What Are We Supposed to Believe?

The following devotional from our 2018 Christmas Eve service was written by Thom Smith, a member of the Trinity church family.

Many years ago a man was arrested by the local authorities even though he’d done nothing wrong.  He was accused of treason, and at the time, treason was punishable by an excruciating death. When the local authorities’ actions were brought into question by the regional judge, their only response was, “If he wasn’t a criminal, we wouldn’t have brought him to you.”  The judge began asking the defendant questions, such as who he was and what he’d done, trying to figure out the facts of the situation. The man gave a pointed reply: “The reason I was born and came into the world is to testify to the truth. Everyone on the side of truth listens to me.”  The judge retorted, “What is truth?”

How do you know what to believe these days?  When you hear something on the news, see something on social media, or learn of something by word-of-mouth, do you immediately know whether it’s true or not?  I don’t. Not in most situations, anyway. Not anymore. This growing world of ours has so many people with so many ways to exchange so much information, that it can be extremely difficult to separate fact from fiction.  

I don’t know about you, but I feel like I’m being constantly bombarded with contradicting facts...from contradicting sources...from contradicting people...who sometimes even contradict themselves!  It is indeed a confusing age we live in, especially if you don’t know who or what to trust

So what should we do?  Should we give up looking for the truth?  Should we settle for what sounds right?  For what feels good?  For what most people say is true?  Why is it so important that we know the truth, anyway?

Because the standard definition of truth is “that which is in accordance with reality.” And if you are believing in the truth, you are believing in what is real.  And if you are not believing in the truth, than you are believing in fiction, in deception, in a lie.

When we’re given a piece of information, how can we really know what is fact and what is fiction?  

Let’s consider our trust in reliable sources first.  For a variety of reasons, reliable sources have proven to be unreliable time and again.  For instance, people have relied on media for centuries, only to have been misled, whether unintentionally or not.  Consider these incorrect headlines from prominent newspapers of the past:

“Washington Falls to the Confederacy.”  It didn’t. The Union won.

“No Lives Lost on the Titanic.”  There were. Sadly over 1,500.

“Hitler Tamed By Prison.”  He wasn’t. Not even close.

You and I both know a reliable source can also be a trusted institution, friend, or family member.  And unfortunately, not every institution, friend, or family member we know has proven to be trustworthy, either.

Let’s consider the validity of information instead.  In many situations we can make logical conclusions based on prior knowledge and experiences.  For instance, when asked as a child why it was colder during the wintertime, my classmates and I readily agreed that it was because the Earth was further from the sun.  Yet, as we were sitting there in our moon boots and corduroy pants, our third grade teacher crushed our logic and blew our rationale out of the water. Much to our shock, we were informed that the Earth is actually closer to the sun during the winter.  What we thought to be understandably true, based on our prior knowledge and experience, was not.

What happens when we depend on our emotions, our “intuition” in order to discern the truth?  I had the incredible opportunity to go deep sea fishing with some friends for the first time in my life this past summer.  After discovering, much to my relief, that I was not going to be seasick the entire day, I was able to relax and enjoy the scenery.  We caught dozens of fish that day, truthfully, and one type of fish we caught many times we regrettably had to throw back - the Atlantic cod.

Our boat’s captain explained that fishing for cod is prohibited north of Cape Cod due to overfishing, and the decline of its population.  But the captain also went on to explain that he just knew that the cod population was increasing, and that he didn’t believe the statistics on cod that were being gathered by a certain federal association.  

I recently read an article that the local scientists in Massachusetts had reached the same conclusion as the national scientists: the region’s cod are at a historic low.  Despite this fishing boat captain’s intuition, the data on the cod population continues to prove him wrong, at least for now.

So where does all this false discernment of the truth leave us?  Determining the truth seems to be more difficult than ever, and to add to that frustration, taking logical steps to determine the truth can still fail us.  For many, determining the truth can be such an exhausting experience, that we simply stop searching for the truth at all.

So how do people tend to cope with their uncertainty about the truth?  These days, usually by relying on one or more of the following philosophies:

  • “Believe what makes you happy.”
  • “What is good for you is good for me.”
  • “Truth is what is true for you.”
  • Or, “There is no truth at all.”

And as empty and ambiguous philosophies like these become more and more popular, our country’s life expectancy rate has been decreasing, dramatically.  Could there be any connection between our culture’s popular ideologies, and it’s annual increase in unnatural deaths? Well, let’s consider these facts:

This year was the third year in-a-row our country’s life expectancy decreased.  When was the last time something like this happened? A hundred years ago, from 1915 to 1918.  What was going on then? World War I. So what’s going on now? Drug overdoses and suicides. Last year in the United States alone, there were over 70,000 drug overdose deaths, and almost 50,000 suicides.  Also, new health insurance data shows that major depression is on the rise among Americans, from every age group.  There’s a growing sense of hopelessness in our country - so much so that our country is experiencing a magnitude of casualties akin to a world war!

So I ask again, where does this leave us humans in search of truth?  Has our recent search for truth been successful?  Are we left to only hope that what we believe is true? Are we left to only hope that the completely different worldviews humans believe in, despite contradicting each other, somehow lead to the same truth?  Or are we left to conclude that there is perhaps no truth whatsoever?

At this point you may be wondering why in the world I’m talking about discerning the truth.  What does attempting to discover the truth have to do with celebrating Christmas? Well...absolutely everything.  

You see, that innocent man from many years ago, accused of treason and about to face the punishment of death, was Jesus Christ.  He had the opportunity to deny the charges brought against him. He had the opportunity to prove his innocence. He had the opportunity to plead for mercy.  He had the opportunity to do whatever he could to prevent his execution - but he did none of these things. Instead, he chose to clarify the purpose of His birth to everyone - that He was born to declare the truth, and that those who listened to Him would know the truth.  He identified Himself as the Son of God, born to testify to the truth to all mankind!

Do you feel unaccepted, or unacceptable?  

Jesus testified, “whoever comes to me I will never drive away.”  

Do you feel unloved, or unloveable?  

Jesus testified, “As the Father has loved me, so have I loved you.  Now remain in my love.”  

Do you feel helpless, or hopeless?  

Jesus testified, “I am the light of the world. Whoever follows me will never walk in darkness, but will have the light of life.”  

You may be sitting there right now...and thinking all of this is nonsense.  You may be sitting there right now...and thinking, “I’ve tried this church thing, but it just hasn’t worked out.”  You may be sitting there right now...and thinking, “How could you ever know for certain that what Jesus said was true?  I just don’t see it, I just don’t understand it, I just don’t believe it.” You may be sitting there, contemplating the truth, and feel completely...lost.  

Two hundred and seventy years ago, a young man named John could not believe where life had taken him.  His mother had died of tuberculosis when he was six. His father, a shipmaster, had John sailing on long voyages across the sea when he was only eleven.  At the age of eighteen, John was captured and forced into the British Empire’s Royal Navy. When he was twenty, he found himself in West Africa, working as a slave among slaves.  A few years later, after being rescued by a sea captain, and on his journey home, John was now about to die.

The ship that had rescued him, the Greyhound, had been tossed about and beaten for over a week in a severe and frigid winter storm.  The sails were torn, the masts were broken, the vessel was taking on water, and several men had washed overboard.  John and the rest of the sailors had worked day and night, working the pumps so they would not sink. Too exhausted to pump anymore, John was tied to the helm of the ship - given the responsibility of trying to hold the vessel to its course.  He was tied to that helm for several hours. And during this time, John’s life changed, completely.

Known by his fellow sailors as “the Great Blasphemer,” John had developed a reputation of being an extremely vulgar man; one who mocked God and entertained almost every kind of immorality you could imagine, including those of a slave trader.  His life, up until this point, had been one proverbial shipwreck after another.

Reflecting upon his life, John felt he was beyond hope.  If there was life after death, his life certainly was not deserving of any type of mercy.  But his thoughts began to turn to the Jesus his mother had spoken of so long ago. He reflected on the verse, Luke 11:13, in which Jesus said, “If you then, though you are evil, know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more will your Father in Heaven give the Holy Spirit to those who ask him?”  

That tumultuous, self-reflecting, eye-opening day in March, was the hour John first believed.  It was the first hour John saw Jesus for who he really was - a living, loving, merciful Savior.  He did not perish that day, nor did he become a perfect man, but he did become a saved man - a man saved by grace.  In finally, and resolutely believing, he was able to see the truth - the truth of Jesus’ words and promises.  John Newton, many years later, wrote the following words:

“Amazing grace, how sweet the sound, that saved a wretch like me.  I once was lost, but now am found. Twas blind, but now I see. Twas grace that taught my heart to fear, and grace, my fears relieved.  How precious did that grace appear, the hour I first believed.”

You will never grasp the truth by just reading a book.  By just talking to people. By just going to church. By just praying, or meditating, or looking at data.  Not by being a scientist, or artist, or naturalist or theologian. Not by being a poet, musician, philosopher or philanthropist.    

No, you can’t know the truth for certain...unless you truly believe in Him.  To believe Jesus is Lord is to know the truth.  To believe He can forgive your sins is to know the truth.  To believe He loves you so much he died for you and rose again is to know the truth.  To believe He can provide you with eternal life in Heaven is to know the truth.

When we proclaim that we believe in Jesus Christ, just as John Newton proclaimed that he believed, the words of Jesus can be heard, and be heard clearly.  When we proclaim that we believe in His Word, the truth can be seen, and be seen clearly.

Perhaps you’ve known Christ as your Savior for quite some time, but you’re discouraged that you haven’t felt Jesus’ acceptance, love, and joy in your life lately.  Perhaps you’ve doubted Jesus’ words and promises, but you’ve known well that always-out-of-reach acceptance, love, and joy you’ve been seeking all your life. Take heart, and know today, that Christmas is not only the celebration of the birth of the baby Jesus...but it is the celebration of the truth.

Jesus promised to us all, “The one who loves me will be loved by my Father, and I, too, will love them and show myself to them.”  This is definitely the good news of great joy we can believe in and embrace. A Savior was born, unto us, and He is Christ the Lord.