Subjective Feelings, Objective Truth, and the Importance of a Reliable Compass

Gulliver’s Travels is Jonathan Swift’s satirical story about a shipwrecked man who encounters all kinds of previously unknown and bizarre cultures. In the film adaptation, Gulliver has been placed in a mental hospital, undergoing evaluation to consider whether he is of sound mind and ready to be released. One of the hospital administrators asks whether he still believes the lunacy he once claimed to be true, to which Gulliver responds in the affirmative.

Just after being declared insane, the back doors of the room swing open and Gulliver’s 8-year-old son comes forward holding a small box. Upon opening the container, out walks a tiny, 5-inch tall sheep, which begins to prance around the table making a “neighing” sound. In shock, the critics realize Gulliver’s testimony was true after all. 

At some point, every follower of Jesus will be faced with a similar situation as Gulliver. You might not be locked in an asylum for your testimony (at least not yet), but you may be the object of the same ridicule. It is not the land of the Lilliputians we claim to be real, but places such as heaven and hell. We profess the reality of angels and demons and that a personal Creator entered our world as a man in the person of Jesus, who lived a perfect life, died a substitutionary death, and was physically raised from the dead, ascended to heaven, from where he presently reigns and from which he will return. 

The issue we must face is not how I feel about these things but whether they are true. As C.S. Lewis famously said, “Christianity, if false, is of no importance, but if true, it is of infinite importance. The only thing it cannot be is moderately important.”

In John 14:15-17, 25-26, Jesus gives us the confidence to embrace the infinite importance of the gospel–confidence that finds its foundation in what Jesus calls the Holy Spirit. 

15 “If you love me, you will keep my commands. 16 And I will ask the Father, and he will give you another Advocate to help you and be with you forever— 17 the Spirit of truth. The world cannot accept him, because it neither sees him nor knows him. But you know him, for he lives with you and will be in you…  25 All this I have spoken while still with you.  26 But the Advocate, the Holy Spirit, whom the Father will send in my name, will teach you all things and will remind you of everything I have said to you. 

The Holy Spirit is not the Revealer of a Truth but the Truth

Just before the word truth in verse 17, there is a “the” in the original Greek text, making Jesus’ name for the Spirit not just the Spirit of truth but the Spirit of the truth. Not just truth in some generic sense or a truth among many.  But universal, transcultural, and unchanging truth.Speaking to students at the University of Notre Dame in 1981, Francis Schaeffer made a staggering claim, saying, “Christianity is not a series of truths in the plural, but rather truth spelled with a capital T. Truth about total reality, not just about religious things. Biblical Christianity is Truth concerning total reality—and (the believer’s calling is) the intellectual holding of that Truth and living in the light of that Truth.”

Schaeffer is saying that disciples of Jesus are both to embrace the clear revelation of the Spirit in the Scriptures as their guide for what to believe about all reality and how to live within that reality. In other words, God’s revealed and received truth is not only to inform our personal faith but is to influence our public lives as well.

This is where the rubber hits the road.  Am I going to believe and live in light of the truth or exchange the truth for lies? Gulliver understood how difficult it is to live by the truth, especially when truth is culturally unpopular.  Unpopular at work, at school, in your family, and among your friends.  

English writer, G.K. Chesterton (1874-1936) said a century ago, “Fallacies do not cease to be fallacies just because they become fashions.”  The same is the case with any doctrine, social position, or personal preference. The litmus test of truth is not what I feel about something but what has the Spirit of truth has revealed about it. Consequently, being familiar with the revealed truth of the Spirit protects us from the little lies that become leaven of deceit. 

The Leaven of Little Lies

There is no arguing the fact that Stefani Germanotta is an exceptionally talented singer and actress. She is the only person ever to win an Academy Award, a Grammy Award, a BAFTA Award, and a Golden Globe Award in the same year. You may know her better as Lady Gaga. 

In an interview with New York Magazine, Gaga said,  “What I’ve discovered is that in art, as in music, there’s a lot of truth—and then there’s a lie. The artist is essentially creating his work to make this lie a truth, [by sliding the lie in among the truths]. The tiny little lie is the moment I live for.”
This sounds a bit like someone else we know from the opening chapters of Genesis. The character became identified as the Father of lies, who sought to deceive the first humans in the garden with subtle lies about what God had said. The plan worked, and humanity has been suffering the consequences ever since. The Father of lies is still at work, with artists such as Lady Gaga unwittingly serving as conduits for his sly cultural and spiritual deception. 

Along these lines of slipping in a lie among truth in order to make the lie become a cultural truth, I think of a song by country artist, Luke Bryan. Some of the lyrics go like this:

I believe kids oughta stay kids as long as they can;
Turn off the screen, go climb a tree, get dirt on their hands. 
I believe most Friday nights look better underneath neon stadium lights.I believe that days go slow and years go fastAnd every breath’s a gift, the first one to the last.

Yes, and amen! All true. But then he slides in the lie.

I believe this world ain’t half as bad as it looks;
 I believe most people are good.

Maybe Luke Bryan means that compared to serial killers and politicians, most people, on the outside, look relatively good. But compared to the standard of goodness revealed by the Spirit of Truth, no one except Jesus may lay claim to being good.[1] As Paul writes in Romans 3:10, 23, “There is no one who does good, not one. There is no one who is righteous, no not one… for all have sinned and fallen short of the glory (the moral perfection and purity) of God.” 

The lie that people are basically a good becomes a smokescreen that keeps us from seeing our need for the mercy of God in the cross of Jesus. For example, if I have a terminal illness, just saying that I don’t doesn’t make it go away. There is another lie on the other end of the spectrum that says you are so depraved that you are beyond forgiveness. 

If the first lie prevents us from seeing our need to be forgiven the second prevents us from seeing Jesus’ desire and ability to forgive. To correct these lies with truth, the Spirit was sent to remind the apostles of all Jesus had done and taught. In verses 25-26 of our key passage in John 14, Jesus says, 

25 All this I have spoken while still with you. 26 But the Advocate, the Holy Spirit, whom the Father will send in my name, will teach you all things and will remind you of everything I have said to you. 

The “everything” the Spirit would reveal should be understood in light of the redemptive acts of Jesus, centering on his perfect life, substitutionary, atoning death, victorious resurrection, and triumphant ascension, because the Spirit’s purpose is not merely to reveal the hard truth of our moral ugliness but is to reveal the beauty of the sinner’s hope. In this way, the Spirit acts as a floodlight upon the cross. 

A Floodlight Ministry

In his book, Keep in Step with the Spirit, J.I. Packer tells a story about walking one night to preach the evening service for a local church. 

I remember walking to a church one winter evening to preach on the words, “He shall glorify me.” Seeing the building floodlit as I turned a corner, [I realized] that this was exactly the illustration my message needed. When floodlighting is well done, the floodlights are so placed that you do not see them; you are not in fact supposed to see where the light is coming from; what you are meant to see is just the object upon which the floodlights are [focused].[2]

In my opinion, the most profound truth any human can grasp is the reality of God’s grace in Jesus through the cross. To be convinced that you are more sinful and worthy of hell than you could ever confess but that the blood of Jesus is more powerful to cleanse and forgive than you could dream. To believe without reservation that Jesus was crucified for your ugly truths and has made you beautiful in the Father’s sight, no longer seen as a ruined sinner but as a beloved son or daughter covered in the perfect righteousness of the Son. 

As I personally begin to grasp this truth, an awareness of his love for me fills me, and my love for him overflows with a desire to give him reign—complete authority—over every corner of my life.  

A Desire for Jesus to Reign Over Every Corner of My Life

In verse 15, Jesus said pointedly, “If you love me, you will keep (obey) my commands.” This is how we know who true Christians are. They have a deep desire to submit their lives to the ways of Jesus for the glory of Jesus. This is what distinguishes the true believer not only from the unbeliever but from the make-believer, those who claim Jesus as Savior but refuse to follow him as Lord.

In following Jesus, I use the term “deep desire” because I think that expresses what takes place in the regenerate, born-again heart. I want to obey Jesus in all his ways. I want his views on everything to become my views as I “take captive every thought to make it obedient to Christ” (2 Corinthians 10:5b). 

This includes what I think about the nature and character of God, what I do with my money, how I form social views on the sanctity of life and issues of human sexuality and gender. I take captive thoughts about marriage, parenting, and how to represent Jesus in the workplace, seeking to make every view and practice in my life conform to that of King Jesus. 

But this is easier said than done, which is why we would do well to approach every topic and decision with humility. I may think I know what is right and good, but I have to admit that I am easily deceived by my flesh and influenced more by the world than I want to admit. It is very possible that my views are more based on fleshly, subjective emotional reactions than on Spirit revealed, objective truth.  

A Day in the Woods

When my children were young, I took them to a one-day outdoor survival training camp at Elachee Nature Center in Gainesville, GA. The most memorable part of the day was learning to use a compass along with a topographical map to chart a course through the woods to a specific destination that could not be seen from the starting point. We had to rely entirely on the map and compass. 

Suffice it to say, the process was far more involved than I expected. From calculating magnetic north in relation to true north to triangulating a position in order to get a geographic bearing and then transposing a path using landmarks, I learned that relying on my feelings would not serve me well in a survival context where I needed to be guided by truth more than opinion. In a real-world scenario, my life (and the lives of my children) would depend on distinguishing my subjective emotions from objective truth. 

Thankfully, we have not been left with our feelings to guide us in the real world. The Spirit of Truth has revealed in the compass of the Scriptures how to navigate the map of our lives. Sometimes, it takes quite a bit of effort to get our bearings and find a clear path to the truth. But there is one element on the compass that is clearly marked and undisputed. 

True North. 

Regardless of where you are in life, even when feeling totally lost in the woods, the Bible, as revealed truth, points from every position on the map to the most central and important truth of all – that Jesus is a substitute for sinners. Being in a position to look up and behold the cross and believe who Jesus is for you as a crucified Savior and risen King is what restores our bearings. At that moment, we are reminded that we are forgiven, accepted, beloved, and indwelt by the Spirit of truth who enables us to take the next step forward with confidence that we are not alone. 
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Discussion Questions

1. How does Gulliver’s experience shed light on how difficult it is to live according to the truth in a world that rejects the truth? Have you ever felt like Gulliver? Would you be willing to share that experience? 

2. Explain the difference between Christianity as truth and the truth (total truth). What are some implications for our lives?

3. G.K. Chesterton (1874-1936) said, “Fallacies do not cease to be fallacies because they become fashions.”  How might that statement apply in our contemporary context?

4. How does the leaven of little lies make it challenging for us to live the total truth of God? Which lies are you most inclined to believe?

5. What does it mean that the Holy Spirit’s ministry is a floodlight ministry?

6. What deep desire distinguished a true believer from a make-believer? How does the grace of the gospel protect this desire from moralism?
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[1] When praying his high priestly prayer in the garden the night before his death, Jesus prayed for his disciples (us), “Sanctify them through by the truth: your word is truth” (John 17:17). God’s written word, revealed through the inspiration of the Spirit of truth, defines what is true.[2] J.I. Packer, Keep in Step with the Spirit (Grand Rapids: Revell, 1984), 66. 

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