by Matthew Raley
The first moral precept I can remember learning is, “Do not lie.”
The form it took was more specific: “Never lie to Dad.” And its logic was compelling. If Dad finds out you lied to anybody else, the effect is the same as lying to Dad. Ergo, just don’t.
From Deuteronomy 31-32, we have seen that there are four sinful patterns involved in rebellion, the disregard or overthrow of authority. The first is idolatry, inventing a god that is pliable. Idolatry makes war on reality by insisting that everything conform to our subjective demands, even God.
The second pattern of sin in rebellion, according to Deuteronomy, is deceit.
The Lord tells Moses that Israel will “break my covenant that I have made with them,” a phrase he repeats four verses later (31:16, 20). Israel’s oath-breaking is the specific reason God commands Moses to place the Book of the Law beside the ark “for a witness” (31:26). Every transaction with a lying people must be verified.
In his song in chapter 32, Moses declares that the people are “a crooked and twisted generation,” calling them “children in whom there is no faithfulness” (32:5, 20). He pointedly refers to the nation as “Jacob” (32:9), the grasping, usurping, deceitful patriarch whom the Lord blessed only through prolonged wrestling.
Lying was typical of the nation’s behavior under Moses.
There was deceit in the people’s fantasies about their life as slaves in Egypt (e.g. Exodus 16:3), where they imagined that they once “sat by the meat pots and ate bread to the full.” The making of the golden calf was not only idolatry, but was the breaking of a promise made by the people in Exodus 19:8. “All that the Lord has spoken we will do.” Deceit would also characterize future generations. In Joshua 24:19-22, the people explicitly confirmed the Lord’s covenant, only to break it throughout their history.
The perverse logic of rebellion is at work.
No rebel can acknowledge a duty to tell the truth or keep promises without undercutting his war against authority. The ultimate truth is the rebel’s own will. Anything binding his will must be cut, and accuracy becomes just one more shackle. The first casualty in the rebel’s war for control is the truth.
Our culture is uniquely decadent in world history, apparently committed to a principle that words do not matter. I see this at a number of levels.
We seem to have a legalistic view of oaths now, as if the precision of words allows one to escape telling the truth. “It depends on what is is.” The more common view of oaths in human cultures down through the ages has been that words leaving lips are absolutely binding on the soul. Certainly every age has seen its share of infidelity, but few have indulged the nihilism of writing infidelity off as normal.
Furthermore, because words were seen as bonds, human cultures have consistently treated vows as a matter of prescription, not invention. For instance, few people even fifty years ago contemplated that a couple should write their own wedding vows “so the ceremony will be more meaningful.” There was a simple reason: if someone could write their own vows, then they could make marriage whatever they wanted it to be.
I see our decadence in seemingly smaller issues, such as usage. In our society, flippancy in using words can be found in people speaking of “humans,” not “human beings,” as if referring to a mere species, and in such published howlers as when the AP referred to Leviticus as a “chapter” in the Bible. Americans now operate at a deep level of illiteracy, and they do so because words do not matter to them.
Loose speech is an overlooked contributor to the mainstreaming of deceit. We now live in a society where a Standard & Poor’s triple-A rating is near meaningless, where promises are merely strategic, and where leadership and sales are interchangeable terms.
So parents face monumental challenges in teaching a child to speak and act truly. But they should also understand the power of this training. When a child forms a resolution to tell the truth and to keep promises, he or she gains habits of discernment, self-control, and healthy submission that undermine the allure of rebellion.
In other words, when Dad and Mom confronted deceit in me, I believe they were installing in my heart-and-mind another powerful software for syncing with reality.