“Lying is not only saying what isn’t true. It is also, in fact especially, saying more than is true…” –Albert Camus
“You shall not bear false witness against your neighbor.” Exodus 20:16
In other words, do not lie.
Now, before you dismiss this passage of scripture as out of touch with reality or inconsequential to modern life, consider that it’s one of the Ten Commandments. Still not impressed? This is not an isolated commandment. The scriptures are replete with references imploring us to be honest.
On Tuesday morning, I heard a disturbing story on National Public Radio’s show Morning Edition. The segment was, “The Truth Is, Lying Might Not Be So Bad.” Commentator Shankar Vedantam was reporting on the conclusions discovered from a recent scientific study on lying:
“Researchers found something that we won’t find surprising: Once participants (in a study on lying) told the first lie, the second lie became easier to tell. And the magnitude of lies increased over time.”
One scientist put it this way: “It turns out that the brain also reacts very strongly to a first act of lying, but then as we keep on lying more and more the brain stops reacting to it. So, we start by being aware of this dishonest act and we are at least aware of it, but over time it just goes into the background and we don’t pay attention to it.”
According to the study, we typically won’t change our behavior until we experience enough discomfort from the consequences of our deceit to alter our ways.
As Vedantam concludes, “The first step down the path to deception makes every step easier.”
When we ruminate on the commandment that we are not to lie, most of us will admit that telling straight up falsehoods is wrong. We’ve experienced enough pain from telling outright lies to make us think twice before we boldly proclaim that we did not eat all the oatmeal cream pies when in fact, we did.
We know this is wrong and we know we will be punished for it. In truth, our spouses love their fair share of the Little Debbie Snack Cakes.
No, for most of us, deceitfulness comes in the form of changing the truth to fit our needs and desires. We report an event from our point of view. We shape the hearing of a conversation according to our best interests. We omit details. We emphasize the wrong things. We overinflate and use hyperbole. We tell the story the way we want to tell it.
Is that a lie? Yes. Yes, it is.
When we push and pull on the truth to suit our own ends, we are violating God’s commandment. In the first place, when we manipulate reality to fit our own agenda, we are making ourselves out to be our own god. It is a selfish posture that seeks the best for ourselves. Second, others will discover that we are not trustworthy. They will experience us as shifty dodgers who cannot be relied upon. This is not a good recipe for healthy relationships as this kind of deception results in suspicion, conspiracy theories and toxicity.
I can’t remember who told me this, but I’ve never been able to shake it. Trust is earned like money is earned and banked. Deceit spends the currency of trust. And when the vault of trust is empty, it won’t matter how significant that final withdrawal of trust is. When your trust is bankrupt, the relationship ends. It’s why we say that something was, “The straw that broke the camel’s back.”
Jesus calls Satan the author of lies. In him there “is no truth.” Satan deceives because his motivation is clear. He wants us to be our own god. The Deceiver wants us to pursue what’s best for ourselves. He wants us to believe the lie that what is best for us is what’s best for all. This has something to do with a snake in a garden, but I digress…
There are two things that are required here. First, we’ve got to stop telling falsehoods. Period. Second, we’ve got find ways to acknowledge when we are wrong, or have messed up. We should be forthcoming about other people’s points of view, even when they’re not in our best interest. Few things earn our respect more than individuals who can admit when they are wrong, and have a reasonable outlook that is circumspect.
And finally, we’ve got to be aware that lying is like a cheap, but effective drug. Once we start, it’s hard to stop.