Most of us think we are unbiased in our quest for truth. We like to think of ourselves as impartial evaluators of data who seek to arrive at the best decision. But the truth is, most of the time, we desire a specific conclusion, and we search the data in such a way that helps us end up there. We overlook red flags and yellow lights. We come up with excuses and unreasonable explanations. And we usually don’t even realize we are doing it. We think we are looking for the best answer, when in reality we are looking for the least complicated answer, the least demanding answer, the most convenient answer.
Such was the case for Pontius Pilate.
Searching for the Answer You Want to Find
Emperor Tiberius appointed Pilate in AD 26 to serve as governor of Judea, a post he filled for 11 years, including for the entirety of Jesus’ three-year public ministry. Throughout his governorship, Pilate made decisions that consistently advanced his own agenda at the expense of the people he governed.
The ancient historians Josephus, Eusebius, and Philo provided unsavory accounts of Pilate’s leadership. They recorded how, under the cover of night, he set up imperial images throughout Jerusalem, knowing they would offend the Jews. And how he later brought golden shields with blasphemous inscriptions on them into the city and refused to remove them until Tiberius himself demanded it. They wrote of a time Pilate pilfered funds from the temple treasury to build a new aqueduct system and how, when a mob formed to protest the theft, he commanded his soldiers to beat them with clubs and trample them with horses, killing many. These stories align with Luke’s account in Luke 13:1, which reports about Pilate killing pilgrims from Galilee who were worshipping in the temple, and how he mixed their blood with the blood of their sacrifices.
Pilate was not a merciful or kind man. To make matters worse, he was unwilling to reevaluate his decisions and alter course when it was clear he was wrong. He changed his decisions only when forced to by an authority higher than him. Pilate was not interested in the truth; he was only interested in advancing his own agenda and solidifying his preestablished convictions. He had no interest in discovering an inconvenient truth that might require something from him.
We see these poor qualities on display in Pilate’s interaction with Jesus. When the Jewish leaders brought Jesus to Pilate, the governor knew what they wanted. And he knew if he refused them, he would have an angry, riotous mob on his hands during Passover, the most important week of the year. So when Pilate questioned Jesus (as recorded in John 18:33-38), he wasn’t a neutral arbiter of justice searching for truth, he was a biased inquisitor looking for the answer that would help keep his city undisturbed and himself as popular with the people as possible.
Pilate asked Jesus, “Are you the king of the Jews?” And after a bit of back and forth, Jesus answered, “My kingdom is not of this world.” This confused Pilate, so he said, “You are a king, then!” And Jesus replied, “You say that I am a king. In fact, the reason I was born and came into the world is to testify to the truth. Everyone on the side of truth listens to me.” Which prompted Pilate to ask, “What is truth?” It was perhaps the best possible question to ask. The only problem? Pilate wasn’t really interested in Jesus’ answer.
Pilate was interested only in an answer that was convenient, one that would help him further his political goals. So, even though his wife warned him not to trouble this innocent man, Pilate found the “answer” he was looking for and ordered Jesus flogged and then crucified. Not because it was right, just, or fair. Not because he was honestly searching for the truth and missed it. But, rather, because Pilate could hear only what he wanted to hear, what he thought he needed to hear.
And in that way, Pilate is like most of us.
Searching for the truth, even if it’s inconvenient
As we approach this Easter season, how can we ensure we are truly on the quest for truth and not just some answers that justify our already established convictions? How can we know we are sincerely seeking God’s will and not just confirmation of our predetermined conclusions?
Here are a few questions that might help:
Question 1: What do I honestly want the answer to be? Socrates was known for teaching his students two simple words, “Know thyself.” In order to discern truth, we need to be mindful of our personal desires and our propensity to pursue them at almost any cost.
Jeremiah 17:9 says, “The heart is deceitful above all things.” If we are not aware of our internal longings and desires, we will be hamstrung in our search for truth. Often, because we want a certain outcome, we stack the deck by painting an incomplete picture, which likely keeps us from arriving at the truth. Being honest and upfront about our personal preference can prevent this from happening, or at least significantly minimize the distortion.
Consider Jesus in the Garden of Gethsemane. Jesus began his prayer by honestly identifying his desire for the cup to pass. Such honesty allowed him to easily discern between his personal preference and his Father’s will.
Question 2: Am I willing to hold this decision with open hands? To be openhanded means we don’t hold on to something if it is being taken from us, and we don’t reject something that is being given to us. Our hands are open. To be openhanded means we don’t force our will upon a decision and fight for the outcome we want. Our hands are open. To be openhanded means we are willing to actually put into practice the words of the old hymn, “Wherever he leads I’ll go,” not the words of today’s anthem, “Wherever I lead, he’ll go.”
Question 3: Have I submitted this to others? This question helps us discern if we are walking exclusively in our own counsel or in the counsel of a wise community. Proverbs 15:22 says, “Plans fail for lack of counsel, but with many advisers they succeed.”
When it comes to such things as finances, relationships, hiring, and vocations, are we making decisions for ourselves and then telling others what we believe God said? Or are we approaching others and saying, “I have an important decision to make. I think God might be moving and opening doors for me. Can you help me discern if this is truly from him and what he might be saying?” And when we include others, are we simply asking a few friends who we know are inclined to agree with us, or are we seeking counsel from people who ask probing questions, who are in different seasons of life than us, and who have experience outside of our realm of expertise? Moreover, have we sought the counsel of those with spiritual authority in our lives? What a blessing to have the prayerful wisdom and discernment of those who have been entrusted with keeping watch over our souls.
Interestingly, in my role as a pastor and elder, there is about a 50-to-1 ratio of being informed by someone what God wants them to do compared to being asked to pray with someone about what God wants them to do. The gift of community and spiritual authority in the search for truth cannot be overstated.
Pilate missed the Truth because he wasn’t really looking for it. The truth was inconvenient. The truth is almost always inconvenient. But what sort of people will we be? Those who only pretend to search for the right answers as a salve for our consciences as we proceed to do what we want? Or those who are honest about our personal preferences, who hold our futures with open hands, and who seek truth with the help of others. The truth may be inconvenient, but as Jesus said, “The truth will set you free.”