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Tuesday, November 22, 2016

Omission (Im)Possible

It’s Star Trek time again.

Relax, I’m into the third season of the original series; my fascination with this particular retro-pop culture diversion will wane shortly. In the meantime, I found this exchange instructive:

Claudius Marcus: I believe you all swear you’d die before you’d violate that directive. Am I right?

Spock: Quite correct.*

Dr. McCoy: Must you always be so blasted honest?

Ah, honesty. It’s one of the Ten Commandments. Sort of.

Lies, Lies, Lies, Yeah

We can probably agree, at bare minimum, that “You shall not bear false witness against your neighbor” prohibits falsehood in the service of gain, spite, etc. And we can agree as well that lying is bad in principle both because God’s holy nature precludes it and because Satan is a liar and the father of lies. “You belong to your father, the devil” is not a compliment. And of course Christians are to be characterized by their honesty with one another.

So, no question, lying is a thing to be avoided.

And Yet, and Yet …

Still, rigid honesty has turned out historically to be a rather nasty, unforgiving thing. I’m with Dr. McCoy: honesty gets people in trouble. A policy of full disclosure can lead to things like, oh … imprisonment, or even death. “Do you have any Jews hiding in your attic, Miss ten Boom?”

And … er … honestly … you have to wonder if it’s really worth it. More importantly, if God thinks it’s really worth it.

For the Christian, the question is almost always, “Exactly how honest do I need to be? What exactly constitutes a lie anyway?” And especially, “Are there situations in which what might normally be considered dishonest speech is acceptable or even pleasing to God?”

The Omission Consideration

I think most of us would consider a blatant falsehood a lie, notwithstanding its motivation. But omission is a little more nebulous. Infogalactic says, “An omission is when a person tells most of the truth, but leaves out a few key facts that therefore completely change the story.”

Is an omission always a lie? Mull that one over.

It’s tempting to say that we’d let omissions slide, and maybe exclude them from the category of outright lying. After all, no wrong information has been passed on; no false facts have been uttered. If the person on the receiving end jumps to an incorrect conclusion, that’s his affair, right?

The “Do Unto Others” Test

But an omission often fails the “Do unto others” test. Consider this scenario: You come home late and have the following exchange with your wife:

Her: How was the restaurant, Hon?

You: Great. We ordered the mushroom risotto again.

Her: “We” being …

You: Me and Bob.

Her: Did you have the crème brûlée?

You: You know Bob’s wife has him on a diet.

Hmm. Truthful account?

The Rest of the Story

Everything you have said to your wife is technically accurate … to a fault. Bob is even really on a diet. (In the real world, only your wife would remember that.)

But what you have failed to disclose is that sitting beside you in the booth, so close you appeared joined at the hip, was your old flame from high school, Bob’s recently-divorced sister Barb — who, as it happens, didn’t have the mushroom risotto because she was working on a Caesar salad; that is, when she wasn’t stealing affectionate glances at you. Further, you have failed to disclose that the real reason you skipped the crème brûlée was because you wanted to slip back to the privacy of Barb’s apartment to get reacquainted.

Should your technical accuracy in your report of the evening give your wife any satisfaction when she finds out how you really spent it? What would she say about whether an omission constitutes a lie?

A Biblical Omission Scenario

Now consider a second scenario involving an omission, this one from 1 Samuel:
“The Lord said to Samuel, ‘How long will you grieve over Saul, since I have rejected him from being king over Israel? Fill your horn with oil, and go. I will send you to Jesse the Bethlehemite, for I have provided for myself a king among his sons.’ And Samuel said, ‘How can I go? If Saul hears it, he will kill me.’ And the Lord said, ‘Take a heifer with you and say, “I have come to sacrifice to the Lord.” And invite Jesse to the sacrifice, and I will show you what you shall do. And you shall anoint for me him whom I declare to you.’ Samuel did what the Lord commanded.”
Here again it could be argued that Samuel has engaged in technical honesty: he is indeed coming to Bethlehem to offer a sacrifice to the Lord, no question about that. But nobody could argue that the sacrifice is his primary purpose in going. It isn’t. He is there in obedience to God to anoint the next king, hence his rather blatant omission when the elders of Bethlehem, correctly discerning his purpose, come to him trembling in fear of Saul.

But this particular omission is not only condoned but actually suggested by God, who cannot lie.

Making Rules

How annoying! It would seem no simple rule like “omissions are lies” will work for us.

Human beings like making rules. Rules have a tendency to multiply, despite the fact that as Christians, we know legalism is a bad thing; a way of thinking that quickly leads to doing the least we can get away with rather than asking, “What would please God in this situation?” But rules make things simpler, eliminate the inconvenience of having to be discerning, and lead to all kinds of violations on the part of our neighbours that enable us to feel better about ourselves. So rules proliferate.

I suspect more than a few Christians have in their minds a definition of lying that goes beyond anything scripture teaches. Which is understandable, really: Bible teachers and parents don’t want to be accountable for setting standards that are too low, or worse, so incomprehensible that nobody can follow them. So we make the rules neat and as short as possible. But sometimes we make them so simple that they no longer accurately reflect the truth of God.

Where’s the Violation?

In the first scenario, I think most of us would agree that your omission to your wife is wrong because she is one flesh with you, united by God. You have taken a vow to keep yourself only to her as long as you both shall live. Thus you OWE it to her to be truthful, even if the truth is painful to tell and more painful to hear. (You also owe it to her to be faithful, but that’s a separate issue.) Full disclosure is an ongoing obligation here because your relationship demands it.

In the second scenario, Samuel has no such obligation to Saul, though Saul might feel that he does. Samuel is a prophet, acting on instructions from God himself, who has already made it clear to Saul that he is taking the kingdom away from him and his family and giving it to another. Under these circumstances, it is not Saul’s concern if Samuel is anointing David (though, again, Saul would almost surely disagree), and one could argue that Samuel’s deliberate omission of his real purpose in going to Bethlehem actually works to keep Saul from bringing God’s judgment on himself for murdering Samuel and serves to at least temporarily protect the innocent elders in Bethlehem from Saul’s wrath.

In each case, it is the motive behind the omission that determines whether it is good or evil, not the act itself.

Rules and Principles

Now, that’s not quite as straightforward as making a rule. Applying a principle deduced from God’s word requires a little more careful consideration than a simple “do” or “don’t” command.

It also requires we be honest with ourselves before God about our motives. Human beings — even Christians — are rationalizing creatures, often failing to understand what drives us and frequently ascribing to ourselves purposes and intentions that are more noble and dignified than the reality. On your way home from your old flame’s apartment, you could easily rationalize a highly-edited version of the evening’s events in order to “protect” your wife’s tender feelings. This is why the issue of possible harm is quite irrelevant to the question of whether full disclosure is the right thing to do.

The real question is not “Will this news hurt her?” but “Do I owe it to her to tell her the truth?”


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* For those who’ve seen the relevant Star Trek episode, applying this principle, I’m with Dr. McCoy: Spock is annoyingly forthcoming in a situation in which he not only owes nothing to Claudius Marcus, but owes it to the rest of his landing party to keep his trap shut.

Just one man’s opinion.

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