“Then you will know the truth, and the truth will set you free.” John 8:32 NIV
The post-modern world says that at best, the truth exists but is unknowable, and at worst, it does not exist at all. On the other hand, Jesus said that knowing the truth will set you free. They both can’t be right.
Before we go to that question, though, we need to ask what is meant here by freedom. Is it physical freedom, such as freedom to move about, freedom of association, of speech, of worship? Is it intellectual freedom, the freedom to explore unhindered the various ideas and philosophies of this world? Or maybe Jesus was talking about spiritual freedom, not freedom of worship, which is the freedom to practice a particular religion, or go to a favored place of worship, but the freedom to be loving, giving, kind, hopeful, faithful, unafraid, without guilt, and content?
Given the context and the application of Jesus words by his disciples, I think it is safe to say that Jesus was speaking of spiritual freedom; he was saying that by knowing the truth and, one assumes, believing it, one will be set free from spiritual deception and the spiritual bondage that goes with it. But, while I believe spiritual freedom was Jesus’ primary intent here, I am sure that Jesus was well aware that after spiritual emancipation comes emancipation in all other areas. After all, didn’t Jesus also say “Seek the Kingdom of God, and you will get everything else along with it”?
This truth has been demonstrated throughout history. The nation of Israel physically came out of Egypt, but they were still in spiritual bondage and because of this they could not enter the promised land. After forty years of wandering, the original faithless generation died off, a new generation, strong in faith in the truth that G-d had given them, emerged to take possession of the land that G-d had promised. There they lived for hundreds of years in relative freedom, peace and prosperity.
America as well had a similar beginning. Various small groups of Christians, often a persecuted minority, left their native lands, and strong in faith in the truth that G-d had given them, endured great hazards to settle a new land. Based on that faith, and the philosophy and moral principles that came with it, a nation emerged that would become the most free and most prosperous in history.
History has also demonstrated that as nations, and individuals, lose that spiritual freedom, they also lose the physical freedoms that come along with it.
After Israel entered the promised land, they lived as a loose confederation of tribes, with no central authority, except G-d and the laws he had given them. Over time though, several hundred years, the people left the original faith, and as they did so, chaos began to reign. Ominously, the history book of this period, the Book of Judges, ends with the line “In those days there was no king in Israel: every man did that which was right in his own eyes.” (Judges 21:25)
The situation deteriorated to the point that in the first Book of Samuel, the people demanded that Samuel appoint a king. Samuel protested that a king would conscript their sons, collect taxes, and otherwise diminish their freedoms, but the people insisted. Samuel consulted the Lord and the Lord told him to give them their king, that it wasn’t him, Samuel, that the people were rejecting, that it was the Lord.
Parallels can also be drawn here to America, which started as a loose confederation of states, and now has empowered government at all levels, particularly at the central , federal level, at the expense of individual’s and state’s freedoms. Few people know that a popular battle cry of the Revolutionary War was “We have no king but King Jesus”. Much like Israel, at it’s founding, America’s king was G-d, and much like Israel, over time the people began demanding another “king”.
So far so good, but we still have a problem. The modern world tells us that, for all intents and purposes, there is no truth, while the wisdom of the ages says that the truth will set you free. What to do?
Well, let’s take a look at the concept of truth. What is truth? Some of the definitions in Merriam-Webster are “the real state of things”, “the body of real events or facts”, and “agreement with fact or reality”. So truth is reality, right? So if reality exists, then truth exists, right? I am unconvinced by my own argument here, but I do believe that truth exists. Why?
Because, on a practical level, without truth, we simply could not function. Imagine a situation in which you buy a pound of beef, put it on your scale at home, and it only registers a half a pound. You go back to the store, they put it on their scale, and it registers a pound. You contact the local Bureau of Weights and Measures, they bring out their scale, and lo and behold, your scale is correct, and the store owes you another half pound of beef. The store is also fined and is required to get an accurate scale.
What does this have to do with truth and reality? Everything, actually. We have the truth of the money having an accepted value at the time of purchase, we have the truth of the beef having a certain value at the time of purchase, and we have the truth of the amount a pound is equal too. Now you might say that the value of the money changes over time, and the value of the beef changes over time, so they can’t be truths because the truth is unchangeable. Well, who says? They are all a part of reality and reality changes, so the truth can change as well. We might call these transient truths, but they are truths none the less.
But what about the pound? Does that change? Well in theory, it could, but as a practical matter, the purpose of the Bureau of Weights and Measures is to see to it that it doesn’t change, so the answer is no, the amount equal to a pound does not change. This could be termed a permanent truth, the kind I think we’re all looking for, but there still is a sense of dissatisfaction. Why?
Well, you say, it’s because you are talking about “practical” truths, and we want to talk about moral and spiritual truths, the kind of truths that set you free. My answer to that is, they are the same thing, because it should be apparent that there can be no truth of any kind without a standard. In the case of the value of the money and the beef, the market, which is changeable, provides the standard, and in the case of the pound, the Bureau of Weights and Measures, which is not changeable provides the standard,
So what is the standard for moral and spiritual truths? This seems obvious to me, the standard is not a what but a who, it is G-d. The creator of all things is the creator of all truth. Of course, it is no wonder that the post-modern world denies truth, it is because the post-modern world denies G-d. Without G-d there is no truth; without truth, there is no hope.
We still haven’t addressed the problem of knowing the truth. How can one know the truth, especially in a world seemingly so full of lies? Here again a practical example might help. A parent tells a young child, don’t put your hand in the flame or it will burn you. When the parent is not looking, the child tentatively places his hand near the flame, feels the heat, and immediately learns the truth. The simple answer is we learn the truth primarily through trial and error, in other words, experience.
But that isn’t really enough, because pure trial and error can be very dangerous, and few would survive for long. The key then, is that we must have a guide, just as the parent served as a guide to the child in the example above, so we must have a guide, maybe more than one. There are many possible guides, including scripture, religions, philosophies, other people, even G-d Himself. I am not going to tell you who or what to choose as your guide, but you can probably make a good guess as to who and what are my guides.
I will say though, choose your guides wisely, make sure they have stood the test of time. What has been the fate of others who have followed those guides? Has the guide ever been wrong and what were the consequences? Make sure it is a guide you can put your faith in.
I believe that the journey from being a caterpillar to a butterfly requires a firm commitment to the truth. Truth is reality, what is. A commitment to the truth provides you with the ability to explore all possibilities, strengthens your faith, and allows you to grow. Deny the truth and you will be a slave to whatever lies you believe, but know the truth and it will indeed set you free.