By L. Alfred James
Do you want to become a better person? Do you want to grow in your character? Do you want to enhance your ability to love others? Do you want to improve your health? If so, I can tell you what you need: truth.
It sounds trite to say this, but it still needs to be said: Human beings need truth. They need to hear the truth, and they need to be firmly convinced that it is indeed the truth. That is what motivates them to make changes in their lives. Otherwise, they tend to accumulate bad habits and make lots of poor choices.
To use a scientific metaphor, human existence is filled with entropy. We don’t become better people on accident. Just like water’s tendency to flow downhill, we human beings have a tendency to go downhill in almost every way: our character, our health, our finances, etc. If you want your life to fall apart, its really easy, all you have to do is nothing. Stop paying attention to your budget. Stop making an effort to eat healthy. Lay aside your intentions to care about others. Guess what will happen? You will be fat, poor, and lonely.
The only way to stop the natural downward spiral of life is to face the truth. The only way we ever mature and take responsibility for our lives is if we are confronted with the truth. Where there is no truth there is no growth.
For example, I am not naturally motivated to exercise. It seems like I can always find an excuse to avoid it. I honestly don’t enjoy jogging until I’m out of breath, or lifting weights until my muscles ache. Nonetheless, I’ve had enough conversations with doctors, and I’ve read enough credible books about the value of exercise, that I’m now motivated to do it on a regular basis. I don’t want to. But I still do it, because I believe the truth. The truth motivates me to do it.
Sometimes, when I’m jogging, I feel miserable. I get side stitches. My back hurts. My legs hurt. I want to quit. “I think five minutes of exercise is enough for today.” But then I remember the truth. I remember how medical research conclusively proves that exercise is beneficial for keeping one’s blood-sugar balanced, keeping one’s heart healthy, helping one to sleep at night, etc. My conviction that the scientific research is the truth strengthens my resolve to have healthy habits. It gives me the extra motivation I need to do something that is hard to do. This is why I need truth.
By the same token, I am not naturally motivated to fight against my own selfishness. It seems I can always find an excuse to justify my own selfish behavior and to prove to myself that, say, my angry outbursts towards others are simply a result of “other people being so stupid.” However, when I read the Bible, I realize my behavior is wrong. I see that I have no excuse. I realize I can’t blame others for my anger. It is my problem and I need to deal with it. Moreover, I also see that all of my actions have eternal consequences for myself and others. This infuses my everyday choices with a great sense of meaning. My choices are not inconsequential. Finally, the Bible teaches me that I am going to be judged by God for my behavior. Thus, I’m not only motivated to do the right thing because it is right, and because it matters, I’m also motivated because there is a just God who will judge me for my actions in this life. This dramatically impacts how I conduct myself toward others. It makes me much more patient, loving, and sympathetic than I would otherwise be. Again, I need the truth.
You probably get the idea. I could say similar things about controlling my sexual urges, fighting my natural desire to love money, keeping my pride in check, caring about those who are in poverty, etc. The Bible, as the word of God, confronts me with the truth. It confronts me with a standard of morality, a deep sense of meaning, and the reality that I will one day be judged for my actions. And this motivates me to do things that I don’t naturally want to do.
My point? We are quick to agree that we need medical truth to motivate us to make healthy choices and adopt healthy habits. But the same thing is true when it comes to our moral choices and habits. We need truth. Otherwise, we get caught in a downward spiral of self-justification and excuse-making. “I’m not hurting anyone by doing this.” “I’m not addicted. I can quit at any time!” “Yeah, she’s married. But this is entirely consensual, and we both love each other!”
Christian Truth And Society
The history of the human race is proof positive that the moral character of individuals and societies does not improve on its own. Societies, just like individuals, tend to drift in a downward direction. They only improve when someone stands up and says, “We are wrong. We need to change.” In fact, most of the moral principles that we (as Westerners) hold dear are a result of Christians doing just that.
This is why even an atheist like the historian Tom Holland insists that Christianity has been the greatest force for good in reforming the world and making western culture what it is today. In his recent book Dominion: How the Christian Revolution Remade the World Holland explains how he reluctantly came to believe that Christian truth claims have been absolutely essential for recognizing human rights, elevating the status of women, abolishing slavery, and bringing about several other core values of western culture.
In a recent article, the Stream summarized Holland’s work:
Christianity revolutionized sex and marriage, demanding that men control themselves and prohibiting all forms of rape. Christianity confined sexuality within monogamy. (It is ironic, Holland notes, that these are now the very standards for which Christianity is derided.) Christianity elevated women. In short, Christianity utterly transformed the world.
In fact, Holland points out that without Christianity, the Western world would not exist. Even the claims of the social justice warriors who despise the faith of their ancestors rest on a foundation of Judeo-Christian values. Those who make arguments based on love, tolerance, and compassion are borrowing fundamentally Christian arguments. If the West had not become Christian, Holland writes, “no one would have gotten woke.”1
Holland is not alone in making this claim. Rodney Stark, Alvin J. Schmidt, and Jonathan Hill have all argued the same point for years. Christian doctrines led to the creation of hospitals, the equality of women, the abolition of slavery, the rule of law (instead of the arbitrary dictates of a monarch), the creation of democracy, and many, many other blessings that we take for granted.
The Indian philosopher Vishal Mangalwadi largely agrees with this thesis. But he is quick to point out that scripture is the basis for all of these transformative Christian truth claims. They are not the random byproduct of mere traditions or rituals. These Christian truth claims are main doctrines of the Bible:
The Bible has been the greatest humanizing force in history. It drove the movement for the abolition of slavery and promoted care for the weak, such as widows, orphans, the handicapped, and leprosy patients. From liberating and rehabilitating temple prostitutes to reforming prisons and bringing sanity and morality to wars, the biblical tradition has been the most powerful civilizing force. Today, secular ideology has taken over institutions like the Red Cross. Commercial interest has captured practices like nursing care. New Age groups have become champions of the prevention of cruelty to animals. And historians have forgotten the origin of human rights and the justification of civil disobedience. Originally these were all expressions of what the Bible calls the fruit of the Spirit: “love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, self-control.”2
This means that the Bible was essential. Without it—according to these scholars—western culture would not exist.
Therefore, societies need truth, just like individuals. Without truth we have no power to stand against the entropy of human existence. Societies drift into a downward spiral. But with the truth, we can radically transform ourselves and our world. And the Bible is that source of truth.
What This Means
To be sure, this does not prove that the Bible is the word of God. Maybe it is just a happy coincidence that the Bible was so instrumental in shaping our world for the better. Honestly, that’s not very likely. But, for the sake of argument, let’s just assume it is true. Suppose there is no revelation from God at all. Where does that leave us?
Personally speaking, it leaves me without any standard of truth that I am wholeheartedly confident in. It leaves me shorn of my most powerful weapon for fighting against my own selfishness. It destroys the most powerful motives I have for fighting my greed, lust, and pride.
It leaves me without transcendent truth. In its place, I am left with merely human ideas and philosophies, none of which have the authority to jerk the slack out of me, to wake me up from my tendency for self-deception and excuse-making. This is because I can find problems, limitations, and loopholes in any human philosophy.
It also leaves society without any moral standard that is absolute. In its place, we are left merely with majority rule, which tends to devolve into mob rule, which tends to devolve into charismatic-madman rule.
2. Mangalwadi, Vishal. The Book that Made Your World (p. 300). Thomas Nelson. Kindle Edition.