Last Tuesday, while driving my children to school, a commercial for a local non-denominational church came on the radio. The spokesperson for the church said, "We stand for God's truth; we don't bow to the world." My twelve year old son asked what that meant, especially the "bow to the world" part.
So I explained that the way God wants us to live and the way the "world" wants us to live are sometimes two totally different things. Sometimes the rules are the same: for example, don't murder, don't steal, and don't lie. Most people around the world agree that these are good rules, and whoever breaks them has not only broken God's law, but also the laws of the world.
Other times, the world's message is contrary to God's message. For example, God tells people repeatedly throughout the Bible to help those in need, to think about other people as much as you think about yourself; but the world advises us to think about our own needs first, to look out for "numero uno". God says repeatedly throughout the Bible to remain faithful to him above all others; but the world promotes worshiping other things, like money, people, fame, etc. Probably this is what the commercial was talking about.
As I continued to ponder the meaning of that commercial, I shared my thoughts with my son:
The problem with thinking that you know "God's Truth" is that no one can know God's truth entirely. We can know many things about God, but we cannot know everything. God is bigger than our understanding of him.
Some people say that to find God's truth all you have to do is read the Bible. Well, there are two problems with this viewpoint. One is that the Bible shows progression over time; God's will, or man's understanding of that will, sometimes changes. Jesus himself leaves open the possibility that God's truth, or our understanding of it, will continue to expand when he tells his disciples that he will give us a Counselor, the Holy Spirit, who will continue to guide us and lead us to all truth. (John 16:12-13)
The second reason why it is difficult to simply read the Bible to find God's truth is that different writers emphasized different aspects of their understanding of God's will. And sometimes they contradict themselves, or each other. And so in these instances it is difficult to know what is most important to God.
The Pharisees, for example, who were leaders of the faith during the time of Jesus believed that God wanted people to be pure and holy above all else. Then Jesus came along and said (the following is my paraphrase), "Yes, but... God is also merciful and compassionate. So don't let your rules get in the way of loving your neighbor as yourself." So, while the Pharisees believed that God would not want anyone to do any work on the Sabbath, not even lighting a fire, Jesus said, "Yes, but...if someone's well-being depends upon your helping them immediately, then help them." In this way, Jesus broke many "laws". The Pharisees, and other Jewish leaders, could not accept this new way of understanding God's will. And so, thinking that they were following God's truth, they had him killed.
This has been the case throughout history. People have taken stands over their understanding of God's will using Scripture as their primary source of argument. Issues over celibacy, who Jesus was, the meaning of the Eucharist, the meaning of Baptism, etc., etc., etc., have divided the faithful from each other. People have even killed each other because of their differences in understanding! Now that cannot be God's will.
So, can we ever know God's truth for sure? Well, yes. Some things never change. Thankfully, throughout the Bible, you will also find consistent messages: always be faithful, don't kill, don't commit adultery, love your neighbor as yourself, take care of those in need, feed the hungry, visit the sick, etc.; and God is just, merciful, and steadfast. These messages never change. All of God's messengers agree on these "truths". Follow them and you will be like someone building their house on solid rock, as Jesus said.
But for the rest, for the issues that are more uncertain, the debates in which there is some measure of doubt on each side, we take the risk of falling into error if we call those "God's Truth", as well. For we may be in danger of substituting Our Truth for God's Truth.
The best advice I can give is to test your opinion against the teachings and example of Jesus, for he knew God best of everyone. If you are in line with Jesus, then you are probably safe.
My son's comment at the end of my explanation? "Wow, all that from one little question." I had to laugh. Sorry, honey, but that's what you get for having me as your mother. It seemed like a perfect "teachable moment". And I, too, wanted to stand up for "God's Truth".
Dear God, please keep shining your light on us. May we never forget that you are much bigger that any of us can ever know for sure. Love always, Pam