I’ve been thinking about the question of how, in an era of “fake” news, “alternate facts,” and conflicting discourses, one discerns truth from falsehood. It is actually quite an important question, because few of us want to go down a wrong path or be deceived or deluded.
Warnings abound in the scriptures about false prophets along with instructions about how one may discern them. While many of today’s voices are not claiming to be prophets, they are attempting to convince people to believe a certain narrative, and to respond in certain ways based on that belief. They may not claim the label, but they are functioning in the role, even if they do not invoke religious language.
One passage on which I have particularly reflected is Jeremiah 6: 13-15
13 “From the least to the greatest,
all are greedy for gain;
prophets and priests alike,
all practice deceit.
14 They dress the wound of my people
as though it were not serious.
‘Peace, peace,’ they say,
when there is no peace.
15 Are they ashamed of their detestable conduct?
No, they have no shame at all;
they do not even know how to blush.
I notice at least several things here that bear on our contemporary concerns:
- Do people have a significant financial interest that is tied to their message? In today’s world, this could come in the form of significant followings that garner advertising dollars, or campaign contributions, or donations to a cause, or a business seeking an “inside” or “preferred” track.
- The fact that a person is in a religious office or invokes religious language does not mean their message is true. Jesus warns of “wolves in sheep’s clothing” (Matthew 7:15). Jesus actually describes them as ravenous wolves. Sadly, religious offices and language can be used to exploit people for one’s own purposes or gratification.
- Is there a demonstrable pattern of deceit on the part of the speaker, apart from their message? Jeremiah says that they “practice deceit.” In Jeremiah 23:14 (NRSV), Jeremiah describes the false prophets of Jerusalem as “walking in lies.” As children, we may have been taught that when we tell a lie, we make it harder for someone to know if we are telling the truth. If there is a demonstrable pattern of lying in action and deed, we should be even more reluctant to credit a message from such a person as truthful.
- They refrain from confronting hard truths that point out flaws, indeed sins, in their hearers lives, or minimize their seriousness. I’ve written elsewhere (and prior to our current administration) that we have dressed the wounds of racism and our treatment of native peoples as though these were not serious national sins. False prophets assure us that there is nothing really wrong with us, that we are all basically good people, and that no serious amendment of our lives is required. Sometimes, such messages are accompanied with the scapegoating of others who are “them,” outsiders in some way on whom we may conveniently place all the blame.
- They tell us life will be all right, that we will have peace, even if we are in imminent danger. That’s what we want to hear, after all, isn’t it? In Jeremiah’s day, people were longing for liberation from the yoke of the superpower, Babylon, and the false prophets said it was coming soon. Jeremiah took to wearing a wooden yoke to symbolize this domination. When a false prophet broke the yoke, Jeremiah replied that God would replace that yoke with one of iron (Jeremiah 28).
- They are shameless. Dictionary.com offers the following synonyms for shameless: brash, wanton, improper, bold, rude, audacious, flagrant, brazen, outrageous, high-handed, unabashed, immoral, unprincipled, abandoned, arrant, barefaced, brassy, cheeky, depraved, dissolute. While the term “hypocrite” is not on this list, the fact that the moral character of these people is distorted enough that they flaunt what most people are ashamed of means we should not look for truth from this person.
It is noteworthy that Jeremiah, and other true prophets like Elijah, were far outnumbered by false prophets. It’s not popular, and sometimes dangerous, to tell the truth. Indeed, one thing that may distinguish true prophets from the false, is that their message has been personally costly (as opposed to the “gain” of false prophets).
Scripture provides two other important criteria that distinguish false prophets.
- A prophet is false if what they prophesy does not come to pass (Deuteronomy 18:21-22). No matter our efforts to defy or deny reality, in the end, we either live by its truth or find ourselves false to our loss. We may say gravity does not exist, but our denial of its reality will be readily and lethally exposed if we step into the air from a tenth story window.
- Prophets are false even if what they prophesy comes to pass if they lead us to believe in what is no god (Deuteronomy 13:1-5). For the Christian, if a message invites us to put ultimate allegiance and trust in anyone or anything else than the Triune God of holy love and saving grace through Christ, whether it be ourselves, a political party or figure, a religious teacher, or anything else, that message is false.
I’m not going to point fingers, and I would ask in commenting that you refrain from this as well. Usually, we don’t point fingers at those whose messages we listen to, but rather at the “other guys.” What I might suggest instead is that we use the criteria above to honestly evaluate those to whom we listen. What matters most is that we discern whether those we listen to are telling us the truth. If we are people who teach, or blog, or editorialize, and seek to persuade others, we do well to examine ourselves by these criteria.
At the end of the day, to build our lives, or to build our nation on lies is a perilous undertaking. To speak falsehoods is even more perilous. Jesus warns that on the day of judgment we will give an account for every careless word (Matthew 12:36). He warns that if our words or lives cause a “little one” to stumble, it would be better to have a millstone around our neck and drown ourselves in the ocean than face God’s reckoning (Matthew 18:6).
This is not a game.