Lying has always been a problem for humankind. In some cultures it’s celebrated, a testimony to how cleverly you can use deception to get what you want. In others, it’s looked down on as being fraudulent, something to be embarrassed about if you get found out, even by other liars. None of us have met someone who has never lied. Conning, cheating, obfuscating, deception, dishonesty – all great words to describe the basic, deep-seated, rampant practice of lying.
Lying starts early, emerging in babyhood as soon as we realise what we’ve done is wrong and our carers aren’t going to be happy about it. Who did that? Not me! Sometimes it goes even further. It was him/her/them. Social media is replete with clips showing a child blatantly lying, and, bizarrely, parents filming the cuteness of it. We’ve all experienced situations where people unflinchingly support each other, their kid, their parent, their friend, even though they know that person is lying and regardless of what is right or wrong. It’s pretty discouraging when you’re trying to sort issues out because the truth gets bogged down in the mud and the blood of accusation, justifying, blame shifting and outright denial. And we wonder why society is in such confusion.
I once heard the pastor of a mega church in Singapore speaking about when his secret smoking habit was discovered by his five-year-old daughter. When she asked why he smoked in the toilets, he told her he didn’t. When she asked again, he vehemently repeated his lie. No darling, Daddy doesn’t smoke. Daddy would never do that. He said that in his second denial, he saw a veil come over his daughter’s eyes. She suddenly recognised that there are times when people who are found out in a lie will become indignant, hurt and angry, doubling down on their lie, offended and outraged at being accused of what they actually are doing.
The pastor's hot denials turned to anguish as he saw that realisation dawn on his little girl. He immediately acknowledged that he was smoking, telling her he was so sorry for lying to her. He loved the Lord and he loved his daughter and he knew that he had a unique role in her life to show truth, no matter what. Showing her she could trust his word became more vital than covering his guilt. She must not learn from her father that nothing is more important than getting away with doing wrong. He wanted her to know that doing whatever it takes to preserve your status as a good person, top student, righteous Christian, is hollow and degraded when you’ve lied and deceived your way to that reputation.
We learn what to value from each other - our culture, our entertainment and from what our people-group treasures. If being top of the class is the primary value, it validates the choice to cheat to achieve that aim. Afterwards, when the accolades pour in, the soul manufactures peaceful coexistence with cognitive dissonance (believing one thing while living another) so we can bask in being celebrated. It acts as a shelter to keep the liar from acknowledging to themselves that, regardless of what others believe, they are not really the best in their class. If winning the card game requires cheating, or winning the cycle race requires doping, or winning the better job requires lying, it becomes habitual and necessary to forget that the trophy was unmerited.
It is then inevitable that we come to believe our own press reports, inflated or completely wrong though they may be. However, the very nature of cognitive dissonance means that our mental and emotional health is jeopardised. Anxiety, shame, sadness, discomfort, fear, anger, suspicion and defensiveness become our normal state of life, along with more lying, because lying begets lying. It has to, to survive the possibility of exposure and the shame that accompanies it. Getting to success is one thing; staying there requires more of the same. A cycle is set up and many relationships are jettisoned in order to maintain the cycle.
Cognitive dissonance feeds on itself because once a fabricated persona becomes routine, we must keep working to convince ourselves and others of a personal excellence that is fictitious. From there it’s not a massive jump to doing whatever it takes to validate our right to be in that place... the place we didn’t actually earn the right to inhabit. For some, that means spending money we can’t afford, having meetings we feel pressured in, taking shortcuts we would never have usually taken, and more lying.
Our culture has become so entrenched in the belief that ‘the end justifies the means’, a conviction which chooses lying as the crucial weapon of choice, it becomes ingrained into every level of society. Governments and businesses, churches and charities, education, technology, medicine - wherever people work together, apparently for the common good – lying is used as a basic tool to achieve the ends we have in mind.
Sometimes it’s blatant, sometimes it’s almost invisible, but the fruit of lying for a good cause is never good. And it always, eventually, comes to the light, although often too late to avoid the massive fallout that ensues. Some, sold out to the cause, respond by digging their heels in even deeper, defending and denying despite the facts displayed for all to see. In such cases it is clear that, no matter what religion they espouse, lying has become such an intrinsic aspect of their culture that regardless of the facts, wrong will be spoken of as right, or denied altogether, until the deniers believes their own lies. In this context, supporters have also arrived at the conclusion that the end will always justify the means. This is true regardless of professed religious affiliation or none.
Isaiah 5:20 Woe to those who call evil good, and good evil; who put darkness for light and light for darkness; who put bitter for sweet, and sweet for bitter.
To say I’ve never lied would be … a lie. However, there’s something about lying habitually as a means to an end and as a lifestyle choice that sours every context it operates in. When every word from a government official, an educator, a church leader, a boss, friend or partner must be checked for veracity, we are left in precarious situations. More than that, it does something ugly to our souls because we must either choose buy-in and thus become like those we support, using lies with impunity as they do, or we become cynical and suspicious. When we know we are being lied to repeatedly, or when we are not able to clearly differentiate between authenticity and fallacy, we tend to trust no one because we've learned that truth can be bought with the alluring promise of personal benefit.
It's a pandemic, and as long as we buy into it personally and culturally, we will constantly live in a state of muddled corruption of authenticity.
How can we start to see change? Within ourselves. We may not be able to stop the politicians lying, or the people around us, but we can live truthfully ourselves. It's not always easy. It can be embarrassing and it will make you vulnerable, but truth brings clarity and that's a good thing, especially in times like this. To live truthfully doesn't mean hunting others down to expose their dishonesty, but living by the standard of truth for yourself, holding yourself to account. Believe me, you'll have enough to work with sorting through your own motivations without mounting a vendetta against someone else.
Be a part of the revolution. Be a truth-teller. Not to expose and destroy your enemy, but to bring light and honesty into your own life, and out from there, into the world.
A preacher, writer, leadership consultant and mentor, Bev is passionate about justice, about the Church and its leaders, and has a special concern for women in leadership. A church and network leader for four decades, entrepreneurial founder of several international initiatives, and a mother and grandmother, Bev's life experience, coupled with her willingness to look at life from different points of view, have supported and encouraged many leaders across the globe.
**The term cognitive dissonance is used to describe the mental discomfort that results from holding two conflicting beliefs, values, or attitudes. ... This inconsistency between what people believe and how they behave motivates people to engage in actions that will help minimize feelings of discomfort.
Picture: Liar by Stewart Black