“Why do we tell lies?” asks John Webster. “We lie to evade reality; we lie because the truth is too painful or too shameful for us to face, or because the truth is simply inconvenient and has to be suppressed before it’s allowed to disturb us. We invent lies because, for whatever reason, we want to invent reality. And the false reality which we invent, the world we make up by our lying, has one great advantage for us: It makes no claims on us. It demands nothing. It doesn’t shape us in the way that truth shapes us; it faces us with no obligations; it has no hard, resistant surfaces which we can’t get through. A lie is made-up reality, and so never unsettles, never criticizes, never resists, never overthrows us. It’s the world, not as it is, but as we wish it to be: a world organized around us and our desires, the perfect environment in which we can be left at peace to be ourselves and to follow our own good or evil purposes.”
Tell me this doesn’t describe our world in 2021. And it’s not without consequence. Webster continues:
Lies are a desperately destructive force in human life. When they take the form of private fantasy, they rob us of our ability to deal truthfully with the outside world; but when lies go public, when an entire social group replaces reality with untruth, then the consequences are deadly. Sometimes, indeed, they can be literally deadly: Lies can kill.
Lies work only when they remain unexposed. Once truth is allowed out, once reality is let in, then the lie vanishes; the whole world of falsehood just crashes to the ground. And if the lie is to be maintained intact, then anything which speaks the truth has to be got rid of.
Totalitarian societies, dishonest businesses, abusive human relationships – they all depend on the exclusion of truth and truth-speakers, making sure that what really is the case isn’t allowed to come to light. Lies only work when they aren’t shown up for what they are; and that’s why lies always breed more lies, as we try to protect the world we’ve invented from being exposed.
This is pretty searing stuff. Pretty exposing for our culture. But Webster is not simply a critic. He is a preacher of the Gospel. And so, like we must, he turns to apply Gospel medicine to this very human wound:
At the heart of the story of the passion, therefore, is the confrontation of truth and falsehood. Why does Christ die? Why is he suppressed, cast out and finally silenced by death? Because he speaks truth. He dies because in him there is spoken the truth of the human condition. He is the truth. In his person, as the one who he is, as the one who does what he does and says what he says, he announces the truth of the world, and thereby exposes its untruth.
He shoes up human falsehood in all its depravity. And he does so, not as a relatively truthful human person, nor even as a prophet inspired to declare what is hidden, but as God himself. His words, his declaration of the truth, are God’s declaration. He is therefore truth in all its finality; truth unadorned, truth which interrupts and casts down every human lie, every obstacle to seeing reality as it is. In him there is a complete judgement, an unambiguous showing of the truth from which we may not hide. It’s this which is at the core of the conflict between Jesus and Israel; and it’s for this that he is sent to his death. What is the final terror which he evokes in those who hear him? Simply this: “they perceived that he was speaking about them.”
This, of course, is the truth of the cross, the truth of what we call “Good Friday.” It is the beginning of the way out of our lies–to acknowledge the truth of Jesus, and especially this truth–that when Jesus hung there on that cross, it was because we deserved to, and not him. That truth is big enough to unravel all the lies. And it unleashes the first rays of hope, as Webster observes:
What is the only hope? That the face of God may shine upon us. That God may so present us with the truth that our falsehood is put away. That God may restore us by interposing himself between us and our destruction. That God will intercept our death-dealing ways and give us life.
It’s the conviction of the Christian faith that that prayer has already been answered, finally, fully and with absolute sufficiency, in the events of Good Friday and Easter Day. It’s the conviction of Christian faith that Israel was not allowed to destroy itself or to reject its God. It’s the conviction of Christian faith that human falsehood has been set aside once for all, that God’s covenant stands, and that we stand within that covenant by his mercy alone. And that is why we may approach Holy Week with this prayer in our mouths:
Turn again, O God of hosts! Look down from heaven, and see…Then we shall not turn back from you; give us life, and we shall call upon your name. (Psalm 80:14, 18)
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