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How would Jesus tell the truth?
How does telling the truth create safety? How does telling the truth create a home?
Most of the time, it seems like we are not so good at telling the truth. We are afraid of articulating how we feel. We think expressing our emotions will cause more trouble than they are worth and than we are worth. That might have been your whole Thanksgiving experience—stay quiet, don’t cause too much trouble, just get through the holiday. I think some people live their whole life like they are avoiding causing too much trouble at the Thanksgiving table.
But when we don’t tell the truth, when we don’t have the necessary conflicts in our lives, when we avoid being who we are in Jesus, we don’t create safety, we create the opposite. An environment of cowardice; Christians need to be the truth-tellers that create the safe places. Conflict avoidance may feel safe, but it just makes us singular, secluded, away from the body.
We numb our feelings so that not telling the truth isn’t so grating. We do that in many ways: we drink, use drugs, have sex, fill our time up with relationships, flee our commitments, have affairs, we go shopping on Black Friday, or just avoid intimacy in our studio apartments or by ourselves in our rooms.
That kind of interior suffocation damages our souls, too. It damages our bodies. It damages the home inside of us that we have made for the Spirit of God. Not telling the truth hurts the external and internal home of God.
People who are committed to telling the truth, to creating safety, surround us. This week was a week where many people were committed to telling the truth.
When we clear out the untruth of the world, we create a space for Jesus to reside. People see him more clearly when Christians, of all people, are telling the truth. We are used to the fog and the skunky smell, but when we clear it out, I think we see Jesus more clearly.
But it is so easy to deliver that truth in a way that assures us that it be heard. We preach to the choir. When we are impassioned, we can be vitriolic, stereotypical, divisive. I think being empathic is one thing, but I think the question leaders need to ask is how will my listeners believe this?
I think Jesus shows us how. In John 3 and 4 Jesus is interviewing two people that are trying to follow him. Two people coming to him that are basically polar opposites.
The first is the interaction he has with Nicodemus—He is a Pharisee, an expert in the law who religiously follows it. He is on the ruling council known as the Sanhedrin. He is an elite person and he is wondering about Jesus and the truth that is coming from.
He shows up at night. And he knows Jesus is of God because his signs are irrefutable. He can clearly see who Jesus is.
Jesus challenges him though and he coins the ever-popular phrase: born again. Jesus tells Nicodemus that though he may see him as a teacher, he can only truly see him if he is born again.
In the next part of the passage, Nicodemus asks him how to be born again. Many of us assume that he is talking about physical limitations, that he doesn’t get the metaphor. But I don’t think Nicodemus is so simple-minded. Jews of his stature and education understand what an analogy is. In fact, it is because of his high education and his prestige that he can’t consider being born again. He would have to forfeit so much of what he has. How could he do it? How can he start over?
Jesus needs us to start over sometimes, especially when we are creating room for him. He speaks plainly with Nicodemus—He needs to drench himself in a new truth. And he knows better.
At the end of the interaction, Jesus gives him the fundamental truth plainly. Jesus came into the world to be the light. To cast away darkness. To speak the truth, to cast away lies. And our belief in him and our actions through him cast away darkness too. Jesus tells Nicodemus “Whoever lives by the truth comes into the light, so that it may be seen plainly that what they have has been done in the sight of God.”
The truth is what sets Nicodemus free. He doesn’t need to hide anymore. He doesn’t need to come at night to see Jesus. He can be a light that casts away darkness. That light dwells in him now.
Look at the difference in chapter four. Totally different scene. First, it isn’t the woman at the well that approaches Jesus, but rather Jesus that approaches her. It’s in broad daylight—high noon, even.
He’s not talking to a high level Jew here, but a lowly Samaritan woman. She’s single, she’s a woman, and she’s a foreigner—three no-nos. Jesus doesn’t mind. He keeps talking to her. He asks her to help him—he needs a drink.
It’s totally taboo for this interaction to happen and she tells him that. She knows that Jews and Samaritans don’t interact (despite the marginal differences they exhibit). She says she can’t do it. Jesus tells her that if she knew the truth, she’d ask him for a drink because he can give us a drink that never ends.
She wonders about it and gets it. She understands he is saying something relevant for her soul. Just like Nicodemus, she isn’t a fool, she understands the subtext. So she asks for this eternally quenching water.
Jesus pierces her with more truth. He asks her to fetch her husband, knowing she doesn’t have one. In fact she has had five husbands. He is not doing this to convict her of a sin. In fact, John gives us no evidence that she was indeed a sinner at all. It is perfectly reasonable to think that her husbands suffered a terminal illness and she kept marrying their brothers or the next appropriate family member. I don’t see a broken sinner here, necessarily, but someone who needs hope, needs the truth. Jesus gives her that. She calls him a prophet. And perhaps more directly than anything else he tells her he is the Messiah that she’s been waiting for.
What do we learn about telling the truth from how Jesus interacts with these people?
Tell the truth differently.
Nicodemus needs to let go of his control of everything and move with the wind of the Spirit. The Samaritan woman needs to find grounding in the truth Jesus is giving her. It’s the same truth for both people, but it’s shown differently and Jesus addresses them much differently. He’s not particularly “easy” on either of them, he just approaches them differently.
That kind of nuanced difference is important when we are speaking the truth. Just because you have the truth on your side doesn’t give you permission to speak it however you want, honestly. It all starts with having a relationship. Even if you are totally right, a truth that goes unheard might as well be a lie.
Know who you are talking to and approach them graciously.
Lead with love.
The truth may be with you, but start by leading with love. Don’t judge them. Jesus doesn’t judge Nicodemus for coming to him deceptively, or for his alternative lifestyle. He is gentle, and he listens to him. Same with the Samaritan woman who has been pegged as a prostitute since forever it seems. He is loving, and I think he establishes some trust before he shares his idea.
I think we need to marry truth and love when we are creating safe places. So often the reason we withdraw from telling the truth is because we never learned to do it gently. I’m not saying that hearing the truth when we don’t want to will ever feel good, but we can do some preventative things to ensure that it isn’t hostile.
Jesus speaks the truth to both of these people, but he does so with understanding. He tries to unpack difficult ideas for them. He is patient with them. He wants them to understand what he means. He doesn’t just want to make a point.
I’ve spent the last few days reading pretty angry posts about the mess in Ferguson. There is a lot to be said about it. I think that outrage and horror is appropriate. But I think if we are following Jesus’ example, we need to be committed to telling the truth, having a conflict, but not doing it in any way.
Telling the truth implies you have a listener. So if our goal is to create a safe environment for God to dwell, and this season we are awaiting for him to come to us again, we need to tell the truth well. If we don’t, I’m afraid we won’t be heard, and it’ll be just like talking to ourselves.