Not long ago, I was supposed to meet a former student for breakfast. But that week I paid little attention to my calendar and totally forgot the appointment. About 90 minutes after we were supposed to meet, it dawned on me what I had done, and I called the student. He was forgiving, assuming that I must have overslept after a long semester.

I had a split second to decide whether I would allow his assumption to stand. By saying nothing, I could let him think I had just overslept. I could make up another story. Or, I could come clean and tell him I had simply forgotten him.

I sensed an inner tug to lie or, more precisely, to allow him to believe an untruthful account of the event. Some might call it a "little white lie," which means a lie that we rationalize as insignificant. But it would have been deceptive, whatever I called it.

Not that I have never lied, but in this case, I resisted the inclination to deceive. I have been consciously working on telling the truth. I have become convinced recently that learning to live a fully honest life is one of the most difficult moral challenges I face. And yet it is hardly talked about in the churches I know.

Jesus taught us that we should let our yes be yes and our no, no (Matt. 5:37). He prohibited using oaths, because he knew that taking oaths for really important speech threatens to render (or unveil) our everyday speech as less than truthful. He attacked those who had turned the ancient Jewish oath system into a manipulative casuistry that subverted rather than promoted truth. Instead, he said, those who seek to please God should practice truth-telling all the time.

Why We Lie

Paul Griffiths wrote, "Adults who don't lie are more than original: They're almost nonexistent." Why do we ...

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Do Likewise
David P. Gushee serves as Distinguished University Professor of Christian Ethics and Director of the Center for Theology and Public Life at Mercer University, where he also chairs the Mercer Lyceum initiative on rebuilding democracy. His column ran from 2005 to 2007.
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