Is it good to tell the truth?

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Telling the truth is better than not telling the truth. Generally, at least.

 

The bible doesn’t teach us to tell the truth in some sort of abstract way. It tells us not to bear false witness. It tells us that if we keep Jesus’ word, we will be his disciples, and if we are his disciples, we will know the truth. It tells us to speak the truth in love. Each of these admonitions is more than an abstract form of objective reporting. Each is set in the context of personal relationships with others more than noetic relationships with objects.

 

Let’s try this statement: “The economy is in big trouble.” Is that the truth? Is it that which ought to be said? My answer to both is, “It depends on the context.” No, I’m not a relativist, if by “relativist” you mean there is no such thing as the way things are whether I like it or not, or that everything is really only a matter of personal opinion. The statement, “The economy is in big trouble” is falsifiable. If I say it, I can be wrong – or I can be right. But the ways in which I can be wrong are more various than the way I’d be wrong if someone countered, “The economy is not in big trouble.”

 

Most obviously, my statement would be true in some historical and cultural periods and not true in others. It is relative to a particular time – unless I were trying to make a universal claim that economies in general are in big trouble. But that’s not what I hypothetically said.

 

But who am I to make such a statement? If I say those words – and I’m a three year old – someone might think I’m cute, but no one will think I know what I’m talking about. If I’m a student – of anything other than economics – hearers may assume that my statement is based on my knowledge of my own economic state or the state of the people around me, or perhaps what I’ve read in the newspapers. If I’m the President, the Chair of the Federal Reserve, or the Secretary of the Treasury, people will give much more credence to my statement. They might even act on it.

 

What kinds of action might a person perform upon hearing someone say, “The economy is in big trouble?” If it’s a kid saying it, it probably won’t have much effect on action. If an authoritative person makes the claim actions might range from withdrawing from various forms of economic activity, engaging into other forms of economic activity, or perhaps even despair. These activities engagements or withdrawals might either make the economy better or worse. If my object in saying “The economy is in big trouble” is more than uttering the sentence, or reporting what I may take to be a fact, I would surely want to consider the effects of my statement. If I want to drive the economy down (perhaps I’m an enemy of the entity whose economy I’m describing, or I’m waging war on the people currently leading the economy), then I will count a worsening economy resulting from my statement to be a reason to make the statement. If, however, I want the economy to improve, I will count possible negative results as a reason not to make my statement.

 

We have more complexity as well. If I’m watching a basketball game and see Dirk Nowitski make a shot, I can say, “That was a good shot.” Now, I’m not much of a basketball fan, so no one will care very much for my opinion, but if I say of a missed shot, “That was a good shot,” I would think people might not know what I’m talking about. It wouldn’t take much in the way of expertise or reflection to make such a judgment

 

“The economy” is much more difficult to assess than a basketball shot. The statistics on which we base our assessment are always of the past and (from what I read) under continual re-assessment. The economy (on whichever level) has a trajectory – sometimes up, sometimes down. When I say something like, “The economy is in big trouble,” I might mean something like, “Given the most recent and widely encompassing data I’ve seen, the assessment of people’s intentions to act, and my theories of how all these data fit together, the economy is in big trouble.”

 

Our theories of assessment might differ as well. Some folks might think the economy is quite healthy because most people are experiencing an increasing standard of living. Others will see those same figures but look at the relative few who are not doing so well. Others may observe a situation in which everyone in the economy is prospering and growing in wealth, but judge that this is not an unmitigated good because true human flourishing requires trust in God, and they see the economic easy times leading people to independence from God.

 

I’m not an economist. I’m a pastor by trade. People never ask me, “How is the economy doing?” They do ask, “How is the church doing?” The way I answer that question mirrors the complexity of the similar question about the economy. My answer depends on two broad categories. First, it depends on my theories of ecclesial well-being and how the data those theories tell me are relevant are doing. Second, my answer depends on what effect I think my answer might have on the person asking.

 

When you ask an average American (in my experience, at least), “How are you doing?” the standard answer is, “Fine.” When you ask the average pastor, “How is your church doing?” it’s pretty common to hear the same kind of answer: “Fine.” We all know this is a polite yet mostly uninformative answer. Even so, it is often an adequate answer, given the purpose of the person inquiring.

 

When someone asks me, “How is the church doing?” I don’t worry much about accuracy. I’m much more concerned about the effect my answer will have on my hearer(s). I’d like my answer to elicit increased attachment to and connection with the purposes of God, particularly as expressed through the life of the church, and prayer for God’s purposes to be fulfilled. The first desire is most relevant for local participants, the second applicable to a much broader context. My purpose, therefore, is much larger than simply telling something one might identify as “the truth.”

 

Let’s try a particular answer I gave a person once. “We’re having some cash flow problems lately.” I could have said, “Our finances are in desperate straits since giving has dropped off.” But I didn’t think we were in desperate straits. Sure, someone else may have judged this to be the case, subjective as such an assessment it. But my answer of this sort includes my faith that God will see us through as we seek to live out his kingdom purposes. The statement about cash flow problems is truthful – and objective enough to communicate sufficient meaning. It can also elicit some actions. Some might decide to despair. “Oh, no! The church is really hurting now, just like I am. We will have to make some big cut backs.” Others might decide they need to give more, or to time their giving in a different way. Still others might hear it as a call to prayer. As the leader, my objective is to be a calm presence, demonstrating trust in God regardless of the circumstances, so I’m more likely to encourage the second and third responses.

 

Another kind of financial answer I’ve given when asked about the church is the equivalent of, “Fine.” But then I go and add comments about God’s blessing and generous people. Those additional comments set the context better than a simple “Fine.”

 

But church health measured in terms of finances almost entirely misses the point. The most important issues resist quantification: Are people becoming like Jesus? Are they growing in love toward God and neighbor? Are they being set free from sin and brokenness? Sometimes these kinds of events have quantifiable edges that show up in numbers in worship, or professing their faith in Christ. It’s often easier to talk about finances, however, not only because of their quantifiability, but because we tend to do better at them, even in hard times. Personally, I’d rather see people come to faith in Jesus than make the budget. When people ask, “How is the church doing?” I try to point to some of these other features. Sometimes I even turn the question around, “What do you see? How is your walk with Christ? In what ways are you influencing people toward Jesus?”

 

So – to cut to the chase: Is telling the truth a good thing? It depends on who you are, what you’re telling the truth about, whether the truth about the subject can be shared with some degree of clarity and accuracy and, finally, what you’re trying to accomplish.

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