Karl Menninger’s 1973 book wrestled with the big picture question “Whatever Became of Sin,” but I wonder if were alive today if he would write a sequel entitled Whatever Became of Truth?
In this season of Lenten reflection, let’s turn our attention to truth, or better, truth-telling. Why? Because of the seven things that Proverbs 6:16-19 cites as sins that God hates, at least three of them have to do with lies or lying: “a lying tongue,” “a false witness,” and “a person who stirs up conflict in the community.” I include the third “troublemaker in the community” category because gossip, false accusations, and spreading rumors are recipes for community division and conflict.
Why are these sins so offensive to God? Because:
- “Every word of God is flawless” (Proverbs 30:5);
- Jesus defines himself as “the way, the truth, and the life (John 14:6);
- the Holy Spirit, called the “Spirit of truth” is sent to “guide us into all the truth” (John 16:13);
- And God commands us to “speak the truth in love” to each other (Ephesians 4:15).
And yet, I roll along in a culture that thrives on lies. “Fake news” points to the potential of falsehoods being spread through the media, but the accusations may themselves be false – so I find myself asking the Pilate question, “What is truth?” We rationalize that vulgar language against women is simply locker room talk. Our leaders routinely relate accounts, issues and news releases that are crafted to “spin” the facts in their own favor. Lying has become so commonplace that I sometimes wonder if we are not developing a cultural case of lying that is pathological – where we get so accustomed to our lies that we can no longer distinguish lies from truth, and we don’t even know we’re lying.
I love to point the finger at others, but like Isaiah, I need to start with myself – not with the news media, our elected officials, pro-athletes, or movie stars. “I am a man of unclean lips, and I dwell amongst a people of unclean lips” (Isaiah 6:5). I can tell a story that spins the data in my own favor; I can hide an unpleasant truth by changing the subject; I can join in a lie by spreading unclear or false information about some leader I dislike. Gossip, slander, and angry words come out of my mouth, but I can spiritualize them, justify them, or rationalize away the hurt that I might cause another person.
In this season of repentant reflection, I find three little “#Twitter-size” phrases helpful in pulling back to a life and a mouth committed to truth:
- “A lie is half way around the world while the truth is still putting on his trousers.” It’s sad to admit it, but bad words, false accusations, and slander holds attraction to us sinful humans (why do you think Tabloid magazines sell and gossip TV shows thrive?). We want to hear some “juicy news” about public figures, and we are quick to spread stories long before we’ve investigated whether the stories are true. For me, reflective repentance means that I want to commit myself to resist spreading anything that seems like a rumor, and to reject altogether circulating denigrating stories that come at the cost of other persons.
- Always tell the truth; there’s less to remember. Pastor Howard Clark, our senior pastor at Grace Chapel (Lexington, MA) from 1986-1991 taught me this phrase. He led us through some very tough years in our church’s life, but he refused to put “spin” on the facts of what was going on – even sometimes at cost to himself. When I find myself telling person A that something happened this way and then I tell person B it happened another way, I will always be uncertain talking to A or B in the future – because I might not remember who I told what. In biblical language, I need to let my “yes” be “yes” and let you “no” be “no” (Matthew 5:37).
- A half-truth told as the whole truth is an untruth. I learned this phrase from my wife Christie – the hard way L. She asked me how much something cost. I answered with a dollar number that was accurate as a baseline, but I hid from her the cost of taxes, delivery, and a few extras which increased the cost another 25%. I rationalized that I had told the “basic” truth. She later found out the entire cost, and she said, “You lied to me.” I defended myself, “Well, I guess I can admit I didn’t give you all the facts” (if rationalization has a twin, it is defensiveness). She came back, “You lied,” she said, and then gave me the statement above. By making a half-truth the whole truth, I became (in the language of Proverbs 6), a false witness. I repented and she forgave me, but I had to work to regain her trust in handling money.
- Am I committed to listening and even researching first before I spread information based on a Twitter feed or a sound-bite?
- Am I a person committed to truth-telling, even when a ‘spin’ might make me look better?
- Do I rationalize away my half-truths by making them appear as the whole truth?