“Facts are stubborn things.” – John Adams
“Or just some human sleep.” – Robert Frost
We use words as if we knew what they fully meant.
And perhaps we do, and sometimes we even agree on a shared meaning.
But I would submit that, like our own children, our deepest impulses, even life itself, words of real substance – and solid bearing – stand firmly out of reach.
Here’s what I mean; the word ‘true’ usually means ‘real’ or ‘factual’ – something that can be confirmed, proven, and in most cases repeated or re-enacted.
A case in a courtroom might be a good example – ‘the truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth’ is the working definition of ‘truth’ in that setting.
This is what I would call ‘human truth’ – a truth that is anchored in human events and experience.
We need this ‘truth’ – it is the language of legal contracts – it upholds, defines and protects us. It ‘proves’ what ‘really happened’ – it documents, in writing, obligations and positions.
But a close look at jury trials – and human experience – shows even the casual observer that this ‘human truth’ is not enough.
There is something, sometimes, that is missing.
But I’m not sure what.
The Bible tells us the ‘truth shall set you free’. God’s view is that ‘truth’ is not limited to the factual – truth should have a ‘spiritual’ dimension – it should set us free, it should restore and strengthen us, it should fill us with courage and purpose.
Truth should not be used to oppress, manipulate or crush someone – as it often is.
Here’s what I mean; this is a common scene when one works with older people, in a nursing home for example.
Picture an older woman, perhaps suffering from dementia, depression or a searing loneliness, who might say something like ‘Betty is coming over for dinner today’.
This cheers up the woman, and gives her hope and purpose for the coming day. Betty is an old friend and will bring with her precious memories, conviviality, a confirmation of community, identity and personal history.
It is perhaps a mere technicality that Betty has been dead for ten years.
Both sets of ‘facts’ are true; Betty is dead, but she also embodies a whole range of ‘softer’ more restorative ‘truths’.
We, as relatives or caregivers, can crush our elders with the cognitive, factual, human truth, and we often do. But I often wonder why – and I wonder what we imagine that we have accomplished.
Perhaps Picasso was right when he said that art is a lie that tells the truth. And a fully orbed human life ‘tells’ the truth in more ways than can be measured.
There is a far larger truth in this dying person’s heart than whether Betty will come for dinner or not.
In fact I am convinced that, most of the time, the elder person is not delusional and is, in fact, fully aware that Betty is long gone, but for a full range of psychological reasons, much as a child might ‘pretend’ to fly or be a dinosaur, the elder person finds it somehow confirming and healing to ‘pretend’ that Betty is visiting today.
Our insistence on ‘factual’ truth in situations like this is insensitive at best, and tends to be cruel, dispiriting and disrespectful; there is nothing honorable, healing or restorative about these words.
And that, I would submit, is what truly Godly words should be.
Our ‘human truth’ might be factual, even provable, but it rarely sets us free, builds us up or makes our hearts soar.
But God’s word does.
God’s word is far more than ‘evidence’ – God’s word is experiential and life changing, it is, as scripture says more than once, a ‘two-edged sword’.
God’s word surges and pierces and is alive. Our words, in contrast, many times, ‘fall to the ground’ (1 Samuel 3:19).
When a child tells us that he (or she) is a monster or a giant insect, we usually don’t ‘correct’ them; in fact, to ‘remind’ them of their ‘actual’ size or physical powers would be seen as cold, uncaring and just plain stupid.
Children (and most of us, deep down) know that there is much more than ‘knowing’ the truth; truth that matters must be held onto, earned and fully lived.
If our ‘truth’ is limited to words, it is paltry indeed.
Why do we ‘honor’ the fantasies of childhood while we treat our elders (and each other) with such total contempt and disrespect?
Do we ‘hold’ the truth – or do we allow it to hold us?
Are we the bearers of God’s truth that lifts up and restores or are we the bearers of a cold, hard unforgiving ‘human truth’?
Do our words express God’s fullness of heart or our own human heartlessness?
Look around at any public place – especially a house of worship – do you see people set free, alive, welcoming, curious and encouraging?
Or do you see faces hardened and withdrawn, protective or even hostile – unforgiving and unforgiven?
Look at the faces, especially the eyes, of public figures – particularly politicians and celebrities.
Do you see openness and healing, love, hope and true freedom?
Or do you see the hardness of suspicion, cynicism, judgment and fear?
In everyday conversation, in our life choices, we have before us the voices of life and death.
I’ve always been struck that when God reminds us of this choice (Deuteronomy 30:19) He has to go on to urge us to actually choose life.
Someday, possibly this side of eternity, I will understand the attraction brittle bitterness seems to hold over so many, but for now it seems to me like so much toxic sludge, embraced sand embodied until some have become accustomed to its stench and muddled confusion.
Do our words fill up space or do they fill our hearts?
Choose life is far more than a slogan, and truth is far more than words.
God, as always, calls us to life, and I urge us all to choose life and turn away from death in all its forms.
Morf Morford considers himself a free-range Christian who is convinced that God expects far more of us than we can ever imagine, but somehow thinks God knows more than we do. To pay his bills, he’s been a teacher for adults (including those in his local county jail) in a variety of setting including Tribal colleges, vocational schools and at the university level in the People’s Republic of China. Within an academic context, he also writes an irreverent ESL blog and for the Burnside Writers Collective. As he’s getting older, he finds himself less tolerant of pettiness and dairy products.