Monday, August 24, 2015

You Can't Handle the Truth

The scriptures referred to are John 6:56-69.

On January 20, 1961, the same day John Kennedy was inaugurated as president, The Twilight Zone presented an episode in which a used car salesman buys an old Model A Ford with a curse: whoever owns it is compelled to tell the truth. The salesman tries to unload the thing but he cannot tell people it is anything but a beat up outdated piece of junk. Worse he can't sell any of his clunkers. And he can't keep stringing along his assistant with promises of a raise that will never materialize. In a move of brilliance borne out of desperation, he calls the Soviet embassy and talks them into coming by his lot. He convinces them that they should buy the Model A to use as anti-American propaganda because it is an example of shoddy American goods. He makes the sale. The twist is that the name they tell him to put on the document as the owner, the person now stuck telling the truth, is Soviet premier Nikita Khrushchev.

In 1997 Jim Carrey made a movie called Liar, Liar with a similar premise. In that film, the truth curse is a birthday wish by his disappointed son. Now Carrey must always tell the truth. And the problem is that he is a lawyer.

I was really surprised that the website doesn't have a page on truthtelling as a curse. The closest they have is a page on The Cassandra, the person who accurately predicts the future but is cursed never to be believed. But that's not exactly like telling things as they are currently and finding that people would rather not know. But that is often the position in which people in the Bible find themselves. One of the more infamous examples is when Jeremiah writes down his scathing prophesies of what God promises to do to the kingdoms of Israel and Judah if they do not repent. The king's secretary takes the scroll to King Jehoiakim and reads it to him. And as he finishes each paragraph, the king cuts off that piece of the scroll and throws it into the fire. And Jeremiah 36:24 says, “Yet neither the king nor any of his servants who heard all these words was afraid, nor did they tear their garments.” The king didn't want to hear what God was saying through Jeremiah.

Last week we talked about how Jesus saying his followers must eat his flesh and drink his blood was received by the 5000 whom he had fed with loaves and fishes. This week we see the aftermath. In John 6:60 it says, “When many of his disciples heard it, they said, 'This teaching is difficult; who can accept it?'” And in verse 66, we read, “Because of this many of his disciples turned back and no longer went about with him.” Last week I talked about why these people rejected this teaching. This week I want to consider the major reasons that people have trouble with the truth.

It is of course possible that they really doubt it is the truth. It is possible that it hasn't been explained well enough. I think this is one of the problems that Christians have in communicating the gospel sometimes. Whenever a news story that has any religious or moral dimension to it is posted to the internet, you can count on two kinds of people commenting: religious people and anti-religious people. And rarely to the posts of either group say anything enlightening. Often the religious people will quote verses and give stock answers and the anti-theists will troll them. I rarely comment, especially if people are merely expressing opinions. But I occasionally will correct a misconception on either side. You are entitled to your own opinion but you are not entitled to your own facts. But what really saddens me are how poorly the Christians answer their debaters' assertions. We don't help our cause if we can't adequately explain our faith and deal with what are usually very common objections. Like: most historians believe Jesus was a real person, even if they don't believe he is God and Christ. No, the events in the gospels were not plagiarized from pagan religions; rather it was the other way around. You can believe in both science and God. Christians are not bound to Old Testaments laws because we live under the new covenant instituted by Jesus. And just because some person claiming to be Christian said something, it doesn't mean that all Christians or even most of them agree. The sad thing is most of this is readily found on the internet. I cannot for the life of me understand why people post controversial statements on the web without first googling them to make sure they have their facts straight. Just open another tab.

It is possible that people reject the truth because it goes against what they've been taught, especially if it is radically different. Ignaz Semmelweis was a Hungarian doctor who noticed that more new mothers died when doctors attended their births than when they gave birth in the street! Though the germ theory had not yet been developed, Semmelweis studied the problem enough to work out that the doctors were transporting some kind of contagion to their patients. He had them wash their hands and maternal morality fell. But the medical establishment could not see the value in handwashing and fought Semmelweis. Whenever he prevailed at a hospital or clinic, less women died. Whenever he was removed from his position, more women died. Eventually he fell into depression, drank more, and had a breakdown. A colleague lured him to an asylum. When he realized what was happening, he tried to escape. The guards beat him, wrestled him into a straightjacket and threw him into a cell. 14 days later he died of an infection of one of his wounds. Years later Louis Pasteur confirmed the germ theory and Joseph Lister demonstrated how antiseptic technique saved patients' lives.

Without the germ theory Semmelweis could not explain why handwashing worked. Yet the man showed that it did work. Despite the proof, the medical establishment dismissed him and can be said to have contributed to his death at the age of 47. And this brings up the biggest reasons for which people reject the truth: not logic or fact but emotions.

People usually reject the truth about something because it is contrary to what they want to believe. And they may not want to believe it out of fear or hatred or personal interest.

Fear is a strong motivator, one of the strongest we have. Anti-vaccination activists fear that the contents of vaccines can cause harm to their children, despite the fact that the evidence goes entirely the other way. The reason that half of all children do not die by the age of 5 is due in large part to vaccines against measles and rubella and whooping cough. One British physician wrote a paper full of bad data showing a link between vaccines and autism and convinced a lot of fearful people that what was good for their children was bad. Now do some children have bad reactions to vaccines? Of course, the way some people can have an allergic reaction and in some cases even die from eating a peanut or getting a bee string or from a million other things that are harmless for most people. In 1958, there were 763,094 cases of measles in the US. 552 of those died. In 2008, there were only 64 cases of suspected measles. 63 of those people had either never been or didn't know if they had been vaccinated. The fear of vaccines is misplaced.

As is fear of flying. The odds of you dying in a plane crash are 1 in 11 million. The odds of you dying in a car accident are 1 in 5000. Yet few of us get as nervous about a trip in a car as some do when taking a trip by plane. We often fear unlikely things over more common dangers. And yet telling phobic people the truth rarely convinces them.

Conspiracy theorists are largely motivated by fear. Most of them fear the fact that some things happen for seemingly random or irrational reasons. You can't fight happenstance or a freak convergence of factors. It is more comforting to believe that, say, it took a huge conspiracy to kill Jack Kennedy rather than admit that the most powerful man in the world could be killed and history changed in a big way by a lone nut with a gun. It is more comforting for some to think that our government engineered 9/11 than that a couple of dozen foreigners with box cutters and half a pilot's training could create so much havoc and death. Others find it more comforting to think that all our problems come from outside our borders than that we might at times be our own worst enemies.

Another big reason for disbelieving what is demonstrably true is hatred. The fact that African Americans are every bit as human as whites is resisted by racists because they really don't want to admit kinship with those they hate. Likewise, the humanity of Jews was denied by the Nazis. There has been no end of pseudo-sciences seeking to prove that the differences between dominant and minority peoples are more than superficial. Even racists realize that saying they don't like someone merely because they look different is stupid. So they try to argue that the differences signal some deeper defect, usually inferiority in intelligence or morals or essential hygiene.

This hatred goes back to our extreme tribalism when we were nomads. The only people you were sure you could trust were family, which meant people who looked, spoke and shared the same culture as you. People who differed in these were not to be trusted. However, if you got to know these strangers you might find that you had a lot in common. And for safety sake, those in charge felt it was safer for everybody if you hated them. That would keep the tribe pure and secure.

And this leads to the fact that people can reject the truth because it goes against their personal interests. We have already seen it in racism. In the US we used to have both slaves and indentured servants, the latter group mostly white. Because their situations were similar indentured servants would often side with slaves in revolts against their masters. So racism was taught and promoted to keep the two groups at odds. It also helped the indentured servants feel they were not at the very bottom of society because they were superior to slaves. No matter how bad off you are, having someone to look down on can make you feel better about yourself.

People do cynically reject the truth when it inconveniences them. I have seen patients deny that their medical problems could be related to their lifestyle because that would mean they would have to change. Yes, they drink a little; no, they do not have a drinking problem. The tobacco industry denied the link between smoking and lung cancer for decades, even lying to Congress. Now we know the industry's own research proved they were killing their customers and they knew it. During the Cold War, the Pentagon vastly overstated the military capabilities of the Soviet Union to get more money appropriated. People value money, power and their own personal comfort over truth if it threatens any of those things.

Finally, people reject the truth out of arrogance. They don't want to hear the truth about themselves and what they do or plan to do. They don't need to hear it because they know it already. They don't want to hear that they are wrong in their assessment of the situation or that they need help. I have seen this in patients who either don't want to accept their diagnosis or don't want to hear that their personal plan of treatment is all wrong. They know better than the doctors, the nurses, the accumulated experience and wisdom of medical science. Steve Jobs might have been able to beat his cancer had he not resisted doctors' advice for 9 months, refused surgery and tried various alternative pseudo-scientific ways of treating himself instead. A lot of successful people have made disastrous personal, business and political decisions because they wouldn't listen to others. After all, who was as smart or skilled as they? They don't realize that past success does not make you infallible. Nobody is successful at everything. You have to be humble to be open to learning.

The Bible has a lot to say about truth. Deuteronomy 32:4 says that our Lord is “a God of truth and without injustice.” Joshua 24:14 says we are to serve him “in sincerity and in truth.” John tells us that “grace and truth came through Jesus Christ.” (John 1:17) Jesus said “I am the way, the truth and the life...” (John 14:1) Jesus called the Holy Spirit the Spirit of truth. (John 16:13)

Since God is all about truth so should we who follow Jesus. We need to be committed to learning and telling the truth. And that means that no matter what the temptation, we should not try to defend God with lies. God tells one of Job's “comforters”: “I am angry with you and your two friends, for you have not spoken the truth about me, as my servant Job has.” (Job 42:7) Because if God is the creator of everything then all truth is God's truth. That means scientifically established truth is God's truth and spiritual truth is God's truth. We need to be truthful with ourselves and about ourselves.

We need to be truthful with others as well. Now obviously if one were, say. hiding Jews from the Nazis, then, rather than allow them to be killed, the lesser evil would be to lie to them. But that is an exceptional case and 99 and 44/100% of the time Christians are to tell the truth. Because, as Shakespeare said, “truth will out.” Or as Jesus put it, “...Nothing is hidden that will not be revealed and nothing is secret that will not be made known.” (Matthew 10:26) It almost sounds as if he is predicting the internet! As followers of Jesus we must be transparent.

And we must be willing to do our homework. Don't tell people things or post them unless we have checked that they are true. We must not fear the truth or hate it. We mustn't ignore it for personal reasons or because it inconveniences us. We mustn't deny or distort it for power or greed or out of arrogance. And we mustn't misrepresent it in misguided service to God. God likes honesty.

Our chief mission is to spread the word of the moral and spiritual truth of the gospel, the good news. There is a whole world out there filled with people who are being fed lies: that they are hopeless or irredeemable or without the need for God. They are told that God has been disproved or that he relishes punishing people or that he doesn't care what we do so long as we are happy. They are told that God loves successful people the most and that those who don't succeed must be lazy or stupid or not faithful enough or else God would bless them. They are told that there are no spiritual consequences to looking out for themselves above others or that God is okay with them judging others.

And we must never forget that the ultimate truth is Jesus himself. He is the lens through which we must view the world and the model of what true life and true forgiveness and true love are. In our gospel Jesus asks the twelve if they will leave, too. Peter says, “Lord, to whom can we go? You have the words of eternal life.” Peter recognized the truth. He was standing before him—the truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth. 

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