Sunday, October 10, 2021

To Tell the (Un)Truth

This morning, I'd like to tell you two stories. The first takes place in August 1767. The place is France. In fact, it's in the vicinity of Paris. I'd like you to meet a man named Johann Schobert. Estimates of his age vary, and today no one's quite sure which of the German territories he was born in, but he's a gifted composer and player of the harpsichord. He's been hired as the court musician of a local prince. And one of his biggest fans and imitators is a brilliant young boy named Wolfgang Mozart. Well, one afternoon, Johann Schobert, his wife, his child, his servant, and a few friends were taking a stroll in the woods, on a hike, when Schobert spotted some interesting mushrooms. Now, mushrooms were his favorite food. I very much can't relate, but far be it from me to second-guess a man's tastes. So he gathered those mushrooms. As the daylight started to dim, he and his friends left the woods, and in the neighborhood of Marly, they found a tavern. Going in, they approached the chef and asked him to prepare them a lovely meal using those mushrooms. The chef took a careful look at them – and the chef said no. The chef said he couldn't do it, because these were not food. These were poisonous.

Now, this aggravated Schobert. Wasn't he a good enough connoisseur of mushrooms to know the difference? But it made him doubt at least enough, on their way out the door, to turn to one of his friends. See, this friend was a medical doctor. The doctor had been on that hike, had watched Schobert pick the mushrooms, hadn't made a peep. Was there a problem with these mushrooms? 'No, no, no!' the doctor insisted. He was a professional, and he was certain these mushrooms were perfectly edible. So they kept walking. Throughout their walk, one or another person turned to the doctor and asked if he was really sure. He kept saying the same thing. When they found another tavern, Schobert went inside and asked the same thing. The second chef gave the same response as the first: he could never serve these poisonous mushrooms to his guests.

But the doctor stuck to his guns. And Schobert was a mighty stubborn man himself, a great mushroom lover. And by this point, they were a very hungry group. So they all went back to Schobert's house in Paris, and Schobert told his servant to cook them a nice, quick supper with the mushrooms. And they had a wonderful meal. Until about 11:00pm, that is, when all seven of them collapsed on the floor. Through the night, they were afflicted by convulsions. It wasn't until noon the next day, August 26, that they were found. And medical care could do nothing. Schobert's child, just four, maybe five years old, was the first fatality. Johann Schobert's great musical career was ended died a few days later, on a Friday. His wife made it through the weekend. One by one, over the ten days after supper, they all succumbed to poisoning – including the reassuring doctor. The only survivor was a tiny baby, just a few months old, suddenly left without a family.1

The other story takes us forward in time, to the twentieth century, and I'd like you to meet a man named Trofim Lysenko. He's an up-and-coming scientist in the Soviet Union, born to a Ukrainian peasant family, and aside from his firm belief that acquired characteristics can be inherited by offspring, he's spent years working on ideas to turn winter wheat into spring wheat, and other thoughts on how to improve crop yields – important work, after the Ukrainian famine of the early 1930s. Lysenko had a penchant for sloppy reasoning and calculations, and didn't much care to be criticized. But his passion for agricultural progress earned him a fan in Joseph Stalin – and thanks to Lysenko's influence, many other scientists were run out of their careers or even put to death.2

Lysenko and his friends had very clear ideas about how to grow crops. He believed that tight-knit groups of the same species would treat each other as comrades, helping each other grow, and so you should plant seeds of the same kind as close together as possible. Stalin took massive areas of land and let Lysenko plant fruit trees there like that, practically atop each other. Sadly, it ruined all that land. Things just didn't grow.3 Lysenko's friend had a complementary idea. They said the good dirt is much deeper down, so if you want things to really grow, you have to plant the seeds a few feet deep, not just the usual six or eight inches.

Well, until Stalin's death in 1953, Lysenko ruled the roost in the Soviet sciences. And you know who were avid fans of Soviet science at the time? The Chinese. Lysenkoism was all the rage in Communist China until, with Stalin's death, he began to find critics again. In the late 1950s, Lysenkoism was on the retreat in China, except at Beijing Agricultural University.4 When the Chinese Communist Party collectivized the farms, they wanted to mandate set standards for how farming should be done. Lysenko's close planting made the cut, even though it was obvious it took massive amounts of seeds, which could be risky.5 Deep plowing was also on the list. The idea was that with these simple tricks, the farmland would double or triple its output. But in one province after another, local officials were seeing the opposite happen to the grain. Yields were dropping. But everyone was scared – an official who reported bad news about the official program might find himself arrested as an enemy of progress. So in province after province, the officials reported success. They overstated grain yields. Soon, the central government was in the sway of an 'illusion of superabundance.' Their estimate of the available grain throughout China was about four times more than they actually had. They allocated accordingly, beginning with urbanites and trusting the countryside to take care of itself. So began the Great Chinese Famine. Over the next couple of years, the low estimate of deaths is about 15 million people. Some say 55 million.6

Now, I want to ask you, what do these stories have in common? Where do they come together? It's in the value of truth – and the danger of missing its mark. Schobert's doctor friend sincerely told their group an untruth, and got him to ignore the truthful witness of the chefs. By acting on the untruth, seven people died. Just as that doc was wrong about mushrooms, Lysenko was wrong about agriculture. He spread his untrue ideas, with backing from the state. And by the time it filtered down to a China where officials were too scared to be honest about results, millions or tens of millions died. All for lack of the truth.

Two thousand years ago, a man posed an interesting question: “What is truth?” (John 18:38). That courageous questioner's name? Pontius Pilate. Perhaps his asking wasn't very noble. But one of the important titles God lays claim to in the Bible is this one: “the God of Truth” (Isaiah 65:16) – literally, 'God of Amen.' Our word 'Amen' comes from the Hebrew word for 'truth,' which has the sense of something certain, something made firm, something reliable and faithful. It's the same reason why our English words 'true' and 'tree' are so much alike: they come down from related ancient roots for something that's well-established and sturdy. You could say that a statement is true to the extent that it's rooted deeply in the soil of the actual world – to the extent it's reliable, faithful to reality. And there's no higher reality than God, because God created everything that exists through his Word. Everything that exists gets its reliability from the Word of God. Creation is itself born into a covenant with God, and loyalty to that covenant is truth. So when God speaks, by definition what he says is the truth. “God... never lies” (Titus 1:2); indeed, it's “impossible for God to lie” (Hebrews 6:18). “I, the LORD, speak the truth,” he says (Isaiah 45:19). “The sum of your word is truth,” we reply (Psalm 119:160).

And Jesus Christ, Son of the Father, is identical to the same Word through whom all things were made (John 1:1-3), and in whom all things in creation hold together (Colossians 1:17). So when the Word entered the world he defined, he came to earth “full of grace and truth” (John 1:14). Because on the one hand, Jesus' entire being is flawlessly faithful to God, the Ultimate Reality. Jesus is the perfect Image of God (Colossians 1:15), showing God's reality and God's view of the world he made – which, by definition, is the faithful view, the realistic view, the right view. On the other hand, Jesus is the source and measure of all created things. Jesus is the reality to which creation is supposed to be faithful. That's why Jesus can honestly come down and tell us, “I am the Way, the Truth, and the Life” (John 14:6). Jesus is pure faithfulness incarnate. As God's Word, he faithfully defines all creation; but he wears our flesh, creation's flesh, so as creation to be perfectly faithful to who God is.7 That's why every word Jesus speaks is the truth. The whole reason Jesus came into the world, he said, was “to bear witness to the truth” (John 18:37). And he unleashes a Holy Spirit who in fact is the Truth” (1 John 5:6). This Spirit of Truth is sent by Jesus to guide people toward the truth (John 16:13) – to teach us ever-greater faithfulness to reality as reality, in infinite ways, gives us glimpses of Jesus as its principle of coherence.

For just that reason, God charges us with being a people of truth. “O LORD, do not your eyes look for truth?” (Jeremiah 5:3). God “delights in truth in the inward being” (Psalm 51:6) and favors anyone who “speaks truth in his heart” (Psalm 15:2). God commands through his prophet, “Speak the truth to one another” (Zechariah 8:16). God commands through his apostle, “Having put away falsehood, let each one of you speak the truth with his neighbor” (Ephesians 4:25). The very first part of God's armor we're invited to wear for life's battles is “the belt of truth” (Ephesians 6:14). And even love isn't really love unless it “rejoices with the truth” (1 Corinthians 13:6). The words we say, the lives we live, should be faithful, loyal to what is; and that's truth.

And so God told us this from the mountain: “You shall not bear false witness against your neighbor” (Exodus 20:16). That law was, first and foremost, for Israel's courts. It was given to protect God's people from being tarred with false testimony, anything that would “pervert justice” and ruin public trust (Exodus 23:1-3). But this command can't start and stop when people are under oath. You can bear false witness lots of ways and over lots of things. And that's no good. People have a right to pursue knowledge about the world. On that basis, people make their decisions. To bear false witness is to violate that right. And if Schobert and Lysenko taught us anything, it's that saying and doing what's false carries grave risks of being hurtful against our neighbors.

So what does God's commandment rule out? First of all, it rules out lying, it rules out deceiving, it rules out the intentional spread of falsehoods, intentional violations of creation's truth-covenant with God. This has always been pretty common. A psalmist worried, “All mankind are liars” (Psalm 116:11). A prophet complained, “Everyone deceives his neighbor, and no one speaks the truth: they have taught their tongue to speak lies” (Jeremiah 9:5). The worst lies have always been idolatry and heresy: times when even whole nations have “exchanged the truth of God for a lie,” as Paul put it (Romans 1:25). But there are lots of lies out there, sometimes even on our lips. Maybe we lie about what we're up to. Maybe we lie about our motives. Maybe we lie about our age. We might lie on an employment application or time card. We might lie by getting forged papers to lie to the government and our neighbors. We might lie to a friend, lie to a child, lie to a spouse.

But God is clear: “You shall not deal falsely, you shall not lie to one another” (Leviticus 19:11). “Truthful lips endure forever, but a lying tongue is for but a moment” (Proverbs 12:19). “No one who practices deceit shall dwell in my house; no one who utters lies shall continue before my eyes” (Psalm 101:7), for God “destroys those who speak lies” (Psalm 5:6). “As for... all liars, their portion will be in the lake that burns with fire and sulfur, which is the second death,” the New Testament warns (Revelation 21:8). Don't lie.

God's commandment also rules out another thing, and that's hypocrisy.8 Jesus is always calling out the scribes and Pharisees as 'hypocrites' in the Gospels (Matthew 7:5; 15:7; 22:18; 23:27). It's a Greek word that literally means 'answerers.' But ancient Greek plays had lots of questions and answers – the chorus would ask questions, and the actors on stage, wearing huge masks, would answer back. So these 'answerers' on stage became known for wearing these fake faces to conceal their real-life identities. They buried themselves in the role, for the sake of following the script. Over time, when the word leaked out of the theater, it became a dirty word to describe somebody who, in life off the stage, was putting on an act. A hypocrite is somebody who goes around with a fake face – putting on a show of goodness, but concealing the reality of himself.9 In other words, his or her very actions are deceitful. Inside and outside keep no faith. “You outwardly appear righteous to others,” Jesus said, “but within you are full of hypocrisy and lawlessness” (Matthew 23:28). Maybe your lips honor God, maybe your lips are drenched in his praises, but your heart might be a total mismatch (Mark 7:6). And that's lying.

It's written: “If we say we have no sin, we deceive ourselves, and the truth is not in us” (1 John 1:8). Catch that: If we pawn ourselves off to the world as better, if we try to sit on the judgment seat, if we claim exemption and immunity, if we refuse to look our sins in the eye first and admit them, then John reminds us we're self-deceived – we've tricked ourselves, detached ourselves willingly from reality. That makes us truthless liars. And such hypocrisy breaks the commandment. And it's written: “If anyone says 'I know God' and hates his brother, he is a liar” (1 John 4:20). Again, if we present ourselves as Christians, as followers of the Jesus who desires all to be saved and died for everyone, and yet we still nurture in our heart a division from somebody else who belongs to that same Jesus, then we have a problem – because while we say we're on Jesus' side, we're against his love for that person. That makes our Christian face toward the world a false face. We're only playing a role. Our professed knowledge of God is insincere. And that's another hypocrisy that breaks the commandment.

It's also written: “Whoever says 'I know him' but doesn't keep his commandments is a liar, and the truth is not in him” (1 John 2:4). If we call ourselves Christians, if we say we know Jesus and have a relationship with Jesus, and yet our lives don't bear the design of his word, if our actions answer to our whims instead of to God's loving authority, then our conduct undercuts our confession. Persisting in choosing sin while wrapping ourselves in Jesus' name – that makes us liars. Calling him Lord but plugging our ears when he starts talking – that makes us liars. Then the truth isn't in us. Hypocrisy like that? You guessed it: it breaks the commandment. So God tells us through the Apostle Peter: “Put away... all deceit and hypocrisy” (1 Peter 2:1).

There's a third thing ruled out by God's commandment, and this one might not have occurred to you. It's failure to verify information before we share it. Obviously, each of us goes through life being wrong about something – probably a lot of things. And many of them, we couldn't get right no matter how hard we tried. A thousand years ago, if you asked anybody on the street, they'd explain patiently to you how the sun goes around the earth, how disease comes from an imbalance in the body's temperature and moisture content, and so on. All wrong – but not blameworthy, just an accident, even when it caused hurt. On the other hand, plenty of us go through life being wrong about things we don't have to be wrong about – and even spreading our wrongness when just a bit more thought and work could've set us straight or at least humbled us into silence. And just as murder is worse but negligent homicide is still a crime, so lying may be worse but 'negligent truthicide' is still a crime.

Brothers and sisters, what I'm calling 'negligent truthicide' – choking off the truth by spreading misinformation negligently, when we could've known better if we'd just checked – is not what God wants. “You shall not spread a false report,” he says, not when you can help it (Exodus 23:1). But it happens all the time. One of the reasons I don't use the social media site Facebook any more is because, as political heat rose and social trust fell, so many family and friends seemed not just to have their own competing leanings but their own competing 'facts.' Over and over, people share 'shocking' stories or findings or arguments churned up by any number of faceless agitators or known agenda-pushers. People share these, not because they looked into them and found them true, but because they're pleasantly ear-tickling to the biases of your preferred political and cultural tribe. And yet, very often, those things you can share with a click are built on misinformation – falsehoods you can avoid. Maybe it's over a politician's voting record. Maybe it's about a medical treatment. Whatever the area, we have a God-given duty to avoid misinforming people, to avoid telling the untruth, anywhere we can help it.

Just yesterday, I saw the results of a brand-new poll. Guess how many Americans are apparently worried about the spread of misinformation in society today? Nineteen out of twenty – 95% of Americans. Four in five said they thought it was a major problem for American society. The survey found that about three in four Americans were somewhat or extremely concerned that they'd been exposed to misinformation – that some of what they'd personally been told was just junk. And almost half of Americans surveyed admitted being somewhat or very concerned that they themselves had been guilty of passing along something untrue.10 As Christians, how should we guard against that sin, whether by the click of a finger or the words of our lips? Take these five steps:

  1. First, before you pass along a contentious claim you see or hear, make sure you've heard and understood the other side. Don't forget what the Bible says: “The one who states his case first seems right, until the other comes and examines him” (Proverbs 18:17). If you're uncritically listening to just one side and sharing whatever they say, and not letting the other side cross-examine it before you pass your verdict on, that's negligence. Let both make their honest case to you, or neither. Either way, be fair to all.

  2. Second, before you pass stuff along, make sure it's from somebody worth listening to about it in the first place. Israel's kingdom broke in half because King Rehoboam, even after getting sound advice from Solomon's seasoned policy experts, listened to his boyhood playmates instead – people with no qualifications, no expertise, no reason to credit them. So too, Schobert learned the hard way that neither he nor his doctor buddy knew mushrooms as well as a French chef. If the source of your information isn't qualified, doesn't have proven reliability or expertise, then don't give their opinion too much weight.

  3. Third, before you pass a claim along, make sure you've checked into the evidence behind it. The Apostle Paul repeats the Law: “Every charge must be established by the evidence of two or three witnesses” (2 Corinthians 13:1; cf. Deuteronomy 19:15). One person's say-so doesn't cut it without corroboration. Check the work. Hunt for corroboration. See if the facts hold up to scrutiny. Beware of exaggerations and miscalculations like Lysenko's. More scrutiny would have done a lot of good there.

  4. Fourth, before you pass a claim along, make sure you know enough yourself to effectively weigh the evidence behind it. “Malicious witnesses... ask me of things that I do not know” (Psalm 35:11). Sometimes, it takes a lot of work and study to have an informed opinion about something. No one today is an expert on everything. It's prideful to think we can fairly judge every argument. We do well when we know our limits. If you can't pass a well-informed judgment, then don't pass it along as sure.

  5. And fifth, before you pass a claim along, make sure you're willing to be corrected. “Whoever ignores instruction despises himself, but he who listens to reproof gains intelligence” (Proverbs 15:32). When we're too convinced of ourselves to admit the possibility of our ignorance, when we're too bound up in ourselves to care about the facts, when we're too lazy to learn, God says it's as if we hate ourselves. And if that's so, then to risk spreading misinformation negligently or recklessly is an act of hating our neighbors. We'd be better off learning humility and gaining intelligence instead.

If any one of those is missing, danger is approaching. If we can't do those things, maybe passing that claim on isn't our place. Maybe there are better uses of our time and our voice. Maybe one of the ways Christians can work to heal our world's tattered social fabric is by reminding the world how to learn in humility and diligence. Maybe another way is by modeling for people how to admit we don't always have to have an opinion, and that it can be good to keep quiet about most things and to focus on what we're really about. Because if we go the other way – if we make a habit of passing claims along just because they fit what we want to hear, and we don't do our due diligence first to the truth – then we run a serious risk of negligent truthicide. And that's a sin.

Brothers and sisters, let none of this be us! We should prefer silence and humble learning over the prospect of negligently, recklessly, or intentionally being false, whether in word or in deed. We weren't sent into the world to save it by a falsehood. The Bible calls the Church “a pillar and buttress of the truth” (1 Timothy 3:15). That is what we're about. Paul explains that our mission is to never work “against the truth, but only for the truth” (2 Corinthians 13:8). Lies can't set the world free. Hypocrisy can't set the world free. Skating by our duty to verify before we assert something – that can't set us free either. Only the truth can set us free – the truth loved, welcomed, zealously pursued.. Because Truth in person said, “If you abide in my word, you are truly my students, and you will know the truth, and the truth will set you free” (John 8:32).

When we lie, when we deceive, when we play-act behind fake faces, when we treat the truth as an expendable option, or when we presume the truth is found wherever our hearts are tickled, then we might as well be crucifying the Truth. And that's been done before. For the story of our condition was summed up when the Truth was arrested by power, doubted by skeptics, beaten by the cruel, mocked by false teachers, abandoned by students, and yet still held all things together, and has since been brought to light and life again for good. And the Truth himself invites us to find our fire in him, and go forth as a people of truth again. True that. Amen.


1  Friedrich Melchior, Baron von Grimm, letter dated 15 September 1767, in Maurice Tourneux, ed., Correspondance Littéraire, Philosophique et Critique par Grimm, Diderot, Raynal, Meister, Etc. (Paris: Garnier Freres, 1879), 7:422-423, with English translation of the relevant passage in Abram Loft, Violin and Keyboard: The Duo Repertoire, vol. 1: From the Seventeenth Century to Mozart (Amadeus Press, 1991 [1973]), 208-209.

2  See, e.g., Loren Graham, Lysenko's Ghost: Epigenetics and Russia (Harvard University Press, 2016), 73-76.

3  William deJong-Lambert, The Cold War Politics of Genetic Research: An Introduction to the Lysenko Affair (Springer, 2012), 92.

4  Laurence Schneider, “Lysenkoism and the Suppression of Genetics in the PRC, 1949-1956,” in Thomas P. Bernstein and Hua-Yu Li, eds., China Learns from the Sovet Union, 1949-Present (Lexington Books, 2010), 331, 352.

5  See CCP summary report on food shortages, 25 April 1958, in Zhou Xen, ed., The Great Famine in China, 1958-1962: A Documentary History (Yale University Press, 2012), 15; and Felix Wemheuer, Famine Politics in Maoist China and the Soviet Union (Yale University Press, 2014), 118.

6  For the roles of Lysenkoism and provincial officials in this story, see Jasper Becker, Hungry Ghosts: Mao's Secret Famine (Henry Holt and Company, 1998), 64-74.

7  I owe some of the preceding to Bruce D. Marshall, Trinity and Truth (Cambridge University Press, 1999), 109-118.

8  Hypocrisy is linked to false witness, or taken as a form of false witness, in Didache 2.5-6 and 5.1, written in the first century.

9  William Barclay, New Testament Words (Westminster John Knox Press, 1974 [1964]), 140-143.

10  “The American Public Views the Spread of Misinformation as a Major Problem,” Associated Press—NORC Center for Public Affairs Research, October 2021, <>.

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