Sermon Notes

Ephesians 4:25 February 13, 2000
How Can I Change? Truth-telling

If you were to visit the prestigious Harvard University, you would find in the midst of Harvard Yard a statue and on the pedestal an inscription: "John Harvard, Founder, 1638." This icon is known as the "statue of the three lies." First of all, the artist commissioned to sculpture it could not find a clear picture of John Harvard after which to model his work, so he just chose a picture of a respectable-looking gentleman from the proper era. Second, John Harvard was not the founder of Harvard University. He was simply a substantial contributor to the college in its early days. Third, the date on the statue's base represents not the date of John Harvard's death, as might be supposed, but the year he donated his library and half his fortune to the college. The irony lies in that on the side of the statue is the Harvard emblem emblazoned with the school's motto: Veritas - truth.

Truth has always been a rather rare commodity, traded and exchanged whenever convenient. Its scarcity is all the more evident as we live in that culture which Time magazine has described as "a huckstering, show-bizzy world, jangling with hype, hullabaloo, and hooray, bull, baloney and bamboozlement." An interesting word picture of life in these times, particularly in an election year inundated with political rhetoric. This lack of truth has impacted the attitudes of many. A recent poll shows the vast majority of Americans question the integrity of most professionals, and particularly politicians. The old joke reinforces this: "How can you tell when the politician is lying? His lips are moving." We’ve come to the point where one may even expect people to lie, especially in the business world. The truth may be stretched just to survive. Lies become the norm.

Lies by their very nature are slippery eels which writhe, and slither. They are great contortionists, twisting, altering their shape to fit whatever our needs demand. A lie is a verbal Gaak, that disgusting slime which oozes between your fingers and takes whatever shape it can.

The book The Day American Told the Truth says that 91 percent of those surveyed lie routinely about matters they consider trivial, and 36 percent lie about important matters. Some sociologists say the average person lies about 50 times a day.

Why is it then, that we are often so afraid of the truth? One of the most subtle and dangerous reasons we do not tell the truth to others is because we don't want to disturb the peace. We don't want to have to deal with the conflict that often results from truth telling. Oh, we all agree in theory that honesty is the best policy. That it's the key to authentic relationships. But in those awkward moments when we stand face-to-face with someone, knowing they may not readily receive the truth, truth-telling doesn't sound like such a great idea.

"If I told my boss the truth, he would blow his stack."

"If I told my husband how I really feel about his constant traveling, he would get defensive."

"If I told my parents how frustrated I am in school, they would be too disappointed to understand."

"If I told my wife how frustrated I am with our love life she would accuse me of having a one track mind."

"If I told my teacher the real reason I didn't finish my paper, she would dock my grade."

On and on we go explaining why we can't afford to tell the truth.

In his book The Different Drum, Scott Peck presents an interesting theory about relationships. He says God designed us to yearn for open, honest, authentic relationships - he calls them "Communal Relationships." But because we choose peace-keeping over truth telling, we end up in "Pseudocommunal" relationships instead. The result is marriages, families and friendships that are strictly surface level. No one ever says anything "unsafe." They never discuss misunderstandings or reveal their hurt feelings or air their frustrations or ask those difficult questions. The underlying commitment is "Don't rock the boat. Don't disturb the peace."

And you get peace all right. But it's a counterfeit peace! Misunderstanding arise, but they're never resolved. Feelings beg to be shared, but they're not. Offenses occur, but nobody talks about them. Doubts about the other's integrity creep in, but they're never dealt with. In time such relationships are destined to deteriorate. The secret agendas of hurt and misunderstanding lead to detachment, distrust and finally deep bitterness. Feelings of love begin to die. It's the story of too many marriages, family relationships and friendships. (Lifeline for Living Part X "Tell the Truth!" Ex. 20:16-22. Childers, 1994)

And it is to this difficult area God commands we change, to put off falsehood and speak truth.

"Therefore each of you must put off falsehood and speak truthfully to his neighbor, for we are all members of one body."

What must we change? Take off the falsehood – Put on truth

Last week we looked at change with broad strokes. Paul begins with the general command to change as well as the means by which real change occurs. Now he fills in with specific examples of areas where change is necessary. He gives us the negative, what should be put off, followed by that which should be put on and then concludes with a motive for change to occur. You’ll recall that last week we saw that to put off and put on were not commands, but pointing back to what Christ did for us. The basis of our change is found at the Cross. Paul now draws implications, specific areas where we are to apply the victory of Christ’s atonement for us.

So the command is given: "put off falsehood." The trouble is most people can’t distinguish the truth from fiction. So many are caught in a world of fantasy, having grown accustomed to the illusion that they believe their own lies. The lie rolls off the tongue without a twang of guilt:

"I never got your message"

"I’m not mad at you."

"I'll pray for you"

"The check is in the mail"

"I'll start my diet tomorrow."

"Give me your number and the doctor will call you right back."

"One size fits all."

"I just need five minutes of your time."

People insist it is often necessary to lie for one's own protection. It was Adlai Stevenson who said, "Lying is an abomination to the Lord, and a very present help in time of trouble."

Ephesian and Midwestern values cohere at this point

The ancient ethicists regularly considered lying to be a valuable asset.

"When telling a lie will be profitable, let it be told." (Darius to Herodotus)
"There is nothing respectful in truth but when it is profitable; yea, sometimes truth is hurtful, and lying is profitable to men." (Maximus Tyrius)
"He may lie who knows how to do it in a suitable time." (Plato)

But this problem continues to exist today

After 20 centuries of Christian teaching, you'd think we'd have just about gotten the idea by now. But the counsel to "put away falsehood" is as timely today as it was then. In polite Midwestern culture, the well crafted lie remains the speech of choice, if for no other reason, that we dare not offend, thus giving the appearance of respectability. In fact, in many walks of life, lying is part of the way things work. A study of teenagers revealed that 75 percent admitted to cheating at school. A survey of 6,000 college students at elite schools conducted by Donald McCabe, an associate professor of business ethics at Rutgers University, found that 67% admitted to cheating. Business majors were the worst (87%), while humanities majors were the "best" (only 63%). Another survey found that 91% routinely lie about matters they consider trivial, 86% to parents; 69% to spouses.

Lying is such a widespread social disease that Time magazine did a tongue-in-cheek guide: "How to Tell When a Politician Is Lying." When politicians cite statistics -- don't believe them. The more precise the statistics, the more suspicious one should be. When politicians deny something -- don't believe them. The more precise the denials, the more likely that they are hiding something. And when politicians begin a sentence with "Let me be perfectly frank ..."  - don't believe them. They are telling you they aren't telling the truth ("Lies, Lies, Lies," Time, 9 October 1992). It was Groucho Marx who wisely noted: "There's one way to find out if a man's honest - ask him. If he says 'yes,' you know he's crooked."

No wonder Scott Peck almost makes lying synonymous with evil in his book People of the Lie. Where you find evil, you find lying. This is one reason why "evil people tend to gravitate toward piety," Peck writes, and "one of the places evil people are most likely to be found is within the church" (People of the Lie, 1993, 74). That may be why Paul begins his list of places we need to change, places where the remnants of the old self are to be discarded and the righteousness of Christ is to be put on, with truth and falsehood. This is critical to the remaining list.

It is at this point Scripture remains clear.

Prov 6:16-17, "There are six things which the Lord hates, seven which are an abomination to him: haughty eyes, a lying tongue, and hands that shed innocent blood, a heart that devises wicked plans, feet that make haste to run to evil, a false witness who breathes out lies, and a man who sows discord among brothers."

Prov 12:22, "Lying lips are an abomination to the Lord."

Prov 12:19, "Truthful lips endure for ever, but a lying tongue is but for a moment."

Prov 20:17, "Bread gained by deceit is sweet to a man, but afterward his mouth will be full of gravel."

Prov 21:6, "The getting of treasures by a lying tongue is a fleeting vapor and a snare of death."

Rev 21:7-8, "He who conquers shall have this heritage, and I will be his God and he shall be my son. But as for the cowardly, the faithless, the polluted, as for murderers, fornicators, sorcerers, idolaters, and all liars, their lot shall be in the lake that burns with fire and brimstone, which is the second death." (Cf. 21:27; 22:15)

In the place of the lie, truth must be our constant covering.

When it came to the choice of telling the truth or a lie, Mark Twain quipped: "When in doubt, tell the truth. It will confound your enemies and astound your friends."

But the fact remains, we find it had to function living that way.

A few years back a movie’s premise caught my attention. While the lead actor is often repulsive and the reviews were lousy, the plot was intriguing. I didn’t see it so I won’t recommend it...the movie was Jim Carey’s Liar Liar. The plot centers on an attorney who, because of a birthday wish of his son, could not tell a lie for a whole day. He constantly finds himself forced to speak truthfully in every situation, revealing to the audience how we unconsciously lie throughout the day. At one point Jim Carey pleads with his son to unwish his birthday wish, claiming: "I can't survive in my job if I have to tell the truth!" The assumption is that we know what is true and what is false. Identifying the veracity of any given circumstance is not that difficult.

Yet, the command to put away falsehood and tell the truth is not carte blanche disseminate, that which is valid for hurtful purposes. In verse 15 truth is always modified by love. The new wardrobe of Christ’s righteousness is given by grace and grace and love are to be its hallmarks.

On an oil tanker, a captain and his first mate were often at odds with each other. One day the first mate, who normally did not drink, became intoxicated. The captain, seeing his chance, entered in the daily log: "Mate drunk today." He knew this was his first offense, but he wanted to get him fired. The mate was aware of his evil intent and begged him to change the record. The captain, however, replied, "It's a fact, and into the log it goes!" A few days later the mate was keeping the log, and concluded it with: "Captain sober today." Realizing the implications of this statement, the captain asked that it be removed. In reply the first mate said, "It's a fact, and in the log it stays!"

This simple exchange may be illustrated by the connection between gossip and evangelism.

Gossip is telling how I can be made to look righteous by the good news of another's unrighteousness in the place of my unrighteousness.

Evangelism is telling how I can be declared righteous by the good news of Christ's righteousness in the place of my unrighteousness.

Why must we change?

Our connection with others

Paul’s rationale for change points to our inter-relationship. To lie is to have an effect on the community, on the unity which exists in the church. When truth is replaced by deceit in any relationship, that relationship loses its value.

There is no more thorough way to destroy community than to deceive. Any other sin may be recognized and dealt with, but deception by its nature leads away from reality, so that ultimately truth is not even recognizable. Falsehood is the basic fault line in the foundation of the soul, putting all the superstructure in jeopardy. Deceit holds hostage all other virtues. George Bernard Shaw once commented that the liar's punishment is not that he is not believed, but that he cannot believe anyone else.

The motive to change is based first on the intimate relation in which believers stand to each other.

Paul described the importance of speaking truth in love in verse 15 on the same basis. The means by which we mature in Christ as individuals and as a Church is directly proportional to how we interact with one another. If we are deceiving each other by our words and actions, if we refuse to allow truth to be the foundation of our relationships, maturity, both individual and corporate maturity, will never come about.

Just as it would be unthinkable for the eye to see danger and not inform the foot to run, or the mouth to taste something bitter but swallow it anyway – so also when one part of the body of Christ sees that which will damage the other, truth must be spoken. To allow falsehood to infect another is to injure oneself, too.

Reflection of God’s nature

In Colossians 3:9 Paul commands us not to lie because of the exchange which has taken place. There he points to the mind renewal as the key, a rethinking not of the organic relationship we have with each other, but that we now reflect the image of God. We tell truth because it reflects the character of God

God’s character is so unlike ours that He defines Himself as one who is not like humankind. Numbers 23:19 God declares that He "is not a man that he should lie." Why can God not lie?

To do so would deny His deity. It would be a contradiction in who and what He is. To despise truth is to despise God whose very being and character are truth. God is a God of absolute truth. No shadow of error; no falsification; no deceit or distortion, can ever proceed from God, because He is a God of absolute truth.

God created you in His image.

When you become a Christian God begins the process of changing you into the very image of Jesus Christ. In that process, God means for truth-telling to be one vital way you reflect His image in all your relationships. If you are a Christian, being dishonest is now a violation of your very identity. Lying is a violation of who you now are as someone created in the image of God and now being recreated into the very image of Jesus Christ.

How must we change?

As we saw last week the basis for change is what Christ did on the Cross. Regeneration is the foundation. The death of the old self must be an accomplished fact. The new self must not be an improved me, but the alien righteousness of Christ. That’s the starting point. But growth comes about through the mind renewal as we cease think like those outside of Christ and begin to think in light of the Cross. With that in view, in what ways must our minds be renewed? First we must be honest with ourselves as to why we lie.

We lie to impress people.

We drop names; we refer to people we barely know as "close friends." We lie about numbers and statistics. One denomination is well known in some parts of the country for having more members on the rolls of their churches than the total number of people living in the county.

We lie to please people.

We agree with those strong personality-type people in their presence, and then kick ourselves in private, saying, " I shouldn't have agreed with him and said 'yes', to please that person." One that I hear regularly: "I’ll see you Sunday!"

We lie to please ourselves

The fantasies we create in our own mind may be not involve immorality, but they are still idols soothing us with lies fabricated in our own fertile imagination. When was the last day dream you had where you were proved a fool and you failed miserably? Rather, we lie to ourselves daily as we imagine what life could only be like if we could have our own way.

We lie to get revenge.

Someone hurts us - we trump up a story, or rumor to get back at the one who wronged us.

We lie to escape punishment.

"My speedometer must have malfunctioned, officer." "I didn't see the sign." "Oh, sir, I would have finished this project, but you wouldn't believe what happened."

Sometimes, we just lie for convenience.

Parents lie excusing their children at school. Secretaries lie when they answer phones and say, " He's out," when he's in. We call in sick at work some days, and then we have a miraculous healing, and go out and do shopping. Sometimes we say, "Sure I'll try to be there!" when all the while you know you won't be. (I mustn’t lie...this list, as well as other sections, were taken from Lifeline for Living Part X (A New Look at the 10 Commandments) "Tell the Truth!" Ex. 20:16-22. Childers, 1994)

Behind these hide the ultimate lie, the great lie which began this whole mess of lies...

Is God really good? Does He really care, watching out for me? No, I must insure my own survival!

A lie is nothing more than a covering of my own righteousness, a fig leaf, masking my own nakedness. I am afraid of the truth for truth will only reveal my inability, my loneliness, my helplessness. It is not being good that matters; it is looking good that counts. In the end, I am more afraid of others than I am of God.

So my thinking needs renewal. I must see the lie for what it is. But I also must see what my only hope, my only perfect covering can ever be. As I come face to face with this law demanding perfection where I have sin, I see my inability, but then I must quickly see the perfect righteousness of another.

When we see that at our core we are not truthful people, but that God demands truthfulness in us, we can try running to the Law to clean up our lives - but that would be only perpetuating the lie that we can make ourselves better by trying harder.

Rather, the truthful response is to accept the truth of our inability, to no longer deceive ourselves about our supposed goodness - and trust the truthful one, the One who said of Himself, "I am the way, the truth, and the life - NO ONE comes to the Father, but by me." Our freedom comes only by being in Christ who is the truth, and Christ, the truth, will set us free. In Christ, our deceits, errors, hypocrisy, lies, gossip, and slander are not charged against us because "God made him who had no sin to be sin for us, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God" (2 Cor 5:21).

Our final hymn is taken from Psalm 15 where the question is asked of each of us: "Who may dwell in your sanctuary? Who may live on your holy hill?" The answer comes not in believing the lie of self improvement, but in the truth of Christ’s righteousness.

Sermon Notes