Read an Excerpt
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. As we write a résumé, we need to ask ourselves continually, “Did I really accomplish these things? Am I misleading anyone who might use this résumé to make a hiring decision?”
If you’ve ever been involved in sales or marketing, you’ve no doubt experienced the temptation to mislead. When I was in graduate school, I managed a center that offered tutoring to students who were preparing to take standardized exams. Part of my job was to generate publicity for our program. The best promotion of all was to boast about the improved test scores achieved by our clients. We could, indeed, demonstrate such improvement. But I still faced a delicate communication challenge. Most of the students in our test-preparation course showed a significant gain on the SAT–an average gain of 120 points among those whose scores improved. However, a few students actually received lower scores!
If my promotional material spoke only of the average improvement, rather than the average overall change, I could eliminate the scores of the students who didn’t improve. How easy it was to state the literal truth–“the average improvement after taking our class is 120 points”–in a way that led people to believe that the average student increased his or her score by that margin. In truth, however, the average student improved by only 90 points, if I took into account those who registered a lower score after completing our program.
I faced a dilemma. If I spoke of average improvement, I wasn’t lying, technically speaking. I was, however, putting a deceptive spin on the truth. So what did I, the future writer of a book on truthfulness, do? I spun like the best of them. Our promotional literature escaped an outright lie, but it didn’t tell the complete truth. I’m sad to say that in this instance I failed to renounce the trickery of this world.
Temptations like these confront us all the time. I know of one outstanding Christian ministry that claimed to have brought significant church renewal to one-quarter of the churches in my own denomination. I wish that were true! But it isn’t. A truth-seeking friend of mine tracked down the source of the figure used in the organization’s promotional literature. He found that it was based on a survey of less than one percent of Presbyterian churches. In this survey, one-quarter of the congregations mentioned using this particular ministry. But that’s as far as it went. There was no indication of whether exposure to the ministry had actually produced a positive change in those congregations. My friend alerted the national board of the ministry, which I hope has stopped using the groundless statistic in its publicity.
If we are going to live truthfully, then we need to renounce perjured promotion when we’re trying to sell a product, a ministry, or even ourselves.
Context Two:Avoiding Accountability
In the last chapter we considered the story behind the collapse of the energy giant Enron and the continuing saga of leaders who avoid taking responsibility for their errors. How tempting it is for top executives to blame others or plead ignorance or do anything but confess culpability. When we see the stock market drop and fear that our retirement savings are shrinking to nothing, it’s easy to get angry at greedy and blame-avoiding corporate executives. But you know what? I’m not all that different from them, and maybe you aren’t either.
Just last week my willingness to admit my own failures was sorely tested. It happened when a subordinate mentioned in a staff meeting something that bothered him about our church. I’m not sure he realized that the incident he was criticizing was my fault. Frankly, I’m not sure I did either when the conversation began. But soon I could see that the buck was about to stop in front of me, and I didn’t like it. I reacted defensively.
As the discussion continued and I was no longer able to duck responsibility for my mistake, I said, “Well, perhaps I probably should have done things differently.” But then I stopped myself. There was no “perhaps” or “probably” about it. I was simply spinning myself out of accepting responsibility. I could try to place the blame elsewhere, just as the Enron execs had done, or I could renounce the ways of the world and fess up to my failure. By God’s grace–and because of my work on this pesky book–I revised my statement: “I definitely should have acted differently, and I’m sorry that I didn’t.”
To be honest, I didn’t like being confronted. Neither did I like my kneejerk tendency to spin the truth. And I didn’t like having to admit to the truth. But if I learn to be truthful in a group of eight brothers and sisters in Christ, hopefully I won’t have to learn it in front of the whole country someday.
We live in a society of self-proclaimed victims. When politicians fail, they blame the economy, the smear campaign of the opposition, or the bias of the news media. Criminals blame a difficult childhood. Golfers blame fast greens. Professional basketball players are victims of bad refereeing. Child abusers are really just victims of those who abused them years earlier. And so it goes. A commitment to reject the spin of victimization and take responsibility for one’s own life will not be easy to fulfill when our culture pushes us in the opposite direction.
I am not denying that there are real victims in our world, people worthy of compassion and patience. But I’m distressed over how readily people use the excuse of victimization to avoid accountability. Moreover, their claims of being victims of relatively trivial injuries make a mockery of genuine victimization. But even people who are genuine victims of terrible tragedies still must take responsibility for their own behavior.7
Context Three:Traffic and Tardiness
When is the last time someone showed up late for a meeting and said, “I’m sorry I’m late. I made some poor choices today and didn’t plan my time well. It’s entirely my fault that I’ve kept you waiting”? I’m tired of hearing about traffic. Everyone knows how much traffic there is at rush hour. Puh-leeeze!
I do understand the temptation to give the truth a few good spins when arriving late to a meeting, though. Just last Tuesday I showed up late for a church prayer meeting that I usually lead. I was so late, in fact, that I skipped the prayer meeting and instead went to a different room where the elder board would be gathering after the prayer session.
I had what I considered to be a good reason for missing the prayer meeting. The cause of my lateness, however, was a bit complicated. I didn’t want to take up valuable board meeting time making excuses for my truancy. On the other hand, a simple statement of what I’d done would have put me in a bad light. I was sorely tempted to spin matters a bit: “I’m sorry I’m late. A pastoral situation came up and I was needed.” Another option was: “I’m sorry I’m late. I was involved in a family commitment and needed to stick around.” Neither of those explanations was a lie. Both of them sounded a whole lot better than the complete truth, which ran something like this: “I’m sorry I’m late. I was at a birthday party for my daughter’s friend and really felt like it would be best for me to stay there and miss the prayer meeting.” This birthday party was the “pastoral situation” as well as the “family commitment.” But it would have been misleading to use either of these phrases in my excuse. So I admitted the truth and took a fair amount of ribbing for skipping prayer to party with a bunch of little girls. I deserved what I got, yet I still couldn’t help thinking that “pastoral situation” would have provided a much more dignified excuse.
Why was I tempted to bend the truth to my advantage? I wanted to avoid embarrassment, and I wanted the elders to respect my judgment. In the short run, being completely honest wasn’t much fun. But I felt good about my choice to be truthful. And, even though some of the elders might have questioned my judgment and most of them gave me a hard time, I think their trust in me actually increased because of my embarrassing honesty.
The Magnetism of Frankness
If we intentionally spurn spin when we’re promoting ourselves, when we’re tested by accountability, and when we’re tempted to make excuses for our behavior, we will often find ourselves in conflict with the world around us. In some cases we’ll experience criticism, perhaps even ostracism, for our commitment to avoid deceit. The truth is that some people would prefer that we not tell them the full truth! Our culture values the ease and convenience of the well-chosen half-truth. On the other hand, there will be times when our courage to reject spin will attract people like moths to a porch light. Despite a pandemic of spin, deep inside people are hungering for honest, reliable, no-frills truth.
A couple of weeks after I preached a sermon on spurning spin, a parishioner named Steve told me about something that happened in a meeting at work. Prior to the meeting he had promised himself and God that he would no longer place blame elsewhere to excuse his own behavior. For instance, he vowed that if he showed up late for an appointment, he’d be completely honest about the reason. Sure enough, a few days later Steve failed to allow enough driving time to make it to a meeting.
Arriving a full twenty minutes after the meeting began, he took his seat and then apologized. “I’m sorry I’m late,” he began. “Please forgive me. I can’t blame anything for my lateness other than my own poor choices. I didn’t allow enough time to get here. I’m truly sorry.”
His honesty stunned everyone in the room. They didn’t know how to respond. Finally, the leader of the meeting said, “Well, I’m sorry you’re late too, but thanks for being honest about why. That’s the kind of openness we need in this meeting.”
All of a sudden the participants began talking about the benefits of greater honesty in their business. A few minutes into this lively conversation another person entered the room out of breath. He was even later than Steve, and he offered the usual “blame everything else” kind of excuse. The others in the room laughed because this man’s spin looked foolish in light of Steve’s gutsy honesty.
Steve said that throughout the rest of the day the quality of conversation in the meeting was unusually frank. That same tone continued in the days that followed. Steve’s renunciation of spin was contagious and transformed the work environment.
Too often our desire to save face, avoid consequences, or prop up our sagging ego steers us away from telling the truth and robs us of the blessings of truth. Living in truth brings freedom and refreshment. After getting over their initial surprise, Steve’s colleagues were energized by his candor. And they all benefited from the freedom of speaking more openly about their professional challenges. When Jesus said the truth would set us free, he wasn’t speaking figuratively. The truth is renewing and liberating; it conveys tangible, practical benefits in daily life. It’s sad that we deny ourselves these blessings by giving in to spin and deception.
Having said that, I realize that telling the hard truth will not always bring the immediate positive outcome Steve experienced. I know a woman who lost her job because she was unwilling to lie. Her boss demanded that she misrepresent her division’s sales statistics to impress upper management. When she refused to follow her boss’s orders, she was terminated. But even considering the risks that are associated with truth telling, Steve’s story makes me wonder what might happen if we who are called to truthfulness simply started speaking the plain truth in all instances. How many friends, colleagues, employers, family members, neighborhoods, and churches would be transformed by the refreshing, liberating power of hearing the truth?
Lincoln’s Long Walk
Since I began this chapter by debunking the beloved story of George Washington and the cherry tree, let me end by mentioning another favorite account from American moral history–the long walk of Abraham Lincoln. You know the story. Young Lincoln was working in Mr. Offut’s general store in New Salem, Illinois, when he accidentally overcharged a customer. By the time Lincoln discovered his error, the customer had gone home. Because her home was several miles away and because the overcharge was only a few cents, one would have expected Lincoln to forget about it, or at least to wait until the woman next visited the store. But “Honest Abe” knew he had to refund the money owed the woman, and, without delay, he walked the miles required to return the pennies.
Unlike the case of George and the tree, historical evidence confirms this account of Lincoln and his long walk.8 Why has this story been told again and again in the last two centuries? Because it teaches a vital lesson and it’s also so unusual. Most of us would not go to such great lengths for the sake of a few cents, even if our personal integrity were at stake. We’d go along with conventional wisdom: “There’s no harm done. After all, it’s just a couple of pennies.”
But Abraham Lincoln rejected the societal norm. Honesty was worth the long walk.
Though the story of Abraham Lincoln, the honest shop clerk, is memorable, the less familiar story of Abraham Lincoln, the honest shop owner, is even more impressive. While living in New Salem, Lincoln and a partner bought a general store and attempted to run it as a profitable business. But owing to unwise investments and general mismanagement, the store finally “winked out,” to use Lincoln’s own phrase. Not long thereafter his partner died, leaving the unfortunate Lincoln with what he called the “National Debt.” But unlike many others who went bankrupt in frontier ventures and skipped town to escape their creditors, Lincoln promised to repay every cent he owed. He fulfilled this promise even though it took him more than fifteen years to retire the debt. When Abraham Lincoln made a commitment, his word was good as gold. No matter what those around him were doing, his life and his words were filled with honesty.9
We mustn’t simply stand back and marvel at Lincoln’s integrity. We must step forward and imitate it. God’s Word calls us to rise above the world’s standard–to be different from the usual. A commitment to truthfulness requires that we reject conventional wisdom when that wisdom condones deception, even seemingly harmless deception. It calls us to spurn spin, since spin will always prevent us from speaking with complete honesty. Sometimes it will seem as if we’re walking miles out of our way for a few cents worth of truthfulness, but in the end this effort will pay rich rewards.