Famous Sayings: #57 — ‘The Truth Will Set You Free’

April 14, 2017

Then you will know the truth and the truth will set you free.

the truth will set you free, truth, criticism, the Bible, Jesus

Since Easter Sunday is approaching, I thought I would look at a biblical quote that also has many secular uses. As it turns out, this phrase has been varied so much that the quote above is only a variation.

While many other Bible verses have secular uses, and some may have origins that predate the Bible itself, I kind of find it odd how this expression morphed over the centuries. What makes this expression so special? Let’s first look at the context and other uses.

Who First Said, ‘The Truth Will Set You Free’?

If you read the Bible regularly, you of course know that Jesus spoke these words at a Temple on the Mount of Olives. This is chronicled in Chapter 8 in the Gospel of John.

The chapter begins as Jesus first encountered Pharisees and scribes who asked him to judge a woman who committed adultery. Afterword, Jesus talked to more people in the crowd and was asked how he could be witness to himself. Jesus ultimately said he was sent by God, although he did not say so explicitly.

The following passage comes from the Gospel of John (in the Berean Study Bible). In Chapter 8, the verses 30-36 are listed under the title “The Truth will Set You Free.”

30As Jesus spoke these things, many believed in Him. 31So He said to the Jews who had believed Him, “If you continue in My word, you are truly My disciples. 32Then you will know the truth, and the truth will set you free.”

33“We are Abraham’s descendants,” they answered. “We have never been slaves to anyone. How can You say we will be set free?”

34Jesus replied, “Truly, truly, I tell you, everyone who sins is a slave to sin. 35A slave is not a permanent member of the family, but a son belongs to it forever. 36So if the Son sets you free, you will be free indeed.

In short, the message was for those who believed him after hearing him speak.

(This chapter also contains the line “Whosoever is without sin shall cast the first stone.” That is a saying I might do in the future …)

I also consulted the King James Version of the Bible to compare the way the verse was written.

And ye shall know the truth, and the truth shall make you free.

What Are Some Variants of This Saying?

When I first looked into this phrase, I noticed one result from the Quote Investigator website. There, I found a few variations of this phrase that arose from the 20th century.

Gloria Steinem?

The Quote Investigator responded to an anonymous question about the origin of the following phrase:

“The truth will set you free, but first it will piss you off.”

Note: This reminds me of a past tweet I made:

Anyway …

The anonymous follower of QI pointed out that the quote is often attributed to noted feminist Gloria Steinem.

QI said Steinem at least nodded the expression during a 1998 speech at a Stanford University “Herstory” event. In April 1998, the periodical Heterodoxy reported on the speech Steinem made in this passage”

Noting that the truth is what will set you free, but first it will piss you off, Steinem note, among other things that Mozart had a genius sister and that maybe some of his compositions are hers …

The following year, Steinem expressly used the expression during a speech she made at Illinois Wesleyan University. In February 1999 The Pantagraph quoted Steinem saying the following:

I’m gonna make a button some day that says, ‘The truth will set you free, but it’s gonna piss you off first.’

However, the Quote Investigator traced back some other variation back to 1978.

From 1978

QI said that in 1978, a Syracuse, New York newspaper had an article about The Willows, a treatment facility for alcoholics. There was a poster in the facility that read, “The truth will set you free, but first it will make your miserable.”

This variation also appeared in the title and pages of a 1988 religious book by Jamie Buckingham.

Joe Klaas

The Quote Investigator said the closest match to the expression often credited to Steinem may have first appeared in the printed word in 1990. In Twelve Steps to Happiness, a book that dealt with treating alcoholism, Joe Klaas wrote:

Rest assured, my favorite motto will come true. ‘The truth will set you free, but first it will piss you off.’

Incidentally, another book published in 1990, Sunbeams: A Book of Quotations (edited by Sy Sanfransky), had this variant, attributed to Jerry Joiner:

The truth will set you free. But before it does, it will make you angry.

Again, What Makes This Phrase So Special?

The thing that sets this biblical quote apart is that it was strictly created for a religious purpose. Whereas much of the imagery used in the Bible (especially from Jesus’ parables) had everyday references and borrowed references, this phrase carried a specific spiritual meaning. However, that did not prevent it from being used for secular purposes.

I guess that’s because it’s so rich because it can thus be applied for many different topics.

What Do I Think of When I Hear, “And the Truth Will Set You Free?”

As it turns out, I believe I first read this as it was being used in a religious context. I think I saw a poster that read, “And the truth shall set you free.”

For much of my student career, I attended religious schools and this quote was in one of them. I was young but I mulled over the meaning without giving too much thought to it.

Nowadays, I can see how this saying can apply to everyday life. Lying often makes things worse.

For instance, imagine a child broke a vase. The child could try to glue it back together again or lie about who (or what broke it), but the child would be better served to tell the truth sooner rather than get caught in a lie. Until the child tells the truth, he/she is essentially trapped.

Or someone asked for constructive criticism for their project and others just lie and say, “It’s fine.” That doesn’t really help, especially if someone asked for honest criticism. Sometimes criticism, even if negative, helps us focus, it helps us learn, and it frees us up to do better work in the future.


I try to move away from hero worship and try to find the truth as often as possible, even about myself. I believe that knowing the truth helps me move on quicker and know where I can improve, much like negative criticism.

And recently, a discussion between Sam Harris and Jordan Peterson brought the discussion of truth back to religion, somewhat. Harris is an atheist and Peterson is a clinical psychologist. When they first debated, the two engaged in a 2 hour+ exchange that was dominated by the discussion of what truth was. Afterward, even many followers of Harris thought he should just concede the point and move on (although, from the summary I read, I tend to agree with Harris more.)

Are You Celebrating Easter?

If so, I hope you enjoy the holiday. If you’re lucky, you may get to take some kids Easter egg hunting.

If not, I hope you enjoy your weekend.

Works Cited

“John 8 BSB.” Bible Hub. Web. Retrieved 14 Apr 2017. <http://biblehub.com/bsb/john/8.htm>.

“John 8:32 ‘And ye shall know the truth, and the truth shall make you free.’” King James Bible Online. Web. Retrieved 14 Apr 2017. <https://www.kingjamesbibleonline.org/John-8-32/>.

“John 8:32 Then you will know the truth and the truth shall make you free.” Bible Hub. Web. Retrieved 14 Apr 2017. <http://biblehub.com/john/8-32.htm>.

“The Truth Will Set You Free, But First It Will Piss You Off.” Quote Investigator. 4 Sept 2014. Updated 21 Sept 2014. Web. Retrieved 14 Apr 2017. <http://quoteinvestigator.com/2014/09/04/truth-free/>.


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