“Truth” is not as it seems.
If you were told that a certain son of vagabond, ne’er-do-well parents had organized a rag-tag group of friends into crusaders who went around challenging the respected ways and, having no visible means of support, apparently financing their operation through stealing, you would likely be disgusted. If you were told that the leader of the group claimed to have magical powers that He reportedly picked up in his travels, your estimation might sink even lower. You might speculate that the description fitted some nefarious cult leader.
The description also fits Jesus as seen by many of His contemporaries (Nibley, 1965). Some detractors went so far as to say that Jesus was the result of an illicit liaison between Mary and a Roman soldier.
Those of us who believe that Jesus is the Son of God find it easy to dismiss such perceptions as unsavory and unfounded rumor-mongering. Yet there is a type here. Every story has many versions. Who is to say that the scriptural version of Jesus is more accurate than those of secular historians, or contemporary playwrights and filmmakers? How can we know the truth? “Who of all these parties are right; or, are they all wrong together?” (Joseph Smith—History 1:10).
Truth is rare
Truth may not be as available and commonplace as we assume. Maybe it is impossible to size up any meaningful truth using human means alone. Maybe all of our accounts of Jesus are narrow and provincial.
When I have read biographies of Jesus, it was often much like any book learning. Yet, once in a while, something surged inside me. The study of His life occasionally opened a window in my soul and a flood of light filled me. Several times I felt a profound sense of awe. I knew truly that He was the Son of God and I felt to kneel at His feet.
That is the kind of truth that cannot be conveyed in mere words. A study of His life can prepare us, but the flooding of our souls cannot be compelled or controlled. “The wind [of the Spirit] bloweth where it listeth” (John 3: 8).
Truth is mystery
In the Church we commonly use the word mystery in two very different ways. One way is to describe an area of inquiry that is not fitting for human study or discussion. For example, the nature of marital intimacy in eternity is a mystery. We are not prepared to understand it and it is probably unproductive to speculate about it. It is enough to know that the union of two devoted souls in the eternal worlds must be lovelier than anything we can imagine here.
There is another meaning for the word mystery. A mystery is anything that can only be known by revelation. For example, “no man can say that Jesus is the Lord, but by the Holy Ghost” (1 Cor. 12:3). In the absence of revelation we can still respect Him. We can know much about His history. But we only know that He is the Son of God and Redeemer of the world when a window is opened and we are flooded with heavenly light.
In fact, maybe all the interesting truths are mysteries. We do not understand the “great plan of happiness” until the finger of God touches that stone of truth and makes it glow. We do not know that Joseph Smith is a prophet of God unless we have a divine experience in which God opens our minds and souls.
The mystery of other humans
Perhaps even the ordinary task of understanding each other is a mystery. We commonly size each other up and connect motivations with traits and develop a personality theory. We feel that we have a handle on other people. I suspect that we are mistaken. We are much like theatre-goers who dash through the theatre in the midst of the second act of a three-act play. We capture a few surface details. We hear a few lines of dialogue. But we see only a small slice of the second act. We have no access to the first act, that premortal world where God tutored and mentored us. Even as we observe those around us in this second act of mortality, we understand very little of the inner workings and histories of those we know best. As for the third and final act, “eye hath not seen, nor ear heard, neither have entered into the heart of man, the things which God hath prepared for them that love him” (1 Cor. 2:9) We do not—and, by our own powers, cannot—comprehend God’s amazing doings. Our view of each other and God’s purposes with each of His children is severely limited.
Even when we have lots of information about another person, our interpretation of the information is tainted by our own biases and assumptions. We simply have neither enough information nor enough perspective to assess each other. Think of Pilate standing face to face with the source of truth and asking “What is truth?” (John 18:38). Many of us, like Pilate, do not recognize truth when He stands before us.
Choice comes first
A pair of insightful scholars (Taylor & Brown, 1999) have observed that “humans act more like charlatans than scientists.” Rather than systematically gathering data on which to build conclusions, the human tendency is to form a conclusion and then look for data to support it. This human tendency can work for us or against us. Faith is a determination to see goodness and God in everything that happens. Faith can be based on experience but it always invites us to go beyond our evidence. We step into the darkness. We start the journey of faith with the resolve to see God in everything. With that resolve in place, we can consistently find the confirming data to justify our faith.
The same principle applies to disbelief. No one knows enough to disprove the existence of God. A person simply chooses to doubt. (Many call it “choosing to be honest.”) A person may have pains and disappointments that are the basis of the doubt, but disbelief is a choice. Then, looking through the murky lens of skepticism, a person sees darkness everywhere. The assumption is proved. It is just as self-fulfilling as faith.
In human relationships, we can base our attitudes and actions on a conscious choice. We can choose to love or to judge. If we make the stubborn resolve to love another person, we can find plenty of evidence that the person is deserving. Or we can choose to collect complaints with a predictable outcome. Or we can choose to “wait and see” which usually leads to something less than love—in a telestial world most people will disappoint our lofty expectations unless we have committed to loving them. Love does not come automatically in mortality.
Stress tries to pre-empt our choices
Captain Moroni was a model of valor and courage. He was also human. When the Nephite war for freedom was going badly, He “began to doubt” (Alma 59:11). He did not doubt God, but he began to doubt their ability to triumph in battle. Under such terrible stress, he shot off an accusing missive to Governor Pahoran. Moroni condemned him of being in a thoughtless stupor, neglect of duty, wickedness, slothfulness, idleness, even being a traitor. He threatened to bring the sword of justice and smite him.
Sometimes we are much like valiant Moroni. We put together our fragments of sense data and draw very firm conclusions. Since we know neither the full story nor the heart of others, we often miss the mark. But Pahoran was the one with heavenly moorings. In spite of the immense stresses in his circumstances and an undeserved rebuke from Moroni, he chose to see rightly. “In your epistle you have censured me, but it mattereth not; I am not angry, but do rejoice in the greatness of your heart” (Alma 61:9). Oh! That we might all be Pahorans. His response stands in stark contrast to our usual human tendency to judge everything based on its effect on us.
The Urim and Thummim of discernment
There is one way we can get a true measure of each other. It is when we have the mind of Christ. When we are filled with Him, we see as He sees and love as He loves. This blessed gift that the scriptures call charity does not come without effort. “Wherefore, my beloved brethren, pray unto the Father with all the energy of heart, that ye may be filled with this love, which he hath bestowed upon all who are true followers of his Son, Jesus Christ” (Moroni 7:48). When we partner with Christ, we will look on fellow travelers with love and appreciation.
We may know that we have properly sized up another person when we are filled with overwhelming, Christlike love for that person. Any time we feel otherwise, we are missing the mark. Any objective analysis of another person is simply mortal fiddle-faddle. My “truth” is really nothing but a parody, a caricature, a spoof of truth. It takes a small fragment of a person and views it through a dirty, distorted lens of my needs and my wisdom. The only true assessment is the one that Christ can give us. He has seen each of us in all three acts. He sees redemptively—an enormous and glorious bias! When we see others as He sees them, we are inevitably filled with awe.
This New Testament passage has priceless instructions on finding truth:
“This then is the message which we have heard of him, and declare unto you, that God is light, and in him is no darkness at all. If we say that we have fellowship with him, and walk in darkness, we lie, and do not the truth: But if we walk in the light, as he is in the light, we have fellowship one with another, and the blood of Jesus Christ his Son cleanseth us from all sin. (1 John 1:5-7)
John equates following him with being in light and knowing the truth. (See also D&C 84:45–46; and 88:6 for more insight on truth, light, and Spirit.)
C. S. Lewis (1949) observed with inspired wisdom that “it is a serious thing to live in a society of possible gods and goddesses, to remember that the dullest and most uninteresting person you talk to may one day be a creature which, if you saw it now, you would be strongly tempted to worship. . . . There are no ordinary people. You have never talked to a mere mortal” (pp.14–15, italics in original).
The source of truth
We only get to meaningful truth about God or people when we set aside all our preconceptions and surrender to Him. He is the truth (as well as the way and the life) (John 14:6). He is the One who energized the first act of this eternal “play,” directs the second act, and triumphs in the third act. It is He who understands truth because He is truth. He creates the magnificent reality through His grace. He allows us to see things as they truly are through the lens of His redemptiveness. “For we know in part, and we prophesy in part. But when that which is perfect is come, then that which is in part shall be done away. For now we see through a glass, darkly; but then face to face: now I know in part; but then shall I know even as also I am known. (1 Cor. 13:9, 10, 12)
Maybe in mortality we should be very modest in our claims to knowing truth about anyone or anything. We have tiny fragments of soiled suspicion. The only important things we truly know are those that are a gift from Him. We are wise, as Elder Maxwell has counseled, to “inventory our insights.” We can collect and cherish every divine truth given us. We can base our lives on His light. He is the reliable guide because He is filled with grace and truth (see Moses 1:6). He sees a bigger picture than we and He sees it through redemptive lenses.
“He that ascended up on high, as also he descended below all things, in that he comprehended all things, that he might be in all and through all things, the light of truth; Which truth shineth. This is the light of Christ” (D&C 88: 6–7).
We might also seek more truth by seeking diligently to be mentored by Him. While cherishing those truths He has given us we can deliberately seek His counsel in all things.
“Behold, ye are little children and ye cannot bear all things now; ye must grow in grace and in the knowledge of the truth” (D&C 50: 40).
Lewis, C. S. (1949). The Weight of Glory. New York: Macmillan Co.
Nibley, H. (1965, January). Early Accounts of Jesus’ Childhood, The Instructor.
Taylor, S. E., & Brown, J. D. (1999). Illusion and well-being: A social psychological perspective on mental health. In R. F. Baumeister (ed.), The self in social psychology. Philadelphia: Psychology Press.