Untrue claims seem to be quite common today, especially on the Internet and social media. The art of telling true from false is as useful and important as ever. While some of the ways false claims get passed around are new (social media, for example), false stories and claims are not new. Jesus experiences them himself in the Gospels. We can learn from Jesus and the Gospels some helpful techniques for telling true from false.
One lesson we can learn from Jesus is to examine the evidence. In the Gospels, Jesus is accused of being evil for “breaking the Sabbath” by healing a sick man on a Saturday [John 5:16-18]. The Jewish Sabbath starts Friday at sunset and goes until Saturday at sunset: it is established by God for Jews as a day of rest from manual labor. Jesus does not do manual labor on the Sabbath, but he does heal people miraculously.
So is Jesus breaking the sabbath by healing? Jesus, in response to his accusers, points to the evidence. The miracles he performs are performed not by manual labor but by the power of God. If God provides healing power on the sabbath, it is clear evidence that healing on the sabbath in this way has God’s approval. The accusation of sabbath-breaking cannot be true. In the same way, we can ourselves look at the evidence for a claim, and ask ourselves whether or not the claim is consistent with the evidence. If it is not, it cannot be true.
A second lesson we can learn from Jesus’ experience in the Gospel is to be suspicious of attempts to evoke strong emotion, such as anger, disgust or fear. Here is such an attempt, made by Jesus’ accusers at his trial before Pontius Pilate:
From then on Pilate tried to release him, but … [Jesus’ accusers] cried out, “If you release this man, you are no friend of the emperor. Everyone who claims to be a king sets himself against the emperor.” [John 19:12]
Jesus’ accusers are evoking fear in Pilate of offending the Emperor, by whose favor Pilate holds his office. This fear misdirects Pilate from the question of whether Jesus really is setting himself up as King in opposition to the Emperor. He is not, of course: it is a lie. But Pilate is swayed, not by the claim, but by his fear. Pilate does not really believe Jesus is guilty, but because Pilate is afraid of being characterized as betraying the Emperor, he condemns Jesus to death anyway [John 19:16].
We can learn from this to be suspicious of attempts to evoke fear or other strong emotions such as anger, envy, hate, or disgust, that can interfere with seeing the truth. Consider the use of certain language: names and descriptions intended to evoke strong negative emotions, like “extremist”, “woke”, “hater”, “fascist”, “commie”, “bigot”, “radical”, or “ideologue”. All too often the use of emotionally loaded language is a tactic of people making a weak or false argument. It’s a form of logical “sleight of hand”: like a magician tricking an audience, strong emotions are used to misdirect the eyes of the viewers away from the weaknesses in the argument that the speaker does not want noticed, to something else that the speaker want them to look at instead. It is a trick, a manipulative illusion. Or the speaker has been overcome by emotion and is simply “venting”. Either way, do not be misled by strong emotion. Put emotion aside as best you can, even if you have to rewrite or reword a claim, removing “loaded” language to see what it is really saying. Discern the truth on the basis of the evidence, not the emotion.
A third thing we can learn from Jesus when discerning truth is to consider the witnesses. Often we are not direct witnesses of things ourselves, we need to trust the word of those who are. A witness is someone who has seen or can see the truth of something because of their better experience (such as an eyewitness) or better training (such as an expert). In the Gospels, Jesus is asked (by John the Baptist’s followers) if he is the Messiah. Jesus pointed out that they themselves are eyewitnesses and can see the answer for themselves:
Jesus had just then cured many people of diseases, plagues, and evil spirits, and had given sight to many who were blind. And he answered them, “Go and tell John what you have seen and heard: the blind receive their sight, the lame walk, the lepers are cleansed, the deaf hear, the dead are raised, the poor have good news brought to them. And blessed is anyone who takes no offense at me.” [Luke 7:21-23]
Unfortunately, opponents of Jesus tried to use “eyewitnesses” too, to make false claims about Jesus:
Now the chief priests and the whole council were looking for testimony against Jesus to put him to death; but they found none. For many gave false testimony against him, and their testimony did not agree. [Mark 14:55-56]
One difference between true testimony and false is consistency. The eyewitnesses of Jesus’ miracles all see the very same miracles, the very same events. This may not provide perfect consistency because different people notice different things and remember things slightly differently, but because their reports are of the same event, consistency is much more likely. The “witnesses” who gave false testimony about Jesus have a much harder time being consistent. This is because there is no common event that they are describing. Instead, each is making up their own story. While the false witnesses could perhaps have colluded together to make up a more consistent story, it would have required more careful and organized lying. In Jesus’ case, even his highly resourced and motivated opponents couldn’t manage it.
Another difference in Jesus’ situation between persons giving true and false testimony is bias. In the Gospel, John’s disciples are there to find out the truth about Jesus, whatever it may be. They are not strongly predisposed towards one outcome or another: they are not biased. But the false witnesses working for the chief priests and the Council who are “looking for testimony against Jesus to put him to death” [Mark 14:55] are biased towards a preferred outcome: they are not interested in the truth, they want whatever will condemn Jesus, true or not.
These two differences, bias and consistency, are helpful to us when considering who is supporting a particular claim. If we see significant inconsistency between witnesses, we should be careful. If we see strong bias towards a particular outcome, we should be careful about the claim. We should be careful, too, about our own bias. If we want badly a particular thing to be true, or if we have a deep-seated fear that something is true, there is a danger we will decide it is true not because we have carefully considered the facts, but simply because we want it to be that way or we fear it is that way. We should be careful not to let this happen.
As we see in the Gospels, Jesus faces untrue claims that are lessons for us today. These lessons are to be careful of bias in witnesses and look for consistency, to be suspicious of appeals to strong emotion and language that evokes strong emotion, and to always consider the evidence. These are all useful techniques in telling apart true from false. But there is one more technique that is perhaps more important than all of these. We look to Jesus in the Gospels for guidance about discerning truth. But Christians don’t just have stories about Jesus as recorded in the Gospels, we also have Jesus himself, living and active today. We can reach out to him in prayer, and ask him to help us tell true from false. He knows what it is like to face untrue claims. Jesus will help us discern the truth when we turn to him in prayer.
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