What Is Truth?

July 4, 2021

Standing before the provincial Roman governor Pontius Pilate, Jesus testified, “To this end was I born, and for this cause came I into the world, that I should bear witness unto the truth. Every one that is of the truth heareth my voice.”

Pilate, steeped in the popular philosophy of his day, scoffed, “What is truth?” (John 18:37‒38.)

Some eighteen hundred years later, Jesus answered Pilate’s question in a revelation to the Prophet Joseph Smith.

Truth Defined

“Truth,” the Lord said, ” is knowledge of things as they are, and as they were, and as they are to come” (Doctrine and Covenants 93:24). This definition is particularly important in today’s world when so much time and attention is focused on the latest news and social media feeds.

“Things As They Are”

People today seem obsessed with “the latest,” whatever it may be. They want to know things “as they are,” and they modify their attitudes and behavior accordingly. They are like the Athenians in Acts 17:22 who “spent their time in nothing else, but either to tell, or to hear some new thing.” In doing so, they risk being like “children, tossed to and fro, and carried about with every wind of doctrine, by the sleight of men, and cunning craftiness, whereby they lie in wait to deceive” (Ephesians 4:14).

Trends are often unstable. Consider clothing and hair styles. Each generation of young adults develops a style of dress and hair considered by that generation to be the ultimate expression of good taste. They may look at those who came before them as unenlightened, as though the newest generation is brighter and more capable than any that preceded it. But if they wait long enough, they will see their styles criticized and rejected by the generations that follow.

The same is true of intellectual trends. People scramble today to be certain everything they say and do fits the latest intellectual trend, not dreaming that future generations will reject and criticize their perspective and judge them according to standards not yet developed, just as they themselves do of others who lived before them.

It is good to understand “things as they are.” But we can only truly understand them if we see them in perspective.

“Things . . . As They Were”

Two other perspectives are necessary to truly understand “things as they are.” One is historical perspective. Knowing how things were in the past allows us to see things in the present with better understanding. Rather than being jerked around by fickle trends, we will be more inclined to see all things in a light that gives us stability. We will worry less about how others see us and instead focus on how God sees us.

The great and spacious building of Lehi’s dream “was filled with people, both old and young, both male and female; and their manner of dress was exceedingly fine; and they were in the attitude of mocking and pointing their fingers towards those who had come at and were partaking of the fruit.” Some ignored the mocking and were blessed. Others, “were ashamed, because of those that were scoffing at them; and they fell away into forbidden paths and were lost. (1 Nephi 8:27‒28.)

A few questions can help us gauge whether we are overly focused on things as they are:

• Do we flit from one cause to another because it’s popular? Or do we work tirelessly to help those who need help, regardless of any reward to us and at the risk of being criticized or being unpopular?

• Are we more concerned about genuinely helping our fellow humans, or just being shown on social media helping them while it’s popular?

• How do we treat those who are not popular, especially those who are not popular with our peer group? The Good Samaritan helped a person whose group disliked his (Luke 10:25‒37; John 4:9). What do we do?

• Are we civil to those with whom we disagree? Do we follow the Lord’s admonition to treat others as we would like to be treated (Matthew 7:12)? Or do we mistreat and vilify anyone whose opinions vary from our own?

History offers examples of people who followed fickle trends and were led to doing the unthinkable. If we simply follow the crowd, we risk doing what we will later regret. “Thou shalt not follow a multitude to do evil,” the Lord commanded the children of Israel (Exodus 23:2). Before Saul was converted and changed his ways, the overzealous Pharisee considered himself an activist for good and persecuted those with whom he disagreed, helping to put some in prison and even consenting to the killing of one of them (Acts 8:1, 3). He went on “breathing out threatenings and slaughter” against many people who were unpopular with his peer group (Acts 9:1).

He thought he had been following “the perfect manner” in what he did, only to discover later that he was wrong (Acts 22:3). He changed his life for the better, doing what was right in spite of being persecuted himself.

Consider things “as they were” before getting swept up by “things as they are.”

“Things . . . As They Are to Come”

In addition to understanding “things as they are” and “as they were,” we need to understand things “as they are to come” if we really want to understand the truth and avoid making mistakes. Understanding things “as they are to come” requires eternal perspective.

We should ask ourselves what matters more, being popular in the present with our peers or popular with God in the long run? Nephi prophesied the time would come when people would seek “to get gain, and . . . to become popular in the eyes of the world” (1 Nephi 22:23) to the point where that becomes their religion or belief system, edging out the true faith.

Jesus told Pilate, “Every one that is of the truth heareth my voice” (John 18:37). Pilate scoffed and had Jesus crucified to please the critics whose approval he wanted.

Gain and popularity can be alluring in the short run. But what about in the eternal perspective? In the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus asked, “For what is a man profited, if he shall gain the whole world, and lose his own soul? or what shall a man give in exchange for his soul?” (Matthew 16:26). Right after we die, our net worth on earth will be zero. What will it be in the eternities?

Christ told a parable about a man who put all his resources into boosting himself. The man assured himself, “Soul, thou hast much goods laid up for many years; take thine ease, eat, drink, and be merry.” God replied, “Thou fool, this night thy soul shall be required of thee: then whose shall those things be, which thou hast provided?” Jesus concluded, “So is he that layeth up treasure for himself, and is not rich toward God.” (Luke 12:19‒21.)

The Truth, the Whole Truth, and Nothing But the Truth

The next time we are tempted to go along with a popular trend, we should ask ourselves, “Considering the lessons of the past and a future perspective that looks beyond this life, is this really something I should do?” If not, let us not be swept away for the sake of popularity and personal gain. Instead, let us look to the past and future to see the whole truth, “things as they are, and as they were, and as they are to come” (Doctrine and Covenants 93:24), remembering what Jesus said to Pilate: “Every one that is of the truth heareth my voice” (John 18:37).

Credit for image at top of page: Jesus before Pilate, Holy Week in Seville, Brotherhood of San Benito, stock photo from depositphotos.com.

Author: Richard E. Turley Jr.

Richard E. Turley Jr. served for twenty-two years as managing director of the Historical Department of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints and eight years as Assistant Church Historian and Recorder. He also served as managing director of the Family History, Public Affairs, and Church Communication Departments.

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