Lyin’ with the liars

Is it wrong to lie to someone if that person is lying to you?

One day last week I was working at home when the telephone rang. The caller identified himself with a certain electric power company. He told me that technicians were coming to my house within forty-five minutes to shut off the power because we were behind on our payments. I let him know that this confused me since our electricity does not come from the company he had named. (That part is true; we’re part of an electric cooperative.) He verified my name and address and insisted that the power would be shut off unless I called his company at another number, and he demanded that I write down the number.

I did write it down, then I typed it into Google. Not getting any useful information about the number, I typed the name of the company and the word “scam.” I was led to a page that described his call and said that the follow-up call would be demanding that money be wired to keep the power from being cut.

A few minutes later he called a second time, apologized, and said he had given me the wrong number. He gave a different number that was one digit higher than the first number. I said I understood, told him good-bye, and hung up.

Then I thought of the lie I wish I had said. “I need to warn you that this conversation is being recorded,” I wanted to say, “and is being shared with law enforcement officials in your area as we speak.” If scammers want to scare me, why shouldn’t I give them a scare in return?

The next time a live person (not a recording) tries to convince me that the power is going to be cut or that something is wrong with my computer or that my credit card has been compromised, I will let them know that they are being recorded and can expect the police or FBI to be knocking on their door in the next forty-five minutes. I just wish I could see their faces when I tell them that lie. J.

Protecting reputations

God says, “You shall not bear false witness against your neighbor” (Exodus 20:16).

Luther explains, “What does this mean? We should fear and love God so that we do not tell lies about our neighbor, betray him, slander him, or hurt his reputation, but defend him, speak well of him, and explain everything in the kindest way” (or “put the best construction on everything”).

Salvageable adds: Jesus declares himself to be the Truth. He calls the devil the father of lies. Which team do you prefer? In spite of the fact that most people prefer the truth to lies, most people also find occasions when they would rather lie. With questions like, “Did you enjoy the book I gave you for your birthday?” or, “Does this dress make me look fat?” we might consider it both kinder and safer to tell a lie—“a little white lie,” we like to call it.

Little lies are dangerous, though. Once we have found reasons to excuse lying under certain circumstances, we risk entering a growing pattern of dishonesty. We begin to lie for our own protection to hide the fact that we have done something wrong. We gossip about others, telling stories we heard that may not be true but are quite entertaining. Soon we move to lies that cause trouble for other people, robbing them of their good reputations and assigning blame to them that they do not deserve.

Both God’s commandment and Luther’s explanation focus on our neighbor. We are not to tell lies about our neighbor, in court or anywhere else. We are not to betray or slander our neighbor. We are not to hurt our neighbor’s reputation. Instead, we are to defend our neighbor and speak well of him. When more than one explanation fits the facts, we are to choose to believe the one that puts our neighbor in the best light rather than the worst light.

Of course if you see a crime in progress, you should report it to the proper authorities. If you are called into court to describe what you saw, again you are to be honest and thorough. Such actions do not betray a neighbor; instead, they help our other neighbors. But if someone (especially a fellow Christian) has hurt you in a way that is not criminal, you are not entitled to tell everyone else what happened. The first person you should approach is the one who hurt you—not to get even, but to try to reconcile with that person. When that works, no third person needs to know what has happened.

Explaining everything in the kindest way does not mean making ourselves potential victims. When we drive, we should be prepared for other drivers to do crazy and illegal things. When walking down the street and seeing a stranger approaching, we should have a plan to keep ourselves safe. But with family and friends we should not need to be suspicious. We should assume the best of them, not the worst. We should be truthful in all we say about them. When someone else tries to gossip with us, we should turn off the conversation rather than listening to the gossip. When we know a story is untrue, we should speak up and defend the neighbor whose reputation is being stained.

A classic question about the ethics of truth and lying poses this question: Suppose one person has plans to harm another person, and that second person is hiding. You know where that second person is. If the first person comes to you and asks you, should you tell them where the second person is hiding? Would it not be better to lie, to protect that second person from harm?

We live in a confusing, sin-stained world. Sometimes it seems that we must choose between sins, that we have no choice that does not involve a sin. I would tell a lie to protect a person from harm. I would also confess that lie to God as a sin, asking for forgiveness because I could not find a way to keep that person safe without sinning. Perhaps God would not regard such a lie as sinful, but I would rather confess the sin, confident in his forgiveness for all sins, than try to keep it hidden from God.

Jesus is the Truth. Yet he has essentially lied about us to his Father. “Father, forgive them,” he prays for us. “They don’t know what they’re doing.” (Often when we sin, we know exactly what we are doing.) More than that, he says, “Father, accept them. Their sins are gone; their debt has been paid. When you look at them, see me, and treat them as you would treat me.” God’s mercy and grace are not fair. God treats us far better than we deserve. He treated Jesus far worse than Jesus deserved. By that sacrifice, a balance has been established. As the children of God, we seek to be as honest and truthful as we can be in this world, while we wait for a perfect new creation where there will be no falsehood and no lies. J.

On lying to children

Many Christian parents think nothing of it, but a few are deeply concerned: should we tell our children stories about Santa Claus, the Easter Bunny, and the Tooth Fairy? The worst-case scenario is that, when they learn they have been deceived, they might begin to doubt Jesus Christ and the accounts of the Bible. Even barring that risk, is it worth entertaining young children with falsehoods merely to perpetuate a cultural tradition?

As a father, I chose to participate in the stories without putting any more stress upon them than upon Hansel and Gretel or Jack and the Beanstalk. I read my children The Night Before Christmas on Christmas Eve, not neglecting to read also Luke 2:1-20. We watched Rudolf the Red-Nosed Reindeer and Miracle on 34th Street together, but we also watched A Charlie Brown Christmas with Linus’ famous rendition of the Christmas Gospel. A stocking with fruit and candy appeared in the house after the children were in bed on Christmas Eve, but not much was said about Santa bringing the stocking. A quarter was given overnight for a lost tooth–and some teeth were truly lost: one was evidently swallowed with a bite of breakfast cereal, and another fell out in a swimming pool and disappeared into the drain. The egg hunt on Easter happened after church and after the midday meal–the children went for a walk to look at flowers in the neighborhood while Daddy rested after a busy morning. Somehow colored eggs and baskets with candy were hidden in the house during Daddy’s nap.

Santa Claus had to work a lot harder when I was a little boy. Not only did he bring stockings overnight; he also brought a live tree into the house and decorated it while we slept. I knew that Santa would not come until everyone was asleep, and I was concerned that my mother was vacuuming the house late at night on Christmas Eve–didn’t she know that she was delaying his visit? Other stores had men dressed like Santa who reported to Santa what children told them, but the real Santa Claus had his throne in Marshall Fields’ store in downtown Chicago. On a Saturday in December we would take the train to Chicago, and I would wait in line a long time to sit on Santa’s lap and tell him what I wanted for Christmas. When the movie A Christmas Story was made in the 1980s, I discovered that I was not the only little boy who had been scared of Santa and would prefer not have bothered to visit him at Marshall Fields.

Santa Claus was big and loud and frightening. Worse than that, he was always watching (and he had an army of elves spying for him as well). He knew if I had been bad or good, and from Thanksgiving until Christmas I was frequently warned to be good so Santa would bring me presents. Likewise in the late winter and early spring I had to be on my best behavior to ensure the delivery of candy and colored eggs. In this case, every rabbit that left footprints in the snow was a spy for the Easter Bunny. I sometimes tried to track the rabbits to their lair, but I never had any success in that endeavor.

I think it is a mistake to use holiday treats to coerce good behavior, and I tried never to do that with my children. Christmas and Easter are not about being good to earn rewards; these holidays remind us of a God of grace who gives us blessings we do not deserve. Christmas and guilt should be separated as far as possible. On Christmas we celebrate the baby born in Bethlehem whose mission it was to remove our sins and guilt as far from us as the east is from the west. The planet has a north pole and a south pole, but there is no end to a journey traveling east or west. Our sins and guilt are taken from us and placed an infinite distance away from us.

My children were never confused by the fantasies we shared about Santa Claus and the others. They did not doubt the reality of Jesus and his love even if they were sometimes distracted by gifts under the tree or a basket of candy. One of their favorite books when they were little told about a little girl who lost a tooth and put it under her pillow so the Tooth Fairy would bring her money. In the morning, she accused her mother of coming into her room and replacing her tooth with money. Her mother replied that, in every house around the world, the Tooth Fairy took the appearance of the child’s mother or father so the child would not be frightened. This story may not be as dramatic as the “Yes, Virginia” newspaper essay. Still, I think it does assure parents that they can enjoy holiday traditions with their children without fear of losing the trust of their children later in life. J.

How am I? Please don’t ask.

I’m trying to cut down on my lying. When a co-worker asked me this morning, “How are you?” I replied, “I refuse to answer that question.”

This “How are you?” greeting is getting silly. People walking the opposite direction say, “How are you?” and I say, “I’m fine—how are you?” At that point, we either both have to stop walking or we have to shout to continue the exchange. Generally I do stop walking and make eye contact and wait for their answer, which forces them to decide whether or not to answer me. I don’t feel guilty about this—they started the conversation. Sometimes they seem flattered that I actually appear genuinely interested in how they are. Other times the situation is awkward because they weren’t really interested in my answer and they don’t expect me to care about their answer.

My counselor has an employee who calls a couple days before each appointment to make sure I am planning to come, and who greets me when I come in the door. She has a friendly habit of asking, “How are you?” and usually I tell her I’m fine. I wonder if everyone else lies to her as I do. I’m tempted, next time she asks, to say, “Well, I wouldn’t still be coming here if everything was OK, would I?”

“How am I?” A member of my family has been in the hospital since Wednesday night because of anxiety and depression and related problems. The rest of the family has watched this person struggle for several weeks. We are all glad that this person is finally getting some professional help, and we hope it will be beneficial. I’m willing to blog about the situation, but I’m not keen to mention it in casual conversation.

“How am I?” My knees ache when I climb the stairs. My ankle is throbbing because I stepped on the plug of another person’s GPS device which was, for some unknown reason was sitting in the middle of the floor and not in a car. My back is still sore because I wrenched it last week waking up from a dream.

Would you like to know about that dream? I had gotten on the flatbed car of a freight train while it was stopped at the station. That did not seem strange at the time, because other passengers were getting on and off the freight train. But as the train started moving to leave the station, I remembered that I had not told anyone where I was going. As the train approached a curve, I prepared to jump. I was determined to make a good solid jump off the train, as I did not want to risk losing an arm or a leg. I woke up when my body hit the floor.

This story about jumping out of bed because of a dream seems amusing at first. Thanks to the internet, I know that I can worry about this as a serious problem. It has a label, of course: RBD, which stands for REM behavior disorder. A healthy person’s body does not move while that person is dreaming, because the mind-body connection is aware of the difference between dreaming and reality, no matter how vivid the dream seems. When that awareness is lacking, something has caused the normal separation between dreaming and reality to be severed. The worst case scenarios involve a brain tumor or the onset of Parkinson’s disease. A more likely cause for my RBD is that I am trying to reduce my alcohol consumption. Either way, I’m not cheerful about a week of mild back pain due to an unusual sleep disorder which might or might not recur.

I’m worried about family finances. I’m concerned about people I’ve known for a long time and the problems they are facing. I’m concerned about people I’ve just gotten to know this summer and the problems they are facing. I’m not enjoying the summer weather. I’m sick of hearing my neighbor’s lawn mowers and trimmers and blowers. I’m taking medicine to control my anxiety and my depression. That’s how I am; thank you for asking. And, by the way, how are you?

J.