Truth Or Consequences?
It was one of those windows of opportunity for "meaningful conversation." We were baking Christmas cookies, and after the fifth pan of cut out angels and stars, the novelty of decoration had begun to wear off. Anna started talking about school, and how hard some of her classes are getting. In French they have begun to translate Camus, and are expected to write weekly essays, and so her easy A seems to be disappearing. "How are your other friends handling the pressure?" I asked. "Oh," she said, "they just don't hand in the work if they haven't had enough time to do a really good job. They mysteriously get sick just before the bell rings, or they skip class, so that they can hand in the assignment a day, late. "But, I protested, isn't that dishonest?" At which point Anna looked at me as if I lived on another planet. "Mom, all my friends lie all the time. It's normal behavior. And it makes me sick." Adolescent exaggeration to be sure. But sobering nonetheless.
And the Word became flesh, and dwelt among us—full of grace and truth. The Word—the Logos—the preexistent essence of God—became sarx—flesh—the word Paul uses to describe human nature in all its weakness and sin. But this Holy Flesh—this sacred sarx—pitched a tent in our midst—and in contrast to human flesh—full of selfpromotion and deceit—this holy flesh was full of grace and truth. As always, biblical language about God is paradoxical. Grace and truth. Truth and grace. Confrontation and caring—judgment and mercy—honesty and compassion—gracious generosity and harsh, demanding trustworthiness. I think John 1:14—is the most powerful and the most complex and the most comforting verse in the New Testament. And I still don't understand it. But, if God in flesh means the human embodiment of grace and truth, then we, as the image of God and the Body of Christ in the world, we, too, are called to embody grace and truth also.
The fact that the Christian faith is paradoxical is a challenge. If opposite things are true, then the trick is to hold that opposition in balance—to balance the truth of God with the grace of God. I think a problem with the liberal generation of which I am very much a part is that we have lost this sense of balance. We have moved too much in one direction of this paradox—toward grace. And truth has dipped low in the balance of the abundant life. A quick look at the world around us—the adolescent world, as well as the political world—suggests that we need to start rebalancing this paradox of truth and grace.
In August 1997, following President Clinton's speech, I received an email from Ed Hummers including comments made by the Managing Partner of Holland and Knight, the law firm of which Ed is part of. Given the obvious confusion in this country about the significance lying, I found his comments helpful. Bill McBride writes: "Leadership, in my opinion, can not—and never could or should be—separated from personal qualities. Trust is the most important of all qualities that a leader can possess... ln the firm, I want each of you to know that although I cannot cast stones because I have lived at one time or another in some form of glass house, I view that my word, my integrity, and my character are subject to evaluation by you on a daily basis. I think it is also important that each and every member of the firm be judged for those same qualities as well. It is absolutely essential to our collective futures that we have no liars, cheats and persons of low character... I hope that you will hold me, as well as every other person in the firm, to high ethical and moral standards. Let each of us know when we fall short, so that we can try again. The test is not perfection but the sincere belief that we are trying to live up to the ideal of trustworthiness. "
The ideal of trustworthiness. That is exactly what John is describing in his poetic version of the Christmas story. The word which John uses for truth—for this embodiment of God in the flesh—is altheia. It has roots both in the Hebrew tradition and the Greek tradition. In Hebrew scripture truth has an ethical dimension—an expression of the trustworthiness and dependability of God. When God says God is going to do something, we know that God is going to do it. The Greek slant on the word is more philosophical. Truth means reality—unveiled essence—what you see, what you hear, is what really is. And so, for this holy fleshy God to be truth—for Jesus to be truth—for us to be truth—means that we are trustworthy in embodying what really is.
In an issue of Time magazine, Margaret Carlson had an editorial about the impeachment of the president. She complained that we have made lying into too big of a deal—particularly lying about sex, which, she says, has nothing to do with presidential competence. I strongly disagree with her conclusion. But I do agree with one thing she says. The reason 80% of Americans think this whole thing has gone too far is that we consciously or unconsciously identify with the president. Most of us lie—and we get away with it.
There are of course, white lies, which hurt no one, and can preserve dignity and relationship. You don't tell your beaming sister holding her first child, "No, little Johnny is not cute. In fact, he's the ugliest baby I've ever seen." You don't tell your friend the real reason that you can't come to her party—that you can't stand her boring, boorish husband. The first fight my husband and I ever had took place in London. Sim wanted to see the architecture and art work in the Reading Room in the British Museum. But in order to get in, you had to prove you were a graduate student doing some fairly esoteric research. Sim blithely filled out a form indicating that he was writing a thesis on Jonathan Edwards. I knew that his claim was a lie—a white lie—but a lie nonetheless. And so with my selfrighteous moralism, I refused to accompany him. He, of course, had a wonderful time—and I missed a highlight of that London experience!
But, my friends, when does a white lie, turn gray and move into the darkness which the Light of truth comes to shatter? When does polite fibbing turn into immoral and destructive dishonesty? Aristotle gives some guidance that summarizes the socially redemptive quality of truthfulness. He suggests that honesty is speaking the right truth to the right person at the right time in the right way for the right reason.
Why, I wonder, is it so hard to be entirely truthful—to say the truth, to be the truth, to act out the truth? Because the truth hurts. Or to quote a poster found in an addiction treatment center: "You shall know the truth, and the truth shall set you free, but first it will make you damn miserable." To tell the truth and to know the truth is to accept our imperfection, to acknowledge our incompleteness, to admit our dependency on something or Someone bigger than ourselves. To tell the truth is to sometimes feel unsafe and unsettled—and to acknowledge that we are accountable for who we haven't yet become.
One seminary professor remembers a conversation he had with a medical missionary from Africa. "I complimented him on his facility with languages. "You're really amazing," I said to him. "I'm in awe of you. I really don't have a gift for languages." To which the missionary responded. "That's nonsense. Out in the bush where I work the uneducated people speak three or four languages. Actually, Don, you're just lazy. You and your American friends just don't want to be bothered with learning other languages" (Christian Century, "White Lies, Hard Truths," September 916, 1998, p. 821). Ouch! That's the kind of truth we have a hard time hearing—and an even harder time delivering.
Jesus as the embodiment of truth sets a high and demanding standard. Indeed, the Light of the world can be both harsh and glaring. Which is why Jesus as the embodiment of grace is equally as important. The Word which became flesh in Jesus was full of grace as well as truth. And, actually, the two go together. God's grace accepts the truth of who we are—but then lovingly and patiently, God's truth transforms us into the truth that we are created to be. In Jesus, God tells the truth in order to build up humanity—to grace us instead of tearing us down—to complete us instead of punishing us. And we are called to do the same.
Years ago, when I was applying for the Doctor of Ministry degree at McCormick Theological Seminary, I was required to gather a group of peers who knew me both personally and professionally. Together we were asked to complete an assessment of my strengths and weaknesses in ministry. It was one of the toughest, most uncomfortable—and most gracefilled two hours—I have ever spent. It was all there in the glaring light of truth—my sharp tongue, my judgmental bent, my overly assertive way of pushing people too hard. As well as my enthusiasm, my catalytic style, my way with words, and my deep love for the church of Jesus Christ. Truthful grace. And graceful truth. A group of friends telling me who I am—and who I still need to become—in a life long journey toward wholeness and the embodiment of God's image within me.
The Word became flesh and dwelt among us—full of grace and truth. What amazing Good News! God comes to be one of us—so we can become more like God. Preposterous, but possible—if we balance honesty with compassion. If we balance integrity with sensitivity. If we balance authenticity with a healthy dose of humility.
May it be so for you and for me. Amen.
Susan R. Andrews