Let God be found true, though every man be found a liar, as it is written, “That Thou mightest be justified in Thy words, And mightest prevail when Thou art judged” (Romans 3:4).
And everyone deceives his neighbor, And does not speak the truth, They have taught their tongue to speak lies; They weary themselves committing iniquity (Jer. 9:5).
St. Paul frequently admonishes early Christians to “speak the truth.” It seems somewhat strange at first – surely telling the truth is so obvious that it would not need mention. That telling the truth appears obvious is true – but people engage in lying all the time. Why is telling the truth so important?
If we think of telling the truth in purely moral terms, as a simple matter of right and wrong, its importance may easily be obscured. “White lies,” the small deviations in the truth that we use for politeness and to avoid embarrassment, seem harmless, even morally neutral. Morality, when understood as “breaking the rules,” fails to give a sufficient account of “telling the truth.” We judge truth-telling as a matter of concern only in so far as it has larger consequences. The truth becomes a question of utility (is it useful). The delusion that is the common human life finds lying to be very useful and telling the truth to be problematic. But there is another way to think about truth – a way that is more consistent with Biblical understanding – one which explains the paramount place it holds within the Christian Tradition.
In the opening chapter of Genesis we hear the story of Creation. God speaks the worlds into existence. With each day of Creation, we hear God’s judgment, “It is good.” The goodness of the created order is a fundamental tenet of the Christian faith. What God has brought into existence is good: He is not the author of evil. Existence is declared to be good. Thus God sustains all things in their existence, for He does not remove us from the goodness He has given. We may wonder why God allows somethings to continue in existence, but He does so because He Himself is good and does not begrudge us the gift of goodness.
Evil has no existence. Indeed, evil, at its root, is a rebellion against God-given existence and its inherent goodness. Thus the Scripture describes Satan as a “murderer” and “the father of lies.” (Jn. 8:44). The two epithets are related. Satan’s rebellion against God and His goodness is also a rebellion against the gift of true existence. Evil has no creative power, no root in true existence. It’s only power is to seek destruction and to distort goodness.
It is in this light that the importance of telling the truth is revealed. The truth is more than a moral commandment: it is a necessity for true existence. Lies have no existence – they are efforts of destruction and distortion. There can be no salvation within a lie for there is nothing to save.
Telling the truth is difficult. There are things we know either about ourselves or others that are appropriately left unsaid – not all knowledge is public knowledge. To speak the truth when to do so will cause harm is not a time to lie, but a time to remain silent. Discernment and discretion are required of those who wield the truth.
The greater struggle with telling the truth is not the situation that requires discretion – it is the life-struggle that prefers to lie. Our enmeshment in the ersatz existence of lying reveals our estrangement from God. It is even the case that within the lie that we sometimes live, we serve a God who is a delusion, a creation of our own distortions. The discipline of telling the truth is thus at the same time the discipline of knowing the true God.
If then you were raised with Christ, seek those things which are above, where Christ is, sitting at the right hand of God. Set your mind on things above, not on things on the earth. For you died, and your life is hidden with Christ in God. (Col 3:1-3 NKJ)
May God grant us to live in the truth.
I enjoyed this post very much however the actions of St. Dimitri (the priest companion of St. Maria of Paris) during World War II were the first thing that came to mind upon reading this. In giving false baptismal certificates to Jews was he sinning?
Jason, whenever questions such as yours arise I always think of this:
“Now Joshua the son of Nun sent out two men from Acacia Grove to spy secretly, saying, ‘Go, view the land, especially Jericho.”’ So they went, and came to the house of a harlot named Rahab, and lodged there. And it was told the king of Jericho, saying, “Behold, men have come here tonight from the children of Israel to search out the country.” So the king of Jericho sent to Rahab, saying, “Bring out the men who have come to you, who have entered your house, for they have come to search out all the country.’
“Then the woman took the two men and hid them. So she said, ‘Yes, the men came to me, but I did not know where they were from.’ And it happened as the gate was being shut, when it was dark, that the men went out. Where the men went I do not know; pursue them quickly, for you may overtake them.” (But she had brought them up to the roof and hidden them with the stalks of flax, which she had laid in order on the roof.)
“Now before they lay down, she came up to them on the roof, and said to the men: ‘I know that the LORD has given you the land, that the terror of you has fallen on us, and that all the inhabitants of the land are fainthearted because of you. For we have heard how the LORD dried up the water of the Red Sea for you when you came out of Egypt, and what you did to the two kings of the Amorites who were on the other side of the Jordan, Sihon and Og, whom you utterly destroyed. And as soon as we heard these things, our hearts melted; neither did there remain any more courage in anyone because of you, for the LORD your God, He is God in heaven above and on earth beneath.’”
“Likewise, was not Rahab the harlot also justified by works when she received the messengers and sent them out another way?”
-James 2: 25
It would seem that telling the truth is less a legal matter than it is a matter of faithfulness to Who Truth is.
God alone could judge such a question. Were I in his situation, I would to God that I had the courage to do the same thing.
Brian and Jason,
Good scripture examples. Of course, the question and the Scriptures cited are somewhat beside the point. It is not Rahab’s situation, nor that of St. Dmitri that we face everyday. It is simple lying and its false existence that dog our lives.
Steve, another grandson yesterday,4:47 PM . 6lbs.8oz, No name yet. Congrats to Jen.
Stan – Congrats to you! And to my beloved niece – making me a great uncle for the third time! They should name him Glory to God for All Things! or maybe something shorter. 🙂
(reposting, since the original isn’t showing up yet)
M. Scott Peck once said some interesting things about mental illness. To paraphrase:
Everyone lacks mental/spiritual wholeness to a certain degree. Those who are severe enough cases are classified as being mentally ill, but we all share the malady.
The degree that a person is “off” in this way is largely dependent on the degree to which they deny the truth – about themselves, the world around them, or of course even God. Chemical imbalances and other special conditions notwithstanding. But for most of us this hold true.
For example, a person denying the truth of their need for God might cover it up with an addiction. Someone wanting to forget their abusive father from childhood might become a serial killer or simply a vagrant in order to escape the memories.
Lies are a self-protection mechanism. The more our life is not in God, the more we must cover our nakedness with lies in order to keep it safe.
God’s way is radical and often seems wrong to us. He would have us live the truth – even when it’s painful – to the best of our ability.
When it comes to the case of speaking the truth, it is of course as you say: discernment is needed, and our recourse is silence, not lies.
And of course there are cases like Rahab, but I like Brian’s ending statement above about staying true to the One who is truth. I would also add that proverb of old: “Hard cases make bad law.”
Yes. I agree. Peck’s stuff, especially Road Less Traveled and People of the Lie, were good reads for me (back in the 80’s when they came out). I had opportunity to me him back then, and to lunch with him. There are a number of things I learned from him that still hold very true. Good insights.
Father, you stated: “The greater struggle with telling the truth is not the situation that requires discretion – it is the life-struggle that prefers to lie.”
For some reason I just cannot get my mind wrapped around the point you are trying to make here. Could you please re-word and/or clarify what exactly it is you mean to say? I am honestly clueless – and it just may be that I’m lacking the brain cells necessary to comprehend.
Knowitall: I just checked out that book from the library. I’ve attempted to read it all the way through, but as of yet have been unsuccessful. Perhaps this time I will complete it.
If it’s any consolation, it wasn’t meant to be read all the way through. Not exactly, anyway: it was originally run serially over at least one year, if I recall correctly. So don’t feel too bad!
To clarify. I used the example of some situations needing discretion (places where we might indeed best say nothing – situations where telling the truth might harm someone). I wanted to acknowledge that such situations can make telling the truth difficult or problematic. But I wanted to make the point that these are not common, not the problems that normally arise for us in telling the truth. The real problem is that people often prefer to lie (it is a struggle of our daily life). We prefer to lie to avoid pain, even when the pain is legitimate (for example). My original wording was a little odd. Sorry.