Week 4 - Learning to live without lying
Read: Matthew 5:1-12, 33-37
So far we have explored the awful reality of the opposite to the Good and Beautiful life as described by Paul in Romans 1:18-32. We’ve looked closely at the good news that Jesus proclaimed and noted the centrality of the kingdom of God in the Gospel message, and we've thought about the grand invitation that Christ issues to enter this way of life in the here and now.
In this session we’re thinking about the second of a number of very practical ways in which we can live the good and beautiful life as we engage with the issue of lying and cheating.
Here are some fascinating statistics about lying and deceit (they’re true, honestly)
Up to 25% of information presented on CV’s is not just ‘padding’ but ‘gross misinformation’.
Up to 2million US citizens have illegal off-shore bank accounts in order to evade tax.
Hundreds of Thousands of people illegally download content from the internet in the UK every day.
£1.9billion worth of false insurance claims are made each year in Great Britain.
And there are lots more like these. It seems that across our culture lying and cheating has found a general level of acceptance, and people who lie and cheat feel less and less guilty about it. Lying and cheating is part of our cultural landscape, common place, and even expected.
Now of course we recognize lying and cheating as being undesirable. We feel hurt or aggrieved when someone lies to us, it’s disrespectful, it’s hurtful. And yet…we all do it. It might be a low key ‘white lie’, it might be an out and out lie of seemingly no consequence, or it might even be serious and highly damaging. Sadly, even for Christians, the temptation to lie and cheat is ever present in our often compromised lives.
“Yes, I’d definitely like to get together soon” – “He’s in a meeting” – “She’s not at home” – “the sweet shop is closed” – “our TV doesn’t get that channel”…
Assuming that we’re not currently involved in a dubious insurance claim, and that no one reading this is trying to fiddle the tax man, let’s explore some of the ways in which deception sneaks into our daily existence. We do so not to condemn ourselves or others, but in order that the grace of God, at work in his Spirit might shine light into our hearts and then empower us to change and grow.
Reflect: Are there any habits of deception to which we’re particularly prone? Are there situations in which we know we don’t tell the truth? Are there patterns of behaviour that require deception and lies to hide?
If so, perhaps it would be helpful to acknowledge some of these areas of life, thank God for highlighting them, and then ask God for his help in addressing the issues.
Why do we do it?
In ‘The Good and Beautiful Life’ James Bryan-Smith suggests that the way we live is rooted in the narratives that we subscribe to, and through which we make sense of our experience and existence. He suggests that the narratives of the world are often rooted in un-reality, and that these narratives need to be replaced in our hearts and minds by the Kingdom narrative of Jesus.
Bryan-Smith suggests that the temptation to lie is so strong because as human beings we want to a) – get what we want, and b) – to avoid things we don’t want. And so in order to achieve these ends, motivated by a sense of self being at the centre of life, we lie, or deceive, or cheat. We construct a utilitarian narrative around this which says something along the lines of:
‘Lying is the means which justifies the end. I am the centre of my world, and my well being is my primary objective. Therefore there will be times when I need to lie in order to get what I want or prevent something I don’t want. And so in these situations it is ok to lie.’
Although we accept that the means (lying) is not really ok, we justify it by the ends (what we gain or avoid), and behind this rationalization stands a narrative that says ‘my needs are more important than anyone else’s, I am the centre of my world.’
Reflect: What common reasons do we find to justify deceit or lying to others? How do we tend to justify it to ourselves? Fear of saying difficult things? Desire to get what we want? A tendency to want to please people?
How might God be calling us to grow in this area of our life?
Jesus talks about false speech in verses 33-37 of Matthew chapter 5. We’re now well into the sermon on the mount and Jesus has already spoken of a number of ways in which we can live the good and beautiful life, and now he turns his attention to our speech.
He talks to the crowds about oath’s. He says something along the lines of this: ‘In the Law you’re told that you must not lie under oath. That it is very wrong to swear to tell the truth and then to not do so.’ Perjury was as much an offence in Jesus day as it is now, and for good reason – a society needs truth in order for justice to be done – an being ‘under oath’ was and is societies way of forcing someone to tell the truth. Much of the time it works, although sometimes of course people lie even under oath.
Jesus, as usual was aiming for something higher than the standards of his day, and even the standards of the religious elite. He says to his hearers: ‘it is possible to lie and cheat and not be held liable, but we know if you lie under oath you will be found guilty, and so under oath people don’t lie. But the kingdom person is different, because the person who lives in the kingdom of God will not lie, will speak truth, regardless as to whether or not they are under oath.’
As we live within the kingdom narrative and reality we find that the reasons to lie become fewer and fewer. We find that the compulsion to lie and the false narratives of the world which lead us down the path of deceit begin to lessen their hold on us. If we lie because we fear telling the truth, the kingdom reality is one in which we need have no fear because God is with us. If we deceive because we desire selfish gain then we find our priorities are shifted as we look to love God and neighbour above all else.
Sometimes telling the truth may cause us embarrassment or discomfort, it may cause us to loose out, but we live with a God who loves us and provides for us. We don’t need to fear the consequences of truth telling because ultimately we live under the rule and reign of God. Rooted and secure in the love of God and the reality of the Kingdom we can tell the truth, we can handle the consequences of telling the truth, and we no longer see the truth as something to be manipulated for our own ends and gain.
Living in the kingdom and the question of integrity…
Jesus is saying that those who have accepted the invitation to kingdom living now have a new standard by which to live. A new way of living which accepts that even if we’re not compelled to tell the truth by any external circumstance or restriction, we will tell the truth anyway. In all situations, private or public, our yes should mean yes and our no should mean no. And because those who dwell in the reality of the kingdom are people of integrity, no oath will be needed to convince others of the truth of what we say.
This integrity of speech was known as ‘plain speech’ by the Quakers. Plain speech means speaking without spin or deception – speaking is such a way that yes means yes, and no means no.
As those who desire to live within the kingdom reality, those who desire a life that is both good and beautiful in the eyes of God, we take seriously scriptures such as
Titus 1:2 - God is truth he cannot lie
John 16:13 - and those who follow him myst walk and talk in truth. The Spirit of God not only leads us into truth but is truth (1Jn5:6)
We walk according to the spirit. The spirit leads us into all truth, objectively speaking - the truth and reality of God himself as he exists, and subjectively speaking - a life that is marked by truth and lived in truth We desire to ‘put away falsehood’ and ‘speak truth to our neighbours’ because ‘we are members of one-another’. (Eph4:25)
What…always tell the truth?
Perhaps like me you can envisage some situations where telling the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth, would cause absolute and utter ruin? Should we tell the truth even when to do so would cause great harm and suffering? The age old conundrum of the Christian sheltering a Jew during World War II springs to mind…should he tell the truth when asked by the SS officer if he is harbouring a Jew? In such a situation of course we’d say ‘no, it is acceptable to lie, because it would be morally reprehensible to send someone to their death.
It is right not to lie. It is right to tell the truth, but such truth telling requires great wisdom. Truth telling requires wisdom because sometimes revealing all of the truth would contravene the second greatest commandment (according to Jesus) ‘love your neighbour as yourself’. Loving speech, wise speech may at times involve not telling someone everything we think or know in every circumstance. The Apostle Paul wrote about ‘Speaking the truth in love…’ by which he means speaking the truth for the good of the other, and sometimes the good of the other will involve speaking the whole truth, and other times it will involve not speaking the whole truth. In such situations, the Spirit of God, the Spirit of truth can guide us and lead us.
Jesus seems to be suggesting that as kingdom people we ought to tell the truth and not use deception, lies, or cheating to further our own agendas or benefit ourselves. As those who live in the kingdom, the reasons for lying, the compulsions to cheat, are addressed by the new reality in which we live. As we step more fully into the reality of the kingdom, and as we partner with God, we more and more become a people who speak the truth in love and live a good and beautiful life.
Reflect: Are there any situations in which we might need to find the courage to speak the truth in love? Do we need to bring before God a fear of man, an unhealthy desire to always have what we desire, and ask him to help us let go of these things?
In ‘The Good and Beautiful Life’ James Bryan-Smith suggests that a helpful way to practice speaking honestly and truth telling is to speak less. Silence, rooted in the monastic traditions is an exercise is controlling the tongue and appreciating the power of the words that we speak.
Why not consider having a day of silence and of controlling the tongue. Pick a day on which will be possible for you to be silent – maybe go away somewhere for the day. Learning to live without lying can begin in learning to control the tongue.