The large round table had a circle of a dozen or so young people and two or three adults all engaged in discussing and discerning what the theme for an upcoming youth gathering might be. One of the youth offered, “Listen to this song:”
“Tell me lies
Tell me sweet little lies
Tell me lies, tell me, tell me lies
Oh, no, no, you can’t disguise
You can’t disguise, no, you can’t disguise
Tell me lies
Tell me sweet little lies”
I smiled and wondered how this classic Fleetwood Mac song had become part of this young person’s repertoire. As the song concluded she continued, “I think we should do a retreat on lying!” Everyone at the table sat in reflective silence for a moment before another young person spoke up, “You know everybody lies. In fact, this song seems to romanticize or rationalize how lying just seems to be acceptable.” Another youth quickly jumped in, “That’s not true! Lying is never okay!” And for the next hour a robust discussion ensued about both the prevalence and acceptance of lying in the world.
Lying is a fascinating phenomenon and yet nothing new. There are many accounts of leaders and lovers, neighbors and enemies lying throughout history. The Bible has some notable passages on lying, “Lying lips are an abomination to the LORD” (Proverbs 12:22), and “Do not lie to one another, seeing that you have stripped off the old self with its practices” (Col. 3:9), (some would suggest the 9th Commandment, “You shall not bear false witness against your neighbor” but other scholars suggest it is referring to perjury). And then you have one of my favorite theologians, St. Augustine, who wrote a great deal on lying. He stated, “The question of lying is important since it often disturbs us in our daily actions lest we rashly blame ourselves for what, in reality, is not a lie, or, on the other hand, lest we think that at times we must deviate from the truth by telling a lie through a sense of honor, of duty, or even of mercy.”
Through the millennium we have found ways to categorize or, as the youth suggested, rationalize our lies: white lies, half truths, hyperbole and BS to name just a few cultural favorites. These are admissions to that which is “less than true”. As St. Augustine suggested sometimes our rationalization for lying is our desire to serve a higher purpose or good. Other times our reasoning is about protecting the other, as Jack Nicholson proclaimed in A Few Good Men, “You can’t handle the truth!” And there is always the proverbial getting caught with our hand in the cookie jar when our lying is focused on getting out of the trouble we find ourselves in.
Lying really is a fascinating phenomenon. Most all of us are taught by our parents or guardians that lying is wrong. This belief is reinforced in our faith traditions, educational institutions, and among our circles of friends. Yet it appears both the level of lying and acceptance in our world are at an all time high. So much so that last January a very diverse group of Christian leaders felt completed to publish the following statement:
“WE REJECT the practice and pattern of lying that is invading our political and civil life. Politicians, like the rest of us, are human, fallible, sinful, and mortal. But when public lying becomes so persistent that it deliberately tries to change facts for ideological, political, or personal gain, the public accountability to truth is undermined. The regular purveying of falsehoods and consistent lying by the nation’s highest leaders can change the moral expectations within a culture, the accountability for a civil society, and even the behavior of families and children. The normalization of lying presents a profound moral danger to the fabric of society. In the face of lies that bring darkness, Jesus is our truth and our light.” (Reclaiming Jesus in a Time of Crisis)
My sense is the time has come for all of us to take a serious gut check on what part lying plays in our lives. Are we rationalizing, minimizing, even normalizing lying, both our own and that of others? As such, are we moving to a life ever-decreasing in honesty? With honesty lacking there is no chance for real trust. And without trust we lose the fundamental dynamic of truly being in relationship with one another.