Stuart Chase - 7 Jun 2020
Invested in Truth (Proverbs 23:23)
Dr. Gregory House is a fictional diagnostician, known as much for his cynicism as for his ability to diagnose infectious diseases that baffle his colleagues. In one particular storyline, Dr. House, teaching a class of medical students, says, “It’s a basic truth of the human condition that everybody lies. The only variable is about what.” The storylines involving Dr. House typically support this notion. As a rule, a patient with an infectious disease is admitted to the hospital. When other doctors are unable to diagnose the patient, the case is handed to Dr. House. Typically, he figures out, over the course of that particular storyline, that the patient is lying about something and, as soon as he uncovers the truth, he is able to make a correct diagnosis, and everybody lives happily ever after. More or less. In his fictionalised world, he is correct: Everybody lies.
Perhaps Dr. House’s sentiment is a little too cynical for your liking, but he is not alone. American actress Lily Tomlin once said, “No matter how cynical I get, I just can’t keep up.” In other words, just when she thinks she’s heard it all—every lie that can be told—someone produces a fresh whopper.
Think about it for a moment. Even if you do not share that level of cynicism, would you not admit that we are surrounded by lies and untruths, and that all of us, to varying degrees, are cynical?
For example, how much do you trust the word of politicians? What is your immediate response when you hear that the president or a minister will address the nation at a specified time on a given date?
How much faith do you place in advertising? Do you really believe that Samsung’s latest flagship device is the greatest leap in digital technology since the invention of the cell phone? As much as you may want the new model, you know that, in reality, it’s basically the same as your current phone, but with a faster processor and a better camera. Advertising claims rarely match reality.
How much confidence do you have in assurances offered by authority figures? Last month, following a high court order that all SANDF officers present at the assault of Collins Khoza in Soweto should be suspended pending further investigation, an internal SANDF probe fully exonerated its officers. What does your gut tell you? Do you sense that the SANDF can be implicitly trusted to tell the truth, or do you smell something fishy?
As I said, we all display varying degrees of cynicism. Of course, some take it to an entirely different level. The moon landing was a hoax, they claim, filmed in a studio. Others believe that the British government invented the continent of Australia as cover for executing hundreds of prisoners. Ever since, they have been forced to perpetuate its existence, employing professional actors and paying airlines to fly people to South America and persuade them that they are visiting the non-existent country.
The coronavirus pandemic has brought conspiracy theories crawling out the woodwork. A church member recently forwarded me a 25-minute voice note by an Afrikaans pastor who impressively combined a coronavirus vaccine, 5G, Bill Gates, the Illuminati, and the mark of the beast into one grand conspiracy narrative. It was marvellous storytelling, though utterly devoid of any truth.
I think it’s fair to say that, as a general rule, truth is not very highly prized in the society in which we live. Say what you will about Dr. House’s cynical claim that “everybody lies,” but we certainly live in a society in which lies and untruths abound.
Christians should be different. The Bible consistently calls Christians to be people of truth. In this study, we want to consider something of what Proverbs says about truth. We cannot hope to capture the entirety of what Solomon writes about truth in a single study, but we can at least dip our toes helpfully into the pool of truth. And our springboard into that pool is found in Proverbs 23:23: “Buy truth, and do not sell it; buy wisdom, instruction, and understanding.” Using this verse as our springboard, I want to consider four things about a Christian approach to truth.
We begin by examining the precious commodity that is here commended: “truth.”
During his trial, Jesus said to Pontius Pilate, “You say that I am a king. For this purpose I was born and for this purpose I have come into the world—to bear witness to the truth. Everyone who is of the truth listens to my voice.” Pilate dismissed Jesus’ words with a careless question: “What is truth?” (John 18:37–38).
Pilate was not interested in the answer to his question. Indeed, “after he had said this, he went back outside” (v. 39). We cannot dismiss this question as easily as Pilate did. We must wrestle with the question. What is truth? Specifically, what did Solomon mean by “truth” when he wrote these words?
Our immediate tendency is to think of truth in straightforward, one-dimensional terms, but “truth” in Proverbs carries more layers of meaning than we might be tempted to think of. Solomon clarifies what he means by “truth” by employing three categories: “wisdom,” “instruction,” and “understanding.”
“Wisdom” speaks of everyday, practical knowledge. It describes truth in everyday dealings and interactions. “Instruction” speaks of ethical discipline. It describes truth that leads to godly living. “Understanding” speaks of discernment—the ability to discern truth from error.
Generally speaking, “truth” might be defined as that which is consistent with the mind, will, character, glory, and being of God. Truth is the self-expression of God. The God of the Bible is “the God of truth” (Isaiah 65:16). He “is not a man, that he should lie” (Numbers 23:19) but is “light” in whom “no darkness at all” is found (1 John 1:5). Anything, therefore, that is inconsistent with the mind, will, character, glory, and being of God is not truth.
But, again, truth—particularly as it is envisioned in Proverbs and the biblical wisdom literature—is multi-layered. Christians should be concerned about all layers of truth.
The first thing we typically think of as Christians when we hear “truth” is spiritual or doctrinal truth. “Sanctify them in the truth; your word is truth” (John 17:17). “Do your best to present yourself to God as one approved, a worker who has no need to be ashamed, rightly handling the word of truth” (2 Timothy 2:15).
Paul’s words to Timothy, just quoted, make it plain that Christians are to be concerned about spiritual or doctrinal truth. Every Christian—man, woman, and child; pastor and church member—should be concerned about knowing doctrinal truth. Truth matters. Correct biblical interpretation makes a difference. It is important that we “rightly handle the word of truth.”
This, of course, requires work. Christians talk about “studying” the Bible because it often requires deliberate effort to properly understand what it teaches. In fact, the King James Version translates 2 Timothy 2:15 as “study to show thyself approved unto God.” Other translations render it as “be diligent” (CSB, NASB). The root word carries the idea of exertion. Bible study can be hard work, but that work is necessary for those who will present themselves to God as approved.
Spiritual or doctrinal truth is certainly one element of truth that Christians must pursue, but it is only one—and, I would argue, probably not primarily the one that Solomon had in mind.
A second category of truth that should concern Christians is practical or situational truth. By this, I mean truth claims that are not explicitly biblical in nature but which should, nevertheless, concern Christians. If truth is that which is consistent with the mind, will, character, glory, and being of God, even these practical or situational truths should be pursued.
Christian, the Bible directly exhorts us to ensure that we investigate truth claims and only accept—and spread—those that are verifiable. Paul urged Timothy, “Have nothing to do with irreverent, silly myths” (1 Timothy 4:7). He exhorted Titus, “Avoid foolish controversies, genealogies, dissensions, and quarrels about the law, for they are unprofitable and worthless” (Titus 3:9). Instead, Christians should give themselves to “whatever is true, whatever is honourable, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is commendable” (Philippians 4:8).
Do you investigate all those sensational social media messages you receive before forwarding them to everyone you know? (Free life hack: If it says “forward this to everyone in your contacts,” it’s probably a hoax.) Many an untruth has been perpetuated for simple lack of research.
When I was a child, one of my favourite things to do was sit on my dad’s knee when we visited my grandparents on Sunday afternoons and ask him to regale me with the incredible stories of the Bermuda Triangle. He seemed to be an endless trove of such stories. I loved hearing those stories and all the theories that were posited. How could we explain the disproportionate number of mysterious disappearances that took place over that particular piece of ocean? Were the disappearances extraterrestrial in nature, as suggested by Stephen Spielberg in Close Encounters of the Third Kind? Were they the result of the ancient, but advanced, technology of Atlantis? Possibly wormholes?
More naturalistic explanations were less intriguing to my mind. Methane hydrates, rogue waves, and the Gulf Stream were plausible but hardly as exciting.
Then, one day, while Dominique and I were still dating, I went to fetch her from work. Having arrived a little early, I spent a few minutes browsing the used bookstore set up in the front of the nursery. I happened upon a small book by a research librarian named Larry Kusche, titled The Bermuda Triangle Mystery—Solved.
Now—full disclosure—I am very sceptical of people who claim to have solved mysteries that have long baffled experts. In my experience, they generally prove to be full of unfounded speculation. I expected much the same from Larry Kusche.
Kusche’s research, however, was thorough and painstaking. The book is not the world’s most exciting read, because much of it is simple transcripts of chatter between planes or ships and control towers, weather reports, newspaper stories, and insurance records. Kusche does, however, prove quite definitively that the greatest mystery about the Bermuda Triangle is that anyone actually thinks there is a mystery. In point of fact, the “mystery” is perpetuated by misleading and false information. The simple fact is that, proportionally speaking, there is nothing unusual about the number of incidents that happen in the Bermuda Triangle compared to similar incidents elsewhere in the ocean.
Of course, false and misleading information about the Triangle still persists, but anyone who is invested in truth, and is willing to do the necessary work, will come away with dreams of aliens and Atlantian technology thoroughly dashed.
We all get it: Conspiracy theories are generally more interesting than the truth. Dan Brown made millions from The Da Vinci Code, even though it was based on pure fiction. Michael Crichton’s State of Fear, a highly fictionalised treatment of his scepticism of climate change, was widely popular precisely because the conspiracy he imagined was so intriguing.
It’s far more intriguing to believe that Australia is a British government cover-up than to believe that it is an actual landmass comprising the sixth largest population in the world. A grand cover-up to win the space race is far more interesting to believe than the reality that the American government put a man on the moon. And wouldn’t it be fascinating if Bill Gates’s end game was to inject a 5G-trackable nanochip into your bloodstream, which would eventually attach itself to the inside of your skull, as a means of fulfilling a grand, satanic scheme? Truth is rarely as interesting as fiction, but Christians must be concerned about truth.
Christian, the Bible is clear: Have nothing to do with these silly, foolish conspiracy theories. It is your responsibility to invest in truth, which means (at the least) doing the research before you just forward every claim that comes across your virtual desk.
But we must not avoid only conspiracy theories: We have the responsibility to investigate anytruth claim. If your only source of truth is the articles that are promoted in your social media stream, you are not doing a very good job of discerning truth from error. Social media is built on algorithms that are designed to keep you coming back for more. One of the ways it does that is to consistently put content before you that agrees with what you already believe. Social media engineers know that, in our unsubscribe culture, disagreement tends to drive people away and so these platforms track the kind of material you read to ensure that they constantly feed you what you already believe. But for every article that cites statistics to prove your position, there is probably another citing statistics to prove the opposite. The truth may lie somewhere between the extremes, and Christians, concerned with truth, should do the hard work of trying to discern the truth rather than automatically promoting what they already believe.
But then a third category of truth that Proverbs seems concerned with is what we might call relational truth. Here, I am thinking primarily of your words and dealings with other people.
Honestly speaking, are we not too often dishonest in our dealings with other people? It might be that you are hiding the truth from someone in order to protect yourself. Perhaps you are regularly deleting your browser history so that it is more difficult for your spouse or your friends to track the websites you’ve visited. Perhaps you’ve been creative (that is, dishonest) in your bookkeeping or the reporting of your income in order to benefit yourself in tax terms. Perhaps you weren’t really sick on that last sick day you took—unless “sick” counts as that sick feeling in your stomach that your boss might see your face on the grass banks of the Wanderers stadium.
Or perhaps it’s more innocuous than that. Perhaps dishonesty is betrayed in a simple lack of transparency. Perhaps your automatic answer to your fellow church member’s question is “everything’s fine” when in fact divorce papers are on the table. Perhaps “all’s well” is hiding your deep burden about your drug addicted child. Sometimes we are so given to small talk that our churches look more like sanitised laboratories than messy clinics. “But that person is just being polite,” you might argue. “They’re not really interested in how things are going.” Perhaps so—or perhaps your fellow church members really want to help you shoulder your burdens. Surely the church, of all places, should be a place where honest transparency is prevalent and grace is extended.
But we must move on to consider the cost that is implied in this text: “Buy truth.” It’s not free. Truth carries a cost. It may not be a financial cost, but there is a cost nonetheless.
Pause for a moment to consider Solomon’s words: “Buy truth, and do not sell it.” When do you buy something that you don’t intend to sell? When it’s an investment. Truth is not something you buy to make a quick buck. Truth is something that you must invest in. We assume that investments will increase in value and benefit us in the long run. When something is truly worth investing in, you don’t buy it to sell it to the first bidder the next month. You invest in it, watch it, and expect it to grow. That is the attitude we must have toward truth.
This, of course, highlights the reality of everything we’ve already said. When you make a decision to invest, you don’t do so thoughtlessly. An investment implies careful consideration rather than a rash purchase. When you choose to invest, you will do so with careful thought, consideration, and counsel. We should treat truth in the same way.
What does this mean when you are confronted with a truth claim?
It means think about it. How does the Bible address this claim? What principles of biblical interpretation relate to it? How can the claims be verified? Don’t just spread the claim “in case it’s true.” Do the work yourself before you share it.
As with any investment, seek counsel when you are uncertain. Fact check, and if you’re not sure where to fact check, ask someone you trust what they think. If it is a claim made about the Bible, ask your pastors or your Grace Group leader. If it is a claim made about science or current events, ask someone with a good handle on those matters before promoting untruth. Let me illustrate.
Toward the beginning of lockdown, a church member sent me a Google Maps image of Italy. A pin on the northwestern tip of Sicily was labelled “Topheth.” The caption read as follows: “Amazing wonder! Where is Topheth? Check your Google Map location. It is in Italy, where currently dead bodies are being buried and they are facing shortage of space due to huge number of dead bodies now.” The caption then quoted Jeremiah 7:32, suggesting that the COVID deaths were a fulfilment of that prophecy: “Therefore, behold, the days are coming, declares the LORD, when it will no more be called Topheth, or the Valley of the Son of Hinnom, but the Valley of Slaughter; for they will bury in Topheth, because there is no room elsewhere.”
A Google search shows that Topheth is indeed an island just off the western shore of Sicily. When the message was sent to me, I was unable to verify masses of bodies being buried there, but since Topheth is labelled as an archaeological site, I had my doubts. But that didn’t really matter, because it is quite clear that Jeremiah 7:32 has zero to do with COVID-19. In Jeremiah’s day, Topheth was the name for what later became known as the Valley of the sons of Hinnom (known in the New Testament as Gehenna). It was a valley just outside the walls of Jerusalem. When Nebuchadnezzar attacked Jerusalem in 586 BC, so many Jews were killed that there was insufficient place to bury them all within the city and at designated burial place. Topheth—the valley just outside Jerusalem—became a mass grave during the Babylonian siege. That is what Jeremiah was prophesying. It is interpretive malpractice to turn Jeremiah’s prophecy into a prediction of COVID-19. I was thankful that this church member sent me the message rather than immediately spreading it around as amazing evidence of the truth of Scripture.
Truth is an investment. It requires careful thought and planning. It may require consultation with someone else as a source of fact checking. Whatever it requires, we should treat truth the same way we would treat a financial investment: as something precious, which comes at a cost, must be guarded, and is not to be peddled worthlessly.
A good question at this point is, why? A good financial advisor will give you reasons why you should invest in the things he recommends. It’s his job to know which investments will be worthwhile and to persuade you to invest accordingly. So why should we invest in truth? What are its benefits?
We could mention a great number of benefits at this point, but let me limit myself for four particular benefits of investing in truth, as stated in Proverbs.
First, we should invest in truth because truth endures. “Truthful lips endure forever, but a lying tongue is but for a moment” (12:19). “A false witness will perish, but the word of a man who hears will endure” (21:28).
Truth stands the test of time. Lies and conspiracy theories always need to be updated to maintain their life span. Perhaps you can relate. Perhaps you remember a time when you told a lie and, in order to keep up the ruse, had to keep updating the original lie to keep it plausible. Conspiracy theories work like that because they must always be explained when they are debunked. A conspiracy theorist will posit some evidence that, for example, the moon landing was staged. Authorities will offer plausible explanations, which will not satisfy the conspiracy theorist, who will instead find new evidence to support his conspiracy.
Truth, on the other hand, endures. There is no need to craft new explanations if the truth is told and embraced from the beginning.
Second, we should invest in truth because it is the path to wisdom. Proverbs urges us from the very beginning to pursue wisdom, and Solomon tells us that pursuing truth is one of the keys to doing so. “The simple believes everything, but the prudent gives thought to his steps…. The simple inherit folly, but the prudent are crowned with knowledge” (14:15, 18).
Have you ever known someone who just believes everything they read? Usually, it’s a case of confirmation bias: They already believe something to be true, so there is no need to investigate any claim that supports my preconceived bias. If I already believe something, all I need is a meme or a screenshot of a tweet to absolutely confirm my bias. No further investigation is required. Solomon calls such individuals “simple,” and “simple” in wisdom literature is an indictment on character more than it is on intelligence.
If I already believe that the coronavirus is no worse than seasonal flu, all I need is a poorly crafted graph showing numbers to confirm it. And it will help greatly if my trusted media sources do not show any evidence contrary to what I believe. But that breeds ignorance. Truth is the path, says Solomon, to knowledge and wisdom. Christians, who greatly value wisdom, should do all they can to pursue truth.
Third, truth is worth your investment because it honours people. “A truthful witness saves lives, but one who breathes out lies is deceitful” (14:25). It is honourable to value human life, and truth does just that.
Solomon says that “a truthful witness saves lives.” This can be quite true in a court of law. Truth can be the difference between life and death. That is the primary context of “a truthful witness.” But the principle goes beyond that. How many unborn human lives have been ended in order to hide the truth of unplanned pregnancies? How many livelihoods have been destroyed by false accusations? Truth honours life. Lies do not.
Ultimately, truth leads to eternal life, while lies lead to eternal death. “But as for the cowardly, the faithless, the detestable, as for murderers, the sexually immoral, sorcerers, idolaters, and all liars, their portion will be in the lake that burns with fire and sulphur, which is the second death” (Revelation 21:8).
But the principle can extend beyond the actual saving of lives. We all recognise that lying to someone is an act of disrespect. The truth may sometimes be hard to hear and comprehend, but we would like to think that people at least respect us enough to tell the truth.
Of course, some lies are more damaging than others. Sometimes, the initial lie causes damage that cannot be repaired regardless of the truth coming out. At other times, even if the lie is retracted, the retraction does not spread as far as the initial lie did. This allows lies to be perpetuated long after they have been debunked.
To tell the truth is not only an honourable thing to do but it honours the humanity of the one to whom the truth is told.
A fourth reason to invest in truth is because truth honours the Lord. “An evildoer listens to wicked lips, and a liar gives ear to a mischievous tongue” (17:4). Notice that: The one who listens to wicked, mischievous, lying tongues is called an “evildoer” and a “liar.” To tell the truth is an act of obedience to God; to lie is an act of disobedience. Obeying God honours him; truthful lips, therefore, honour the Lord.
But where do we go to invest in truth? We must be sure that we are looking for truth in the right place. In Pilgrim’s Progress, John Bunyan tells of Christian and Faithful on their way to the Celestial City travelling through the town of Vanity. In the town, there is a Fair, called Vanity Fair, which was long ago set up by Beelzebub, Apollyon, and Legion as a means of peddling worthless wares to pilgrims. As the travellers enter the fair, traders call out to them, offering their wares. The pilgrims refuse to spend their money on that which is worthless. One of the merchants mockingly calls out to the two men, “What will you buy?” The two pilgrims respond, “We buy truth.”
Vanity Fair represents the attempts of the world system to distract Christians from investing in that which has eternal value. Vanity Fair is all around us, tempting us with its worthless wares. Christians must be on guard and know where to go to buy truth.
So, where do we go for truth?
The obvious answer is that we go to God. That is absolutely correct, for he is “the God of truth” (Isaiah 65:16). More particularly, we go to Jesus Christ, who is himself “the truth” (John 14:6). He does not merely point to truth. He is not one means among many to truth. He is truth. If truth is, as we have said, “that which is consistent with the mind, will, character, glory, and being of God”—if “truth is the self-expression of God”—where is that more clearly seen than in the person and work of Christ?
But what is the means by which we come to God—to Jesus Christ—for truth? The Bible provides a twofold answer to that question.
First, we do so through “the word of truth” (2 Timothy 2:15). Ultimately, the Bible is the source of God-revealed truth. It is in the Bible that we find all the truth we need for godly living. In the Bible we are told the truth about human origins. In the Bible we are told the truth about sin and its penalty: death. In the Bible we are told the truth about coming, final judgement, which will result in eternal destruction for sinners. And in the Bible we are told that it is possible to escape this destruction because Jesus Christ—truth incarnate—lived a sinless life, died a substitutionary death, and rose victoriously from the grave to save sinners. He ascended to the Father, where he sits ruling over the affairs of men, offering eternal life to all who will repent of their sins and believe in him. This good news—the gospel—is the very word of truth (Ephesians 1:13). It is by this word of truth that we are born again (James 1:18).
But, second, we must recognise that, as God has designed his kingdom to work, it is not every man and his Bible. Instead, God has given the church to be “the pillar and foundation of the truth” (1 Timothy 3:15, CSB). The church is the God-ordained custodian of the truth. It is to the local church that we go to invest in truth as God has designed it to be. The Christian who is interested in investing in truth will find the gospel-preaching local church to be the God-given source of truth. Christians who are interested in truth must be committed to the local church, for the church is the custodian of God’s truth.
Even has he urges his readers to invest in truth, Solomon issues a solemn caution: “and do not sell it.” Truth, we have observed, is an investment. It is not something to be bought and sold at will. Unfortunately, many seem willing to trade truth for things far less valuable.
Some have been known to trade truth for position. They have been willing to peddle what they know to be untrue, or to remain silent about what they know to be true, in order to maintain some form of position.
Others have traded truth for peace. They know that something is not true, or that some truth should be spoken, but they figure it will cost too much. It might result in the loss of a job or the severing of a relationship and they are not willing to trade temporal peace for truth. Jesus said that he did not come to bring peace but a sword (Matthew 10:34–39). The reality is, truth sometimes divides. That is just the cost of truth.
Still others have traded truth for popularity. When everybody in my circle is embracing one truth claim, it is not always easy to call a lie for what it is. Too many have chosen to remain silent because speaking up would prove unpopular. They have traded truth for popularity.
Some have chosen to trade truth for pleasure. Embracing the truth would place them in an uncomfortable position and it is simply easier and more pleasurable to trade truth for comfort.
There are many merchants willing to offer us wares of lesser, temporal value for truth. We travel daily through Vanity Fair. We must be on our guard, recognising the primacy and value of truth and being willing to invest in it whatever the cost. Buy truth, and do not sell it.