What is Truth?

What is Truth?

What is Truth?
By Atty. Mikhail Lee L. Maxino, Dean, College of Law

(Message delivered during Youth Sunday Worship on September 20, 2015 at the Silliman University Church.)

Two men had an argument. They went to a judge for arbitration. The plaintiff argued very eloquently and persuasively. The judge nodded in approval and said, “That’s right, that’s right.” The defendant said, “Wait a second judge, you haven’t even heard my side of the case yet.” The defendant, too, was very persuasive and eloquent. The judge said, “That’s right, that’s right.” When the clerk of court heard this, he jumped up and said, “Judge, they both can’t be right.” The judge looked at the clerk of court and said, “That’s right, that’s right.”

It is jokingly said that for every case in court, there are four truths – the truth according to the plaintiff; the truth according to the defendant; the truth according to the judge; and the real truth.

What is truth? Pilate asked Jesus this age-old question. To this day, we still seem confused. We think that there is no universal truth, no universal good or universal evil. There is only good for you, bad for me and bad for you, good for me. Truth is what you or I believe to be so.

On July 1, 2008, Rene Marie, a well-known jazz singer, was asked to sing in public the American National Anthem.  She sang to the tune of “The Star-Spangled Banner” but the words she sang were written by James Weldon Johnson in 1899, contained in another song titled “Lift Every Voice and Sing,” also known as The Black National Anthem.

Many people denounced her, saying that the National Anthem was sacred.  President Obama said, “If she was asked to sing the national anthem, she should have sung that.” The President further said “‘Lift Every Voice and Sing’ is a beautiful song, but we only have one national anthem.”

Rene Marie responded by saying, “I’ve had so many e-mails. Some of the e-mails saying that ‘The Star Spangled Banner’ is sacred. Oh, really. Maybe it’s sacred to you. That’s fine, that’s cool. But it’s not sacred to me. The guy, the dude who wrote it, he was a slave owner.”

Many people today do not believe in any absolute truth. To them, life is like a stained glass window and people are like bees. Each bee looks at the inside from a different piece of the stained glass window and sees the inside differently. Thus, one bee cannot say to another bee that what the bee sees is wrong or right because every bee sees the same thing from different perspectives. People see the world as relative, that all truth is really a matter of opinion not a matter of fact.

Using the same analogy, their reasoning breaks down. The stained glass window distorts what the bee sees. Neither bee is right in what it sees for they only see distortions of the truth. The stained glass window is the world; the people are the bees, and what they see are distortions of the truth. They just think they know what they see, yet they really do not. The truth is what is really on the inside, what is undistorted — that is the truth. The philosophies and religions of this world take partial truths and distort them. But there is only one truth. And that Truth is Jesus Christ.

We live in a society that is built on relativism, built on tolerance. The world does not want absolute truths, it wants relativism. Relativism demands nothing of us. We can do whatever we want and there is no reason to feel guilty for it. 

People want choices. They like options. They hate intolerance. But truth is intolerant. Wrong is wrong and right is right no matter what you think. Truth is truth whether you like it or not. You don’t get a choice or options. The truth is what it is. It is absolute. Matters of opinion are relative. Matters of fact are not. Gravity is no less gravity simply because you don’t believe in it. God is no less God simply because you choose not to believe in Him. Abraham Lincoln once used a very clever ploy to teach some people about truth. They had come to him with a decision that was based on suppositions rather than truth. After hearing their logic, Lincoln asked, “How many legs would a sheep have if you called its tail a leg?” They quickly answered, “Five!” The President then said, “No, it would only have four legs. Calling a tail a leg doesn’t make it one.”

Truth is essential in the Scriptures. Twenty nine times in the Gospel of John alone Jesus uses the phrase: “I tell you the truth.” Without truth how can we trust in the promises of God? Without truth how can we know right and wrong? We cannot. Without truth we have nothing. In the Old Testament God sent His message of truth to men. In the New Testament, truth is not so much a message that is given to men from God. Truth is a man whom God has sent. Jesus is not merely a man with a message of truth. He is the Truth.

Many claim to tell us the truth. But no person ever embodied it. A person’s character does not really affect his teaching of geometry or physics or math. But if he proposes to teach moral truth, his character makes all the difference in the world. An adulterer who teaches the necessity of purity, a greedy person who teaches the value of generosity, an arrogant person who teaches the beauty of humility, an ill-tempered person who teaches the beauty of serenity, an embittered person who teaches the beauty of love, is bound to be ineffective. Moral truth cannot be conveyed solely in words; it must be conveyed in example. And that is precisely where the greatest human teacher must fall down. No teacher has ever embodied the truth he taught–except Jesus. Many could say: “I have taught you the truth.” Only Jesus could say: “I am the Truth.”

To me, this means that truth is found in the person of Jesus; it is not about dogmas or systems, as important as those statements of faith and belief might be to us. The Truth is about a relationship with Christ, not about doctrines.  Doctrines are opinions — they are important opinions and I think some of them are absolute truths, but they started out as opinions nevertheless. 

When I’m sad or in trouble, I do not call on a dogma or doctrine. I call on Jesus, my God and my Redeemer. When we go through pain and tragedy, when we scream in anguish, or silently cry in pain, we ask “Why God”? We have seen our friends and loved ones go through the most horrible pain before yielding to disease and cancer. We have watched babies and children die without even saying goodbye. I grieve and I grope for the truth. “Why Lord?” I have come to accept that some truths cannot be revealed in our lifetime. Some truths the Lord has preferred to keep for reasons He alone knows. But there is one truth I know and I feel. I know that every time I call Him, He takes away the pain. He whispers in my heart that the bliss and glory of it all will be unraveled in due time. What we see or feel are only fragments, not the whole truth. Only He knows the whole truth because He is the Truth.

There was once an old man in a tiny village. Although poor, he was envied by all, for he owned a beautiful white horse – a horse like no other. Even the king wanted that horse.

Many people wanted to buy the horse, but the old man always refused. “This horse is not a horse to me,” he would tell them. “He is a friend, not a possession. How could you sell a friend?” The man was poor, but he never sold the horse.

One morning, his horse was missing. The people in the village scoffed at him, “You old fool. We warned you that someone would steal your horse. You are so poor. It would have been better to have sold him. Now the horse is gone, and you’ve been cursed with misfortune.”

The old man responded, “Don’t speak too quickly. Say only that the horse is not in the stable. That is all we know; the rest is judgment. If I’ve been cursed or not, how can you know? Whether it be a curse or a blessing, I can’t say. All we can see is a fragment. Who can say what will come next?”

The people of the village laughed, and called the man crazy.

After fifteen days, the horse returned. He hadn’t been stolen; he had run away into the forest. He brought a dozen wild horses with him. Once again the village people gathered around the woodcutter and spoke. “Old man, you were right and we were wrong. What we thought was a curse was a blessing. Please forgive us.”

The man responded, “Once again, you go too far. Say only that the horse is back. State only that a dozen horses returned with him, but don’t judge. How do you know if this is a blessing or not? You see only a fragment. Unless you know the whole story, how can you judge? You read only one page of a book. Can you judge the whole book? Life is so vast, yet you judge all of life with one page or one word.”

The old man’s only son fell from one of the horses and broke both legs. Once again the villagers gathered around the old man and cast their judgments.

“You were right,” they said. “You proved you were right. The dozen horses were not a blessing. They were a curse. Your only son has broken his legs, and now in your old age you have no one to help you. Now you are poorer than ever.”

The old man spoke again. “You people are obsessed with judging. Don’t go so far. Say only that my son broke his legs. Who knows if it is a blessing or a curse? No one knows. We only have a fragment. Life comes in fragments.”

A few weeks later the country engaged in war. All the young men of the village were required to join the army, except the son of the old man because he was injured. Once again the people gathered around the old man, crying and screaming because their sons had been taken. There was little chance that they would return. They would most likely never see their sons again.

“You were right, old man,” they wept. “Your son’s accident was a blessing. His legs may be broken, but at least he is with you. Our sons are gone forever.”

The old man spoke again. “You always draw conclusions. No one knows. Say only this: Your sons had to go to war, and mine did not. No one knows if it is a blessing or a curse. No one is wise enough to know. Only God knows.”

The old man was right. We only see a fragment. Life’s mishaps and horrors are only a page out of a grand book. We should be slow in drawing conclusions or extracting truths. Only God knows the whole story and the complete truth.

I don’t know whether this story is true, but I know that the woodcutter was saying life’s truths. Maybe he learned these truths from another woodcutter in Galilee. For wasn’t it that Woodcutter-Carpenter who said, “Do not worry about tomorrow, for tomorrow will worry about itself”? He should know. He is the author of our story. And he has already written the final chapter. That is the Truth!