Remember all those fables about truth telling that you heard as a kid?
There was the story of The Boy Who Cried Wolf, about a boy who lost all credibility when he carried on about a threat that wasn’t there, so that when a real wolf did come along, no one believed him.
There’s the story of Pinocchio, whose nose grew longer and longer each time he told one of his many lies.
There’s the story of The Emperor’s New Clothes – when swindlers lied to the Emperor about weaving a magnificent cloth that only those of noble breeding could see and all the officials, including the Emperor himself, lied about being able to see it in order not to feel shame about their own standing, until a child points out the totally naked Emperor marching in his own procession.
And, there’s the story of George Washington and the Cherry Tree. When Washington was six years old, he received a hatchet as a gift, and in his excitement, ended up cutting down his father’s cherry tree. When his father confronted him, young George fessed up immediately: “I cannot tell a lie. I cut it down with my hatchet.” And his father, instead of punishing him, pulled him into a hug and said that his son’s honesty was worth more than a thousand trees.
There are dozens more – telling the truth is a pretty universal standard in training up children to be moral beings.
And, telling the truth is a pretty universally understood aspect of basic human character. Honesty is a standard value. And yet, we are surrounded by people who are stretching, spinning, obscuring, halving or even straight up disregarding the truth. Telling the truth seems like a basic part of morality, but honest people seem fewer and farther between.
This is the third week of our series on “Living into Community,” practices that create solid foundation for community life. We’ve explored the practice of gratitude and the practice of making and keeping promises, and we’ve come to the third foundational practice for communal life together: telling the truth.
At first glance, telling the truth seems like a pretty simple practice: be honest. Don’t lie. But Christine Pohl, in her section on truth-telling, draws out several interesting aspects of honesty. If we are committed to truth telling, for instance, does that mean we are always compelled to share everything we know? Is it lying if I omit certain details in a story? Does being honest mean that I have to spend all my time doing that ‘telling the truth in love’ calling out sort of thing? And why might it be, exactly, that we are so often tempted NOT to tell the truth?
For Christians – and for those of us seeking to live out our Christian convictions in a community, like this congregation – honesty is rooted not only in the value of truth-telling for the health of our relationships and work, but also in the call to live a transformed life.
In our text for today, Paul is writing to the Colossians about living transformed lives. Apparently, the people in the church at Collosae were struggling to keep the faith in the face of some spiritual troublemakers who insisted that faithfulness was really about becoming more and more spiritual – less and less connected to the earthly realm and more and more in touch with the mystical, ephemeral realities of existence. Paul is writing to the Colossians to encourage them in their everyday practices of faith. How you act, here and now, is important. It is this way of conducting yourselves among the rough and rowdy realities of earthly life, he says, that makes up a life of faithful discipleship.
So, instead of ignoring the realities of day-to-day life and trying to be all disconnected, floating around on clouds and acting self-righteous and better-than-thou, the Colossians would be better off to consider what life in Christ would look like in their everyday dealings at home, at work, in their neighborhood.
Among the things that they should watch out for, according to Paul, are sexual immorality, wrongly-ordered desires, greed, anger, wrath, slander and malice. Those behaviors are part of the old self, inappropriate for people who have found in Christ an entirely new way of being together in the world. “Do not lie to one another,” he says, “seeing that you have stripped off the old self with its practices and clothed yourself with the new self, which is being renewed in knowledge according to the image of its creator.”
Don’t lie, in other words, because you are now aware of an entirely different way of being!
Don’t lie, in other words, because you know, now, better ways to treat one another.
Don’t lie, in other words, because this new self is grounded in a reality where lying serves no purpose.
Don’t lie, in other words, because your identity is rooted in the one who IS the truth.
An interesting psychological study from a couple of years ago examined the effect of those old fables about honesty on the willingness of children to tell the truth or not. Kang Lee, at the University of Toronto, conducted a study where children aged 3-7 were in a room with their backs to an unseen toy. The researchers played an animal sound associated with the toy and asked the kids to identify what it was. If they guessed right, they got the toy. After a couple of rounds of the game, the researcher would put a new toy on the table behind the child, ask them not to cheat by turning around and looking, and then leave the room for a moment.
A few minutes later, the researcher returned, read aloud a short version of one of those honesty fables, and asked the kids whether or not they had peeked. A camera had recorded the kids, so researchers knew if they were fibbing or not.
It turned out that when the story before the question about peeking was the control story – The Tortoise and the Hare, not about honesty at all – kids told the truth about 30 percent of the time. When the story was Pinocchio, a story where lying has pretty grave consequences, the kids told the truth a little more often, at 35 percent of the time.
But, interestingly, when the story was the one about George Washington and the cherry tree – a story where honesty gets rewarded – kids told the truth a whopping 50 percent of the time.
The researchers concluded that kids are more likely to tell the truth when the fables are ones where honesty is rewarded instead of ones where lying is punished. In other words, instead of scaring the stuffing out of kids by threatening them with punishment, it might be better to explain the benefits of the desired behavior. It might be better to talk about how honesty is valuable rather than about how lying is hurtful.
As we read a new report each morning about the lies of politicians and a new accusation every afternoon about the lies of the media, it seems especially important for us, as a body committed to being made new in Christ, to be able to articulate the reasons honesty is a bedrock value of our life together. Of course, setting the record straight and being smart about lying leaders and media spin are important, too, but that often seems to me like an endless shell game, as each exposed lie seems only to uncover a dozen more that were hiding beneath it.
Instead, why don’t we begin to think, together, about why truth telling is important for US, for our life together HERE, for our own personal discipleship and transformation into being clothed in this new way of being.
In her writing on truth-telling as a sustaining practice for community, Christine Pohl offers a list of reasons why we might be tempted to lie, reasons that can begin to make plenty of rational sense when we’re operating on the assumptions of the world around us instead of the assumptions of this new life in Christ:
To avoid punishment
to protect oneself from harm
to obtain a reward for oneself
to protect or help another person
to win admiration from others
to get out of an awkward or embarrassing social situation
to maintain privacy
to exercise power over others
to fulfill social expectations
to have fun
But in the light of a total transformation, a new life found in the freedom of salvation and resurrection, many of these reasons dissolve into the ether.
If we are people who believe that death is not the end, for instance, we are less likely to need to protect ourselves from harm.
If we are people who understand that justice and judgment come from the God who is on the side of the vulnerable and the oppressed, then we are unlikely to act to avoid punishment from other authorities.
If we are people who find ourselves convicted that our worth and value is rooted in the reality that we are created beings, deeply beloved by the one who created us, then we are less likely to lie in order to win admiration from others.
If we are people who follow the one who exemplified the power of servanthood and taught that the last will become first, we will be much less likely to need ways to exercise power over others.
If we are people who have been so transformed as to recognize that the social conventions and cultural expectations of our day and time are human constructs, we’ll be less likely to lie in order to avoid embarrassment or awkwardness or perpetrating a social faux pas.
The point is: for Christians lying isn’t just wrong. Lying isn’t just a bad choice with dire consequences. As a Christian, living a transformed life in the light of the life, death and resurrection of Jesus Christ, lying is simply…unnecessary.
Of course, that doesn’t automatically clear up each and every contingency for each particular situation in which we might be tempted to choose a lie over the truth.
We might still be embarrassed. We might still face punishment. We might still commit a social faux pas, and we might end up losing the admiration of others. To say that lying is unnecessary in the transformed life doesn’t mean that there are no longer consequences for telling the truth. Honesty is still a hard value to practice with consistency.
But, as Paul tells the Colossians, we are at this very moment “being renewed in knowledge according to the image of its creator.” The struggle is real, and the struggle is worth it. Being honest and truthful makes us more like the one who created us, the one who IS The Truth (two capital Ts).
Christine Pohl makes a point to say that truth-telling is not always about naming the negative realities or “calling someone out” when we notice them acting without integrity. Telling the truth also involves naming the gifts and graces present in one another, present in our lives together. Telling the truth requires the patience and attentiveness to read the context, be aware of the situation, and share – in love and gentleness – the truth of any given situation.
When we practice truth-telling both ways – taking time and care to name the gifts as well as the failures in our life together – we build up the foundation of our community. We learn to trust one another and to expect an accurate reflection of reality from the sisters and brothers around us. When we need correction, we can look to one another to tell us. And when we need encouragement, we can find that here, too.
May it be so. Amen.