What You Get Is Not What You See

Stephen Terry


Commentary for the February 7, 2015 Sabbath School Lesson


“There is a way that appears to be right, but in the end it leads to death.” Proverbs 14:12, NIV

When I grew up in the pre-computer days of the 1950s and 1960s, photo editing was a challenging craft that required careful, detailed work in the photo lab. As a result, apart from the occasional “Jackalope” souvenir postcard, one could be reasonably certain that photographic images were reliable and true. Even if they weren’t, experts could often tell that the photo had been doctored.

However, now we live in a time when powerful, personal computers are widely available and software to manipulate the images we see is relatively inexpensive. As a result, it becomes hard to know what we can trust. Obvious examples like our illustration here are easy to recognize as simply a humorous exercise, but on other fronts, the ability to manipulate photographs to provide solid, but faked, evidence to support a political position or advance some nefarious agenda is all too real a possibility. It becomes hard to sort out the real from the fanciful. Even with our example, those who know nothing of computers and their ability to manipulate images may be inclined, under certain circumstances, to accept the image as valid.

While some may feel that all of this is harmless diversion as long as it is not used for evil purposes, it is an art from the realm of practical magic. Magic, basically has two schools, that involving spiritual communications and necromancy, and the other involving deception and sleight of hand. “Sleight of hand is the art of deceiving the eye of the spectator…”[i] The manipulation of images to deceive would seem to fall into the latter category. While some may wish to see magic as an esoteric art involving supernatural skill, the reality is it is nothing more than mechanical manipulation and redirection to distract attention from what is actually taking place. The magician’s patter is usually little more than an attempt to accomplish that redirection by means of an interesting tale.

While most magicians are likely interested in little more than providing some entertainment in return for separating their audience from a few dollars, there may be those who are diabolical in their agenda and who may purposefully deceive in order to cause harm. In these situations, what may seem right, could actually lead to death. On another level, one might even ask, “If a human magician could do such a thing, what might the Diabolos himself accomplish, who has practiced the art of deception for thousands of years? There may be two troublesome outcomes from all of this deception.

The first possible outcome is that people believe the false and not only accept it but also proclaim it to others as genuine. We see much of this on internet social media, where the latest deception is circulated by credulous individuals who take no time to verify the facts of what they are forwarding. They share it with myriads of others, some of whom will also forward it, believing it to be true because it was shared with them by a friend they considered trustworthy. This reliance on the trust between friends is what has kept many urban legends alive that should have died long ago. While the trust becomes crippled by this kind of sharing the legends nonetheless seem to live on.

Lack of trust and skepticism is the other unfavorable outcome. Because our friends choose not to be discerning in what they share with us, we learn we cannot trust their communications. We become skeptical. Perhaps because we have been burned by their forwarding of unsubstantiated posts, altered photos, and conspiracy theories that never seem to come to fruition, we cease to find their statements credible when it comes to anything outside the ordinary. Suppose someone was constantly sending this kind of questionable material to you, and then they wanted to tell you about Jesus. Would you see it as an honest sharing of the truth, or would you be inclined to “chalk it up” to another deception they fell for, but that you won’t?

Perhaps we don’t see the harm this may be causing to our Christian witness. Perhaps we are so convinced of the truth of these deceptions and conspiracies that it has become more important to us to cling to them than anything else. But the end of this may truly be death,[ii] not only for ourselves but for others who may have otherwise trusted us when we tried to share Jesus with them.

Maybe in some ways we set ourselves up for this when we adopt a worldview that sees everything as either black or white. How do we assign moral value to something when it mixes truth and deception? If we must relegate it to either black or white, then this can be problematic. Some things might be accepted as true that actually have only a partial truth in them. We can dangerously take things that are not so polarized and make them so by our perspective. Then they become in our minds an unassailable position that only a fool would challenge. When we succumb to such thinking we may withdraw behind our barricades and prepare for the worst. But to do so invites destruction rather than salvation.[iii]

So how do we avoid the deceptions, the conspiracies, the hidden agendas? Perhaps it is not possible to entirely avoid them. Even Jesus had people come to Him constantly with hidden agendas. However, He continued to remain engaged. His focus did not become what those darker agendas might be. Instead He continually focused on one agenda – God’s. He never gave himself over to those other agendas. Even with death, it was His Father’s purpose that remained His. He did not react to all the conspiracies against Him, even though He could.[iv] Although it was in His power to level all who stood before Him and destroy those who wished to kill Him, he did not. Instead, He asked that they be forgiven in their ignorance.[v]

This may be a lesson for us as well in two ways. First, we may perhaps want to reflect upon our agenda when we are tempted to forward scurrilous or dubious material to others. We might ponder how it advances the kingdom of God. What kind of light does it put us and our message in? It is possible that even Paul’s protégé, Timothy, may have had a problem with this, since he was counseled to avoid it.[vi] He also was urged to redirect his focus to God’s agenda. Perhaps if it was good enough counsel for Timothy, we might do well to take it under advisement, also. We should not be tempted to pass on the latest conspiracy or deception in order to become the fount of information that everyone runs to drink from. The water in that fountain is not pure, and we can become tainted by contact with it. Besides, what we do have to pass on is so much better, so much purer. Those who imbibe in that impure fount will continually be coming back for more because they will not find satiety there. But the water from the pure fountain of Christ that we are privileged to share can satisfy all so that they will not desire the lesser one.[vii]

The other lesson that Jesus provides us is the lesson of forgiveness. He is willing to forgive us for our tale bearing, on condition that we forgive others who have done the same and even those who are continuing to do so. After all, he asked forgiveness for those who were tormenting Him on the cross in the face of the actual ongoing torture they were inflicting on Him. It is in our willingness to forgive that we find activation of His forgiveness in our lives,[viii] working like yeast to pervade every corner of our being. Our natural tendency may be to hunker down and resist the evil we feel that we can see in the world. How can we forgive the evil that seems to stalk not only in the darkness but blatantly and openly in the broad light of day in every corner of the world? Only through the power of God active in our hearts can we do so. Jesus demonstrated this countless times in His life.

Perhaps our skepticism born from the many delusions bombarding us each day has jaded our ability to believe in the power of God to perform such a personal miracle for us. Maybe we want some form of proof before we allow ourselves to be fooled again, even though we don’t really know what proof would really eliminate all doubt. But Jesus understands those doubts and will work with them as He demonstrated with Thomas.[ix] Even so, He cautioned Thomas to “stop doubting and believe.” In a world filled with deceptions, the skepticism it engenders can cause us to doubt our faith and our Savior. Maybe the words of Jesus to Thomas back then apply to us, too.

[i] Tarbell, Dr. Harlan. “Tarbell Course in Magic, Volume 1,” D. Robbins & Company, Inc., 1971, page 28.

[ii] Romans 6:23

[iii] Proverbs 17:19

[iv] Matthew 26:53

[v] Luke 23:34

[vi] 1 Timothy 4:7

[vii] John 4:14

[viii] Luke 11:4

[ix] John 20:24-27



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