Thinking Our Way to Truth
In John 17:17 Jesus prays for His own, asking His Father, “Sanctify them in the truth; your word is truth.” This sanctifying work seems to carry over the distinction from vss. 15-16 between those of the world and those of the word. Jesus and His followers will be sanctified, or set apart, not by being removed from the world, but by living in the world immersed in the truth. At the end of vs. 17 this sanctifying truth is defined as the word of God. In what follows I want to highlight just one piece of this massively important chapter, and hold it up against the common practice of our culture.
One of the implications I hear at the end of vs. 17 (your word is truth) is that the truth that sets us apart is an external, objective reality. The truth we need is God’s truth – the God who is unchangingly outside of us. His truth is not our truth anymore than His thoughts are our thoughts. Meaning not that His truth is unknowable, but that it must be revealed to us (see. vs8). His truth comes to us from without, first and perfectly in the Person of His Son, who is the Word of God. Then sufficiently and inerrantly in the Scriptures, which is the word of God. Being sanctified by God’s truth in His word means allowing an external standard to dictate what we rejoice in (see. vs.13). We must think our way to truth because it is external, objective, propositional revelation, and then we learn to rejoice in what we have come to see as God’s truth.
Our (church) culture often goes at this exactly backwards – or maybe better said – inside out. For many, truth has become individual and interior and subjective, so rather than searching it out, we search within ourselves to find it. We feel our way to truth. We grant to our emotions the incredible power of dictating what can and cannot be true about God and His creation. This happens in street-level discussions (“I just can’t believe God would do that! It feels so ______!”) and it happens in sophisticated academic debates (see Greg Boyd’s sentiment in my Overstanding the Word post below). How a proposition makes us feel when we encounter it often determines whether or not we will allow it to be truth “for us.”
Now, as much as we need to say “No” to those who invite us to feel our way to truth, it is important to acknowledge that this emphasis on engaging our emotions as we encounter truth is vital. It does no honor to God and no good to our souls if we hear in words like “objective”, “propositional” and “external” an argument against delighting ourselves in the truth of God! God’s truth is the truth of God – it is who and how He is – and God gets no glory from those who do not enjoy Him! Truth and joy, the objective and the subjective, must always go together. But the order is very important. Our emotions are a great and powerful gift and they are meant to be exercised over the truth of God in their full strength. Seeing his congregation mightily affected with the truth of God was Jonathan Edward’s goal in his pastoral ministry. As he sought to unfold the truth of God for them from the Scriptures, he put his ultimate aim in these words:
“I should think myself in the way of my duty to raise the affections [emotions] of my hearers as high as I possibly can, provided (1) they are affected with nothing but the truth and (2) and with affections that are not disagreeable to the nature of what they are affected with.”
In our search to weave together truth and emotion, revelation and response, those two qualifications are pivotal. Here is what I think Edwards means by them. Our affections must be led by the mind to see the truth. Truth isn’t what I want it to be, truth is what God has decreed it to be. And then, once we are led to see His truth, we must be led into appreciating that truth as beautiful and worth rejoicing over. This will often take a process of retooling our affections so that what once confused or offended us now delights and sustains us. So, we ask for eyes to see the revelation God has made of Himself, and then we ask for a heart that can rejoice with Him in what God has called “good”! This is being affected with nothing but the truth and affected in proportion with the truth we have come to see. And the truth of God is worth a mighty affection!