Understanding what it means to become people who tell each other the truth involves two basic parts. First, we need to think about what “telling the truth” means and then ask how we go about becoming people who do that, whatever that is. It might seem like “telling the truth” is the sort of thing with a definition so obvious that it needs no explanation, but I find the sort of things with assumed understandings are usually the ones that need the most explaining. They are often kind of hard to unpack and explain and (maybe for that reason) carry many misunderstandings.
The first thing to know is that “telling the truth” is a moral claim. We can know this because everyone would say that telling the truth is something we *should* do. Should lets us know that we’re in the realm of moral actions, that is, actions we would look at and say they were either good or bad, right or wrong. It is right and good to tell the truth. It is bad and wrong not to tell the truth. As obvious as that sounds, we get into very non-obvious territory as soon as we try to nail down all those bad and wrong ways of not telling the truth. We assume that the opposite of telling the truth is telling a lie, but deciding what is or is not a lie can be really complicated (do you remember, “it depends on what the meaning of ‘is’ is?”), and more than that, it sets us up with a binary thinking that is not helpful. Telling the truth is not one choice of two, it is one choice of many choices. Some of those other choices aren’t as bad as outright lying (or even as bad as grammatical obfuscation), but that doesn’t make them truth telling either.
The way I have found it most helpful to think about moral actions, including truth telling, is through the ancient understanding of the virtues. Laid out and preserved for us by Aristotle, this way of thinking tells us four basic things. First, everything we do and say are moral actions. There’s really no such thing as a nonmoral action. You might want to contest the absoluteness of that claim, but really, if you think about it like that, that everything you is some degree of good or bad, you will find it helpful in shaping your life in positive ways. There’s really no downside to being attentive to the moral weight of your actions and speech.
Second, virtues operate at the level of habit. These aren’t things we typically think about as we’re doing them. If anything, we reflect on them afterward. Which is why such reflection can’t be a bad thing. If you get stuck trying to make decisions, that’s not because you are thinking about morality too much (though you could use that as an excuse) but because you don’t have an established habit of practical reason (what Aristotle called phronesis and we usually translate as “prudence” – but that word has pretty much lost its meaning). Most of the time, we make decisions and then rationalize them after the fact. Which means we’re acting out of habit more often than we probably realize.
Third, virtues are understood as a median point between two vices. The easiest example is probably courage. Courage is a virtue. It involves feeling the proper amount of fear and acting accordingly. Cowardice is a vice of feeling too much fear and having that debilitate your actions. Recklessness is a vice of not feeling appropriate fear and acting without the important input that fear brings. I will explain in part three how truth telling is a median point with vices on either side.
Fourth, virtues are deeply interconnected. You don’t really excel in one without doing the others well. As I will explain in part 3, telling the truth often requires a great deal of courage (and prudence too among other virtues). Aristotle explains that the virtues fit together in the holistic forming of a virtuous person. As you can see from the courage example, this is not just about doing the right thing. It is also about feeling the right thing and thinking the right thing. If you have a courage problem, you really have a fear problem.
And that is the one weakness in Aristotle’s explanation. He doesn’t really tell us how one goes about becoming a virtuous person. He describes what such a person looks like, how it all fits together, but the actual formation part is lacking. If you have a fear problem, how do you go about overcoming that? What I found life-altering is the answer Thomas Aquinas gives to that key question. The answer is the Holy Spirit. In his Summa Theologica, Aquinas rehearsed Aristotle’s account of the virtues (in their ascending order) and on top of those he added the “theological virtues,” namely, faith, hope, and love as the highest virtues one can have. These three are called “theological” because they come to us as the Holy Spirit places them in us. They are gifts of the Spirit’s presence in our lives, those baptized in the Spirit as followers of Jesus. For good measure, Aquinas also described the fruit of the Spirit and the gifts of the Spirit as further examples of biblical proof that the Holy Spirit fills us and then works to rehabilitate us, making us into virtuous people.
When I first read that, coming from the Pentecostal-holiness tradition, my head exploded. This is it. This put all the pieces together for me. The Pentecostal movement began as a holiness movement. People had a deep desire for God to transform how they were living their lives. God answered by pouring out His Spirit on people. The gifts of the Spirit were immediately evident. And it really changed how people lived their lives. They became morally better. The same thing happened with the Charismatic Renewal, with the Jesus People, with the Third Wave. People cried out to God because they were not very virtuous and couldn’t manage to become so on their own. God responded and filled them with power to change their daily lives. Aquinas says love (or charity) is the highest virtue and the shape the rest of them take, because love is the infusion of the Spirit’s own Self into us (“God is love”). Once our hearts are inflamed with the loving, indwelling presence of the Holy Spirit, everything begins to change. For our purpose here this means truthful speech has to be loving speech in order to be truthful speech. (Which is another way of stating Paul’s admonition: “Speak the truth in love.”)
All of which is a long way for me to get to my point. The most important, most fundamental aspect of becoming people who tell each other the truth is just this – we have to become people filled with the Holy Spirit. We have to become people whose emotions, thinking, speech, and actions are reordered by the transforming power of the Holy Spirit. And I have two points of good news on this front.
First, this means it’s not up to us, it is the work of the Holy Spirit. We don’t have to try to muster up stuff in our own strength. The Spirit will come and enable us. And the first thing we should do is to pray for such a move of the Spirit upon us and in us. Until God shows up, we’re just marking time.
Second, some of us already have a built-in framework where we can practice this. For those of us in the Vineyard movement, this is precisely what we understand prayer ministry time to be. We wait on the Spirit to give us what to say to each other and then we say that. We don’t say everything we get from the Spirit (many times we specifically get direction how to pray and what not to say) and we don’t just offer opinions. In my experience, Vineyard people are really good at doing this in prayer time. That is a Spirit-infused habit we have cultivated. What I’m suggesting is that we take that practice outside of ministry time and make it our normal mode of speech.
In part three, I will lay out a continuum of speech, with truth-telling the virtuous center surrounded by a range of non-truth-telling options.
One thought on “Becoming people who tell the truth part 2”
I resonate deeply with the habituation and interconnection points! I vividly remember a conversation a few years ago with my friend David Nixon in Cincinnati, as he explained his understanding and delved into the linguistic thought-world behind ‘alétheia’ (Greek for truth): the ‘a-’ at the beginning in the Greek is a negative prefix, which we would see evident in English words like ‘il-legal’, ‘im-moral’ or ‘il-legible’…which when tied to the Greek ‘léth’ (which means to conceal or deceive or obscure), so you get literally: ‘to not obscure’ or ‘to make evident’;
And of course in addition – even as you refer to Aristotle – this word ‘alétheia’ is known to occur in the classical Greek literature of the Iliad and the Odyssey in connection with verbs of ’saying’…and is tied to its opposite: to tell a lie or to deceive. In this Greek literature, we might come to conclude, for Homer the writer who is ‘telling’ an epic adventure: Truth has to do with the reliability of what is said by one person to another.
I like that. It takes “Truth” out of the conceptual and puts it in the utmost practical of life-settings: how we speak to one another. We find this is part of the Hebraic thinking as well, as we see in Zechariah chapter 8: ‘These are the things which you should do: speak the truth to one another; judge with truth…’
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