Black or white. Yes or no. Right or wrong. True or false.
I’ve had friends ask my opinion on something, only to be frustrated with my answer, which often begins with, “Well, that depends…” What they want is a clear opinion that comes down definitively on one side of an issue. They don’t want both sides.
I get it. Life could be so much simpler if all of our choices were between two clearly opposing options. But it’s seldom that simple.
“What is truth?” Pilate asked Jesus (John 18:38). He wasn’t engaging Jesus in a philosophical discussion. The question is rhetorical, the cynical statement of a weary man who knows he must do whatever is politically expedient, regardless of what he believes.
But the question continues to plague philosophers. In some ways, it would be nice if life followed the dictates of formal logic. Some of the principles seem painfully obvious. There’s the so-called Law of Non-Contradiction: a statement cannot be both true and false at the same time. And the Law of the Excluded Middle: every statement must be either true or false.
Come on, one might think, you don’t have to take a philosophy class to know that. But then some clever person comes up with a counterexample. What about the statement, “This statement is false”? Is it true or false?
Ah, philosophy. Back to the drawing board for those who need a black-and-white universe.
Here’s a biblical alternative, an answer to Pilate’s question. “Truth” is not merely a philosophical abstraction or a property of statements. People can be “true” and so can their actions, when their lives demonstrate the reality of who God is and what God is doing in the world.
In the previous post, we saw one of John’s primary metaphors for the story of the gospel. The True Light comes into a world darkened by sin and evil, and tragically, the Light is rejected, because people prefer the darkness.
Then, by contrast, John gives us this somewhat mysterious sentence: “But those who do what is true come to the light, so that it may be clearly seen that their deeds have been done in God” (John 3:21, NRSV). People who do evil love the darkness and hate the light, John says; they refuse to come into the light, lest their deeds be exposed (vss. 19-20). We might expect that John would then say, “But those who do good…” But he doesn’t: he speaks instead of doing the truth. Not “doing good” or “believing the truth” — but “doing the truth.”
“Truth”: it’s an important word in John, appearing many more times than in all the other three gospels combined. When Jesus says that he is “the way, the truth, and the life” (John 14:6), he is not merely claiming to make factual statements. He is claiming to live a life that itself discloses God.
Darkness hides; light reveals and discloses. Those who do the truth have nothing to hide. Indeed, quite the opposite: their lives serve to reveal a God who is at work in and through them. The challenge of the Christian life is not to collect true statements, as useful as this might be. Nor is it merely to believe with our minds what we say is true. It is to live the truth, to do it. What we do, we do in God, thereby revealing God in what we do.