study, prayer, and fasting over the shape of faithfulness in an angry and fearful world. Our calling is, instead, to be a joyful, thankful, loving, hopeful community who looks realistically at our broken world but remembers the tomb is empty. And since this is certainly not a new problem, I will recommend two lovely Puritan classics:
               The Rare Jewel of Christian Contentment by Jeremiah Burroughs (Banner of Truth; 1648, 1964). “Christian contentment,” Burroughs writes, “is that sweet, inward, quiet, gracious frame of spirit, which freely submits to and delights in God’s wise and fatherly disposal in every condition.” [p. 19]
               The Mystery of Providence by John Flavel (Banner of Truth; 1678, 1963). “It is the great support and solace of the saints,” Flavel writes, “in all the distresses that befall them here, that there is a wise Spirit sitting in all the wheels of motion, and governing the most eccentric creatures and their most pernicious designs to blessed and happy issues. And, indeed, it were not worth while to live in a world devoid of God and Providence.” [p. 15]

O Lord God, grant your people grace to withstand the temptations of the world, the flesh, and the devil, and with pure hearts and minds to follow you, the only God; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and for ever. Amen.
                      [Collect, Proper 18, Book of Common Prayer]

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