The Rejection That Refreshes
Like most Americans, I grew up inspired by the legendary honesty of George Washington. As a young boy I learned that when he chopped down his father’s prized cherry tree, he freely admitted his misdemeanor. Along with millions of American children, I was encouraged to be truthful just like young George.
The history of the cherry tree story is itself a remarkable tale. It first appeared in the writings of an ordained minister, Mason Locke Weems. Parson Weems attempted parish ministry in the late eighteenth century, but without success. So he turned to writing and selling self-improvement books. In the early nineteenth century, Weems traveled throughout the eastern United States, hawking his spiritually uplifting wares to thousands of Americans who sought to be improved.
One of his masterpieces was called A History of the Life and Death, Virtues and Exploits of General George Washington. In this book of moral lessons, Weems penned the famous story of six-year-old George, who chopped down his father’s cherry tree. Then he was confronted by his father who asked, “George, do you know who killed that beautiful little cherry tree yonder in the garden?” Allow Parson Weems to finish this story in his own inimitable words:
This was a tough question; and George staggered under it for a moment; but quickly recovered himself: and looking at his father, with the sweet face of youth brightened with the inexpressible charm of all-conquering truth, he bravely cried out: “I can’t tell a lie, Pa; you know I can’t tell a lie. I did cut it with my hatchet.” “Run to my arms, you dearest boy,” cried his father in transports, “run to my arms; glad am I, George, that you killed my tree; for you have paid me for it a thousand fold. Such an act of heroism in my son is more worth than a thousand trees, though blossomed with silver, and their fruits of purest gold.”1
What a stirring climax to this story, poignantly narrated by a minister seeking to commend truthfulness to Americans.
I’m sad to say, however, that there’s no evidence this event ever occurred. Nothing in Washington’s memoirs or his family history suggests that he ever felled the tree or confessed to his father. Weems, it appears, felt the freedom to invent edifying stories to advance his moral agenda, not to mention his own financial well-being. His book on Washington is filled with many other historically dubious but inspirational episodes, in addition to the celebrated cherry tree tale.
Ironically, Weems’s book illustrates how deeply deception is embedded in American culture, not to mention in the human soul. In the spirit of can-do pragmatism, we all too easily rationalize a fiction that is passed off as truth. Hence, Parson Weems told outright lies to bolster the moral character of his readers.
Lying is so common in today’s media-saturated world that we may be tempted to yearn for the mythical good ol’ days when everyone was honest. But that utopia never existed. Though modern media have broadcast the seeds of deception, its roots burrow deeply into every human heart. Thus, if we are going to be fully truthful people, we must identify the weeds of falsehood both in our private gardens and in the common garden of public life, and then we must intentionally yank them out. If we are to be completely honest, both in speech and in heart, we must spurn spin.
Speak the Truth, Reject Falsehood
The apostle Paul dealt with spin as wisely as anyone. As he confronted the deceptive practices of his religious and philosophical competitors, he did two essential things: He spoke the truth and he rejected falsehood. If that sounds redundant, take a closer look.
To the Corinthians, Paul wrote, “We reject all shameful and underhanded methods. We do not try to trick anyone, and we do not distort the word of God. We tell the truth before God, and all who are honest know that” (2 Corinthians 4:2). He went out of his way to repudiate the secrecy, trickery, and verbal sleight of hand so common among his rivals. He chose not only to speak truth but also to reject deception in all forms.
Such a two-edged commitment to truthfulness is required of all Christians. In Ephesians 4 Paul encourages us to reject falsehood even as we embrace truth: “[When we become mature in Christ,] we will no longer be like children, forever changing our minds about what we believe because someone has told us something different or because someone has cleverly lied to us and made the lie sound like the truth. Instead, we will hold to the truth in love.” (verses 14-15). Paul does more than urge us to “hold to the truth.” He also urges us to avoid the trickery, craftiness, and deceit that batter our truthfulness–to translate his Greek words more literally. On the one hand, we must be on guard so that we will not be hoodwinked by such things. On the other hand, we must watch ourselves to ensure that we do not employ the same practices in our own lives.
If it’s true that we can’t fully speak the truth unless we first reject falsehood, what are we to do with this insight? The answer is: If our goal is to be truthful people, we can’t simply add truth to our repertoire. We must also root out deception, even when we can be deceptive without actually lying–the field in which most spin doctors have earned their Ph.D.’s.
Spurning spin may be difficult, but it doesn’t require complex strategies. Basically, it involves three simple steps.
1. Make a commitment to avoid deception. If you intend to “put away all falsehood” (Ephesians 4:25), don’t think it will happen just by wishful thinking. You need to make a conscious commitment to consistent, comprehensive truthfull-ness in all of life. “Trying” not to lie won’t do it. Without a willful commitment to avoid deception, you’ll never be able to resist and reject the corrosive influence of spin, and you will be a ready victim for the rationalizations that seem so attractive when you’re tempted to be less than fully honest.
A woman in my church, who took my preaching on truthfulness to heart, dedicated herself to speaking the truth in all her daily interactions. Sure enough, she soon found herself tempted to lie. She wanted to compliment her friend’s haircut even though she didn’t like it. She also really wanted to avoid telling her husband how much she had spent on a new decoration for their living room. But because she had made a commitment to herself and to the Lord, she took the risky and unfamiliar path of honesty. In the end she experienced the peace that comes from daring to be true.
Let me urge you to share your commitment to rejecting deceit with people who can support you and hold you accountable. And, of even greater importance, ask God for his help. Since deception is often known only to God and to the deceiver, your accountability partners won’t always be able to call your bluff. But God can. You will be able to banish spin only by his grace–grace that is freely available through the Holy Spirit.
2. Learn how to recognize deception. This isn’t as easy as it sounds. Deception, by definition, is deceptive. It hides. It fools us. It is difficult to recognize, even in ourselves. In the study conducted by Professor Robert Feldman, the students whose conversations were videotaped were shocked when they realized they had been lying in casual conversation. The reason for their shock? It’s easy to lie to ourselves about being liars. In Feldman’s experiment, the students never questioned their own truthfulness until they watched themselves on video.2
Most of us won’t be in a position to observe on videotape the way we interact with others. But if we have made a commitment to avoid falsehood, then we’ll be much more aware of the ways in which we dabble in deception. Moreover, if we seek God’s help, the Holy Spirit will clearly show us our deception.
As you begin to analyze your communication patterns, you’ll discover a number of predictable settings in which you are tempted to bend or break the truth. (I’ll address some of the most common contexts later in this chapter.) Deception often occurs when we attempt to get out of trouble, promote something we believe in (especially ourselves), or manage the feelings of others.
3. Actively reject deception. Once we have identified deception, we must take the necessary step of rejecting it. Of course, this can be hard, even excruciating, especially if we’re not accustomed to truthfulness. Even relatively petty lies, if they are habitual, can challenge our will. If, for instance, you tend to voice agreement with the opinions of others on politics or even about a movie because you want to avoid conflict, you will find it tough to overcome this practice. Your commitment to reject deception must be stronger than your fear of disagreeing and risking the loss of another’s approval or friendship.
In light of this difficulty, it becomes clear why we need Scripture on our side. Paul’s simple phrasing in Ephesians 4:25, “Put away all falsehood,” shapes our behavior like the exhortation of a Little League coach who urges, “Don’t take your eyes off the ball!” Of course, Paul’s counsel in Ephesians echoes the ninth commandment: “Thou shalt not bear false witness against thy neighbour” (Exodus 20:16, KJV). This commandment, like most of the other nine, comes in the form of a prohibition–“Thou shalt not”–rather than a positive command–“Thou shalt.” God knows our natural tendency to shade the truth, so he states the command as a ban against falsehood. The starkness of “Thou shalt not bear false witness” penetrates beneath the armor of our rationalizations. Like the videotaped conversations in Feldman’s experiment, the prohibition against falsehood opens our eyes to our habitual reliance on spin.3
But must we really swear off all deception? Is it wrong, for example, to pretend to be a horse as you carry your toddler on your back? What about making up stories to entertain friends or to illustrate a point as you teach others? It depends. Pretending is an essential and morally acceptable part of imaginative play as long as all parties understand the rules of the game. If your toddler knows you’re not really a horse, there is no deception involved. If, however, you claim to be a monster while playing with a child who doesn’t realize that you’re just pretending, then your deception is hurtful. (Yes, I have done this, I’m embarrassed to admit.) Similarly, it’s fine to make up stories. Jesus did so in his most memorable parables. But, once again, the storyteller must clarify the fictional character of the narrative for the listeners.
We live in a world that constantly blurs the lines between fiction and non-fiction. Ronald Reagan’s official biographer inserted an imaginary character into a supposedly historical biography and defended his effort as consistent with his creative license.4 Then, a Pulitzer Prize-winning historian and professor made up stories of his combat experience in Vietnam in order to enliven his college lectures. In defense of the professor, the Reagan biographer wrote in the New York Times, “Well, of course he’s woven the fabric of his life partly out of whole cloth and partly out of the shot silk of fantasy.… Can any of us gaze into the bathroom mirror and whisper, ‘I never made anything up’?”5
Given our world’s growing tolerance of deception, Christians must reject even the appearance of falsehood. The only acceptable use of fiction in conversation is when all hearers understand that we are playing a game and they know the rules. A preacher I know told a funny story in a sermon, pretending it had happened to a few members of his church. After the service several people commented on the story as if it were true. When the preacher explained that the anecdote was fictitious, these people felt as if they had been deceived. It would serve this preacher well in the future to be more careful about confusing truth and fiction, even when he’s just having fun.
In my own preaching I make every effort to avoid this confusion. At times I will change names or incidental particulars of a story in order to protect a person’s privacy. My congregation knows this because I tell them so every now and then. Yet they trust that I don’t alter the essence of a story or exaggerate details to liven things up. (By the way, in case you didn’t read the notice on the copyright page of this book, you should be aware that I follow the same practice in writing as in preaching.)
Where Deception Lurks
Even if you’re constantly vigilant in guarding against falsehood, chances are still good that you’re not completely free of deception. I confess that I’ve been caught in this web, as you’ll soon see.
To help us identify the deceptions we’re often blind to, let’s examine three contexts in which we may be tempted to deceive. These life settings test our commitment to spurning spin. They’ve certainly tested mine!
Context One: Perjured Promotion
The context of promotion and publicity frequently tempts us to exaggerate. Of course, it’s easy to accuse Madison Avenue while excusing ourselves. Sure, the pros engage in plenty of spin in their efforts to sell candy and candidates, but so do we in promoting ourselves or our pet causes.
Have you read any résumés recently? Incidental assignments grow into major responsibilities. Modest accomplishments become unparalleled triumphs. The recent case of George O’Leary provides a prominent and sad example. He landed a dream job as head football coach at Notre Dame only to resign five days later. Why did he quit? Because it was discovered that he had lied about his academic and athletic accomplishments on his résumé. Though he was an outstanding coach, his deceptions overwhelmed his legitimate qualifications for the job. O’Leary was forced to give up his dream.
But he’s not alone. I recently came across a dossier of a person I know. As I read it, I was impressed by how she could make even dismal failures sound like noteworthy achievements. If you’ve had to apply for a job recently, you know how tempting it is to portray your accomplishments as far bigger than life to make your application stand out above the competition.6 The legitimate task of making yourself look attractive to a prospective employer does not excuse exaggeration or fabrication.