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I would like to elaborate a bit on what a lie is, on whether or not is it always wrong to lie, and on whether or not we can lie to ourselves. Rather than just giving you my own immature thoughts on the subject, I want to draw on the thoughts of St. Augustine. I don’t know that I fully agree with Augustine, but I think he is a good place to start. Perhaps I can do another sermon where we look at Aquinas’ view, Newman’s view, and Kant’s view.
My interest in this topic was stirred up by a book called “Lying: An Augustinian Theology of Duplicity” by Paul J. Griffiths. The Holy Spirit had already been convicting me of my own tendency to be dishonest, but this book helped clarify and sharpen my vision so that I began to see more clearly just how deep and wide my dishonesty is.
All of us know that it is wrong to lie, but few of us see how easy it is to lie and how entrenched we are in our own lies. In fact, if you made it your life’s ambition to never lie, you would probably be one of the most socially awkward people around. Many of our “social graces” rely on our ability distort our true thoughts. Even if we think someone smells funny, we usually shy away from telling them this. Anyone who just blurted out his thoughts without any sort of filter would be considered rude.
Imagine what it would be like if we had no filter and just said the first thing that came to our mind. A conversation might go something like this:
Joe: Matt, do you think I am a good singer?
Me: No. I have been meaning to tell you that I wish you would spare us from having to hear you sing.
Joe: Maybe you just have bad taste.
Me: I guess that’s possible, but it’s more likely that you are just a bad singer.
This conversation would most likely end in hurt feelings, distance in the relationship, and most likely Joe singing louder an in an even more annoying tone out of spite.
What’s more likely is that our conversation would go something like this:
Joe: Matt, do you think I am a good singer?
Me: Joe, you make such a joyful noise to the Lord. It’s wonderful to be singing next to you in church. You have such a great heart for the Lord.
Joe: Thanks Matt. You’re such a good Christian.
The second conversation gives us a win / win situation right? I don’t have to tell Joe that I don’t like his singing. Joe’s feelings are not hurt; in fact, Joe is encouraged to sing more in church. And even if I don’t like Joe’s singing, it’s not a BIG deal for me to listen to him. And finally, Joe and I are friends at the end of the conversation. He was even giving me compliments on my Christian walk. What could possibly be wrong with that?
I think we all know what “might” be wrong with it. What “might” be wrong with it is that it might be a form of lying. I think most of us have wondered about the moral status of our “polite falsehoods” or “white lies”. We need to ask ourselves if the latter conversation entails a form of lying. We regularly “soften” our true thoughts about someone in order to avoid offending them. Today, I want to ask whether or not it is OK to do that. Is it ever OK to mislead people about our true thoughts? Is it OK to channel a conversation away from its original direction in order to avoid hurting someone’s feelings?
Or we could ask more difficult question like “Is it OK to tell a flat out lie in order to protect someone?” Again, I think most of us, at one time or another, have asked ourselves these types of questions. But have we taken the time to really think through these questions in order to come up with a coherent answer?
If we are reflective at all, and if we are honest with ourselves, I think most of us would have to admit that we have used all sorts of tactics to help us avoid telling others what we really think. We might want to hide our thoughts because we don’t want to hurt someone’s feelings. We might distort the truth in order to look better than we really are. We might flat out lie because we don’t want to be pestered by the effects of telling the truth. We have many motives for avoiding an honest reply. As Christians, we should be the first to confess this and work to come into line with what is right and good.
So how do we do this? Do we just muster up enough will power and march through life speaking only plainly honest things? Do we stop caring about how what we say affects other people?
Before we attempt to answer these questions, let’s look more closely at what a lie is and what a lie is not.
First let’s start with three questions:
1. What is a lie?
2. Is it always wrong to lie?
3. Can you lie to yourself?
If we were to ask a person on the street answer these questions, I think they would give answers like this:
1. What is a lie?
a. A lie is when you tell someone else something that isn’t true.
2. Is it always wrong to lie?
a. Usually yes, but there are some cases where it may not be. For example, if Nazi’s ask you if you are hiding Jews in your house and you lie to protect them, then that is a morally permissible lie. Some people might say that white lies are ok too.
3. Can you lie to yourself?
a. Of course you can. People lie to themselves all the time. We tell ourselves that we are virtuous when we are full of vice. We tell ourselves that we know more than others when we are really ignorant.
It might surprise you to know that St. Augustine thinks that none of the above answers are correct. For him, a lie is not to say something that is false. He thinks that people can say untrue things without lying. Also Augustine places a universal ban on lying. Unlike the consequentialist or the graded absolutist, Augustine says that it is never morally permissible to lie. Concerning our ability to lie to ourselves, Augustine’s view is more grand and nuanced than the answer we just gave.
So if lying is not saying something that is false, what does it mean to lie? Before we answer that question, let’s explain why Augustine thinks that you can be truthful even when you say something false. If I tell you that the first president of the United States was Jonny Appleseed, I would be telling you something that is false. But what if I really believed that the first president was Jonny Appleseed? Would I be lying? Augustine would say no. I might be wrong about who the first president was, but I am not lying. Perhaps I am crazy and that is why I think the first president was Jonny Appleseed.
Augustine says that in order for it to by a lie, I would have to know that the first president of the United States was George Washington but say that the first president was Jonny Appleseed. So a lie is when there is a discontinuity between what I think and what I say. It is not merely the saying a falsehood. In fact, you could say something that is completely true, and yet be a liar. If you say that Albert Einstein was a genius, but in your heart you think that he was a moron, you would be affirming something true but you would still be lying. Your statement, that Einstein was a genius, is objectively true, but when you say it, it is a lie because you don’t believe it to be true.
What we can gather from this is that a lie requires us to say something. In order to lie, you must say something that is inconsistent with what you believe to be true. So looking at our above examples, if I tell Joe that he is a good singer when I really think he sounds like a wounded animal, I am lying to Joe. If I tell Brandon that I have read a particular book on natural law, when in fact I know that I haven’t read that book, then I am lying to him.
So the answers to some of our earlier questions appear to be answered.
1. Is it wrong to tell a white lie? YES
2. Is it wrong to tell a lie to protect the life of someone else? YES
3. Is it wrong to divert a conversation from its original course in order to avoid being dishonest with someone? MAYBE, but not because it is a lie.
As long as you say what is what you believe to be true, you’re not lying. However, just because you didn’t “technically” lie, it doesn’t follow that what you say is good. You can say something honestly, and be honestly in the wrong.
If a lie is to say something that is contrary to what you think, and if it is always wrong to lie, then it seems to follows that I am obligated to tell Joe that he is a bad singer when he asks me. But who wants to come to a conclusion like this? Think of all of the socially awkward positions this would put us in. We would constantly be offending people.
Even worse that than, if I have to tell people the truth all the time, people are going to start to see what a despicable person I am. If asked, I’ll have to tell my coworker that I think he is incompetent. I’ll have to tell my son that I would rather watch TV than play with him. I’ll have to admit that most sermons bore me to tears. I’ll have to admit that I find conversation with most people to be almost completely uninteresting.
Since I have an inclination to want people to like me and since I want to be on friendly terms with as many people as possible, I often want keep my own bad thoughts and attitudes to myself. Being completely honest would expose how depraved my inner life really is. Most of us are so used to keeping our thoughts to ourselves that we don’t even think about the process where we sort out which thoughts we want to express to others and which ones we want to keep to ourselves and which ones do we want to lie about. Every conversation we get into, we select some things to say and leave out other things. We usually choose the nice things to say.
Because we usually do this, we start to identify with what we express externally rather than what we think internally. We start to think that we are really very nice and good people. We tell ourselves “Look at all the nice things I said to so and so. I am such a nice person.”
Now granted, I am not saying that we are all holding back this title wave of resentment and ill-will when we talk with people. I am just saying that if we tried really hard to be completely honest with people for a couple weeks straight, I think that all of us would be surprised at what we would find out about ourselves. We might find that we are not as loving as we thought we were. We might find that we are not as patient as we thought we were.
I think it was about 6 months ago that the Holy Spirit began to convict me of my own dishonesty. It started with my being convicted about a “small” lie. I was talking with one of my friends about Natural Law when he asked me if I had read a particular book on natural law. Without batting an eye, I said, “I have read that book. It was great!” But this was a complete fabrication! I had heard of the book, but I hadn’t read it. I don’t think I even read the table of contents. I realized that I had lied and felt bad about it, but I didn’t confess this to the person I just lied to. Instead, I let him go on thinking that I had read the book.
Why would I do something like that? Well, in this case it was pretty clear. I didn’t want my friend to think that I didn’t know what I was talking about or that I was unfamiliar with a standard work in the field of Natural Law. After all, that’s one of MY topics. I explain what natural law is to other people. How could I have not read a major book on the topic?
Ultimately, not only did I lie about reading this particular book. I also gave my friend the impression that I was somewhat knowledgeable in the area of Natural Law. I had also given other people that impression. I may have been more familiar with it that some people, but I have only read a few books on the subject. Only two of them were scholarly works. And I only read one of them in its entirety and I read about 2 chapters of the other book. I have also read some scholarly articles on the subject. But this by no means makes me an authority on the topic.
So at a minimum, I lied about reading the book and deceived my friend about my level of competency. This lie and deception took place because of a felt need that I had (namely I wanted to be accepted, admired, or whatever) thus revealing a further immaturity on my part. It’s not that my wanting to be accepted by others is immature, it’s that I wanted to be accepted by others MORE than I wanted to be a man of integrity.
Most of my lies along these lines are more subtle. Someone might be explaining something to me and then they ask “You understand what I am talking about right?” Of course my response is “Yes. That makes sense” even when it doesn’t make sense to me. I could have been lying so as to not bog down the conversation, or I could have been doing it because I didn’t want to look stupid. Either way, my response to them was a lie.
As a computer guy, it’s easy to lie to people to get out of being accountable for your work. Someone says “I thought you were going to fix my computer yesterday.” In reality I may have forgotten all about the computer, but a typical lying response might go something like this: “Well, I started working on it, but realized that you had a bad part. That part is on order and as soon as it gets here, I’ll install it and get you up and running again.” I have all sorts of computer jargon I could use to manipulate people.
In reality the problem may be completely unrelated to bad hardware, but I replace the hardware, make the real fix to the computer, and show them the working computer, knowing that they think I had to replace hardware to fix the problem. They give me praise for my work (which in reality was negligent) and I go about my business with high customer service ratings.
In the above case, there were several wrongs done in addition to lying. Lying acted as the means to further other bad ends. An unneeded part was ordered, costing the company / taxpayers money. The user had to wait an additional day or more to get her computer up and running which caused other people to have to wait on her. Additionally, I learned that you can get away with being disorganized. I also learned that positing a false problem works, thus it encourages me to lie in the future. Those lies then support and contribute to my habit of being lazy, disorganized, liar.
We all know that lying is bad, but what we don’t often realize is that evil comes in clusters. As I mentioned earlier, there is hardly ever a time when you commit a single evil act. Most, if not all, evil acts are paired with other evil acts or at least result in other evils. I think this is an important point and it would probably be good to do a whole sermon on this. For now, let’s get back to explaining what a lie is and why Augustine thinks that it is always wrong to lie.
We said earlier that a lie consists of saying something that is inconsistent with what you think. At the heart of a lie is a duplicitous soul; a divided soul. For Augustine, a lie is always intentional. We don’t accidentally lie. So lying is an act of the will. Since lying is an act of the will, and it is produces duplicity within our soul, it seems to follow that lying is the intentional dividing of our souls. However this conclusion does not follow. We are dividing our soul when we lie, but it is not our intention to divide our souls when we lie. Our intention is to get out of trouble, or to avoid hurting someone’s feelings, or to appear to be better than we are. But the intention to avoid getting into trouble is not the same thing as the intention to divide our souls. So lying may not be an intentional dividing of our own souls, but it always results in a further division within our soul.
What this shows is that lying cannot strictly be identified with any single intention. Most people think that lying must be accompanied by the intention to deceive. But as I said before, we can have all sorts of reasons for lying, only one of which is to deceive. That being said, we hardly ever lie just for the sake of deceiving someone and we almost always lie for what we think is a “good reason”.
This should make us hesitate when we try to justify our lies by saying “I meant well.” I often hear people say things like this. Some common justifications for lying include:
1. I was just trying to protect you.
2. I didn’t want you to have to worry about it.
3. I didn’t think that you would understand.
4. I didn’t want you to be angry at me.
5. I was embarrassed.
You may rightly say that these were your reasons for lying, but you may not rightly think that these are appropriate justifications for lying.
In response to this, someone here might say, surely there are times when a “white lie” is ok. Or surely lying to save the life of another person is permissible. Well, before we make that determination, let’s look at some of the reasons why Augustine places a universal ban on lying.
The first reason is metaphysical and has to do with his view of sin. Sin in general disorders the soul and brings it closer to non-being. This doesn’t mean that if you sin a whole lot that your will start to look like Casper the ghost. Augustine doesn’t think that you can throw a hammer at a really sinful person and the hammer will just pass through them like it would pass through a cloud of smoke.
In order to understand what Augustine is saying here, you have to know something about his view of creation. Augustine views all of reality as being hierarchical. Angels are the highest order of created beings and inanimate matter is the lowest order of created being. As you go from the angels to dirt you find that being has more or less order. The most unified of created beings are the angels. Matter, on the other hand, is the least unified. By its nature, it tends toward chaos and non-being. The implication here is that when man becomes more ordered, by obtaining virtue, he reaches closer to the higher order of reality. When he sin’s in general and lie’s in particular, he becomes more chaotic.
So it is not that you become a cloud of smoke. It’s that your soul disintegrates into chaos. The picture of this would be that your soul starts to look like it’s a leper. Just as the leprous body degenerates and tends towards disorder, so your soul degenerates when you sin.
If you watch horror movies, the evil creatures are almost always hideous looking. Or if they are beautiful, underneath they are ugly. The TV show V is a good example of this. Underneath the beautiful shell of the body lies an ugly creature who wants to harm you. In reality, fallen angels are probably beautiful. We depict them as ugly because it best represents the decayed and ugly state of being.
With this in mind, it becomes easier to see why Augustine would place a universal ban on lying. To lie is to become less, and to speak the truth is to become more. To lie is to tend toward the city of man, to speak the truth is to tend toward the city of God. Ultimately, to lie is to tend toward chaos and non-being.
The second reason for Augustine’s ban has to do with his view of owning your speech vs. disowning your speech. As a created being, it is my duty to conform myself to reality, not to conform reality to me. Augustine see’s truth as a gift from God. God gives us truth and how we handle that truth displays the type of stewards we are. Good stewards take good care of that which has been entrusted to them.
When I give a gift to Wesley this Christmas, he has several ways of responding to that gift. He can open the present and be excited about it. He can take it out of the box and play with it and enjoy it. OR he can open it and throw it to the ground and demand something else. Usually he demands juice when we offer him something that he doesn’t like. As a parent, I want to give Wesley good things. I also want Wesley to use and enjoy those gifts. If he does not do that, I am disappointed.
When it comes to the gifts that God has given us, we don’t have the moral right to refuse them or to be poor stewards of those gifts. We have free will and can refuse the gifts of God, but fact that we can disown the gifts that God has given us doesn’t give us the right to do it.
If God has given us speech to express our inner thoughts, then the proper use of our speech is only found in using it the way that God intended it to be used. According to Augustine, when we lie, we take our speech captive and use it in way that it was not intended. Augustine views the Christian as one who receives good from God and then rewraps that good gift and gives it to others.
So, at this point you might have the following objections:
1. I can understand that sin in general divides the soul and makes it ugly.
2. I can even understand how God would be upset if we misuse the gifts that he gives us.
3. How does it follow that we should never lie?
In fact, it seems like we could give examples that show that it would be ok to lie even given what Augustine believes.
First, even if lying brings harm to our soul, making it ugly, good people sometimes get hurt in the process of doing good. The man who throws himself in front of a bullet harms his own body in order to obtain the higher good of protecting someone else. If you get drunk and ask your friend to shoot you in the belly because it would be kind of fun to watch, then that’s obviously evil; not to mention stupid. But willingly getting shot in the belly in order to save the life of another person is permissible because of the good that it brings about.
Why can’t we liken lying to this? Why can’t we say “Yes, I agree that lying harms my soul, but isn’t it ok for me to allow harm to come to myself if that harm brings about someone else’s good? Isn’t it ok for me to allow a little harm to my soul in order to obtain the good of fellowship with others or the saving of someone else’s life?”
Augustine’s response would be a resounding NO. Unlike the body, it is never ok to allow harm to come to your soul. Harming the body, especially in cases like the one we just mentioned, REQUIRES a largeness of soul. The man who throws himself in front of a gun to save someone does so because his soul is healthy. So the analogy between bodily harm and harm of the soul does not work for Augustine.
As was mentioned earlier, sin always moves us away from God, not only relationally but metaphysically as well. This is never acceptable to God. Thus sin is never acceptable to God. You might still ask, “OK, it is never permissible to sin, but how does it follow that lying is always a sin?” We can find the answer to this in our definition of what a lie is. A lie, by definition is a rupture between our thought and our speech. It is essentially disruptive and damaging to the soul. To lie is to create a gap between our intellect and our actions. This brings about the chaos we spoke of earlier. God works to mend our souls and unify our being. Anything that frustrates that work is evil and should be done away with.
What about Augustine’s view of truth as a gift from God? How does that lead to the conclusion that we should always tell the truth? You might say, “if I give my son a baseball bat for Christmas and he hit’s someone in the head with it in order to save one of the neighbor kids life, he wouldn’t be using the bat in the way I intended, but I wouldn’t think that it was wrong for him to use it that way because he did something good with it. In fact, I would be proud of him for saving the life of another kid in our neighborhood.”
The point of the objection here would be to say that even though I didn’t buy the bat so that my son could hit people in the head with it, my son appropriated that gift in a way that was appropriate at the time. Perhaps lying can be like that? Perhaps God doesn’t intend for us to use our speech to lie, but there are certain situations, like lying in order to save a life, where lying is appropriate.
However, this takes too lightly the importance of being truthful. Being truthful is the virtue which allows you to recognize the truth about your condition. This is a necessary first step in your salvation. It is also the first step in dealing your sin as a believer. If you are not honest, then you can’t progress on the journey of sanctification. That journey relies on your being honest with yourself and your being able to recognize those areas in your life where you need improvement.
Augustine does not see the lie as simply one sin among many sins. The lie is a foundational sin. In fact at one point he says that “all sin is a lie”. By this he appears to mean that since sin is fundamentally the willful choosing of temporary goods even though we know those temporary goods are not really good for us. In this sense, we can lie to ourselves. We can allow our desires to overtake our intellect and will so that they become twisted into believing that things that are bad for us are really good for us.
Taking the gift that God has given us and using it for our own purposes reveals in us a fundamental lack of regard for the Creator. When we lie, we act as if truth is ours to do with as we please. This is utterly repulsive to Augustine. How can we think that God, who IS truth, would allow us to get away with treating His ‘giving of Himself’ as if it were something that we could run through the mud?
While God has given us whatever truth that we have, it is not ours to do with as we please. The truth is given to us so that we might benefit from it and so that we can benefit others with it. It is one of the most precious gifts that we can give to others in a spirit of love.
If all of this is true, then does this leave us in the social predicament I mentioned earlier? Does this mean that we should go around telling people that they smell or that we don’t like them?
Not necessarily. Augustine believes that we have other ways of being gracious that don’t involve lying. One of these graces comes from the nature of thought itself. Our thoughts are not in the form of a language. Thoughts transcend language. Language is used to translate thought into a physical medium. This is evidenced by the fact that many languages can be used to signify the same thought. With this in mind, we can convey our thoughts in a variety of ways. Technically you are not lying as long as what you say does not contradict something you think.
The wise or skillful person can formulate his or her thoughts in such a way as to both be truthful and graceful. What this requires is a reflective thoughtfulness and a love for the person with which you are speaking. It may also require a quick wit. Humor can often be employed to diffuse a situation. Diverting the conversation may also be an alternative depending on the situation.
There is a limit to this, however. You cannot change the normal use of words to make them mean whatever you want in order to avoid lying. So you can’t tell Joe that he sounds like an opera singer and change the meaning of the words “opera singer” in your own mind. You can’t say “Joe you sound like an opera singer, and by opera singer I mean wounded monkey”.
Another tool you do have is silence. Contrary to those who say that “to say nothing is to be in agreement”, silence is a good way to avoid lying. According to Augustine, you cannot lie without saying something, so if you were always silent, you would never lie. You can also always say “I would rather not comment on that.”
So there are many ways to remain graceful without lying. I am not sure that I agree with Augustine when it comes to the universal ban on lying, but even if he is wrong about that, he brings sobriety to the issue. Even if we do think it is OK to lie sometimes, we should take very seriously the wrongness of it before we give ourselves license to do it. We usually give ourselves way too much license to distort the truth.
This is especially true in a culture whose highest value is to “not offend anyone”. I don’t think we need to go out of our way to offend anyone, but we do need to grow up and stop being so easily offended. We also need to stop being so worried about offending others. If our love for each other is genuine, we can withstand some verbal bumps and bruises.
In fact, a big part of what holds us back from having deeper relationships is our lack of honesty with each other. We go years without telling someone how we feel or what we think for fear that “they may not like us if we say it”. So then every time that “touchy” subject comes up, we avoid it and never mend the relationship. Because of our fear of offending people, we leave huge rifts in relationships that keep us from loving each other in the way that Christ called us to love each other.
Having deep and abiding relationships with people is messy. We get angry with each other. We disagree with each other. We say things to each other that we later regret. But we stick together because of our common love of Christ and because we have invested in each other. A relationship that does not involve investment and honesty is not a genuine relationship. You may be able to get together with others and have a good time, but you will not be true friends until you can be honest with each other and still be friends.
God longs for us to be honest with Him in our prayers. He can handle messiness and awkwardness. In fact, He demands that we lay ourselves bare before Him. If we do not do this, we will never be a friend of God. Our lack of honesty is very often the cause of our superficial prayers. “God thank you for this food” without being truly thankful is superficial. Our speech must reflect what our mind and our heart. If that happens, you will be in a position to spot your own superficiality. You will see when you are just going through the motions because you diligently train yourself so that your speech and your thoughts are in agreement.
I would like to challenge everyone this week. Try to be very cognizant of what you say to people. When you say something, if you suspect that you aren’t being entirely honest, stop speaking. Think about what you are saying and make sure that what you are saying is truthful. Pray that God would make it apparent to you when you are being disingenuous. Be mindful of when you are trying to manipulate people. Recognize when you are using arguments to get your way rather than to help people come to a knowledge of the truth.