Keep your tongue from evil, and your lips from speaking guile. Psalm 34:13
Remove from me the way of lying. Psalm 119:19
Some parents approached me with a concern about their two-year-old child. “We’ve noticed that our child is starting to lie. The other day we asked him if he had taken a cookie. He denied it, but had his cookie in his hand! It was a great shock. We have always told him the truth. How did he learn to lie?”
That is a good question. How do we learn to lie? Children certainly have motivation. They learn that telling the truth can get them in trouble and lies can save them. They also learn that they can use lies to get someone else in trouble! They discover that their parents can’t read their thoughts. There are many times when lying seems a very smart thing to do.
Where do the lies come from? Lying comes from several sources. One is our instinct for self-preservation. If we are afraid the truth will hurt us, we twist the truth or deny it. We also lie when we are negative. An angry person will say outrageous and false things. A depressed person will make things look worse than they are. A greedy person will tell lies to get some advantage.
A friend of mine, who for many years was a car dealer, commented on the reputation of people who sell second hand cars. “I know people who sell used cars are liars,” he told me once. “Every time someone comes in to buy a new car he lies about his old one to try to get the best dollar for it!” A few years ago another friend had a minor fender-bender. The other people walked away from the accident looking absolutely fine. Later they told her that there was nothing wrong with them, and they would not sue for damages. A few months passed, and my friend=s insurance bill came through. She questioned why it was so high. The company said that the other people in the accident put in a claim for $3,000 for their physical injuries! She knew, of course, that someone was lying. What could she do? There are many cases like that where people fake accidents or claim injuries that did not take place. They lie. They managed to get their doctor to lie. It pays to lie. It’s as simple as that.
Recent studies have shown that our society is riddled with this kind of distortion of the truth. It seems that many people assume that lying is a necessary part of survival, and that everybody does it. In some cases it involves money. In other cases, like the person who claims credentials he does not have or boasts of exploits he never achieved, it might seem as if lying is often a victimless crime. “What difference does it make if I exaggerate a little bit? No one gets hurt.”
Lying comes from our lower self. It might seem to be harmless, but it does serious damage to credibility and trust. On a deeper level, it hurts our relationship with the truth.
When I was principal of a small church school, I came to know a little girl who had a serious problem with lying. It had become so habitual with her that I doubt if she knew the difference anymore. It seems to have injured her ability to see the truth clearly.
Lying can take many different forms. There are the obvious lies, the ones we call boldfaced lies. This is when we say something that we know is not true. This is not the only form of lying. People in twelve-step programs come to see the danger in rationalizing or making excuses. They tell stories about all the justifications they have given in the past for their particular addiction. “I drank because I was so lonely” says one. “I drank because there were too many people in the house” says another. “I drank because my father drank.” Whatever the supposed reason, it is almost certain to be a lie, that difficult kind of lie that makes excuses for things we know are wrong. If we want to do something we can always make up reasons for doing it, but this is just lying to ourselves.
Exaggerations are also lies. Some people get so much into the habit of stretching the truth that their friends will say: “How much shall I divide your figures by this time?” We have seen cartoons of fishermen holding their hands wide apart to describe the fish they caught. The people watching know that this is a lie.
Our self-important self wants to appear to know more than it does. There are times when we can hear ourselves holding forth on some subject that we may know very little about. Other people can goad us into this form of lying by asking questions as if they expect us to know the answer. It is hard to resist falling for this bait.
We can even say true things with the intent to deceive, like the cold-war story about a race between a Russian and an American. The American papers reported: “There was a race between an American and a Russian, and the American won.” “Pravda” reported: “There was a race involving different countries. The Russian runner came in second. The American just barely finished before the last man.” While technically true, the report amounts to being a lie.
Then there are those wonderful lies by omission, like the man walking down the aisle with his bride. She notices another woman breaking into the church screaming: “That’s my husband you are marrying!” He turns bright red, turns to her and said: “Didn’t I tell you that I was already married?”
One of the most common forms of lying comes under the category of “white lies”, things that we say because they will make the other person feel better, but we know that they are not true, like the man who told his new bride that he loved her tapioca pudding. Years later it finally came out that he hated it. “Why did you say you liked it?” she asked. “I knew you had gone to a lot of trouble to make it, and I wanted to please you” was his reply. It is inevitable that a certain amount of this kind of lying will go on in society, but there is a cost in terms of credibility. I think most of us would prefer to hear the truth.
It is generally believed that people with terminal diseases would rather know the truth than be lied to. When I was young, doctors and family would routinely hide the facts about a patient’s condition if it was very serious. This might have been done to be kind. Many people are rethinking that particular version of kindness.
Another form of lying is making promises you have no intention of keeping. This is lying about the future. “Yes, I will come to your wedding.” Caterers have learned to caution couples that for every 100 people that promise to come to their wedding, only about 80 will show up.
There are probably other forms of lying. Within all of the above there is the strange practice of lying to yourself. Much of the negative self-talk we have, comes under the category of lying. Sometimes we tell ourselves that we are better than we are. In more cases, we put ourselves down. We need to understand these and many other forms of lying, and come to love speaking the truth to ourselves and to others.
Task 7 ~ Observe yourself lying in one or more of these ways.
- Saying something that is not true
- Making excuses
- Talking with authority about something you know little about
- Saying things that are true with the intention of misleading
- Lying by omission
- Telling “nice” lies – lying to be kind.
When you observe the lying, stop talking… or change what you are saying.