Actual deceiving and lying has to do with intentionally deceiving my neighbor. Intention is key. When I intentionally deceive my neighbor I am lying. One might misspeak by putting forth what is false while believing it to be true. That is, they have made a mistake, or have themselves been deceived, e.g. the cashier short changes you accidentally; or someone is simply ignorant, e.g. believing the earth is flat; or confused, thinking Maple Street is Maple Way they give the wrong directions. These are not intentional lies but neither are they truth.
We can even intentionally lie by using words that are true to fact. Every word spoken can be true, but the overall impact is deceitful. If we intentionally use facts to manipulate through deception in order to get a desired response then we lie. If I know a person will willingly understand my words in an other than factual face value sense, enabling me to deceive him, it is a lie. Propagandists often use this method. For instance, if I should read in a newspaper that in an international track and field meet the only American athlete running the 100 meter dash came in next to last while the only Chinese athlete came in third I might think the Chinese beat the American sprinter. But later I find out that there were only three athletes competing in the event. When I check the small print I am not surprised to find that the article was a Chinese news release.
Dr. Smedes writes in Mere Morality, “We can err without lying, and we can lie without erring. The crux is in the intent. Words we aim at a neighbor’s mind with a deceiving intent are lying words. Deliberate masking of the mind — this is the lie that is prohibited by the (ninth) commandment.”
Being the Truth
In the Apostle Paul’s letter to the Ephesians, chapter 4, verse 15, we encounter the phrase “speaking the truth”. But this phrase comes from one Greek word, aleitheuo, and can literally be translated as “truthing it” or “being truthful”. The application is not merely to speaking but includes attitude, behavior and lifestyle — a total existence in truth that makes us genuine, real people. Without truth in our lives to produce this kind of genuine humanity there can be no unity or community, only distrust and disunity.
As much as is possible there should be a one to one correspondence between what we say and what we are. This may be more important than a one to one correspondence between what we think and what we say. ?
According to Dr. Smedes, the epitome of untruthfulness is pretending to be something you are not. “Being ‘full of iniquity’ may be the common lot of sinners; but acting out a charade of virtue makes iniquity doubly nauseous.” Consider that incident in the Gospel of Matthew, chapter 23, verses 27-28, where Jesus takes the Pharisees to task for appearing righteous when actually they were inwardly full of hypocrisy and iniquity. Jesus compared them to “whitewashed tombs”, beautiful on the outside but inside “full of dead men’s bones and all uncleanness.”
Don’t confuse intentions with feelings. We should be true to our intentions. It is not hypocritical to act hopeful when we don’t feel hopeful if our intention is to become hopeful once again. It is only deceitful when we have no intention of becoming hopeful. For then we impress people as being something we have no intention of becoming. We appear to be someone we don’t really want or intend to be. My father-in-law is the so-called “incurable optimist.” But there are times, especially at the age of 92, when he does not feel so optimistic. Nevertheless it is always his whole intention to regain the highest ground on Mt. Optimism as soon as possible. By faith, with lots of experience under his belt, he maintains his compass heading for the mountaintop. There is no deceit in having such an optimistic attitude.
Being true to what we intend does not mean I am required to reveal everything in my heart. We are not required to tell everything or act out everything in order to be truthful people. We need not express our sinful thoughts in order to be honest. Sin needs to be nipped in the bud, at the thought level. According to Dr. Smedes, “The (ninth) commandment tells us to speak truthfully whenever it is appropriate for us to speak at all.” But “the command requires only a revelation that is pertinent to the situation.” A politician ought to explain his/her position on universal healthcare, but not his/her child’s personal heath issues. My doctor ought to explain to me my personal health issues but not his position on universal healthcare. The commandment “does not call us to be garrulous blabbermouths. Truthfulness is demanded from us about the things that we ought to speak about at all.”
I have sensed in my interactions with Chinese people over the years an honest quest for what Dr. Smedes calls the “truthfulness of being”. In a society where truth is at a premium, hidden under a morass of secretive social convention, the hunger for truth in the human heart is greatly accentuated. Things are much better now in China but during the Cultural Revolution and for several years after truth was a well-protected commodity. Knowledge was power and so much in life had to be covered with deceit in order to survive.
As sinful, broken people we are in a sense alienated from ourselves. We are confused, not knowing who we really are. Wholeness is something we are seeking, not something we have. The truth of who we are is a long journey even for those who have access to the revelation of God in Jesus Christ. For those without that revelation the search is a hapless one.
In this alienation and brokenness we project a persona, a social façade. But this lack of truth from our brokenness is not the only reason for our hypocrisy. We might also willfully and purposefully, i.e. intentionally, become hypocrites in order to make a profit, or to mask our fear of being disliked or rejected, or to escape the reality of what we really are. Dr. Smedes writes, “even with the best intention truthfulness is hard to come by for mixed up human beings.”
Furthermore, what I say may not be what the listener hears. Words, innuendoes, and body language are all filtered through an understanding grid conditioned by the listener’s personal history. According to Dr. Smedes, “What he hears is never exactly what we say.” We may speak truth, but with his/her past conditioning he/she may hear a falsehood. This calls for a clarifying dialogue to ensure that the desired communication takes place. There is always potential for misunderstanding. Even among those close to us, those who know us, those who share our language and culture, there is potential for misunderstanding.