THE TRUTH HURTS (AND HEALS)
Written by Doug Ponder on April 12, 2013
Sticks And Stones
I remember hearing a small child in elementary school say the following to his (former) friend: “You’re a loser. I’m sorry, but the truth hurts.”
He wasn’t sorry. He was using an old saying (“the truth hurts”) as justification for his rudeness. It was a convenient excuse to say what he wanted without having to care about how he said it (not to mention whether or not it was actually a true statement).
Adults are no better. We just get more creative with how we use, “The truth hurts,” to justify saying whatever we want to the people around us. (Well, some people get more creative. Others still sound a lot like third graders.)
Now, when I say “the truth hurts and heals” (as in the title of the article), I don’t mean that the truth hurts because it’s rude. I mean that truth reveals to us things about ourselves that we don’t like to hear, at least not initially. Thus the truth “hurts.” But it also “heals.” It helps us and shows us what we ought to know and be and do.
Amazingly, Jesus taught that the same truth both hurts and heals. It’s not like this truth over here hurts you, while that truth over there helps you. Like a surgeon that must cut his patient in order to heal his body, the truth is a sharp-edged sword that must pierce our heart before it can heal our souls. In other words, the healing and hurting are connected for a purpose. The truth must hurt us in order to heal us.
Quod Est Veritas?
But what “truth” are we talking about? Any truth? All truth?
When we talk about “truth,” we are talking about specific truth. Not just truths like 2 + 2 = 4, or the fact that America was the first nation to put someone on the moon. Rather, we’re talking about the message that Jesus called the truth. Addressing his Father in heaven, Jesus prayed, “Sanctify them in the truth; your word is truth” (John 17:17).
Jesus was talking about what Christian theologian Francis Schaeffer called “true truth.” The Scriptures (God’s written word) give us the truth about God, the truth about ourselves, and the truth about the world we live in. Of course, the Scriptures don’t give us exhaustive knowledge about all things; they weren’t meant to do that. (You can’t figure out how to get to Argentina by reading the Bible, for example.) But the Scriptures do give us true and unified knowledge about our Creator, our own nature, and our environment. It is this truth that we have been speaking about all along. In other words, it is the truth about God, about ourselves, and about the world we live in that hurts us and heals us.
But how can a message hurt us and heal us? And what do we mean by “hurt” and “heal” anyway?
The Truth Hurts
It may be obvious, but I’m not saying that the Bible’s message will physically hurt you. That’s just silly. What we are talking about, rather, is the ability for the Bible’s message to offend us. It “hurts” our pride, for example, by reminding us that we are basically nothing before the power of God (Daniel 4:35) and that even the world’s mightiest empires are like a drop from a bucket or some dust on the scales (Isaiah 40:15, 17). The message of the Bible might even hurt our feelings, for it tells us that we all are sinful, guilty, and corrupt in our hearts (Rom. 3:10-18; Jer. 17:9).
That’s not exactly the kind of news that you go shouting from the rooftops. “Hey, everyone! I’ve got something I want to tell you. I’m sinful, guilty, and corrupt!” It may not be pleasant, but it’s true nonetheless. Furthermore, denying our sin, our guilt, and our corrupted hearts won’t change anything. In fact, that’ll only make things worse for us. (It would be like trying to deny the existence of gravity as you jump off a cliff.)
This is why we said the truth must hurt before it can heal. Or as Christian author Frederick Buechner famously wrote, “The gospel is bad news before it is good news. It is the news that man is a sinner, to use the old word, that he is evil in the imagination of his heart, that when he looks in the mirror all in a lather what he sees is at least eight parts chicken, phony, slob. That is the bad news. But it is also the news that he is loved anyway, cherished, forgiven, bleeding to be sure, but also bled for. That is the good news” (Telling the Truth, p. 7).
The Truth Heals
To be “healed” is to be cured of a problem. As the Scriptures make clear, our “problem” is our sin, both our guilt and our corruption. Therefore, we need to be healed of sin. But how?
If we can be honest about ourselves, if we can believe what God says about our sin, about our need for him, and about his provision for us in Christ, we can be healed. This is what Jesus meant when he said, “You will know the truth, and the truth will set you free” (John 8:32). He’s talking about freedom from slavery to our own sinful desires. That kind of freedom doesn’t come easy, though. Jesus called it “dying to self.” That was his way of saying that the truth will hurt you and heal you. It may feel like death, but it is actually setting you free—free from your blindness to the way things are, free from your ignorance of your need for Jesus, free from your selfish desires, free from your guilt for sin.
All this gives us a fresh perspective to what the author of Hebrews meant when he said the Scriptures are sharper than a sword. (“The word of God is living and active, sharper than any two-edged sword, piercing to the division of soul and of spirit, of joints and of marrow, and discerning the thoughts and intentions of the heart,” cf. Heb. 4:12.) A surgeon’s scalpel cuts us in order to cure us, and the truth of the Scriptures hurts us in order to heal us. Or as one Christian artist sings: “When what is true / looks more like a knife / It looks like you’re killing me / but you’re saving my life” (Derek Webb, “I See Things Upside Down”).
You Can Run But You Can’t Heal
One major implication of this is that Christians—people who ought to be committed to the truth of the Scriptures—should not try to run from conviction. When the Spirit of God uses truth from the Scriptures, whether delivered by a sermon of the church, a conversation over coffee, or an idea brought to mind, we ought not bury it. Here’s why. If you flee from the truth—say, by denying your sin or your need to change in one area—then you will never be healed by the truth. Some people do this by leaving their church family (or their community group, or their circle of friends) every time something is said that offends them. They never suppose that it might be God’s truth hurting them in order to heal them of their sinful thinking, their sinful attitudes, or their sinful actions. If what Jesus said about being set free by the truth and “dying to self” have any importance to us (and they should!), then perhaps we should be slow to run and quick to listen.
God wants to save your life. You must let the light of Christ shine into your darkened heart (John 8:12). The other option is death (Rom. 6:22-23). I’ll pray you’ll let his truth hurt you so that he may heal you.
Doug Ponder is one of the founding pastors of Remnant Church in Richmond, VA, where he serves in many of the church’s teaching ministries. He has contributed to several published works and is the author of Rethink Marriage & Family. His interests include the intersection of theology, ethics, and the Christian life. Follow him on Twitter @dougponder.