The effect of lying

Sunday, May 30, 2010

In the 1960s television show "Star Trek," there was a memorable three-way conversation:Captain Kirk: Norman, everything Harry Mudd tells you is a lie.

Harry Mudd: Norman, listen to me carefully: I am lying.

Norman: But if everything you say is a lie, then if you say you are lying, then you are telling the truth.

Norman the robot is unable to reconcile the two statements. His microprocessor overheats, and he suffers catastrophic failure.

We are familiar with brazen mendacity. We witnessed it again just last week as bicyclist Floyd Landis, the former Tour de France winner who steadfastly denied allegations of doping, finally came clean. He admitted after years of protesting his innocence that he did, in fact, use illegal substances to help him win the fabled race. Landis' about-face echoes Pete Rose, who after insisting for years that he never bet on baseball games he was managing, conceded at long last the truth of the long-held rumor.

Ancient Abraham, patriarch of the Hebrews, lied to Pharaoh, letting the Egyptian monarch believe Sarah was his sister when she was in actuality Abraham's wife. When Pharaoh discovered the deception, he was confused and enraged (Genesis 12). What worked once sometimes works twice. Abraham told the same lie later to Abimelech, king of Gerar (Genesis 20). The lies in both cases were told so that the patriarch could save his own skin. The desire to survive does things to people.

The aforementioned are lies of commission. They are untruths told deliberately. A righteous condemnation ensues. The moral high ground from which this judgment is pronounced seems quite firm. Lies of omission, though, are more complicated. This second category of lying includes the colloquial "white lies." How many of us, when a spouse sports a new set of clothes and asks, "Honey, do I look fat in this?" have replied in the affirmative? I surmise not many. Compassion wins out over unadulterated and unadorned truth.

The movie "The Invention of Lying" features a worldwide culture in which truth-telling is universal. Everyone tells the truth all the time. Not even white lies are contemplated. The way people treat one another in such an environment is brutal to watch. It never occurs to anyone to deceive. The film's main character, strapped for cash and about to be evicted from his apartment, lies to a bank teller about the amount of money in his account. Since no one has ever lied, the teller assumes the bank has made a math error and counts out the money requested and hands it over cheerfully. Emboldened, the protagonist begins to lie with impunity. In a society of truth-tellers, the world's sole liar becomes a wolf among sheep. While the filmmaker's disdain for religious faith is lamentable, "The Invention of Lying" offers an unsparing look at the effects of telling falsehoods.

I happen to believe that a Christian's main life goal should be the following: to be more and more conformed to the image of Jesus. In reading the Gospels, it seems pretty clear that Jesus shot straight all the time. Sure, he was shrewd. When asked direct questions that seemed to require an unambiguous response, he often evaded a yes or no answer. He understood, of course, that his questioners were adversaries who wished to trap him. So he found a third way.

He avoided the quicksand his opponents had seeded for him. He sidestepped the abyss of lying. He did this by turning the tables. He often answered questions with questions of his own. By doing so, he confounded those who hated him while at the same time doing a splendid job of teaching. And he didn't have to lie.

Boy, we've got a long way to go to match him, don't we? What an amazing Lord, who shows again and again that he is the ultimate example for living.

Jeff Long is pastor of Centenary United Methodist Church in Cape Girardeau. Married with two daughters, he is of Scots and Swedish descent, loves movies and is a lifelong fan of the Pittsburgh Steelers.

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