One of the disorienting realities of living in the United States today is not knowing where to go for truth. Think about it—who do you go to for truth? Politicians? The media? The church? Christian Twitter? Google? The irony is we have more access to content and commentary than ever, but who can we trust?
Trust has completely eroded in our society. A 2018 research study conducted by the Pew Research Center cited these statistics:
- 75 percent of Americans say trust in the federal government is shrinking
- 64 percent say trust in other Americans is shrinking
- 61 percent say you cannot trust the news media
- Only 18 percent of people between the ages of 30 to 49 have a high level of personal trust
- Only 11 percent of people ages 18 to 29 have a high level of personal trust (which makes Gen Z the least trusting generation in American history)
To be clear, truth is truth whether we feel the source is trustworthy or not. Truth doesn’t care about your feelings. It’s objective. Many sociologists argue that we are the first culture ever to reject this; instead of believing truth is located in a fixed reference point outside of us, we believe truth lies within us. Scripture rejects that though. It tells us Jesus is the truth. Truth is found in God’s Word. This means truth is not contingent on our feelings or the track record of the truth-teller.
However, this doesn’t change the reality that trust is a vital prerequisite to people embracing truth, especially when that truth challenges or contradicts their predispositions. The extent to which people will be open to what you say tends to directly correlate with their level of personal trust.
TRUTH OVER TRIBE
Honestly, it feels like the Wild West out there. Last election cycle Joe Biden’s campaign was saying of President Donald Trump, “He’s a chronic liar!” and the Trump campaign was describing most media reports as “fake news!” This is a snapshot of how truth is constantly being manipulated. All the confusion and contradiction has worn down most of us. In our fatigue and frustration, we tend to give up and trust the voices that affirm what is familiar. We trust the voices that give us the moral high ground rather than call us to account. We trust the voices that take our legitimate concerns and turn them into imminent threats by exploiting fear. There is no effort to discern false teachers. We find our tribe, dig in our heels, plug our ears, and prepare for battle.
This explains why everything seems to be so stubbornly polarized. Why can’t the left and right compromise? Where’s the nuance? Where’s the humility to admit that my side may not be entirely right all of the time? It boils down to trust. People have been discipled to trust their tribe and its leaders. We live in a culture where people have a higher allegiance to tribe than truth.
Have you ever wondered how the sweet woman from church who teaches your kids’ Sunday school and leads the homeless ministry is the same lady celebrating dehumanizing and fear-mongering attacks on her political opponents? Have you ever wondered how your close friend who has two degrees and built a small fortune as an entrepreneur is the same guy canceling all the “snowflakes” on Facebook and sharing outrageous conspiracies? One word—trust. We listen to people we trust, and sadly, many of our tribes are shaping the truth into the image of their tenets. It is supposed to be the other way around.
I once heard Timothy Keller argue that if the truth stops offending you, you should be very concerned. God’s kingdom and his Word transcend all of our artificial political parties, religious sects, cultural worldviews, and ideological tribes. They affirm the goodness in each but also judge the brokenness. If we truly serve a transcendent God, we should be suspicious if he ever starts looking too American, too white, too progressive, too Republican, too whatever. We should expect to be challenged and embrace the thrill of sanctification.
Today, it seems, many want to use the truth as a bludgeon. They beat others down in order to claim the moral high ground over them. But in the kingdom of God, there’s only one way to claim the moral high ground—humble repentance. Jesus told us the humble will be exalted and the exalted will be humbled. God gives grace to the humble but opposes the proud. The truth must be used to deal with my log before their speck.
SPEAKING THE TRUTH WITH A DIFFERENT TONE
When we grow to a place where we instinctually use truth as a mirror for self-reflection, we will then be able to hold the mirror up for others lovingly. We will have the moral authority that comes with long-standing repentance. We will speak from a grace-experienced place. We will remain patient. We will be gentle and lowly like our Lord. We will share our own struggles, knowing people may be impressed by our strengths but will connect with our weaknesses.
Basically, Christians will have a markedly different tone than the world around us. Tone matters to truth as much as trust matters to truth. Our tone communicates our true motives. Is our intention to wound or heal? Is our intention to inflict guilt or incite growth? Is our intention to shame or help? Most of the truth I hear spoken (or see posted) today is loaded with rage, snark, and sarcasm. It is aimed to embarrass enemies and rile the base rather than convert them into friends. It cancels enemies rather than dying to forgive them.
This is one attribute I deeply admire about the nonviolent approach of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Let’s not sugarcoat it, King led a movement that spoke truth through civil disobedience. He and his followers strategically targeted unjust practices and systems and then defied them with speeches, sit-ins, marches, protests, and gatherings. However, their civil disobedience was practiced within the framework of nonviolence. If civil disobedience was their truth, nonviolence was their tone.
In his book Stride Toward Freedom, King laid out six principles of nonviolence. They are incredibly cross-shaped.
- Nonviolence is only for courageous people.
- Nonviolence chooses love over hate.
- Nonviolence holds that our suffering will educate and transform others.
- Nonviolence believes the universe is on the side of justice.
- Nonviolence is aggressive toward problems, not people.
- Nonviolence seeks to turn enemies into friends.
On December 17, 1956, when the Supreme Court rejected appeals and ordered Montgomery’s buses to be desegregated, the Montgomery Improvement Association (MIA) held two meetings to prepare for when protesters would return to the buses. They had won! But King knew the battle was far from over. That is why he prepared a document for the MIA on how to reenter the buses with love. He advised,
- “Pray for guidance and commit yourself to complete nonviolence in word and action as you enter the bus.”
- “In all things observe ordinary rules of courtesy and good behavior.”
- “Remember that this is not a victory for [us] alone, but for all Montgomery and the South.”
- “Do not boast! Do not brag!”
- “Be loving enough to absorb evil and understanding enough to turn an enemy into a friend.”
- “If cursed, do not curse back. If pushed, do not push back. If struck, do not strike back, but evidence love and goodwill at all times.”
- “For the first few days try to get on the bus with a friend in whose nonviolence you have confidence. You can uphold one another by a glance or a prayer.”
- “If another person is being molested, do not arise to go to his defense, but pray for the oppressor and use moral and spiritual force to carry on the struggle for justice.”
Even in victory, King remained chiefly concerned with seeing his enemies embrace the truth. The goal wasn’t just to win the legislative battle and rub their noses in it. The goal was to see change in the oppressors. While laws are powerful and the state can penalize people into obedience, only the love of Jesus can make a person want to be different. King recognized this. Many activists today do not. I love the activist spirit of the emerging generation, but I do not love the spirit in which they are active. Many have chosen to speak the truth in hate. The church must resist that! Christians must have a markedly different tone than the world around us.
The world desires vengeance, the provocation of shame. “You made me hurt. Now I’ll make you hurt even worse.” Shame is rarely a pathway to reconciliation and renewal. When our rhetoric is laced with shame, it results in one of two ends. It either provokes self-loathing or it provokes a response of defensiveness and resentment. As Christians, we should desire sanctification over shame. We know our motives are of the Spirit when the aim is sanctification and the tone is bursting with the Spirit’s fruit: love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, gentleness, faithfulness, and self-control
IN LIGHT OF GRACE
Perhaps we can summarize it like this: Speak the truth in light of God’s grace. Hear the truth in light of God’s grace.
Speak. Be whimsical and nonabrasive. Rise above the rhetoric. Reframe the issues. Exercise nuance and cultural sophistication. Celebrate common ground. Argue toward common good. Don’t give in to the pressure to compromise biblical convictions. Let cross-shaped love lead. This is our markedly different way.It has been my experience that when I do these things, others are pleasantly surprised.
Hear. Whether heinous criminals or holy saints, we all come up infinitely and thus equally short of loving God the way he deserves. If that is true, it’s also true of every system we create, nation we found, government we lead, tribe we claim, theology we map, and church we plant. This side of Heaven, there is always room for growth. I must be acutely aware that I have blind spots and the Holy Spirit is not quite through with me. As the Lord told the prophet, “The human heart is the most deceitful of all things, and desperately wicked. Who really knows how bad it is?” (Jeremiah 17:9). This is what makes the gospel all the more beautiful. I am depraved yet saved, and it is only by God’s grace.
In fact—plot twist!—Christianity is the only faith that says you have to repent from being right. What a clap back to this justice-oriented generation and religious fundamentalists. If you are using your righteousness to establish your standing before God, it won’t work. You must surrender to his grace. I should be prepared . . . no . . . I should be eager to receive the truth. God’s grace guarantees I still need it and God’s grace relieves all fears that I still need it.