It’s still invoked in any court of law. Raise your right hand:
I promise to tell the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth. So help me God.
A witness, in any court case, declares this pledge. The witness’ job is not to expand upon nor dilute the truth. Their job is to tell the truth. Leave it to the legal counsel to interpret. Leave it to the jury to resolve. Leave it to the judge to apply. But the witness? The witness speaks the truth. Let them do more or less and they taint the outcome. Let them tell the truth and justice has a chance.
Yet, in an age and culture where lies and deceits are the common stuff of movies, books, talk shows, news reports, and politics, the pursuit of honesty in personal life and relationships sometimes seems like a lonely and outdated endeavor.
God knew from the beginning of time that without a radical commitment to truth telling, marriages and families would disintegrate, friendships would explode, business dealings would fall apart, churches would split by divisions, governments would become ineffective – the very fabric of relationships and society would unravel.
From Genesis to Revelation, the theme is the same: God loves truth and hates deceit. Paul, in writing to the church in Corinth, lists the type of people who will not inherit the kingdom of God. The covey he portrays is a ragged assortment of those who worship idols, take part in adultery, sell their bodies, get drunk, rob people, and lie about others.
You may be wondering if fibbing and flattery stir the same heavenly anger as adultery and aggravated assault? Apparently so. God views fudging on income tax returns the same way as kneeling before idols.
Proverbs tells us:
The Lord detests those who tell lies but is pleased with those who keep their promises (12:22).
The lord hates a lying tongue (6:16-17).
Why the hard line? Why the tough stance? I’m sure the reason God detests dishonesty so much is due to the consequences: it destroys other people.
The tongue that brings healing is a tree of life, but a deceitful tongue crushes the spirit (15:4).
How could a God who delights in loving and lifting up tolerate any act that “crushes the spirit?”
Many people lament that life is not working well for them. The gears keep getting jammed with broken dreams, faded hopes, and thwarted goals. In many cases, if we trace their disappointments back far enough, we discover a trail of dishonesty. It may have started with a slight departure from the point of absolute truthfulness, but all too often that first dishonest step leads to deeper forms of deceitfulness and from there to flat-out lies.
Along the way, the dishonest person begins to experience the inevitable breakdown of their relationship with God and with others. It’s easy to place the blame on other people or forces beyond one’s control when the real cause of trouble is one’s own carelessness or malicious mishandling of the truth. I don’t need to name any names, but we can all think of a few politicians in the recent news.
I wish I could remember my source, but a recent poll I saw reported the following:
- More people say they have cheated on their marriage partners than on their tax returns or expense account.
- More than half say that if their tax returns were audited, they would probably owe the government money.
- About one in three people admits to deceiving a best friend about something in the past year; 96% of them feel guilty about it.
- Nearly half predict that if they scratched another car in the parking lot, they would drive away without leaving a note – although the vast majority (89%) agrees that would be immoral.
Perhaps the question shouldn’t be, “Why does God demand such honesty?” but rather Why do we tolerate such dishonesty?
For one thing, we don’t like the truth. We don’t like telling the truth and we don’t like hearing the truth.
Take this inventory:
- Have you told any lies lately? Any harmless “half-truths?”
- Do you ever exaggerated the truth? Tell a story and put an extra spin on it? Describe a personal accomplishment in inflated terms?
- Do you ever minimize the truth? Confess to something less serious than what was committed? Suggest that “it wasn’t really all that bad?”
- Have you ever described another person’s words or actions without explaining their context and thereby making the other person appear stupid or cruel?
- Have you ever gotten yourself into a jam and then felt tempted to twist things to get yourself out of it? Have you ever yielded to that temptation?
Our dislike for the truth began at the age of three when mom walked into our rooms and asked, “Did you hit your little brother?” We knew then and there that honesty had its consequences. So we learned to, uh, well, it’s not really lying…we learned to cover things up. Do these scenarios sound familiar?
- Did I hit my little brother? That all depends on how you interpret the word the word hit. I mean, sure, I made contact with him. but…
- Did I hit my little brother? Yes, Mom, I did. But it’s not my fault. Had I been born with nonaggressive chromosomes, and had you not permitted me to watch TV, it never would have happened. So, you can say I hit my little brother, but the fault isn’t mine. I’m a victim of nurture and nature.
We learn over time that lying is messy business. It’s always going to be messy business because we’re created in the image of a truth-telling God. At the core of God’s character is an essence of purity that renders God incapable of dishonesty. Because of the piece of purity that is at our own core, it will always feel unnatural and incongruous for us to lie. There will always be warning bells and whistles going off in our minds and that sick feeling in our stomachs. We weren’t created to lie.
Proverbs gives us one bit of practical counsel to help us from our journey from deceitfulness to truth telling:
When words are many, sin is not absent, but he who holds his tongue is wise (10:19).
Want to sin less with your words? Then talk less. Isn’t that so true? The less I talk, the less I exaggerate. The less I talk, the less I say things I regret. The less I talk, the fewer promises I make that I can’t keep. I suspect the same is true for you.
The wisdom of proverbs is that we don’t have to participate in every conversation. We don’t have to express every thought that comes to mind. When ideas and words are forming in our brains we would be wise to consider two things: (1) Is what I’m going to say necessary? and (2) Is what I’m going to say true? Something to really think about in this day of the virtually eternal social web!
Then there’s hearing the truth. Sometimes the situation demands a word of truth be spoken because someone needs to hear the truth. I have a friend who is slowly destroying himself with alcohol and yet, in our long friendship, I have only once summoned the courage to talk to him about his addiction. I have another friend whose parenting style is slowly destroying her oldest child. Yet I am afraid to speak the truth.
You know what’s the matter with me? It’s probably the same thing that’s the matter with most of us. I shrink back from telling the truth because it might cost me something. It might create discomfort in the relationship. I might be misunderstood or rejected. God forbid that my alcoholic friend would tell me that his drinking habits are none of my business, that the mother would tell me to stay out of her family life.
The ugly truth about me is that too often I choose peacekeeping over truth-telling. I need to be reminded of this proverb:
Do not let love and truth leave you; Bind them around your neck, write them on the tablet of your heart (3:3).
What’s the writer saying? That we must cling to the truth no matter what. And not only cling to it, but also reveal it to others who need to hear it. We will find it hard to do this so we’re reminded to write the truth on the tablet of our hearts so we can’t miss it either. Cling to the truth and reveal the truth – in all of our relationships.
The writer of this proverb knew the power of truthful words to redirect the course of a human life. Conversely, he knew what a tragedy it is when opportunities for transformation are lost because truthful words are withheld. We never know how God might choose to use our words to transform a human life.
To be like Christ, we need to learn the art of speaking the truth in love. Truth and kindness. Truth and love. Other biblical passages speak of truth and grace. This kind of truth mixed with kindness, love, and grace gives our words transforming power. One without the other can be harmful.
Those who go around speaking the truth without love brutalize others. They force truth into situations, all right, but they leave a trail of bodies in its wake.
Then there are those who gush kindness, love, and grace to everyone they meet, but never couple their tender words with difficult truths. So they leave a trail of sentimentality devoid of substance and strength.
Imagine how our families, schools, neighborhoods, work places, communities, and places of worship would change if everyone were committed to speaking the truth in love. It can happen, but it has to start with you and me. We can’t control everyone else’s choice to speak truth to to tell lies. But we can make that choice for ourselves. We can take the necessary steps to become loving truth-tellers.
Let’s open our hearts before God to tell the truth: make a commitment to speaking less and giving careful consideration to our words so they are necessary and true. Let’s ask God to help us tell the whole truth: commit ourselves to learning that delicate balance between truth and love so we can avoid the extremes of both relational brutality and sentimentality. May we hear God’s message of nothing but the truth: God’s unconditional love, accepting us completely with our strengths and weaknesses, absolutely honest about our gifts but also about where we need to change…because God loves us as no other.