It’s the old Bob Newhart show, (you know, the one where he plays a psychologist, not an innkeeper, and his wife is not a mellifluous blond but a throaty brunette), and Bob has just come home after suffering humiliation on a televised airing of his group therapy session.
Well, Emily, what did you think of the show?” he asks in that halting monotone that Newhart fans adore.
“Do you want me to answer honestly, or as a loving wife?” she replies.
“Uh, lie Emily,” he deadpans.
Hearing the truth can hurt. We admit it jestingly, but the old axiom has more meaning than most people want to know. When the truth hurts, one must choose either to endure pain or avoid truth—a distressing choice. The result? “The truth is heavy, therefore its bearers are few” (emphasis supplied).1
Few want to see themselves as truth-avoiders, yet often people let themselves believe that truth is only relative. Those people who believe truth is only relative can only be “relatively truthful.” Many would never steal, lie, or cheat, but being truthful is not merely saying or doing truth in a particular circumstance. Being truthful also involves what a person thinks and feels. Genuinely truthful people are planted in truth, standing on truth, growing in truth and truth is the fruit of their being. They have truth in their “inner parts” (Psalm 51:6). To remain truthful, they must continually measure not only their actions, but their attitudes against that standard.
When does truth hurt?
Truth confronts us with that which we do not want to know. For example: “It’s true that someday we will die.” Most people accept that on a superficial level, nevertheless they haven’t really embraced the truth of that fact. Those who really believe it deep down have found their own mortality a painful truth to endure. Thoughts of the mortality of loved ones can be even more painful.
Truth also hurts when it requires us to stop doing what we want to do, or requires us to start doing what we don’t want to do. It cuts through excuses and requires us either to do what is right…or sacrifice our view of ourselves as people who do what they know they should. Some avoid that choice by blurring the line between what is true and what isn’t. Our world has become so full of blurry lines that many people don’t realize that reality is not actually ambiguous by nature.
Truth is painful when it focuses on our own responsibilities and shortcomings instead of allowing us to focus on everyone else’s. It emphasizes our own need to change and grow. In the midst of conflict, we like to believe that we are right, that we are innocent—and that our suffering is the result of someone else’s insensitivity or guilt. But truth causes us to see ourselves as naked and as helpless as we are. All of us are sometimes wrong, sometimes guilty and sometimes we use our emotions, words, and even our actions to manipulate or hurt others. It is painful to see ourselves as we are—so much so that some people never do.
It doesn’t hurt if you don’t believe it
Many people regard truth as something which only exists in relation to their consciousness, their conscience or their convenience. They operate on the premise that truth cannot be known, so all one can say without risking arrogance is “I believe.” The universe does contain more truths than we can know. The fact that we cannot know everything does not mean we cannot know anything. Yet it remains a popular notion that “nothing is real but what is felt or believed”2 and that “reality will always remain unknowable.”3
What is truth, if not the ground of reality? Is reality merely a reflection of our feelings and beliefs, or is it simply beyond our grasp? Many think it is one or the other; truth is a notion or it is unknowable. Others believe truth is concrete or tangible. Though people will readily agree to such notions when it comes to philosophy or theology, few see “tangible” reality as being so whispy and elusive.
For example, a true diamond is a real diamond. Some counterfeits are very beautiful, but that does not make them true diamonds. Say for argument’s sake that John buys a diamond ring, unaware that it is counterfeit. Believing it to be a real diamond, he gives it to Mary, his fiancee. Most people would agree that neither John’s lack of awareness nor his clear conscience make the ring a true diamond. The engagement would be real but the diamond would not. (However, if Mary’s consent were based on the diamond being real, they have both been defrauded!)
Now let’s switch to the intangible. After discovering the truth about the ring, it seems to John that Mary will be very upset if she finds her ring is counterfeit. It seems that way to John. If he tells Mary and she is very upset, then his (intangible) perception was true. If not, then he had perceived something other than the real Mary.
Sometimes we perceive what is true and sometimes we don’t, both on a tangible and intangible level. Our perceptions are relative to many things, including how much we avail ourselves of information at hand, and how disciplined we are at looking past our own fears, desires, insecurities and conceits. But those factors do not affect the truth. Saying that truth is relative is like saying that reality sometimes exists; that there is no continuity and every thing or every event is disconnected from everything else.
Yet when truth is painful, or requires something a person does not want to give or do, they often act as though it is somehow negotiable, or worse, non-existent. We are daily bombarded with media and much of what we see and hear does not show the need to make sacrifices for the sake of truth. We rarely hear Jewish axioms like, “Endure the truth, though it be bitter”4 Our consumer society preaches a louder, much more agreeable message: “Enjoy as much pleasure and avoid as much pain as possible.” Whereas few would admit to embracing such standards, many make choices as though they do, especially as regards the pain aspect. But unfortunately, in order to block, dull or control pain, people must inhibit their ability to perceive truth.
Though most people avoid truth at times, few see avoidance of truth as lying to themselves. We learn to tame our lies so we can live with them. To tame a lie requires that deep down, we must recognize that we have “winked” at the truth. Yet we do choose to perceive things in a certain way that may seem necessary for the happiness of all concerned. Some people try to tame lies by diluting the truth. But as the Jewish saying goes: “Half the truth is still a whole lie.”
From where do these little lies come? Trying to linger when we need to advance causes friction. Enough friction causes fire. Lies are shackles forged in that fire of unwillingness to move ahead. Our unwillingness may be rooted in fear of encountering a painful truth. It may be fear of having to let go of something we feel we need. Our little lies hold us in place, allowing us to believe that we cannot or should not let ourselves believe or do that which might become painful. They allow us to think “Whether or not it’s true I (do or don’t) have to believe it and that’s what matters.”
Few people would actually maintain a belief that there is no absolute truth if that idea was pushed to the logical limit. The truth that some things are moral and others not zooms into focus when we hear about children being raped, mass murders and the resurgence of cannibalism. Few could say, “Well, personally, those things offend me, but that doesn’t make it wrong…” For those who do push relativity that far, life becomes absurd. Humanity becomes reduced to a nightmarish joke, in which we do and believe whatever we are conditioned to do and believe. It is a life with no dignity and almost no meaning.
Most take the idea that truth is relative just far enough to “preserve peace,” applying it in those areas where disagreement is likely. Some people think that not telling an uncomfortable truth is tact or diplomacy. But if our tact or diplomacy causes another to stumble it’s wrong. People avoid disagreement for fear that others will think them disrespectful and intolerant, and they would much rather be seen as peacemakers. But can watering down the truth really bring peace? Consider the saying, “Truth and peace shall be associated together.”5
The Hebrew concept of peace, shalom, is much more than the absence of conflict. It has to do with the presence of well being. It has to do with health and wholeness. We can’t be whole when the truth is missing. Without truth, we cannot have shalom; we can only have an uneasy truce, an artificial peace with ourselves and with others. Many settle for that artificial peace because they do not want to go where they fear the truth might take them.
Yet avoiding truth eventually hurts more than believing and acting upon it. The need to escape from or at least control pain can loom so large that people become addicted to substances, behaviors or perceptions that seem to provide that escape or control. Abuse of food, alcohol, drugs, sex or the fostering of various delusions—all these are defenses (conscious or unconscious) which people use to control their pain. Unfortunately, anesthetics for pain dull the individual to what is real.
Getting away from pain sometimes involves getting away from truth. It could eventually lead to getting away from everything that can give life meaning and hope. Avoiding truth is destructive. It breaks down our ability to cope with life. Despair is the inevitable result.
Truth is instructive. It opens us up not only to painful realities, but also shows how to change pain to joy and opens us to wondrously beautiful realities.
Old phrases and trite expressions often contain traces of wisdom commonly overlooked. When a person doesn’t know the truth about something, they are said to be “in the dark” about it. When they finally discover the truth, it’s as though “a light went on.” These figures of speech have their basis in reality. Non-truth is darkness. Truth is light.
Who turned on the light?
There are certain thoughts that each of us would rather not expose to light. And a bit of darkness, like candlelight, makes everything appear softer, more flattering. It is easy to prefer darkness to light.
In the cinema, lights come on softly and gently when the film is over. But have you ever sat in a darkened room watching slides or home movies—and when they’re over, someone suddenly flicks on the light? The natural impulse is to be irritated with the person who flicked the switch. It helps if a person gives a bit of warning. In that way, those with sensitive eyes might squint or partially cover their eyes for a moment to prepare for the light.
The same is true with our spiritual eyes. God, the source of all spiritual illumination, has called out to us again and again to prepare for the moment when he would flick the light switch. The Hebrew Scriptures are replete with his announcements, from the book of Genesis through the Prophets. Then, a silence of several hundred years followed in which we have no record of a prophetic voice.
Finally, the announcement came again, through a Jewish man named Johanan, who made a career of announcing that God was about to turn on the light. (He is commonly known as “John the Baptist.”) John urged people to turn from darkness, to “repent for the kingdom of God is at hand.” Many listened and responded, as was the tradition, through the ceremony of mikvah.6
Those who heeded his announcement admitted they were in darkness, and turned from their wrong attitudes and actions in preparation for the light. And the light that Johanan announced was Yeshua, Jesus.
Jesus came, and still many were not prepared to receive his light. The darkness seemed to offer protection from the painful truth of their spiritual condition. But that “protection” was a prison of sorts. Like a suit of armor that couldn’t be removed, it encased people in self-righteousness. That armor prevented them from being washed and clothed in God’s righteousness.
Yeshua made a brilliant statement and a profound promise when he said, “You shall know the truth and the truth shall set you free” (John 8:32). When he spoke of the truth that liberates, he was not merely talking about the absence of falsehood. Like shalom, which is more than the absence of conflict, truth is more than the absence of lies and counterfeits. Jesus, in talking about truth, said of himself: “I am the way, the truth and the life…”7
Are you willing to consider the truth of Yeshua? The sages remind us, “Know the truth and you will know its Master.”8
- Uceda, Samuel, 1579 Midrash Samuel, S. Buber, ed (1892) 1925.
- Mendelsohn, Felix, letter to Pastor Bauer, 1833.
- Freud, Sigmund Outline of Psychoanalysis, 1949, p. 106.
- Ibn Gabirol, Solomon, Mibhar HaPeninim, c. 1050 # 135 B.H. Ascher, tr. London, 1859.
- Apocrypha, Enoch 11:2
- immersion in water.
- The Gospel according to John, 14:6
- Falaquera, Shem Tob, Iggeret Ha Vikuah, 13C.