Truth is not always easy to speak, nor is it often easy to hear. We embrace the truth that confirms us, that supports our views, but bristle when someone speaks the uncomfortable word, the word that challenges our deepest convictions. It is much easier for us to reject such truth as fake news than considering that perhaps what has been said hits its mark in a way we find painful.
This is why prophets are not accepted in their own time. Jesus condemned the religious leaders of his day for revering the prophets their ancestors rejected and yet continuing to do the very things those prophets condemned.
Woe to you! For you build the tombs of the prophets whom your ancestors killed. So you are witnesses and approve of the deeds of your ancestors; for they killed them, and you build their tombs. Therefore also the Wisdom of God said, ‘I will send them prophets and apostles, some of whom they will kill and persecute,’ so that this generation may be charged with the blood of all the prophets shed since the foundation of the world, from the blood of Abel to the blood of Zechariah, who perished between the altar and the sanctuary. Yes, I tell you, it will be charged against this generation (Luke 11:47-51).Prophets are like master painters. Their work is not accepted in their own time, but only valued after their deaths. But does the generation that reveres dead prophets actually listen to them or do they speak well of them not because they spoke the truth, but rather are dead and are no longer a threat?
It is also difficult to recognize prophets in their own time because we human beings tend to judge the prophetic word based upon whether or not we agree with it. We judge a politician to be prophetic if we like her politics. We anoint a pastor as prophet as one who challenges others to believe and act in ways of which we approve. No one ever gives the title prophet to someone whose words simply cannot be assented to in good conscience. I have yet to hear someone say, "I disagree with everything she says! What a prophet!"
In Paul's second letter to Timothy, Paul counsels the young pastor to speak the truth at all times, in all places, during all circumstances, whether what he speaks is popular or not.
I solemnly urge you: proclaim the message; be persistent whether the time is favorable or unfavorable; convince, rebuke, and encourage, with the utmost patience in teaching. For the time is coming when people will not put up with sound doctrine, but having itching ears, they will accumulate for themselves teachers to suit their own desires, and will turn away from listening to the truth and wander away to myths (2 Timothy 4:1d-4:4).As a pastor, Paul reminds Timothy that he is also a prophet, but speaking the truth can be difficult when it has a hard edge. In his book, Leaves from the Notebook of a Tamed Cynic, Reinhold Niebuhr suggests why proclaiming the truth is difficult for pastors:
I am not surprised that most prophets are itinerants. Critics of the church think we preachers are afraid to tell the truth because we are economically dependent upon the people of our church, There is something in that, but it does not quite get to the root of the matter. I certainly could easily enough get more money than I am securing now, and yet I catch myself weighing my words and gauging their possible effect upon this and that person. I think the real clue to the tameness of a preacher is the difficulty one finds in telling unpleasant truths to people whom one has learned to love.Notice Niebuhr's concern that as he speaks the truth, he weighs his words carefully measuring in advance the effect of what he says. To speak the truth requires a willing discomfort. It is not always easy.
But it's not just speaking the truth that is difficult; it is just as true that hearing the truth can be hard. Paul not only instructs Timothy in the need to speak the truth "whether the time is favorable or unfavorable," but he reminds the young pastor that all too often people don't want to entertain the difficult word. Their ears will itch to hear only those things that will confirm them. They will gravitate towards leaders and teachers who only affirm what they already believe.
In today's modern vernacular we call that the echo chamber and confirmation bias. Thought.Co defines confirmation bias as "the tendency to accept evidence that confirms our beliefs and to reject evidence that contradicts them....The truism, I'll believe it when I see it might be better stated I'll see it when I believe it." Confirmation bias is not a new problem, but it certainly seems to be more pronounced in this modern age of social media and 24/7 cable news. We are now capable of finding many people who believe as we do on Facebook and in watching only one news channel (conservatives-- Fox; liberals-- MSNBC), and we no longer have to expose ourselves to others who think differently. In fact, we often do not see the need to listen to diverging points of view because we already know what's true and have no need to think otherwise. We simply label them in order to dismiss them. We are not able to nurture a willing discomfort in seeking the truth, so we opt instead for "the prophets" who will speak only in our favor and never against.
One thing that postmodernism has rightly taught us is that it is impossible to stand in a neutral place. Everyone is biased and there is nothing wrong with that, but we must also be ready and willing to subject our views to critique, which is impossible to do if we are unwilling to consider seriously different perspectives. David Kemp notes that part of the problem is that we are so inundated with information that no one has time to sort through it all. It simply becomes easier to read and listen to those sources that are like-minded. Of course, I think it's more than this. I think most of us human beings prefer to believe what we already believe, and do not truly want to consider that we might be wrong or at least partially wrong on something-- and even worse, we absolutely cannot accept that the ignorant, evil, dishonest people on the other side might indeed be right. It's emotionally satisfying to have enemies to stereotype... and it requires no intellectual rigor.
Paul knew of the importance of guarding the truth of the Christian faith-- those basic traditions were in place for good reason; but he was never afraid of searching for the truth. Paul might not have said it in this way, but since he found Jesus, the Truth (or better, captured by Jesus the Truth), he knew that no newfound understanding should or could be avoided. He charged Timothy to seek the truth and always proclaim it knowing that at times his hearers would simply turn him off because they were unwilling to have a willing discomfort. Timothy encountered in his ministry those who refused to seek out the truth no matter what. The young pastor needed to remember that he was in good company-- Paul was in prison for speaking the truth and Jesus was crucified for it. We must not forget that speaking the truth can also have unfortunate consequences.
Echo chambers notwithstanding, the truth must be proclaimed, whether it is received favorably or not. And we who seek the truth must be willing to embrace a willing discomfort. If not, we may find too late that we have wandered away to myths... what we might today call... fake news.