Every person on the planet at times is an Oscar-winning liar. Haven’t we all lied without being caught? As the Bible says, “There is no one righteous, not even one …. Their throats are open graves; their tongues practice deceit” (Rom. 3:10-13). My husband and I, aware of this reality, have made a pact. If either of us lies to the other, we are committed to confessing the lie within three days.
Perhaps my most common lie is to tell myself I can do things in less time than I actually can. And lying to myself in this way sets me up to lie to others. How many times have I told my husband that I would arrive at a certain time and place when in my heart I wasn’t genuinely committed to following through on my word? I told him that I’d be there, but I wasn’t. My husband has learned not to trust me, because my actions don’t always line up with my words.
To justify myself, I’d like to view my tardiness as a minor character flaw. In other words, I’d like to be untruthful about the selfishness that characterizes my way of managing time. Early in our marriage, I argued vehemently that lateness and lying are unrelated matters. I didn’t want to see the truth because the truth indicted me.
It’s not fun to be reminded of the humbling fact that everyone needs to be prompted, indeed, regularly goaded, to be truthful in our speech and in our hearts. All of us are susceptible. We all know what it’s like to take refuge in the escape route of lying. When it goes unchecked, we hardly even notice how far we have drifted. We’ve probably all seen a leader who intimidates and blames instead of owning the mistake that everybody knows the leader made.
Lying is more perilous than it seems. It’s more Satan-like than Christ-like. Jesus referred to Satan as “a liar and the father of lies” (John 8:44). By contrast, Jesus declared himself to be the Truth (John 14:6).
Aren’t There Exceptions?
The prophet Jeremiah said, “The heart is more deceitful than all else and is desperately sick” (17:9, NASB). What’s so indicative of our human fallenness is the universal tendency to minimize the treachery of lying. We want certain forms of lying to be okay. We are quick to remember Rahab and Corrie ten Boom, citing them as saintly liars. Or maybe we say that refusing to lie is somehow itself unloving. More than one person in reading a draft of this article expressed a concern that if we all told the truth all the time, we’d be rude. The 1997 Jim Carrey comedy Liar Liar comes to mind. Carrey’s character gives a comical rendition of what happens when people are so honest that they don’t edit what they say about others.
There’s a big difference between blurting out rude thoughts and being truthful, just as there is between gentle tact and gentle lying. I wonder if we’re defensive about everyday “white lies” because we are too lazy to find creative ways to speak the truth in love. My sense is that most of us are defensive about our lying because we are defensive about ourselves. We are slow to face the truth of the contrast between our character and God’s.
According to the Scriptures, God himself “does not lie” (Titus 1:2). In his holiness, he is incapable of lying. As the apostle John put it, “God is light; in him there is no darkness at all” (1 John 1:5). Lying can’t be other than sinful because God can’t do it. If lying were ever righteous, then there would be something righteous that God can’t do. It is clearly not God’s plan for people to harbor darkness or deception in their hearts. Even though God might use us when we lie, it doesn’t mean we are not sinning when we do.
Rahab was commended not for her lying but for her faith (Heb. 11:31). Her good deed was that of welcoming the spies in peace. By faith she risked her life, trusting that the spies would later save her and her family, even though she was a harlot. Rahab feared the Lord. She trusted the living God more than she feared Jericho’s king. But she did not trust God to the point of watching how he would save her if she replied to the king in truth.
Something similar can be said of Corrie ten Boom, who saved a number of lives by hiding Jewish people from the Gestapo. Indeed, she was remarkably heroic. But when she lied, she wasn’t imitating God. Ten Boom’s situation—like many other situations—was so tangled up in sin that it seems like her best option was to lie. What ten Boom’s case shows is not that lying is honoring to God, but rather that human circumstances can degenerate into something so depraved that lies get mixed in with acts of faith.
To some, the stark conclusion that all forms of lying violate God’s holiness will sound unreasonable or extreme—too black and white—and dismissive of the intellectual difficulty of the matter. I see the main problem as spiritual. I think we find it hard to confess the evil of lying because we fail to embrace the full goodness of the Truth.
Part of the debate extends to whether we can even know the truth. Yes, God alone knows with 100 percent accuracy exactly what the full truth is. But given that we’re created in God’s image, we are endowed with the ability to know. Even as fallen human beings, we can know what truth is. There is wisdom in the adage, “Everybody knows what truth is because everybody knows how to lie.”
“People know what they’re willing to know,” says Dallas Willard, echoing the prophet Hosea.
It is no coincidence that being truthful about sin was socially prohibited in Hosea’s day, right when the culture of God’s people was deteriorating. Likewise, in our decaying civilization, the word sin has become taboo, even among some Christians—even among Christians who loudly cry out, “Injustice!” In our day, ironically, we speak of the great need for social justice, but we say little about repenting of the sins that make the world unjust. We aren’t talking much about the lies that imperil people’s safety.
It is painful to be truthful, because there is much to grieve in this shattered, beautiful world. In order to be truthful, we must be willing to grieve—that is, to face hard truths that are disappointing and upsetting. It’s tempting to pretend that things are better than they are, as if the world were not in dire need of Christ’s salvation. It’s also tempting to despair and fall for the opposite lie, that things are just so bad they are hopeless.
Whatever tempts us most—whether it is a white lie of social convention, a lie embedded in a broken promise, a workplace lie of self-preservation, a lie mixed in with an act of faith, the lie that the world is fine without Jesus Christ, or the lie that Christ’s salvation isn’t enough—the temptation to lie is very real. And lies, as we shall see, tend to proliferate.
The Seven Levels of Lying
J. Budziszewski, author of What We Can’t Not Know, mentions “the seven degrees of descent.” I call them the seven levels of lying:
1. You lie.
A single lie can become a match that lights a bonfire. Unless we confess the truth about our lie, we are probably on our way to Level #2.
2. You self-protect.
That is, you lie about having lied. If you lie about one thing, it is likely you will lie about another. As Budziszewski puts it, “Lies are weaklings; they need bodyguards.”
3. You develop a habit of lying.
A liar at this level might, just out of habit, lie about something trivial for no benefit.
4. You self-deceive.
You now believe the lies that you are telling others. We can lie so effectively that we even lie to ourselves. We self-deceive.
Take note: Just because we are deceived—honestly and truly—by the wiles of our own crookedness does not mean we are innocent or exempt from the need to repent. On the cross, Jesus said, “Father forgive them, for they do not know what they are doing.” Jesus’ prayer suggests that sins committed unknowingly are still sins in need of forgiveness. Lying is sinful even when we do so subconsciously. It’s important to understand that self-deception is self-imposed. To be deceived by someone else or shielded from the full truth is not the same as self-deception. Self-deception is a vice.
Pontius Pilate self-deceived by telling himself that truth is inaccessible. When face to face with Jesus, Pilate guardedly asked, “What is truth?” Pilate had a motive for not wanting to know the truth. Pilate wasn’t willing to be seen in the light of the truth of his own cowardice. Pilate’s very question was pitted against the truth of his own poor character in contrast to the innocence of Jesus.
At Level #4, a person enters into denial. He stops looking at his internal moral compass and therefore ceases to feel guilty anymore.
5. You rationalize.
Now you not only believe the lies are not lies, you justify the lies as a positive good. Now the lying is not just part of normal life, but a virtue—it helps the company grow, it saves jobs, and so forth. This is the type of thinking that contributed to the scandals at Enron and WorldCom, and to the 2007 subprime housing debacle.
Level #5 lying is especially tempting at the leadership level. One of my mentors warned me to be careful in taking on the deanship at A. W. Tozer Theological Seminary. He said, “The higher up you go in an organization, the harder it is to tell the truth.” A lot of times the lie is justified for the sake of the institution or some other larger good.
Level #5 lies happen in the personal realm too: “You don’t understand,” says the adulteress. “My husband and I never had a real marriage. We have had 30 years of cohabitation and child-rearing, but nothing like what I have with my new lover. He and I are experiencing love for the very first time. This is not adultery. It is love.”
6. You develop your technique.
The main technique is to compartmentalize. You start isolating statements, ignoring what was said in other contexts. Level #6 liars are often found in the upper echelons of bureaucracy. A Level #6 liar might smoothly move from one constituent to another, saying each of these things, swearing in each instance that he is telling the truth:
“This institution is going to stay true to our stated core values.”
“Please don’t pay attention to our stated core values; those were written by a committee who no longer works here.”
“Core values reside in people. It really doesn’t matter what is stated on paper.”
“Don’t let those stated values stop you from giving; it’s long been public knowledge that I myself disagree with three or four of them.”
“I can assure you that our stated core values serve as our guiding compass.”
7. You see it as your duty to lie.
Level #7 lying flips duty on its head, making lying mandatory. For example, in a dysfunctional family that operates at Level #7, grown siblings might kowtow to a parent for the sake of keeping dark family secrets hidden. In organizational life, Level #7 executives repeat corporate lies and say to their lieutenants, “Beware of self-anointed whistleblowers; they are critical and self-righteous.”
Level #7 liars stone the prophets (John 16:2).
Because people are created in the image of God, we can’t simply lie without trying to seem truthful in some way. That explains why Level #5 liars take pains to rationalize their thinking and Level #7 liars assume the pseudo-upright posture of being dutiful.
Truth and the AntiChrist
God’s disdain for lying isn’t whimsical (Prov. 12:22). Lying is sinful not merely because the Bible says it is wrong. The Bible says lying is wrong because untruth violates Truth. Since Jesus is the Truth, it is antichrist to lie. If everybody lied all the time, there would be only chaos. No community.
God’s way is for people to dwell together with each other in community and also in communion with God. When we lie, we breach our connection to other people and violate our relationship with God. God wants us to be truthful as a way of cultivating our closeness not only with him but also with other people we can enjoy.
Pastor Bill Hybels once said something to the effect that pastors who journal don’t fall. That statement makes sense to me, because journaling is a means of telling oneself the truth. As long as we don’t lie to ourselves, we can manage to stay out of Level #4. But in order to stay out of Level #3 and Level #2, we need people to confess to when we lie at Level #1—which is what my husband, Jim, and I try to do.
And of course, we can daily seek truth by echoing the prayer of King David: “Search me, God, and know my heart; test me and know my anxious thoughts. See if there is any offensive way in me, and lead me in the way everlasting” (Ps. 139:23-24).
Sarah Sumner is dean of A. W. Tozer Theological Seminary in Redding, California, and author of Leadership above the Line (Tyndale).