Handling the Truth – “You can’t handle the truth!”


“You can’t handle the truth!” I watched Jack Nicholson’s face bulge in the trailer to A Few Good Men as he yelled that iconic line. I’ve never seen the movie, but I got the point. The truth is complex. Nuanced. Potentially too dangerous for the Tom-Cruise-character person asking to know it.

His isn’t an isolated opinion. I suspect that’s part of what’s behind a lot of the assumptions today that there is no truth. In reality, seeking truth, and finding it, could be scary. It could change us. It could demand things. And we could find out after all that we were wrong anyway in believing it.

If it’s really as nuanced as we suspect, it might be better to just let it lie and assume it’s nuanced enough that we can get by with whatever we cobble together.

Truth is tricky. Lack of truth is trickier. One subject that divides moderns and postmoderns quickly, however, is the discussion of truth. For a few weeks, we’re going to talk about truth—what it is, what it isn’t, how we can or cannot find it, why the generations can’t agree on it, and why we must.

The first question the Boomer generation asks is—What is the truth? How do we prove it?

The first question the Millennial generation asks is—Supposing truth exists, why does it matter?

If the church is trying to “prove” truth to a Millennial, it’s answering the wrong primary question. Piling all the Evidence that Demands a Verdict books in the world into their fair trade backpacks isn’t going to touch that primary need. We need to take a step back. Before the ‘what’—what is the ‘why’? If Christianity is the truth, why does it matter to my life?

Truth Sets Us Free

Jesus said to the people who believed in him, “You are truly my disciples if you remain faithful to my teachings. And you will know the truth, and the truth will set you free.”
“But we are descendants of Abraham,” they said. “We have never been slaves to anyone. What do you mean, ‘You will be set free’?”
Jesus replied, “I tell you the truth, everyone who sins is a slave of sin. A slave is not a permanent member of the family, but a son is part of the family forever. So if the Son sets you free, you are truly free.” -John 8.31-36

It’s not the expectation of most these days that Christianity sets people free. The majority of onlookers would accuse it of restricting freedom with all its rules and regulations. Religion isn’t freeing—it’s smothering.

They have a point. When the truth is handled wrongly, it does smother. Paul warned Timothy he’d be ashamed before God if he could not “correctly explain (handle) the word of truth.” (2 Timothy 2.15). Can we teachers handle the truth? Sometimes not, when we consider all the ways we have used it to hurt people rather than love them. The next generation has been watching this drama. It should not be surprising that they do not trust our truth.

Yet Jesus says that the truth will set us free, and if his servants don’t always handle it correctly, that does not mean Jesus’ words are nullified.

When I was a child, my two cousins, my sister, and I decided to get ourselves into trouble. Kids do this at times, I hear. Especially kids who don’t have the benefit of a Christian upbringing. We went to a drug store, stuffed some candy bars into our pockets, and left. At least, the three of them did. I had no pockets, so I did no stuffing. Not ten feet out the door, security came and hauled our bums back in, gave us a scare, and had our parents pick us up. Everyone was in big trouble except — me. No goods were found on me; I had done nothing wrong. Technically.

But the guilt of fully intending wrong and participating dug at me and would not let me go. I had no freedom to enjoy the afternoon. I was miserable, though unpunished. Only a full confession to my mom brought the freedom my soul needed that afternoon.

Truth is freeing. There is no freedom when we are living in lies, or living a lie with our lives. Even those who say they don’t believe in truth have to admit—there are parts of their hearts they don’t love, aspects of their lives that don’t pass the test of looking oneself in the eye in the mirror. We all want freedom.

There is tension in the lines of our lives, like there was tension in the line between me and my parents, until our lives are true. Jesus asserts that our lives are not ever going to be true until we come to him for forgiveness and power to live in the rightness that we know.

When we live lives that are lies—lives that are not true to our created purpose—there is tension. We have no freedom. We know this, we feel it, even as we argue that there is no truth.

Far from being restricting, truth is a gift from God. It frees us to know exactly what we need to live true lives, not to have to guess, to communicate without tension with the Creator of our souls.

  • If the truth of God says don’t lie—we are free to live in authenticity and real relationship with others when we submit.
  • If the truth of God says don’t gossip—we are free to love others well and not worry if anything we said will be overheard and misunderstood.
  • If the truth of God says don’t covet or envy—we are free to be thankful for what we have, not worrying about what we haven’t and being truly happy for others’ good fortune.

That’s hardly restricting.

The ‘why’ of truth — the answer of freedom — needs to be brought forward in our conversations about truth with the next generation. The ‘what’ matters—but it is not the motivating question of the age.

And that is just the first answer to why. More to come.

Photo © Columbia Pictures Corporation

Jill Richardson
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