To Tell the Truth
Acting Head of Staff
To Tell the Truth…
In 1992, the movie “A Few Good Men” was released, starring Jack Nicholson and Tom Cruise. The most memorable scene from the movie involves Lt Kaffee, played by Tom Cruise, cross-examining Colonel Jessup, played by Nicholson. At the penultimate moment in the exchange, Jessup asks, “You want answers?” to which Kaffee replies, “I want the truth!” with a quick and sharp “You can’t handle the truth!” from Jessup. (Here’s a YouTube video clip of the famous scene)
Truth. We, as a nation, claim to place a high value on truth. One of our founding documents opens with the line, “We hold these truths to be self-evident…”. In our courtrooms, people are asked to “tell the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth.” Likewise, in our church life, we value truth. We follow the one who proclaims to be “… the way, the truth, and the life.” One of the six great ends of the church in our Book of Order declares that it is our responsibility to preserve the truth.
On one level, we all believe in truth. I offer as my proof of this gravity. You wouldn’t get out of bed in the morning if you didn’t think the laws of gravity were true. You certainly wouldn’t drive a car if you didn’t think they were true. And for sure, you’re not going to jump into the air unless you believe the laws of gravity hold true. But, truth, in particular, the truth I want to talk about today, is far more nuanced and complicated than gravity is – I want to talk about the art of telling the truth about ourselves.
On the surface, as those in the reformed tradition, we claim to place a high value on telling the truth about ourselves. Our calls to confession ring out with lines like “If we say that we have no sin, we deceive ourselves, and the truth is not in us.” The prayer of confession has a central place in our orders of worship. We espouse, perhaps sheepishly, the doctrine of total depravity, which holds that sin has so shaped us that we cannot contribute to our own salvation. And the word sin appears no less than 719 times in our Book of Confessions. You would think that of all people, Presbyterians would be great at telling the truth about ourselves.
My family traveled to Washington, DC for a family vacation a few weeks ago. On the first day of our trip, we visited the Holocaust Museum. Opened in 1993, the Holocaust Museum “… inspires citizens and leaders worldwide to confront hatred, prevent genocide, and promote human dignity.” As I made my way through the exhibits, I was struck by the importance of telling the truth about what happened in Europe during the Holocaust. But more than just that, telling the truth about the many factors that contributed to the Holocaust occurring in the first place and the factors that permitted it to go on as long as it did. As I was wandering through, these words on a display jumped out at me:
“Even the Christian churches fell under Nazi influence, and many Protestant and Roman Catholic officials openly supported the regime. Only the dissident Protestant Confessing Church declared that unquestioning obedience to the state was not compatible with Christian faith.”
I would like to believe that had I been alive at that time, I would have stood with the Confessing Church movement in Germany and held firm against the rhetoric and pressure of the Nazi regime. And perhaps that would have been true. But if I’m honest – if I tell the truth – I must entertain the deeply uncomfortable idea that I might have fallen prey to the Nazi propaganda, just as so many of our siblings in Christ did at the time. Regardless of that which is theoretical, the more uncomfortable truth is this: I need to own that the history our church – the protestant church in the West – encompasses both the Confessing Churches and the “German Christians” who stood with Hitler and the Nazi party.
As I left the museum, a phrase reverberated in my head “To tell the truth…” As I pondered that phrase on my ride home on the metro, I reflected that telling the truth, in particular, telling the truth about ourselves, can be incredibly painful. Why is that? On one level, once we learn and acknowledge the truth, we can’t un-know what we know now, and there is a fear that more knowledge might force us to change in ways that we don’t want to. On another level, there is a natural human temptation to push away from any guilt we might feel. And on another, perhaps the deepest level, at our very core we simply do not want to see how our actions and complicity have hurt others. So where’s the upside? Why not just run away from the truth? Ignore it, pretend it doesn’t exist or isn’t relevant anymore. One word: trust.
Telling the truth, acknowledging what is real and what has happened, and how our actions have impacted others (regardless of our intent), helps us build trust. Communities where the truth can’t be told don’t learn to trust one another. And when there is no trust, there is no community (or at least a healthy community). In our relationships, friendships, churches, and the greater community, there will be a lack of trust if people don’t feel they can tell the truth, especially the unpleasant parts.
When I was in seminary, one of my professors commented that the period of silent confession in worship shouldn’t be let go on too long because “We can’t get to the bottom of our sin.” I’ve kept this in mind in my years of leading worship not only because it’s true, but also because it’s life-giving advice. The grace we find in Jesus Christ frees us and empowers us to tell the truth, hear the truth, and live the truth because he is the truth. God’s grace triumphs over even the deepest of our sin.
A few years ago, I felt compelled to reach out to a colleague, who, in hindsight, I hadn’t been the best colleague to. The conversation was everything you’d expect. Uncomfortable, awkward, and even a little painful. As I felt my face turn red as I talked and watched their facial expression shift, I felt pushed into that uncomfortable space known as the relational unknown. Even in the midst of sharing openly, there was this tiny voice in my head saying, “You idiot. You should have just let sleeping dogs lie! This could ruin everything!” Fortunately, my colleague was more than gracious and responded, “Thank you for saying that. It means a lot to me that you’re willing to be honest with me now.” I won’t lie, that word “now” at the end of the sentence stung a little, but it was the truth. Since then, my relationship with this colleague has only gotten stronger and the shared trust between us has grown. All it took, was a little self-truth telling and a whole lot of God’s grace.
So, tell the truth. Relying on God’s grace, tell the truth about our past, even the less-than-ideal parts, in order that God’s grace might shine through us as bonds of trust are formed and all of God’s people are strengthened for service and ministry.