In the 4th poem of his collection of poems entitled The Black Riders and Other Lines, Stephen Crane, the author best known for writing The Red Badge of Courage, wrote:
Yes, I have a thousand tongues,
And nine and ninety-nine lie.
Though I strive to use the one,
It will make no melody at my will,
But is dead in my mouth.
It is a fascinating thing for a person to admit, that they find lying much more natural than telling the truth. I wonder how many of us would have to say the same?
The church is to be a truth-telling community. For this reason, we have built a statement about telling the truth into our church covenant.
As a body of born again believers,
We covenant to become an authentic family by
loving one another as Christ loves us,
praying for one another,
speaking truth to one another in love
That is an interesting phrase, “speaking truth to one another in love.” Truth without love can be a blunt instrument of pain. Love without truth can be a mushy veneer that we use to coate over reality. But speaking truth in love, that is the biblical position.
Lying to one another is what people in the grip of Satan naturally do.
The first reason why we should speak truth to one another is because telling lies is of the devil. Lying to one another is what people in the grip of Satan naturally do. The Bible holds human beings responsible for lying yet it also reveals that Satan is always pushing us to lie.
Jeremiah 9 proves the former point. In this text, the prophet says:
5 Everyone deceives his neighbor, and no one speaks the truth; they have taught their tongue to speak lies; they weary themselves committing iniquity.
This is important passage because it establishes (a) the universality of lying (“everyone deceives his neighbor, and no one speaks the truth”), (b) the habitual nature of lying (“they have taught their tongue to speak lies”), and (c) the exhaustive nature of lying (“they weary themselves committing iniquity”). Put another way, everybody lies, lying becomes more natural the more you practice it, and lying is exhausting. In his 1965 “The Gates of Eden,” Bob Dylan wrote that “there are no truths outside the Gates of Eden.”Is this not so? Is it not the case that lies cover the land outside of Eden, outside of a relationship with God? And is it not the case that lies beget more lies and that the end result is exhaustion?
Thus, we are responsible for our lies. You cannot say of your lying, “The devil made me do it!” The word “made” is the problem. However, as Jesus reveals, the devil certainly encouragesyou to do it! In John 8, Jesus said:
44You are of your father the devil, and your will is to do your father’s desires. He was a murderer from the beginning, and does not stand in the truth, because there is no truth in him. When he lies, he speaks out of his own character, for he is a liar and the father of lies. 45 But because I tell the truth, you do not believe me.
Consider this when you taste the sweet flavor of a delicious lie: the devil is the one feeding you and the end result is death. Again, Satan does not makeyou lie. He cannot makeyou lie. But when you lie you are certainly embracing his suggestion and his example.
To lie is to do the devil’s work for him.
Perhaps you hear this and think, “Well, yes, of course. Lying is a very bad thing.” And perhaps you might console yourself with the thought that, on the whole, you do not lie, that you are not a liar. We all like to tell ourselves that. However, there are different forms of lying, some of which, we like to tell ourselves, are respectable forms. And sometimes these forms are cultural. Let me give you an example: Southern hospitality.
I have spent my life in the South. I appreciate the hospitality of the South. I like that we try to be careful with each other’s feelings. But I have long thought, and many people have observed, that under the cover of “Southern hospitality” we often avoid truth-telling. Sometimes we do not quite know how to tell the truth. What this inability to state the truth means is that we try to move towards the truth in subtle ways without having to say it. That is called “manipulation.”
A few years ago I read Methodist theologian Stanley Hauerwas’ fascinating memoir, Hannah’s Child. Hauerwas grew up in West Texas but has long been associated with Duke Divinity School where he taught for many, many years. In his memoir he talks about what it was like to move from West Texas to North Carolina. Here is what he wrote:
I had also never lived around Southerners. We were recipients of the famed Southern hospitality. The faculty of the divinity school made us welcome, often inviting us over for meals. I have no idea if anyone suspected that we were a troubled family, but I am sure it was hard to miss. At one dinner the host told Anne that she could not smoke. Anne refused to stay in the house and sat in the car until the end of the meal. But these were Southerners. They may have had suspicions that something thing was wrong, but they would have never let it show.
There is no question that these were kind people. I confess, however, that over the years I have come to the judgment that Southern civility is one of the most calculated forms of cruelty. I do not know if Methodists learned it from Southerners or vice versa. But Methodists and Southerners alike have turned passive-aggressive behavior into an art form. At least from my perspective, that makes Southern Methodism especially problematic.
Texans have many faults, but usually we do not try to control you by being nice. Tell us what you want. We will either give it to you or kill you. That is not the way you negotiate life in the South. Courtesy forbids direct speech. There is a great deal to be said for courtesy, but like any virtue isolated from other virtues, it can become distorted. In particular, courtesy can become an extraordinarily subtle form of manipulation favoring those in power.
Hauerwas wrote that in the provocative style for which he has become famous, but he has a point. Let me ask you a question: is it possible that you do lie but that you are able to tell yourself you do not lie because you have simply called the lie by another name?
Even the subtle lying of sweet Southern Baptists is the work of the devil. If you do not believe me, look at the devastation that such baptized lying brings when it finally comes to a head and raw reality comes crashing in. I am not suggesting that you should not be kind, sweet, and hospitable. I am simply saying that it is possible to be all of those things and also tell the truth!
Speaking truth to one another is what people whose hearts are captive to Jesus Christ do.
And the reason why the people of God are to be truth-tellers is because we claim to be indwelt by Jesus Christ who is Himself the truth! In John 14, Jesus makes one of the most well-known statements He ever made.
6 Jesus said to him, “I am the way, and the truth, and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me.”
Taken as a whole, that is a powerful, beautiful, statement about the nature and person of Jesus Christ. For our purposes, however, let us shorten it to one particular statement so that we can get the full impact: “Jesus said to him, ‘I am…the truth!”
This provides us with a stark contrast to what Jesus said about Satan in John 8. Recall that in John 8:44 Jesus said, “When he lies, he speaks out of his own character, for he is a liar and the father of lies.” Thus, Satan is in his naturea liar. Jesus is in His naturethe truth!
There is such a simple and clear choice presented to us here: either take the hand of Satan and lie or take the hand of Jesus and tell the truth. It really is that simple. What we most certainly cannot do, however, is claim that Jesus Christ, who is the truth, is indwelling us, and then be comfortable with our lies. You cannot say that the Spirit of the living God, of whom Jesus said “When the Spirit of truth comes, he will guide you into all the truth” in John 16:13, is living within you while being content with your lies! How can the Spirit of truth truly be in you and seeking to reveal truth both to and through you while you remain comfortable in your lies? It simply cannot be!
If your heart is captive to Jesus Christ, you will speak the truth!
Truth-telling, though often difficult, opens the door for the peace and love of Jesus.
And as that happens—as we speak the truth to one another in love—we begin to see two realities come into view as a church: peace and love.
In Zechariah 8, the Lord says:
16 These are the things that you shall do: Speak the truth to one another; render in your gates judgments that are true and make for peace; 17 do not devise evil in your hearts against one another, and love no false oath, for all these things I hate, declares the Lord.
Notice what truth-telling does. It “makes[s] for peace.” It is a great irony: we avoid telling the truth because we think will the truth will upset the other person. So we bury it and avoid it. But it always ends up reaping discord in the end. Telling the truth, however, while it can be painful and awkward on the front end, will, in time, “make for peace” if the other person will receive it. This much is true: any peace that is won as a result of avoiding the truth is a temporal and shallow peace. True peace comes as we walk through the fire of painful but loving truth-telling.
Telling the truth also opens the door for the love of God to work in and among His people. In Ephesians 4, Paul writes:
15 Rather, speaking the truth in love, we are to grow up in every way into him who is the head, into Christ, 16 from whom the whole body, joined and held together by every joint with which it is equipped, when each part is working properly, makes the body grow so that it builds itself up in love.
First, note that Paul says we are to “speak the truth in love.” This is the biblical balance: truth and love. You cannot neglect one for the other. As followers of Jesus, we must speak truth but we must speak it in love.
Second, note that speaking the truth in love opens the door for growth in Jesus Christ: “we are to grow up in every way into him who is the head, into Christ.” Truth-telling is one of the ways we grow up together in Jesus. At the end of verse 16, Paul writes that obedience and faithfulness to Christ in truth-telling allows the church to “build itself up in love.”
Consider this: if truth-telling helps us grow up in Jesus then lying must pull us further and further from Jesus. If we are built as we speak the truth in love we are demolished as we lie. If speaking the truth makes us look more and more like Jesus then lying makes us look less and less like Jesus.
In verse 25 of Ephesians 4, Paul introduces yet another dynamic:
25 Therefore, having put away falsehood, let each one of you speak the truth with his neighbor, for we are members one of another.
That phrase, “for we are members one of another,” is rich with significance. We must speak the truth to one another and not lie to one another because we are bound together, connected in one body. We are, in fact, members of one another. What that means is that speaking the truth makes each of us stronger. But if that is so it also means that lying makes each of us weaker. In fact, in keeping with Paul’s metaphor of the church as the body of Christ, we can say that lying introduces a contagion, a virus into the body of Christ that spreads and infects us all.
This means that truth-telling or lying is always a corporate act, even if you think it is not.
To introduce lying into the body of Christ is to risk having it spread throughout the body as a corrupting element of disease. And that is exactly what lying does. How many times have you heard a lie whose source you have then had to try to hunt down? How many times have you heard lies repeated and you had to say, “Wait, where did this come from?” The one thing you cannot say as a Christian, then, is, “Yes, I lied, but that is my business, not yours.” On the contrary, it is the business of us all, because a falsehood has been set loose in the body, and if it is not killed it will spread sickness.
Lying is sickness. Truth-telling is health!
We are one body comprised of many members but operating under one head: Jesus Christ. And as Jesus Christ is the truth that means that the one body must reflect the truthful intentions of its head.
Church, consider the beauty of truth-telling and its power to heal, to bring health and vitality, and to help us grow! And consider the ugliness of lying and its power to corrupt, to tear down, to destroy!
We have covenanted as a church to speak the truth to one another in love. Love cannot flourish without truth! Love cannot grow without truth!
Fortunately for us, our King, Jesus, isthe truth! We are equipped for truth-telling because we have the ultimate example of truth-telling: Jesus!
If you are outside of Jesus Christ, if you have never trusted in Him, then you are living a lie and need to embrace the truth. If you are a follower of Jesus, then you must speak only the truth. Anything less is an act of indifference at best and outright hatred at worst.
Love one another! Forgive one another! Pray for one another! Speak truth to one another!
May we be a truth-telling body of believers.
Stephen Crane. Stories and Collected Poems. (New York: Quality Paperback Book Club, 1997), p.6.
Stanley Hauerwas. Hannah’s Child: A Theologian’s Memoir. (Kindle Locations 2571-2579). Kindle Edition.