“You shall not steal; you shall not deal falsely; you shall not lie to one another.” (Leviticus 19:11)
What is a lie? “To say words that do not conform to reality” is not a useful definition, for although we constantly say things that do not conform to reality, we don’t necessarily lie. We may err. Does lying mean deliberately saying words that don’t conform to reality? This is also inadequate, for it’s quite possible to deceive someone without using false words. So we must broaden the definition to include the conscious purpose to deceive. To lie, then, is deliberately attempting to deceive, using words or other means.
There is no more sure method to destroy our own character than to deceive. Any other sin can be recognized and dealt with, but deception leads away from reality, so that ultimately, truth is not even recognized. As a result, repentance and restoration are very difficult to pursue. As an old Chinese pastor said, “I can save anyone but a liar.” Falsehood is a basic fault line in the foundation of the soul, putting the whole superstructure in jeopardy. All the believability a person has, his very integrity, totters on the shifting sand of a single lie. Deceit holds hostage all virtues.
Deceit not only erodes the character but also fails to solve problems. Instead, it complicates them. Deceit fouls all relationships. Once a person has deceived another and is known to have done so, it is difficult ever to restore full confidence. He may try to counterbalance his lies with a greater number of truths, but it doesn’t work that way. No amount of truth can quickly erase the indelible imprint of a lie, for the person who has been deceived may rightly wonder, When will it happen again? Deceit is the ultimate destroyer of good relationships, because good human relationships are built on mutual confidence and trust.
Here are some other ways we can lie. Exaggeration. Are you as tempted to exaggerate as I am? If you are tempted to exaggerate, the occasions or situations when you do so might include to give a lesser or greater assessment of time or distance than is true to get my way, excuse myself, or make a point. Exaggeration is to embellish a report to protect my image, boost my ego, or justify my actions, to add to a story some elements I have imagined or created to make it more fun or acceptable. Or to make a point stronger, to round a number up or down. When telling a story, the details of which are fuzzy in my memory, I find it easy to fill in the blanks with some embellishment.. If we’re caught exaggerating, we may laugh nervously and make light of it. But it’s lying.
Hypocrisy is pretending to be something we are not. Christ condemned the Pharisees for hypocrisy more than anything else, comparing them to “whitewashed tombs, which appear beautiful on the outside, but inside are full of dead men’s bones and every impurity. In the same way, on the outside you seem righteous to people, but inside you are full of hypocrisy and lawlessness” (Matt. 23:27-28). In fact, His name for them, play actors (the meaning of hupocrites in Greek), changed the meaning of Pharisee forever. People called them “the holy ones,” but Jesus exposed them as phonies. By trying to project an admirable but false image, they were not only lying but also misrepresenting what it means to live a holy life.
Jesus taught, “Be careful not to practice your righteousness in front of people, to be seen by them” (Matt. 6:1). However, He also instructed us, “Let your light shine before men, so that they may see your good works and give glory to your Father in heaven” (Matt. 5:16). The difference between letting your light shine and practicing righteousness in front of others would be motive.
It isn’t always easy to find the biblical balance of honesty about our failings while making sure our light shines brightly to spotlight God’s excellencies and inspire hope in those who follow.