“Why We Lie” May 26 2017
(Part of BCF’S blog series: “Society, Selflessness, and the Scriptures")
This is the title of the lead article in the June 2017 issue of National Geographic, featured on the cover of the magazine. The full title is “Why We Lie – the Science Behind Our Complicated Relationship with the Truth.” I don’t usually read National Geographic, but I had to read this article because lying has been so much a part of human behavior from time immemorial. And the conclusion, based on the Word of God, differs from that of the author – explaining why we lie is not all that complicated.
The fact that the question of “why do we lie?” is even asked shows how insensitive society has become to the importance of telling the truth. Societies are generally held together by trust: in marriages, families, individual friendships, financial institutions, the government and the governed. The Lord repeatedly reminds us in both the Old and New Testaments how important it is to tell the truth. Telling the truth was so important for judicial fairness in Israel that God made “you shall not bear false witness” the 9th of the Ten Commandments (Exodus 20:16).
Although the National Geographic article highlights how rampant lying has become, and how technology enables this behavior to flourish, all the author could come up with in the end was another question: “What then might be the best way to impede the fleet-footed advance of untruths into our collective lives? The answer isn’t clear. Technology has opened up a new frontier for deceit, adding a 21st century twist to the age-old conflict between our lying and trusting selves.”
Part of the article references tabulations that had been made by individuals over a 24-hour period, ranging in age between 6 and 77, documenting how frequently they lied and the reasons they lied. Thirty-six percent indicated that their lies were to “protect self” and 44% of lies were to “promote self” (mostly to gain economic advantage, personal advantage or put forward a good impression).
The Bible is filled with real-life examples of lies and deceptions, even from revered biblical characters. David himself told lies and plotted deceptions to protect himself from others knowing about the adultery he had committed with Bathsheba (2 Samuel Chapter 11). Peter the apostle denied being associated with Jesus – not once, not twice, but three times (Luke Chapter 22). These and other examples should be good reminders that all of us, no matter how well-intentioned, are susceptible to denying the truth, stretching the truth, and making up stories to try to get through difficult situations.
I still remember an incident in 11th grade English class where each of us had to give speeches in front of our fellow students – not my favorite classroom exercise. The bell rang about a minute into my speech, and I was off-the-hook for the time being. Whew! The next day the teacher started up the speeches again, and much to my delight, she skipped over my name. Apparently she had marked me off on her list the day before and did not remember that I had barely begun. So when the next speech came up, what did I do? I didn’t say a word. But most of the class remembered, gave me “the eye,” and wondered if I was going to say anything. I did not. Looking back on it, my humanity was on full display. Having not been caught by the teacher, I considered it to be a successful deception, which wasn’t entirely my fault. Brilliant! Not being a believer at the time, it reminds me of where I could be, were it not for the Lord. Even now as a believer, some 50 years later, temptations abound to make myself look good, gain advantage, or hide my propensity toward sin.
When Are We Tempted to Lie?
The most significant temptations to lie seem to be in cases where we are unlikely to get caught, or where the deception is not viewed to be that significant in our society today. For example:
- Getting more change than people deserve from a financial transaction is passed off as justified because it was a mistake of the business. This is now a societal norm. This ignores the opportunity we can have as Christians to show how different we are from the world; and people usually notice, though they may not admit it.
- We can present one image at church and another as we go about our “secular responsibilities” (which are really spiritual responsibilities as well) hoping the two worlds will never meet.
- We blame someone else or something else for a failure at work, home, or school, avoiding the blame for what may have gone wrong.
Governments are increasingly installing technology to keep individuals in our society from taking advantage of situations for their own personal gain: video cameras, global positioning systems (GPS), large transaction databases to spot financial inconsistencies. They are facing the reality that we as humans are prone to deceit, and this is the way governments, businesses, and homeowners have attempted to address the problem.
This almost seems like an attempt at “partial omniscience.” Just think of how much easier and less costly it would be if we all recognized our accountability to a truly omniscient God and made our decisions accordingly. That would be incredibly refreshing. However, society is clearly going in the other direction. The truth doesn’t really seem to matter, except when you get caught in a lie, and even then, the implications are limited and the behavior even expected. The only time many people seem to be concerned about lying is when they are lied to. When they are on the receiving end of the lie, people act offended and would say they have been treated unfairly.
One of the examples in the article is that of Bernie Madoff, manager of a multi-billion-dollar financial portfolio. He was so convincing and so trustworthy on the surface, delivering spectacular returns, that he earned the loyalty of many high-profile investors. Then the Ponzi scheme collapsed. This is what happens when lies get piled on top of lies. Another lie is used to keep our story from unraveling. Eventually we run out of options to keep people from discovering the deception. This is bondage, not freedom. Sadly, as society drifts farther from faith in the Lord Jesus Christ, the more we can expect dishonesty, deception, and all the accompanying consequences.
The Freedom of Telling the Truth
So … why do we lie? We saw above that even secular studies indicate that we care about ourselves more than about being truthful. So how can anyone deny that we have a sin nature? Children, from their earliest years, figure out how to be deceitful. They don’t need training in how to lie or manipulate situations. Rather, they need to be taught how to tell the truth even when it may not present themselves in the best light. This is truly liberating, and is also a lot easier on the memory. It is also how we demonstrate love for others.
Recognize that the Lord Who has saved us from our sin, and Whom we serve out of a deep sense of gratitude, is fully aware of our failings, is ready to forgive and to welcome us back into fellowship. We don’t need to justify ourselves; we don’t need to make excuses. He knows our weaknesses already. It is like the father or mother who knows, through obvious evidence, that a child is not telling the truth. They are just waiting for the child to acknowledge it. Why not just confess it, receive forgiveness, and go on to be a consistent truth-teller, in the power of the Holy Spirit? It is our reputation before the Lord that ultimately matters most.
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