Let’s face it: we have a truth problem. I don’t wish to rain on the parade of our collective optimism about the future and its promised progress (okay, maybe I do), but I think that our society has a major issue with both hearing and proclaiming what is true. As a result, our priorities are askew, our divisions deepen, and instead of trying to hash out solutions, we are caught in a wilderness filled with mirages that leave us thirsty.
Drug commercials quickly come to mind as an easy illustration. Consider the following:
The fields are rich for harvest! First of all, while I am sure that the drug is very helpful for people with heart failure, I highly doubt that it leaves people singing the theme song to Annie. Personally, I take two maintenance medications that help me with issues prevalent in my family that could lead to diabetes and heart issues. I am thankful for the drugs, and in combination with exercise and a general regiment of taking care of myself, they are effective. That said, not once in my history with those drugs have they ever led me to burst out into song.
While you might think I am nitpicking, I think there is a valid critique here. In the end, what should be employed to help people with a terrible condition is now being sold to us as not simply necessary, but a source for existential fulfillment, joy and happiness. There is a hidden evil here. Those with heart failure, already in the throes of angst, are being emotionally manipulated to place their highest hope and source of joy in a drug, that while good, can only stave off the inevitable. The highest truths of human life — that we are mortal, that while we hope and work towards some semblance of health, there are limitations to our ministrations — are eclipsed by the barker’s call.
Dig a little deeper, and we find that even simpler truths are obscured by this form of communication. If you look around the 35 second time mark, a little caption pops up that reads, “Angioedema is swelling of your face, lips, tongue, and throat that may cause trouble breathing and death.” This caption is used as the narrator recites angioedema as a condition in relation to other medicines and treatments that might preclude you taking the drug, but then quickly switches to the statement that angioedema is a possible side-effect of taking the drug, among other possible conditions.
Think about what is going on here. The observer is being asked to play doctor and assess possible conditions and run a risk-benefit analysis of the drug, while a very serious side-effect of the drug is at first tied to other types of drugs, not the one in question. This is life and death stuff, and all the while, pictures of happy families and grandmas teaching their grandchildren to play pianos are carted out to encourage the viewer to consider whether they are willing to take on those risks for the sake of being there for those they love. In essence, every attempt is being made to highlight benefits and minimize risks. It is a false form of confronting existential truths of our own mortality that leaves the patient with only one real option: take the drug!
I could enter into evidence many other examples, but I think the point is clear: we have a truth problem. We don’t want to hear truth. We want to hear “truths” that fall easily on our ears. We want to hear things that maximize happiness and avoid suffering. As a result, we often discard wisdom born of actual experience for the sake of temporary or quick fixes.
Just in case you think that I am being unfair, I level this same critique at the majority expression of the Christian faith in the industrialized world: the prosperity gospel, in all its myriad forms. From Joel Osteen and Kenneth Copeland to Benny Hinn and TD Jakes, the prosperity gospel obscures the truth that we are dependent upon God in all things for the sake of another gospel that preaches positive thinking and financial investment in their ministries so as to force God to bestow health, wealth and wisdom upon us. At its core, the prosperity gospel turns its face away from the face of a suffering savior enthroned on a cross towards a vision of glory that is luxuriously cheap and self-aggrandizing.
At their heart, phenomena like slick advertising and prosperity preachers are extremely dangerous not just because they tell us what we want to hear and deliver a false sense of security. No, they are dangerous because they deceive us, they cut us off from the ways we actually come to know what is true, and that upon which we can depend. They are waterless clouds… (2 Peter 2:17)
The serious, life and death truths we need to hear come from one source, and that is truth’s author and the very source of our being: God. God has always, is and will forever communicate the truths we need to hear through direct relationship, not obfuscation, wish fulfillment and denial. At the heart of who God is as Father, Son and Holy Spirit, there is fellowship, communion and relationship (perichoresis). Therefore, the essential truths of who God is and how we know God is founded upon relationship, upon God present to us in history, living and active as God’s life becomes entwined in our own. The truths we need to hear, our knowledge of God, begins with wisdom born of awe (fear, but not in a cowering sense). (Proverbs 9:10) Awe is always a matter of encounter.
Consider Deuteronomy 4:32-40:
32 For ask now about former ages, long before your own, ever since the day that God created human beings on the earth; ask from one end of heaven to the other: has anything so great as this ever happened or has its like ever been heard of? 33 Has any people ever heard the voice of a god speaking out of a fire, as you have heard, and lived? 34 Or has any god ever attempted to go and take a nation for himself from the midst of another nation, by trials, by signs and wonders, by war, by a mighty hand and an outstretched arm, and by terrifying displays of power, as the Lord your God did for you in Egypt before your very eyes? 35 To you it was shown so that you would acknowledge that the Lord is God; there is no other besides him. 36 From heaven he made you hear his voice to discipline you. On earth he showed you his great fire, while you heard his words coming out of the fire. 37 And because he loved your ancestors, he chose their descendants after them. He brought you out of Egypt with his own presence, by his great power, 38 driving out before you nations greater and mightier than yourselves, to bring you in, giving you their land for a possession, as it is still today. 39 So acknowledge today and take to heart that the Lord is God in heaven above and on the earth beneath; there is no other. 40 Keep his statutes and his commandments, which I am commanding you today for your own well-being and that of your descendants after you, so that you may long remain in the land that the Lord your God is giving you for all time.
Here, as Moses once more lays out God covenant commands, the foundations for that covenant are not sealed in self-evident principles, bedrock, timeless truths, or future payoffs (though of course, there is always the promise of God being faithful and fulfilling the conditions of the covenant). There is no catchy tune from Annie promising the sun will come out tomorrow if only we’ll believe hard enough. No, instead, Moses speaks with authority and establishes the truth present in God’s covenant with the people by having them ask themselves, “what have we already seen?” In other words, Moses has the people remember their numerous encounters with the steadfast faithfulness of God.
The people are in a relationship with a Lord God unlike any other, a Lord who has promised, already delivered, and will continue to guide. In short, the truth of the promises of God are built upon an already established relationship of trust, for God alone has done for the people great and wonderful things. To say it another way, God’s eternal appeal, the truth upon which our faith is founded, is a simple declaration by God that “we have a history together.”
Ask all the questions you like, wrestle with whatever theological formulation that troubles you, argue for whatever model of divine action you think is established by the witness of Scripture, the ONE THING none of us can escape is that faith must be built upon a personal relationship with God who has, at all points, already been in relationship with us. Faith in God begins with an encounter with the One who invites us into a community of memory, fellowship and love. Faith, at its heart, is triune as God is Trinity. Faith is the eternal interplay between who God is, our deepest need, and God’s faithful and mighty acts as we have known them. As a result, faith begins with personal relationship, with God for us in history. God for us is the promise of God with us, never far or abstracted from us.
We see this same logic at work in Jesus’ final appearance to his disciples in the Gospel of Matthew, chapter 28, verses 16-20:
16 Now the eleven disciples went to Galilee, to the mountain to which Jesus had directed them. 17 When they saw him, they worshiped him; but some doubted. 18 And Jesus came and said to them, “All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. 19 Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, 20 and teaching them to obey everything that I have commanded you. And remember, I am with you always, to the end of the age.”
In this final appearance, the eleven remaining disciples gather and worship him in his resurrected glory. Interestingly, Matthew notes that though they worshiped, “some doubted.” They acknowledge the miraculous thing that has happened in his resurrection, but they are also Jews, and they know they bend the knee to no other god, much less worship anyone other than Yahweh alone. They may have been ignorant fisherman and day laborers for the most part, but they would have been raised on the “Shema” of Deuteronomy 6:4 from the earliest days of their youth: “Hear, O Israel: The Lord is our God, the Lord alone.”
Who is he, they wonder? We know him to be the Messiah, the risen one. We know God has acted in a new and mighty way. Yet, is God Almighty present here in this place and in the very face of our master Jesus? Can we, ought we bend the knee? Moses appealed to God’s history with the people to make the case to a hard-hearted people. The disciples are now confronted with God’s new push into history, God’s new creation that enlightens, enlivens and fulfills all God has done in the past. In the presence of the risen Christ, the disciples are being asked, like Israel was on the outskirts of the Promised Land, to remember what God has done (resurrection), to see what God is doing (his glory and authority), and to act in his name (his commands). Like Israel often did, the disciples struggle to grasp what is true despite all that they have seen.
And so, Jesus does for the disciples what Moses did for the people. Deuteronomy 4:35 says, “To you it was shown so that you would acknowledge that the Lord is God.” Moses points to the past, to God’s history to the people and the relational bonds those mighty acts reinforce in their hearts and minds. In Jesus’ case, he points to himself. “All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me,” he tells them in verse 18. There is no abstraction, no obfuscation, no qualification, and no appeal to their self-interest in the form of benefits that may accrue to them if they do as he commands.
No, he simply has them look at him, to look at the scars he bore in his body for their sake, healed and transformed in resurrection power present now in his very person. The truth of who he is is made known to them by his presence, his direct relationship with them. Here the “Shema” is not spoken by the voice of an intermediary, it is spoken by the Lord alone standing before them and inviting (commanding) them to become a community that will draw the world into its witness.
More than this, they are also given a promise. This promise isn’t of a land or particular inheritance. It doesn’t give them the false hope of better living through chemistry or health, wealth and wisdom if only they will believe. Jesus’ promise to them is his ongoing presence, his personal relationship with them, even unto the end of the age. (v. 20) The disciples, no matter their trial, insecurity or uncertainty, will live in relationship with him in all circumstances. That relationship, that history, that lived presence will see them through until the end.
As God did with Israel, God continues to do for us. In Jesus Christ, God declares for all eternity that God has a history with us. That history is an abiding truth we can always “take to the bank.” As I look over my own life and God’s steady and abiding presence, despite my resistance, I must acknowledge the most important truth there is: God has, is and will always have a history with me. True dat…