Surveys in the United States confirm that truthfulness is still one of our most highly valued traits. As the new millennium began, for the second time in half a century those polled by Gallup put ethics and morality near the top of the list of problems facing Americans. If these statistics are even close to being accurate, how is it that we do not hear or read more on the topic of truth telling?
It is without doubt that deception is a powerful force. Upon truthfulness much is built, but without it so much can fall. As we have all experienced at some point in our lives, deception can spread and give rise to practices very damaging to human communities and when the practice of truth telling is neglected, we become accustomed to spin and dishonesty, which seem to be all around us. As a result, it is not uncommon to suspect that people are never being completely honest. This suspicion has tainted the work of church pastors and leaders, who are often on the receiving end of a lack of trust in leadership and in our various institutions. This culture of deception naturally brings about defensiveness and consequently, “truth has been displaced by believability”.
Ludwig Wittgenstein once observed, “He lied when truth would have done just as well. Choosing which to tell is largely a matter of convenience. We lie for all the usual reasons or for no apparent reason at all”. While it may be true that our actions might speak louder than our words, they are still very powerful. For instance, “the words associated with deception have declined, or have at the very least become the norm. Therefore, we no longer tell lies, but instead we claim it as ‘misspeaking”, ‘exaggerating’, or ‘exercising poor judgment’. In saying and believing such things, the term ‘deceive’ is replaced with the more accepting word of ‘spin’ or ‘contextualizing’”. In the end, we deceive ourselves.
So, why do we continue to deceive and lie rather than telling the truth? Ralph Keyes, in a Post-Truth Era, states, “the obvious cause of dishonesty’s rise is ethical decline. From this perspective, moral compasses have broken down. Our sense of right and wrong has gone into remission. Conscience is considered old fashioned. Conviction has been replaced by cynicism”. This post-truth era allows us “to dissemble truth without considering ourselves dishonest. When our behavior conflicts with our values, what we’re most likely to do is re-conceive our values. Few of us want to think of ourselves as being unethical, so we devise alternative approaches to morality”. A single word by itself is very powerful, and combined with other words is either constructive or destructive; it is “the power of life and death”. Therefore, as a result of this shaping of reality, words either convey truth or communicate a false reality (deformation of truth).
We have all experienced a time in which we have tried to communicate a story or moment in our life, and rather than stating the truth, we fabricate certain portions of the story, maybe making the outcome a little funnier, or not emphasizing a negative incident, all to control the response of the listener. We have heard fine speeches, eloquent sermons, and rhetoric that moves the soul. In truth-telling, what is decisive is not what you say, but how you say it. It is composition, it is expression, that decisiveness and deception is birthed. There is the possibility that something could well be superbly crafted—that it could be perfectly worded; brilliantly formulated; strikingly written, performed, staged, or put on screen—and at the same time, in its entire thrust and essence, be false; and not only false, but out right bad, inferior, contemptible, shameful, destructive, wretched—and still marvelously put together. But at the other end of the pendulum is the practice of truth-telling which negates the self, and embraces the true Word, Christ himself, trusting in the truth spoken.
So, whether at home, in meetings, in sermon, in speech, or in debate, may your language be “life giving”, forming others into the likeness of Christ…the Truth will set you free!
[Want to go deeper on this topic…resources used in this article: Ralph Keys: Post-Era Truth; Sissela Bok: Lying; Dietrich Bonhoeffer: Ethics & Life Together; Jean Vanier: Community and Growth]