There are some moral stances that we seldom question. Why is it important for me to love and not hate? Why should I refrain from selfishness? Why should I not murder? Our monolithic answer is often the same for these and many similar questions. Short and sweet: It is simply right. An even more pointed response for the faith community might be: Because God said so. We never stop to ask ourselves why we should believe certain obvious truths; we just do. On one hand, this is probably a very good thing. What if we were so uncertain about morality that we had to stop and question everything that we wanted to do? Life would be miserable and paralyzing. We would not get anything accomplished.
On the other hand, could it be the case that our lack of explicit moral reasoning on some of the most basic principles could lead us into misusing our moral convictions, even when we can say, “But, God said”? Why question God, right? Simply put, we question what God tells us to see the heart of God. It is not just important to know what God said, but why He said it. Just look back to the Sermon On The Mount: Jesus took several moral positions that, for the faith community, had been firmly decided for centuries (and grounded in God’s Word at that) and brought them out into the light of reconsideration.
What does He conclude? First, He demonstrates that the knowledge of the law was fairly common. To all the disciples He says, “You have heard it said…” In other words, “Common knowledge for this community has said…” They knew how to answer the questions surrounding murder, adultery, divorce, oaths, retaliation, dealing with enemies, and the list goes on. Second, from His silence on the issue, it would seem that, perhaps, they were indeed doing fairly well at practicing this common knowledge, at least outwardly. His challenge is not, “You have heard what Scripture teaches, why are you not obeying?” Instead, He is says, “You have heard it said…but I say…” In other words, “You know what Scripture says, but you are not practicing truth for the right reasons, because, if you were, you would understand the deeper reasons for these common truths.” For Jesus, the following of the letter of the law was not enough. We must get to the heart of the Word.
Jesus wanted to get to the heart of the matter. Jesus did not want His disciples to simply stand in accordance with the Scripture’s commands, because it was a religious and cultural expectation for them to do so, but He also wanted them to be centered in the heart of the Scriptures, which is not simply meant to inform a course for right behavior, but is evermore meant to transform the heart. In all our daily decisions, the Word of Truth is to be a living Word. We do not do good simply because “God said so.” If this is our only motive for doing right, we fall prey to rote, religious ritual. In other words, we do right because we want to somehow do what we must to appease God. Nothing seems to anger God more.
Making God’s calling upon our life into ritualistic practices, like praying everyday because God wants me to pray, or reading the Bible because that what a good Christian does, is no different than Israel’s performing rituals, like sacrifice, to appease God, instead of expressing an inner heart to do God’s will. Ritual was meant to be a beautiful practice of family tradition for the community of faith, a means to connect with God and receive His grace, but, when the people accessed ritual, they often did so, not to celebrate anew the foundational blessings of God that His people had been experiencing from an ancient past, but instead for appeasing God. God was not fooled. Instead, He was moved to anger, for the people had willingly withdrawn into ignorance, ignoring the purposes for God’s gifts, such as ritual:
What to me is the multitude of your sacrifices?
says the Lord;
I have had enough of burnt offerings of rams
and the fat of fed beasts;
I do not delight in the blood of bulls,
or of lambs, or of goats.
When you come to appear before me,
who asked this from your hand?
Trample my courts no more;
bringing offerings is futile;
incense is an abomination to me.
New moon and sabbath and calling of convocation—
I cannot endure solemn assemblies with iniquity.
Your new moons and your appointed festivals
my soul hates;
they have become a burden to me,
I am weary of bearing them.
When you stretch out your hands,
I will hide my eyes from you;
even though you make many prayers,
I will not listen;
your hands are full of blood.
Wash yourselves; make yourselves clean;
remove the evil of your doings
from before my eyes;
cease to do evil,
learn to do good;
rescue the oppressed,
defend the orphan,
plead for the widow. (Isaiah 1:11-17)
God’s indictment is clear: Israel’s outward religious acts not only do not suffice when uncoupled from a pure heart, but they disgust God. While the modern community of faith, the church, does not have as many rituals as ancient Israel, we still have our own set of commands from God that we often routinely participate in, and we must be careful not to slip into doing them out of mere habit, simply because it is what is expected of us, because, “it is right,” and “because God said so.” Our actions should always be an overflow of the heart.
You desire truth in the inward being;
therefore teach me wisdom in my secret heart…
For you have no delight in sacrifice;
if I were to give a burnt offering, you would not be pleased.
The sacrifice acceptable to God is a broken spirit;
a broken and contrite heart, O God, you will not despise…
then you will delight in right sacrifices… (Psalm 51:6,16,17,19a)
The practice of truth cannot be simply an outward performance, but living out of God’s word must be an overflow of the heart. It is certain that sometimes what we should do does not always align with what we want to do, and we are still expected to do the right thing. However, we should never forget why we do what God asks, even when we do not feel up to the task. We are to long for the heart of God, to do His will because our hearts move with His. We might not always feel as if we are there, but this should be where we are forever moving. So, back to our original consideration about those basic ideals we know to be right and good simply because they are right and good.
We better not simply practice good moral behavior out of some desire to appease God. It is not good enough to want to do right because we do not want to upset God. We need to do right, because doing right comes from a place of love. Israel had missed this point, and, because they missed it, they were no longer working with God to bring justice to the oppressed, but were enjoying ritual celebrations simply because they could. Not only did religion become about appeasing God, but it soon became about selfish pleasures. Do we ever use God’s truth for our own benefit? Do we ever justify our selfish actions in the name of God? The Scripture suggests that if we do, we might be in real danger.
Now that we have explored the importance of not only knowing what actions are right, but knowing why they are right, we can ask about the application for today. What might be a modern day practice of God’s Word for which many lack the conviction of the heart? I think that truth telling is something we believe is right and good, but why we tell the truth might be something we practice, not for God’s sake, but often our own.
Think about the oft-used phrase: “The truth hurts.” Why do we say this? We say this because we want to tell someone what we think, and we want to feel justified for doing so. We often critique others in the name of telling the truth. We have equated the idea of giving advice (or critique) with truth, so much so that we feel as if the person who we are advising, if they do not accept our advice, might as well suffer the consequences for rejecting truth. Truth, then, becomes something we use to have others comply with our version of the ideal. What is so wrong with this, especially if the advice comes from well thought out Christian standards?
First, this sort of truth falls too short of the Christian idea of Truth, which is not just rooted in ideas, but in the person of Jesus Christ. To understand this Truth is not to comply with simple ideals, but to be in relationship with a personal Being, one who leads, not simply by giving us a step-by-step instructional on the how-to of life, but leads and proffers truth in trusting relationship, what many would call, “a daily walk.” Second, telling truth becomes a means of control, even while the Scripture tells us that Truth is to set the recipient free. Even if our typical truth telling is good advice, if we simply ask others to follow our truth without offering them relationship, as Christ offers Himself to us, we show we really do not care for the individual, but simply care about them living up to our expectations for them. If we really were offering our “truth” out of love, and we desired to follow the example of Christ, we would also walk in truth with these people in relationship. How hard can that be, right?
Let’s go back to God’s indictment of Israel in Isaiah 1. Here we see God telling Israel that all the outward rituals in the world could not fulfill God’s expectations for them, but do you know what can? He tells us: “…remove the evil of your doings// from before my eyes;// cease to do evil,// learn to do good;// seek justice,// rescue the oppressed,// defend the orphan,// plead for the widow” (Isaiah 1:16b-17). God is telling Israel that all the religious acts in the world cannot take the place of loving acts of faithfulness, as we share the love of God with the oppressed. James repeats this sentiment for the church in his epistle: “Religion that is pure and undefiled before God, the Father, is this: to care for orphans and widows in their distress, and to keep oneself unstained by the world” (1:27).
How might our truth telling be related to all of this? Let’s go back to our normative Christian practice of telling truth, even when it hurts. In the conservative, American church, our dealings with the poor and the oppressed often come, not through government welfare, which many conservative Americans (myself included) find ample fault with, but in advice giving, giving them a hard dose of reality (which I do not find to be the answer). We repeat the old adage: “Give a man a fish…Teach a man to fish…” Some even assume this is not just scriptural, but actual Scripture.
We need to ask ourselves, from what standpoint do we say, "Well, I think that the poor just need to learn to take responsibility"? Is this from a purely caring place, because we actually believe what we suggest is indeed best for the poor and we love them enough to say so? If so, should not each of us that say this have caring relationships with the poor as Christ did? Or do we often speak from a place of want for security. If the poor were more responsible they would be safer to live around. American society would be better off. If we simply critique the poor and offer no real hand through relationship, I think we readily enough show our own selfishness in our “truth telling.” This is no truth at all, for truth, even though hard to hear at times, is meant to be restorative, uplifting, and relational. Instead, we use the idea of truth as a means of guilt and control, and as a means to justify ourselves when we think about our calling to serve the poor. “Am I serving the poor?” “Well, I certainly have offered my opinion on the matter of being poor.” This gets us away from real truth telling, which is difficult, because it calls us to love. We must not just want to fix the poor’s problems, but must first desire to love them, no matter how they respond to us. Is this were truth leads you?
Telling the truth cannot be divorced from living in the truth if it is to be real truth. If, then, we want to tell the truth, we better be on board with living in it. If we believe the truth is restorative and we are Christ’s hands and feet to bring healing to this lost and broken world, then we better be on board with the repair Truth calls for. If we want to see truth in action, well, we better get to it. If we tell truth, we cannot do so from afar, critiquing the world with the attitude, “Well, if they don’t listen, it is their fault.” Jesus tells us to “Go!” proclaiming truth through loving relationship, Christ-like example, and virtuous discipline. If we cannot tell truth from this place, we cannot speak truth at all. Christ is the embodiment of truth, and He has asked His church to be the embodiment of His way here on earth. That just might mean we make sacrifices for those in need.
More on truth telling coming soon…