“Do not lie to each other, since you have taken off your old self with its practices and have put on the new self, which is being renewed in knowledge in the image of its Creator.”
Recently I was trying to explain to my children why crossing your fingers behind your back did not excuse a lie. Who made up that elementary school myth anyway? Children seem to learn from a very young age that there are ways to deceive others.
Adults have mastered different ways to varnish the truth. There is a small book called, The Lexicon of Intentionally Ambiguous Recommendations (LIAR) by Robert Thornton, an economist from Lehigh University. The book gives suggestions on how to recommend people who are less than qualified. Here are a few examples: For someone you do not like: “I am pleased to say that this person is a former friend of mine.” A lazy worker might get: “In my opinion, you will be very fortunate to get this person to work for you.” For someone who is a criminal: “He’s a man of many convictions,” and “I’m sorry we let him get away.” An employee who cannot be trusted could be referred to as: “Her true ability is deceiving.” For a worker who is completely inept, you might say, “I most enthusiastically recommend this person with no qualifications whatsoever.”
Why is it that people lie? A study entitled, “Lying in Everyday Life” in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology stated that “…lies are less often told in the pursuit of goals such as financial gain and material advantage and instead are much more often told in the pursuit of psychic rewards such as esteem, affection, and respect.” The study’s participants recorded daily lies in journals. “We expected people to lie to make themselves appear kinder or smarter or more honest than they believe themselves to be and to protect themselves from embarrassment or disapproval or conflict. In fact…many more of participants’ lies were told for psychological reasons than for reasons of personal advantage or convenience.” Whether it is to preserve their own identity, to avoid ambarrassment, or to elevate themselves in the eyes of another, humans find it necessary to convince others that they are more than they appear. We have all seen that famous visual joke of a young businessman who is setting up his office and after hearing a knock on his door, he grabs the telephone and begins a conversation. He motions for his visitor to wait as he continues his call and
finally hangs up the phone, sighs, and asks, “And how may I help you?” The visitor replies, “I am here to hook up your telephone.”
As Sir Walter Scott, stated, “O what a tangled web we weave, When first we practice to deceive.” The web of deceit is spun easily with strangers. And also to those close to us- yet with more finesse. We may believe that we are not deceiving those close to us but it may be a matter of semantics. A so called truth may be told in order to mask a lie. A man who had been fishing all day caught nothing, so he stopped at the supermarket on the way home. He asked for the grocer to throw him five of their biggest fish. “Why?” the grocer asked. “So I can tell my wife I caught them. I may be a bad fisherman, but I’m no liar!” Sometimes we appear to be telling the truth by our actions when in fact we know we are lying. A man scraped the side of a shiny red sports car as he parked. He watched several people stop to watch him as he wrote on a piece of paper, “People are watching me thinking that I am writing you a note with my name and address, but I am not.” He put the note under the windshield and drove away.
Just as soon as we think that we have seen it all, we learn from teenagers who seem to discover new ways to deceive. A boy came home at two o’clock in the morning when his curfew had been midnight. As his father said, “Son, is that you? What time is it?” As the cuckoo clock struck two the boy stood still and cuckooed ten more times. Lying sure can put people in the silliest situations! A business can become so immersed in lies that it becomes a part of its culture. A store manager heard his clerk tell a customer, “No, ma’am, we haven’t had any for a while, and it doesn’t look as if we’ll be getting any soon.” Horrified, the manager came running over to the customer and said, “Of course we’ll have some soon. We placed an order last week.” Then the manager drew the clerk aside. “Never,” he snarled, “Never, never, never say we’re out of anything- say we’ve got it on order and it’s coming. Now, what was it she wanted anyway?” The clerk said, “Rain!”
The former president of San Francisco seminary Donald McCullough’s Christian Century article, “White Lies, Hard Truths”, describes how lying is everywhere in our society, quoting a Time magazine article that our society is “a huckstering, show-bizzy world, jangling with hype, hullabaloo, hooey, bull, baloney, and bamboozlement. We live in a market-driven society, and to make the sale—whether it be of a car or a candidate or a can of beer—the truth gets pulled and stretched past anything resembling reality.” McCullough quotes M. Scott Peck: “The less clearly we see the reality of the world— the more our minds are befuddled by falsehood, misperceptions, and illusions—the less able we will be to determine correct courses of action and make wise decisions. Our view of reality is like a map with which to negotiate the terrain of life. If the map is true
and accurate, we will generally know where we are, and if we have decided where we want to go, we will generally know how to get there. If the map is false and inaccurate, we generally will be lost.” By speaking the truth, we enable one another to chart accurate maps and thus get from here to wherever we’re going with integrity and greater wholeness. Our relationships, for example, depend on truth. Unless others speak truthfully to us, we never engage real people but only phony images; unless we speak truthfully to others, we never experience the exquisite joy of being known and accepted for who we really are. Any friendship worth cultivating demands honesty.
Tony Campolo told of a time his mother made him go to a funeral to show his respect for the deceased, Mr. Kilpatrick. He drove to the funeral home, entered the chapel, and bowed his head. When he looked around, he noticed he was the only one there, and when he peered into the casket, he did not see Mr. Kilpatrick. He had gone to the wrong funeral. Campolo was about to leave when an elderly woman clutched his arm and pleaded, “You were his friend, weren’t you?” Not knowing what to do, he lied and said, “Yeah, he was a good man. Everybody loved him.” After the funeral, Campolo and the elderly woman went to the cemetery in a limousine. The casket was lowered into the grave, and both tossed a flower on it. On the way back to the funeral home, Campolo confessed the truth: “…There’s something I’ve got to tell you. I want to be your friend, and we can’t have a friendship unless I tell you the truth. I’m afraid I have to tell you that I didn’t really know your husband. I came to his funeral by accident.” She squeezed his hand and said, “You’ll never, ever, ever know how much your being here with me today meant.” I don’t know whether they became friends; I only know they could not have become genuine friends without Campolo’s honesty.
In my office I have a book of Norman Rockwell’s Saturday Evening Post covers. One depicts a scene of mutual deception- a butcher weighing a turkey has his thumb on one side of the scale while his customer, a lady, pushes the scale up with her finger. Neither realizes what the other is doing. Neither can develop a genuine relationship with the other participating in this game of deception, and each seems to be completely comfortable lying to the other.
How does this happen that lies become justified? Humans are able to convince themselves that there is some reason the illicit behavior is allowed. The butcher may be telling himself that the lady is wealthier than he and he needs the money. The lady may be thinking the butcher’s inflated prices justify her action. Each is playing the game of self-deception. In life the biggest question we may ever ask ourselves might be, “Can I be honest with myself?” One exercise we might try would be to write two columns on a sheet of blank paper, one for lies I tell myself, the other for the truth. After some introspection we may discover we
have convinced ourselves that for one reason or another, deception is not only welcome but deserved.
Lloyd Steffen uses the story of David and Bathsheba in 2 Samuel 11 as a prime example in his article, “On Honesty and Self-Deception: ‘You Are the Man’.” From his palace rooftop, King David sees Bathsheba bathing. He arranges a liaison and soon she is pregnant with his child. Then David sends her husband off to be killed in battle. Steffen writes, “Deceptions subvert the moral life, and destroy the foundations of our social arrangements. Whatever basis for humane communion is to be found in either principles of respect for persons or faith in God is eroded by our failures to treat each other as persons worthy of being told the truth. Yet honesty is not a problem only in the sphere of our social engagements. Honesty is also important psychologically, as regards our feelings about ourselves. Here the important question is: Can I be honest with myself? We exhibit an amazing agility in avoiding the truth about who we are and what we do. Our failures in being honest with ourselves are instances of self-deception. And all of us are, have been, or could be self-deceivers. We are prone to it, capable of it, and never more likely to be in its grip than in those moments when we are sure we are not. As people of faith, we are called to be honest in our dealings with God, with others and with ourselves. Self-deception can disrupt all of those relations… We notice instances of self-deception when the gap between behavior and interpretation is clear. We detect instances of self-deception when people interpret to us the meaning of their behavior in ways that seem farfetched or skewed. Self-deception lurks in denials, double-mindedness, rationalizations, cover-ups and cover stories, elaborate and almost convincing justifications, excuses, attributions of blame and evasions of responsibility.”
Steffen lists some of the rationalizations David might have used. Many seem familiar from contemporary scandals, don’t they? “The nature of David’s dishonesty can be made clearer if we imagine him making the moves that self-deceivers make. Perhaps, in order to persist in thinking of himself as a good and decent man, an upright king and an honorable servant of God, he told himself that as king he had special privileges regarding affairs of the heart. Or maybe he used some modern rationalizations: “I love Bathsheba so much that it doesn’t matter what the rules say”; or “Our love is different, holy and pure in itself; or “My love for Bathsheba hasn’t violated her marriage because the marriage was already dead. Why else would she have consented to the affair?” Perhaps he persuaded himself that as king he had every right to send any soldier to any place to do anything he bids. “This is not a democracy after all, but a monarchy, and I am engaged in battle; and soldiers—all of my soldiers—are at my disposal. How could ordering Uriah to the front lines be murder?” A few moves like these and David could appear to himself as a good man, whom a few might criticize, but only because they do not have David’s version of the facts.”
David Gushee asks why we so often do not tell the truth in his classic article, “The Truth about Deceit.” “Many times we lie because we are unwilling to face the consequences of the truth. Most lies are pitiful efforts to protect our pride. We lie because we fear being shamed or embarrassed. Our fragile reputations and even more fragile egos must be protected at all costs. And so, pitifully and too cheaply, we sell out the truth, constructing ingenious rationalizations for our deceptiveness or draw fine-grained distinctions that don’t really hold water.”
Truth is not simply something that is spoken, it is a careful and mindful pathway through life. We must put away ingenious rationalizations and the game of self deception. Mark Twain said that a lie can travel halfway around the world while truth is still lacing up her boots. Let us embark on a journey down the path of honesty and truth. Let us uncross our fingers, admit that the phone is not hooked up yet, that we didn’t catch any fish, and stop looking like a fool sounding like a cuckoo clock. Let us take our finger off the scale and seek lives of integrity and truth. Amen.