When I finally listen to the two messages—left on my phone yesterday from a number I don’t recognize—I realize I’ve blown it. It’s our new homeschool co-op director, she’s trying to get in touch with one of the other co-op moms, and it’s rather urgent.
I do this often, this waiting hours and even, as in this case, days, to check voice mail or email or text messages. Why have a smart phone if you’re just going to be an idiot about it? But I do, and I am.
I call her back right away, apologize for not calling her sooner. And then I tell her my toddler twins had hidden my phone. Even as the words are coming out of my mouth, I know I’m lying, but instead of shutting up, I keep talking, keep throwing my twins under the bus of my own irresponsibility.
I’ve done this sort of thing all my life. My biggest fear growing up was getting in trouble, followed closely by being disliked. I think I was born with the ability to read the approval or disapproval of others and modify my behavior accordingly. It’s just a small step from this kind of self-monitoring to implying an untruth, white lies, misleading statements, and outright falsehoods.
It’s been many years since I became aware of how frequently and how easily I lie. It’s like breathing: I do it without thinking about it. And also like breathing, it seems crucial to living. I cannot bear to have people alive in the world thinking ill of me.
But it’s been one of my (many) growing edges to learn to tell the truth. I’ve gotten better about speaking true words in these years since I realized my tendency to shade or even falsify the truth. The distance between the lie and my realization of the lie has shrunk considerably, from never to a day to an hour to, as today, in the act of lying.
But I’ve already lied, and to stop and apologize would mean to admit to this woman I don’t even know that I, well, that I’m lying. So I keep talking, keep digging this little pit of a lie deeper.
When I hang up the phone, I remember some words of Dallas Willard that I read back in May, words that struck me as God’s word to me in that moment:
In the hurly-burly of life I may not be able to speak the truth always. But, as a discipline, I can perhaps make myself return to those to whom I have lied and tell them I misled or deceived them. This, in turn, will marvelously enhance my ability to speak the truth on other occasions. (The Spirit of the Disciplines)
And I remember my promise to myself and to God that I would embrace this particular discipline, this humbling of myself when I lie. I want to speak plainly, to tell all the truth, to be trustworthy. I want to be the person in Psalm 24 who shall ascend the hill of the Lord.
But lying is a habit with me, and so I must have some sort of discipline to counteract that habit, something painful enough that it will make the habit unpalatable. Willard’s suggested discipline is just that something.
This thing works, let me tell you: since embracing it, I’ve only had to tell four people that I lied to them—five, if you count the confession I have yet to make to my co-op director.
If you’re wondering right now why I’m making a big deal over this, you’re not the first person to do so. After all, the reasoning seems to go, the tenth commandment isn’t do not lie; it’s do not bear false witness against your neighbor. Do my twins count as my neighbor? Because I sure bore false witness against them.
Another tack to excuse this kind of “little” lie is to say it’s not hurting my director, so no harm done. Maybe no harm to her, but it’s harming me. Every time I lie, it makes it that much easier to lie again. And yes, this seemingly harmless lie about my phone is still a lie. It’s still a way I’m twisting truth to make myself look better. It’s the opposite of humility, which is transparency, a truthfulness about who I am and what I’ve done (or not done).
Lies destroy trust, they break love, and they devastate community. They separate us from one another, from God, and even from our true selves. This is why the Levitical law commands baldly, “You shall not lie to one another” (Lev 19:11), why St. Paul writes that we are to “put away falsehood” and “speak the truth to [our] neighbors” (Eph 4:25). We are members of one another, Paul continues, and the body of Christ, the church, can only build itself up in love when each part is working properly, is speaking the truth in love, is rooted and grounded in Christ who is, after all, the Truth.
And so, that night, when I go to the co-op, I pull the director aside and confess that I lied to her on the phone. I tell her what really happened—that I didn’t recognize her number and so didn’t check my messages—and I apologize. She doesn’t brush it off as no big deal, for which I am grateful. Instead, she grins at me and gives me a hug and tells me I don’t ever need to worry about her thinking badly of me, even if I never return her phone calls.
The irony of this response is not lost on me. Telling her the truth, even after lying, actually built her trust in me. She now knows that she can trust me to speak the truth, if not in the moment, at least after the fact. It’s not exactly who I want to be, but it’s a step in the right direction.
If you struggle with shading the truth or using your words to manipulate others’ opinion of you, may I humbly invite you to join me in my quest to become a person who speaks the truth? Why not embrace Dallas Willard’s suggested discipline and see how far it takes you in truth-telling?
Photo by Chris Campbell, Creative Commons via Flickr.