Little white lies? (part 1)

“Oh, come on. It was just a little white lie. It wasn’t so bad.”

As children, hopefully, we were taught that it’s wrong to lie. But whether directly by word or indirectly by example, we were also taught that there are exceptions to the rule. Some lies, apparently, are “little” and “white” as supposed to big, dark, dirty ones.

  • We bend the truth to save someone’s feelings. But whose feelings are we really trying to spare — the other person’s or our own? We lie, not just because we don’t want to hurt the other person, but because we don’t want to deal with their reaction.
  • We only give part of the truth, leaving out the incriminating bits. But we know we’re trying to deceive, hiding behind the short-sighted legalism of a child: “Well, I didn’t actually lie.”
  • We doctor and spin for some supposedly higher goal, often a political one. But how much of this is just self-serving, self-righteous rationalization, designed to protect our power? Spin doctoring is a slippery slope, and if and when the truth comes out, the higher goal will not be served.

Don’t get me wrong. If I’m visiting someone who’s cooked dinner for me, I’m never going to see them again, and the food’s terrible… well, I probably wouldn’t go as far as to say “It’s delicious!” But I wouldn’t tell them everything I was thinking, either. I might just say, “I have never had a lasagna like that before!” and let it go at that.

The prohibition against lying isn’t just for measuring a lone individual’s righteousness against a standard of goodness. It’s about relationships. It’s about the truthfulness that communities need to live well together.

I’ve often heard the Ten Commandments taught in such a way that the ninth commandment — “You shall not bear false witness against your neighbor” (Exod 20:16, NRSV) — becomes “Don’t lie.” But there’s more to the commandment than just drawing a line between truth-telling and deceit.

Behind all the commandments is the assumption that the people of God need God’s wisdom to hold their life together. Behind the ninth commandment is the additional assumption that there must be some system of jurisprudence to deal with the inevitable conflicts that arise in any human community.

To bear false witness, then, is not just to violate a rule against lying. It is to harm my neighbor, to undermine justice and damage the community, to put my interests first and let others suffer the consequences. It is a failure to love my neighbor as myself.

It is a failure to love God.

Some people pride themselves on never telling a lie. But then, in the name of honesty, they forge ahead and say hurtful things, trailing a wake of trouble behind them. That too is a failure to love, an insensitivity to the well-being of others, a blindness to our context and relationships.

In the previous post, I suggested that Achan’s sin in Joshua 7 was covetous blindness. His desire got the better of him, making him forget where he was and why. He was part of the people of God, taking possession of God’s promise, there in the Promised Land only by the repeated miraculous intervention of God’s powerful hand.

In the Old Testament, the story of Achan is the one most similar to that of Ananias and Sapphira in Acts 5. And now it’s time for me to make good on the claim that their sin was similar to his. Theirs was not a “little white lie,” if indeed there is such a thing. Nor was the problem simply that they broke a rule against lying. Their problem was a covetous blindness to where they were and why. More on that in the next post.