I preached this sermon right after I preached the sermon on giving God blessings to others. It was part of a sermon series based on the Christian psychologist Henry Cloud's statement that spiritual transformation requires "Grace plus Truth plus Time." For me, finding the 'edge' or 'spine' that will run throughout a message to give it not simply a structure but also its energy and sense of urgency is always one of the most formidable and elusive tasks in writing a sermon.
In this case it just wrote itself. The introduction looks at going to an auto shop where they tell you what you want to hear rather than the truth about your car. The next illustration was about a doctor who refuses to tell you the truth about your health because he doesn't want to risk hurting your feelings. In both cases, most people would be furious to discover that someone they trusted would sacrifice the truth so they could avoid a temporary conflict and make you feel good.
From that point on, the sermon just seemed to flow from a simple premise: we're so steeped in self-deception and God-forgetfulness that we need others to speak the truth in love. That's the only way we can grow as individuals and as a community of Christ-followers. Having laid that foundation, I spent the last section instructing people how that works—and how it does not work.
I ended the sermon as we moved into Communion by pointing to Christ and the cross. Understanding who he is and what he's done for us is the only way we can handle the full truth about our sinfulness.
Let me begin this week's message with a thought experiment. Imagine picking your car up from the shop after a routine tune-up and the technician says, "This car is in great shape. Clearly you have an automotive genius to take great care of your car." Later that day, your brakes don't work. You find out you were out of brake fluid. You could have died.
You go back to the shop, and you say, "Why didn't you tell me?" The technician replies, "Well, I didn't want you to feel bad. Plus, to be honest, I was afraid you might get upset with me. I want this to be a safe place where you feel loved and accepted." You'd be furious! You'd say, "I didn't come here for a little fantasy-based ego boost! When it comes to my car, I want the truth."
Or imagine going to the doctor's office for a check-up. The doctor says to you, "You are a magnificent physical specimen. You have the body of an Olympian. You are to be congratulated." Later that day while climbing the stairs, your heart gives out. You find out later your arteries were so clogged that you were like one jelly doughnut away from the grim reaper.
You go back to the doctor and say, "Why didn't you tell me?" The doctor says, "Well, I knew your body is in worse shape than the Pillsbury doughboy, but if I tell people stuff like that, they get kind of offended. It's kind of bad for business. They don't come back. I want this to be a safe place where you feel loved and accepted." You'd be furious! You'd say to the doctor, "When it comes to my body, I want the truth!"
Obviously, when something matters to us, we do not want illusory comfort based on pain avoidance. We want truth … except when it comes to me. When it comes to me, I'm not sure I want the truth. Winston Churchill wrote, "Men occasionally stumble on the truth, but most of them pick themselves up and hurry off as if nothing had happened." Question: How much does your soul matter to you, really?
One more scenario: Imagine going to a church where you hear, "Don't worry if you mismanage your anger. Nobody here will confront you on that because we don't like conflict. Don't worry if you hoard lots of money. Lots of us have lots of money, but we'll never ask you to give because then some people might get mad and leave. Don't worry if you're passive in the face of injustice. We prefer passivity. We might talk occasionally about sin, especially sin out there, but nobody here will talk to you about your sin because then we wouldn't feel good. The goal is to walk out of this church feeling good!"
Of course transformation involves grace. We love grace. We love to hear about grace; we love to get books and messages about grace. The danger is we can misunderstand grace and start to worship feeling good instead of actually worshiping Jesus, about whom we're told by John, "We beheld his glory, the glory of the One and only Son of the Father, full of grace and truth." We need truth!
Our pattern of avoiding the truth
This message focuses on the words of the Apostle Paul when he was writing to a church in Ephesus that had truth problems. They preferred hearing stuff that made them feel good. But Paul wrote to them and said, "Instead, speaking the truth in love, we will in all things grow up into him who is the head, that is, Christ."
I need people who will speak truth to me because I have a sin problem, and I do not know how bad it is. It's worse than I think. Just look at a few statements from the Bible. John writes this: "If we claim we are without sin, we deceive ourselves …" that's a fascinating phrase so remember it " … and the truth is not in us." The prophet Obadiah says, "The pride of your heart has deceived you." The prophet Jeremiah also said, "The heart is deceitful above all things and beyond cure. Who can understand it?"
Along similar lines, the contemporary author Michael Novak wrote: "Our capacity for self-deception has no known limits." All sin involves self-deception. What's sobering about this is that self-deception is going on inside you and me not just daily but virtually incessantly. Of course we don't even notice it. This is a big part of the dynamic of sin.
Consider how this works for the sin of materialism. Mike has a bigger house, more money, a nicer widescreen high-definition TV than me. Honestly, I feel jealous. I want what Mike has, but I can't admit it that because that would make me feel badly about myself. So instead, I think, Mike is becoming more materialistic. He isn't concerned for the poor like he ought to be. I think that's going to separate him from God. So then I add judgmentalism to my envy, but I deceive myself into thinking that I'm merely acting with spiritual concern.
The Bible, of course, is clear about the sin of materialism, but I want to remain in my self-deception so I don't memorize Bible passages about materialism. I don't think much about the fact that 30,000 little children die every day of preventable diseases. I don't think much about the fact that a billion people … hundreds of millions of folks who I would call Christian brothers or sisters … live on $1 a day. Without thinking about it, I adopt a perspective and then arrange circumstances around me that will enable my sin. "The heart is deceitful above all things."
For instance, a while ago I was talking to a few people at our local Laundromat. It was clear neither of them had very much money. They were also both very enthusiastic members of different churches in the area. So I told them I was a pastor. That was a status enhancer in the Laundromat. It's usually not a status enhancer, but it was there. They asked me, "Where do you work?" I said, "Menlo Park Presbyterian Church."
The immediate response was, "There are a lot of rich people who go to that church." That was a conversation stopper. Then I could tell they didn't want me to feel bad, so one of them said, "I hear they do a lot of good things there, though." It was the "though" that got me thinking. I realized that I can take pride in working in the very trappings of materialistic success and all kinds of vain ambition while I claim to be preaching the gospel. Then when I look through the perspective of somebody who lives in poverty, all of a sudden the whole system looks different. I don't look through that perspective very often because the heart is deceitful above all things. The human capacity for self-deception has no known limits.
Some time ago, our family had a classic moment. One of our kids had done something wrong. The circumstantial evidence against that child was overwhelming, but the child was protesting her innocence. I was doing the cross-examination. We were all in a car, and I was just about at that Perry Mason moment of conviction and breakdown when suddenly this particular child got a flash of genius and changed tactics radically.
She got an extremely hurt look on her face and said, "Daddy, you don't think I would lie to you, do you?" I was about to reflexively say, "Well no, honey. Of course not! I would never think something like that of you" when suddenly I thought: What am I saying? The heart is deceitful above all things.
So I actually told this child, "Do I think you'd lie to me? You're darn right I do! Who would not lie? I tell lies. Your mom lies, that's for sure. Everybody I know lies. I know in your best self, you want to speak the truth, but for sure I think you're capable of lying." We all are, and we all do. Trying to grow spiritually without hearing the truth about yourself from somebody else is like trying to do brain surgery on yourself without a mirror.
I think about the contrast between two famous sayings about the truth that we'll all have to weigh. One of them is from a movie called A Few Good Men. There's a scene where Tom Cruise is examining Jack Nicholson on the stand. Tom Cruise says, "I just want the truth." Nicholson says, "You can't handle the truth!" Then I think about a saying of Jesus: "You shall know the truth, and the truth shall set you free." Now you have to decide if you're going to believe Jesus, or if you're going to believe Jack.
Here is the truth about the truth: The truth will set you free, but first it will make you miserable. I do many things that I'm not aware of in order to avoid the truth. I compartmentalize my thoughts in brilliant and skillful ways. I use selective attention. I use procrastination. I don't say "never" to a good thing; I just say "later." I use whatever perspective helps me think about myself the way I want to think about myself.
Our habit of forgetting God
Jeremiah talks about another one of the main ways we deceive ourselves about sin. "Does a maiden forget her jewelry? Does a bride forget her wedding ornaments?" The answer, of course, is no. But God says, "Yet my people have forgotten me days without number." Strategic memory loss is an amazing dynamic—and we all do it.
For a long time, I just let myself off the hook on this one. I would tell my wife I'll do a chore or take care of something related to the kids, and then I'd forget. If she got upset, I'd say, "I didn't mean to forget. You can't get mad at me for that. It's not my fault. I just forgot." But of course if I really wanted to do something on that same day, it's a funny thing but I wouldn't forget. For instance, if somebody invited me to play golf, it's kind of a funny thing but I wouldn't forget.
It turns out that I never forget things at random. I remember what really matters to me. Of course the people who know me see this truth about myself better than I do. If I forget acts of servanthood or commitments that another dad or another husband would remember, that says something about my heart.
So what does it mean to forget God? Theologian Neal Plantinga describes it this way:
I go hours, days, weeks at a time never really thinking about him; never really turn my heart and will over to him; never seriously attend to him; never bring him in sustained focus to my mind. The thought that by doing this I am wounding the One who loves me, the thought that I am entangled more and more in the sin that brought Jesus to the cross, that thought becomes bearable and then routine. Eventually I find God doesn't seem very real. I find myself not praying all that much. The less I pray, the less real God seems. I forget God. I forget sin.
How did David forget that he slept with Bathsheba and killed her husband? How do preachers forget their own sexual sin while preaching God's judgment with such vitriol? How does a billionaire extol philanthropy and preach business ethics while ripping off a whole nation in a giant Ponzi scheme? Well, they just do what you and I do all the time every day, around sexuality, gossip, judgmentalism, racism, vindictiveness, and envy. We just forget. We block who we are and what we've done out of our consciousness for extended periods of time. That's why we need each other so desperately.
Our desperate need for hearing the truth spoken in love
I desperately need you, and you desperately need me. Paul says there is only one way to grow up spiritually: speaking the truth. There is a frightening charge God gives to a prophet named Ezekiel. God says, "Son of man, I've made you a watchman for the family of Israel." That means that we're all supposed to act like priests and watchmen for each other. God said to Ezekiel, "If I say to the wicked, 'You are going to die,' and you [Ezekiel] do not sound the alarm warning them that it's a matter of life or death, they will die and it will be your fault. I'll hold you responsible."
Our tendency to avoid the truth is a sin—and, sadly, it's possible that this is a very deep sin for our church. A friend of mine calls it "the sin of conniving." In conniving, we collude with each other to not call each other on our sin. In conniving, we say, "I'll help you ignore your sin; you help me ignore mine." Now, of course, we don't say it in those words. We don't even recognize it. That's what makes it so powerful.
It works like this example: Dan hates Fred. Of course, he can't say that he hates Fred. He can't even admit it to himself because he is a Christian. That would make him feel bad. So Dan tells himself that he has "concerns" for Fred. He claims that he's "concerned" for the people Fred might hurt. Dan wants to see bad in Fred, and he doesn't want to acknowledge there is good in Fred. He looks for evidence that will justify his negativity about Fred. His mind is distorted by his sin. He doesn't tell blatant lies; he just consistently interprets Fred's words in the darkest way possible.
Everybody sees this in him, but nobody in Dan's circle of friends says, "Hey, Dan. You have a hate problem" because they have problems too. If they start challenging Dan on his problems, somebody might start challenging them on theirs. It might make things unpleasant. It might rock the boat a little bit. So they don't. They try to calm him down maybe, but they don't speak the truth. But is that even love?
David went for a year living in the vague self-deception of sin about Bathsheba. Finally a man named Nathan had the guts to approach David and share a brilliant parable about a rich man who killed a lamb, the only lamb belonging to a poor guy. At first David was furious, until Nathan said, "You're the man." David was crushed, but it also saved his spiritual life and his career. So who is your Nathan right now? Who loves you that much? Do you really want the truth?
In Galatians Paul said, "One time when Peter came to Antioch, I had a face-to-face confrontation with him because he was clearly out of line." Peter had given into pressure and become legalistic and exclusive. Paul loved him enough to call him on it. Who is your Paul? Who loves you that much? Bill Hybels claims that truth-telling always should include telling "the last ten percent." That means that we not only confront others when they need it, but we also share the really hard and painful stuff—the last ten percent stuff. That's not easy, is it?
What do we do instead? At the last minute, instead of naming the issue clearly, we shrink back and get fuzzy out of fear. We don't tell the last ten percent. Somebody comes up to you, and the truth is, they're just clingy. This has gone on for years. You really want to say, "Don't you realize the reason people run the other way from you is you cling like Glad Wrap. You become like a black hole of emotional need that makes you constantly self-focused." But you actually just say, "Hey, I'm kind of busy right now. Can you come back later?" But you don't love this person enough to be honest and speak the last ten percent.
In Ephesians 4:15 Paul tells us how to speak the truth. Unfortunately, this is how we normally do it: we see destructive patterns in somebody but then we don't say anything because we don't want to upset people. Then that person will do something that really makes us mad, and all of the sudden we'll unload our entire stockpile of ammunition against them. We could call this "the ministry of unloading." But Paul did not tell us, "Speaking the truth in self-righteous indignation …" Some people are a little too eager to speak the truth. They do truth-speaking recreationally, but there is no love.
Charlie and Martha Shedd were wonderful writers and teachers on Christian marriage. They had a relationship where they were deeply open and honest, but always in a context of love. Charlie said the single most memorable letter he ever got from Martha was when they were in the middle of a big fight. She wrote, "Dear Charlie, I hate you. Love, Martha." That is speaking the truth in love.
Now let's get practical by considering a real life communication issue, like when to send e-mails. If you're mad at somebody, if thinking about them makes your blood boil, is e-mail the best form of Christ-like communication? Researchers are doing work now on the damage in communities caused by what are called flaming e-mails. Whenever you send an email, you're not looking the other person in the face. You just rehearse the anger in your brain, and levels of sarcasm, hostility, contempt, and judgment get expressed in ways you would never do in the presence of a real person.
Then you hit "send." It can go anywhere, and it can last forever. I've seen chains of e-mail between Christian brothers and sisters where they're writing about somebody else they disagree with theologically or spiritually or culturally or politically, but what comes out is not simply disagreement but a level of contempt that's just jaw-dropping. We have to ask ourselves: Would I want Jesus to read that email? So let's not write any e-mails we wouldn't want Jesus to read (because he'll read them all anyway).
We can know how Jesus would e-mail. One of his most famous teachings is the Golden Rule: "Do unto others as you would have them do unto you." So could we agree to the "golden rule" of e-mail? E-mail unto others as you would have others e-mail unto you. How many of you would be willing to make this commitment before God today: you will follow the "golden rule" of e-mail? Raise your hand. How many of you would rather say, "No, I'd like to reserve the right to sinfully e-mail people as it seems important to me"? Don't speak the truth in self-righteous, judgmental, sarcastic ways that give the Evil One a toe-hold on your soul or on this community.
Instead, speak the truth in love. The best way for a community to do this is by invitation. I have some people in my life where I've said, "If you see anything in me at anytime, call me on it." Of course that level of speaking the truth requires trust, and trust takes time, but a Christian community that is not speaking the truth in love is not really a Christian community. And there's only one place to find perfect grace and truth: at the cross of Jesus. Only Jesus can enable us to speak the truth in love. It's only at the cross where we see a full picture of God's grace for us and the ugly truth about our sin.
So we're going to come to the Lord's Table for communion. But before we celebrate Communion, we're going to prepare for it by courageously looking at the truth.
I mentioned earlier the sin of forgetting God. The Communion Table is a great healer for that sin because when we come to the table, Jesus says, "Do this in remembrance of me." So we're going to take some time to remember our sins in the light of the cross. Sin often causes me to think about the wrong things. For instance, I can think about a sin somebody committed against me for a long time, but I sure won't dwell on the way I've sinned against somebody else. Refusing to admit the ways we've sinned against others is all part of the damage caused by sin.
When I repent I ask God to reveal as much of the truth about my sin as I can bear so God can help heal me. I'll mention one area at a time. You ask God whatever truth he wants to show you, and offer him a repentant heart. If your mind wanders, just gently bring it back before God.
Remember your words for the last day or few days or week or month. Where have you used words that were deceptive? Where have you used words to manipulate? Where have you said bitter words? Where did you withhold words of love or encouragement that you should have spoken?
Again, remember that we're standing before God through the cross of Jesus. Remember your attitudes. Where have you been judgmental in ugly ways? Where has envy gnawed away at you? Where have you been entitled instead of grateful?
Think about your finances. Where have you not been trusting God for security? Where have you not had God's heart for the poor? Where do you need to confess to God the sin of hoarding, the sin of undisciplined desire, or the failure to give to the Lord?
Remember your behavior. Where have you committed sexual sin? Where have you indulged in a bad habit that you haven't been willing to bring to the light? When have you been selfish? Where does God want to convict you?
Jesus says, "This is my body broken." When I hold the bread, I'm reminded it's my sin that broke the body of Christ and the heart of God. I do not use the cross as a way to wallpaper over my unrepentant heart so I can feel good. I earnestly ask God's forgiveness. I tell God that I'll do whatever he wants me to do to make things right. I ask God to break what is sinful in me so I can be healed.
John Ortberg is pastor of Menlo Park Presbyterian Church in Menlo Park, California.