“My Truth vs. The Truth”

Jesus said to him, “I am the way, and the truth, and the life…”

John 14:6

“To thine own self be true” is a famous line from Shakespeare’s play, Hamlet. Polonius, the king’s minister, is giving his son, Laertes, some parting words of advice before Laertes leaves for France. The speech contains many notable lines like “Give every man thy ear but few thy voice,” “Neither a borrower nor a lender be,” and “The apparel oft proclaims the man.” But Polonius concludes with, “This above all: to thine own self be true, And it must follow, as the night the day, Thou canst not then be false to any man.”

Four hundred years later, these words are quoted as definitive human wisdom even though they originally were spoken by a character who was a disreputable hypocrite—Polonius was a bad guy who met a sticky end. The phrase “to thine own self be true” is sound advice about maintaining one’s integrity.

Of course, Christians must be authentic and genuine. “He who walks in integrity walks securely, but he who perverts his ways will be found out.” (Prov. 10:9) Having integrity means being the same person all the time. It’s the opposite of hypocrisy. Integrity is important in all relationships because we build our trust upon it. This, I think, is what Polonius was teaching Laertes when he said, “To thine own self be true,” and what God is teaching us in his word with commandments to be honest, sincere, trustworthy and faithful.

We have modernized Shakespeare’s words with the common expression ‘be true to yourself.’ But more recently, we have invented one of our own: ‘live your truth.’ This phrase is loaded with serious philosophical and practical dangers because it indicates that what is true for you might not necessarily be true for others. ‘My truth,’ then, is purely subjective; it is whatever I want it to be. According to this postmodern view, truth is not a philosophical absolute, an unchanging point of reference that tethers us to reality, but is relative and elastic.

I think what people mean when they say, “I’m living my truth” is that they are living according to their convictions. But this ignores and undermines the very concept and definition of truth. Truth is not the same thing as conviction or belief. Truth is a matter of an idea or belief corresponding to reality. Our convictions and beliefs may be true or false, depending on whether or not they correspond to reality. I may believe that 2+2=5 but that does not make it true. 

For example, Paul was convinced he should do “many things in opposing… Jesus” (Acts 26:9) and lived his life according to his “conscience” (Acts 23:1). But he later learned that his conscience misled him and that his convictions were wrong. When Jesus revealed the truth to Paul (Acts 9:4ff), he began living according to it.

In moments of honest self-reflection we see that our “heart is deceitful above all things, and desperately sick; who can understand it?” (Jer. 17:9) The answer does not lie within ourselves but outside ourselves. To discover what is true—true about God, the world, and ourselves—the revelatory light of Jesus must shine on us (2 Cor. 4:4). We are in darkness and he is light (1 Jn. 1:5), “the true light, who gives light to everyone” (Jn. 1:9).

Used in this way, Jesus is “true” (αλετηινοσ, 1 Jn. 2:8b) not in the sense in which a statement is true as opposed to false (αλετηεσ, 1 Jn. 2:8a), but in the sense in which the real differs from the unreal, the substance from the shadow, the prototype from the type. Christ is the true, or real, light of which physical light is but a reflection, just as he is the true bread and true vine (Jn. 6:32; 15:1). He is the heavenly reality of which these earthly things are mere copies (cf. Heb. 8:5; 9:23f; 10:1). Therefore, to “walk in the light” of Christ is to see and live by the truth (1 Jn. 1:7). “I believe in Christianity as I believe the sun has risen: not only because I see it, but because by it I see everything else.” (C.S. Lewis)