Can You Handle (Telling) the Truth?

January 7, 2018

Rev. Dr. David Clark

Senior Minister

Exodus 20:16; John 8:32

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We begin 2018 with a series on how to apply core Christian ethical principles to daily life. It was actually columnist David Brooks who inspired the idea for the series. He pointed out that we no longer live in an age where a core set of Judeo-Christian principles are assumed by our culture or that people within those religious traditions even know what the core moral principles are. That seemed right to me. So I thought it would be good to spend time reviewing these basics.

We are inundated with examples of things that are just accepted that cut against this ethic. We live in a time like the prophet Isaiah who said of his people, “They have lost the capacity to blush.” Where is the blushing of people who tell falsehoods reflexively, or brag incessantly? How did naked greed and ostentatious lifestyles become an in thing? If you read the teachings of Jesus, why don’t people’s cheeks redden when they get snooty about membership in exclusive clubs? I thought Jesus accepted everybody. What happened? With all of the stories about fake news and alternative facts and changing sets of realities, we are life scratching our heads like Pilate asking Jesus, “What is truth?”

There are a couple of challenges to taking on a series like this. The first is someone might try to read between the lines and think this is a six-week bash against the president. Let me assure you. It’s not. There’d be no point. He doesn’t go to church here. And he’s not the only one who is morally flawed, we all are, and need all the help and insights we can get to rise to higher levels. Why rise? Because you are going to feel better about yourself, others around you will feel better about you and it will increase your overall well-being. We should all be trying to grow in our faith and more true to ethical behavior. So I wanted to make this for us. About the things we face.

The second challenge is that the church has a bad enough rap of being the moralistic fun-squashing squad. Someone said he would have been a Christian if certain clergymen didn’t look so dour. The goal here is to talk about morality without being judgy and moralistic. So we do it not to wag our finger at others, but in a quest to raise ourselves to a higher level.

In moral formation there are a certain set of people who are fine just knowing the rules. Give me the guidelines and I’ll follow. So if you’re in that group, here it is: lying’s bad, mmmk?

For those who need a more nuanced approach and practical advice on how to become more honest and trustworthy the rest of this is for you.

Ethics professors love to talk about lying. Is it always and everywhere wrong to lie? Ethics involves decision making when you have 2 goods in competition. What happens when the moral position of telling the truth conflicts with the moral good of avoiding injury. When Nazis came hunting for Jewish people was it morally wrong for people to say, “Nope. Haven’t seen any.” Even if they were hiding out in that persons basement? When is a lie permittable?

What if telling someone the truth causes harm to someone. Are you morally obligated to tell someone about an affair you know her spouse had, even though it’s not an ongoing thing? Do you have to tell the whole truth and say, “That outfit doesn’t just make you look fat, it makes you hideous?” But if some lying is permissible then isn’t that a slippery slope? Which lies are okay and which aren’t?

Scripture has much to say about bearing false witness. The big thing is not to take it lightly or casually. It’s the 9th commandment.

It’s somehow part of being human. When God asked Adam if he ate the forbidden fruit, Adam threw Eve under the bus saying: That woman, whom you gave me, she made me do it. So it’s part of us. But so is the capacity to rise above those inclinations to tell the truth. In fact that better part is a bigger part of us, by far. Most people aren’t serial liars and people generally don’t lie at most opportunities. If you want to lie less, look at those qualities that make you your best self and accentuate those.

The big question is: What are the habits, conditions and behaviors that put you in contact with your best self? When you are in those better states of mind more inclined to be truthful. The better you feel about yourself, the less likely you are to pretend you are something you aren’t.

There is a great TED talk by Pamela Meyer who is the CEO of a social networking company and began researching deception and became an expert on lie detecting.  She is coming from an industry perspective looking at and preventing fraud.

Fraud, dishonesty, costs American companies 3.5 trillion dollars a year.

The typical organization loses about 5% of its annual revenue to fraud.

But what she writes about applies to us: “One in four Americans believes it’s OK to lie to an insurer.  One-third of all resumes contain false information. One in five employees say they are aware of fraud in their workplace but won’t report it.

Various researchers have determined that in a given day we may be lied to anywhere from 10-200 times.

In one study, strangers lied to each other three times within the first ten minutes of meeting each other. What makes this study interesting is not the volume of lies told — it’s that before seeing the video of themselves lying, participants overwhelmingly reported that they had been truthful.”

She says further, “If you’re in an average married couple, you’re going to lie to your spouse in one out of every 10 interactions.”

Meyer even uses the example of Koko the gorilla who they taught sign language. Koko bonded with an adorable kitten. Remember that story?  Koko once blamed the kitten for ripping a sink out of the wall.

Sometimes lying seems easier than the truth – it feels easier to tell someone, if they ask, that you like their haircut even if you don’t – what does it accomplish to hurt their feelings?

It might seem easier to lie and say you feel sick than say you have no interest in going on a trip or that you are afraid to go.

Easier to tell your spouse that you like their meatloaf than to endure that sad look on their face if you tell them the truth.

One of the first steps is to be honest about your lies. Many lies are told when people try to advantage themselves in the workplace, the marketplace, their personal relationships and just about every other domain of everyday life. For example, a salesperson told a customer that the jeans she was trying on were not too tight, so she could make the sale.

In one study, participants lied to protect themselves psychologically: One college student told a classmate that he wasn’t worried about his grades, so the classmate wouldn’t think him stupid.

Less often, the participants lied in kind ways, to help other people get what they wanted, look or feel better, or to spare them from embarrassment or blame. For example, a son told his mother he didn’t mind taking her shopping, and a woman took sides with a friend who was divorcing, even though she thought her friend was at fault, too.

The most common reasons we lie are to:

  1. Escape accountability.
  2. To be cruel, to get back at someone. Usually embedding a kernel of truth in them—that’s why they work.
  3. Get access to things that they wouldn’t otherwise have. Some lie to make themselves look better to their peers.
  4. Embellish reality. One noted psychologist says that those who do this often think their life is boring and so they’re not getting payoffs. They’re not getting attention, affection, sympathy, praise,” So they enhance their reality, hoping that they’ll get something that they weren’t getting.”
  • Lies to make ourselves look bettermight include exaggerations, embellishments, and flat-out tall-tales we tell to others, and ourselves, to make ourselves feel better about our inadequacies. When you’re unhappy about something, it’s much easier to fill it in with lies than tell the truth.

Speaking the truth from the heart is hard work.  It means knowing deep down in the soul that whatever the consequences are the truth is much better than a gentle lie.

Back to Pamela Meyer’s TED talk, she talks about how there is this gap between who we want to be or how we envision ourselves or want the world to see us, and how we actually are.  She says, “Lying is an attempt to bridge a gap, to connect our wishes and our fantasies, about who we wish we were, how we could be, with what we’re really like.”  And that description of why we often lie points to an issue of faith: we cannot bear to be just as we are and so we lie.

God’s truth is that we are created and loved just as we are – we don’t need to lie our way to greater glory because we already reflect God’s glory. Baptism of the Lord Sunday. Voice from heaven. My beloved. We are God’s children, beloved. We don’t need any more than that. So we don’t have to pretend. We don’t have to lie to be accepted because we are already accepted. We don’t have to fear telling the truth, even when it’s hard because we have One who looks out for us and cares for us.

Following the spiritual path gets us there. Practices of being honest with ourselves. Not thinking of our selves more highly or lowly than we ought. We need not fear. We are accepted. Lying isn’t going to close that gap. But practices of becoming aware. Being okay with ourselves as we are while trying to do better. Worship Education Fellowship Service. That’s what gets us there. Honest.