Being true

Being of sound mind, I believe everything my wife tells me.

Not because I agree with everything she says, but because I know that she would not intentionally deceive me. (Unless she were trying to surprise me somehow. She can be appropriately devious if it’s for a good cause.) She may on occasion say something that is not factually true. But I can trust her to be true.

As I suggested in an earlier post, we often take the adjective “true” as a property of statements in a black-and-white, either-or world. There is true and there is false, and there is nothing in between.

But we also use the word “true” to describe people. It’s a little complicated: to say that a person is true is not quite the same as saying that the person is truthful. (And neither of those is the same as claiming that a person always makes factual statements.) I can easily imagine, for example, someone who could be relied upon to say only what they believe to be true. But that’s no guarantee that they’ll be “true” to you, in the sense of the friend or spouse whose truthfulness is grounded in love and loyalty.

That’s why I don’t quite care for the NIV’s translation of John 3:33: “Whoever has accepted it (i.e., the testimony of Jesus) has certified that God is truthful.” John has observed that many have rejected Jesus’ testimony. But what of those who didn’t? What is it that they are “certifying,” as if willing to stake their life and reputation on it?

Is it that God, through Jesus, has uttered factually true statements? That he has accurately described the plan and purposes of God? Well, yes, at least that.

Is it that God has no intention to deceive? Yes, that too.

But is it not also a statement of the character of God, a God who loves the world (John 3:16) and is true to his covenant promises?

Thus, I prefer the NRSV’s translation: “God is true.” In 1 John 4:8, the apostle teaches that God is not just loving, but love itself: everything that we know of love is but a distant derivative of the divine original. Something similar could be said of truth. It’s not merely a property of language or logic. What we know of truth derives from the God who is true to his own character: a God who is utterly trustworthy and, yes, truthful.

Certifiably so.