Monday, September 14, 2015

The Motive That Matters

Yesterday we looked a little at the difference between rhetoric and lies. Some Christians can’t see that there’s a difference, and that’s okay.

Sure, almost everyone uses rhetoric regularly, so these folks are in for a tough time communicating with others if they eschew it. And I suppose they may struggle to grasp the meaning of the many rhetorical statements found in scripture. Not to mention that they’re going to suffer from epic verbosity, given the necessity of qualifying and contextualizing every statement they make.

Still, if someone wants to hold his speech to a higher standard of accuracy and explicitness, I won’t fight with him. It may be that he’ll manage to successfully communicate with people that you and I could not. And good for him if that’s the case.

So live and let live, I say, at least where the use of rhetoric is concerned.

But for those who do grasp the difference between rhetoric and lies (and if you haven’t read yesterday’s post, you’re probably better to do so first), it became evident during our examination of the use of rhetoric in scripture by the Lord and the apostles that there is more to lying than simply being a bit inaccurate in one’s language.

That is to say, some statements that are not precisely true (even intentionally inaccurate) are not evil at all. They are not only moral, they are very sound advice. I gave three examples yesterday, and the scripture yields many more. And as we will see, some perfectly accurate statements are very evil indeed when they are used in the wrong context or to suggest the wrong thing.

So what is behind the lie?

The Father of Lies

What’s behind the lie, unsurprisingly, is spiritual genetics. That is to say, Satan is the father of lies, and those who make a habit of deception are his spiritual children:
“You are of your father the devil, and your will is to do your father’s desires. He was a murderer from the beginning, and does not stand in the truth, because there is no truth in him. When he lies, he speaks out of his own character, for he is a liar and the father of lies.”
These words of the Lord Jesus are instructive in several ways:

First, lying is not a tool like rhetoric or dialectic that it is possible to pick up and put down at will. Lying is character-based (“when he lies, he speaks out of his own character”). Those who make a habit of lying inadvertently begin the process of modifying their own nature to conform to the nature of Satan.

Second, lying is not independence, it is enslavement (“your will is to do your father’s desires”). The liar who begins by telling a falsehood that he hopes will get him out of a situation only digs himself further in. Instead of being freed by his fabrications to get back to living his life, he becomes the unwitting pawn in someone else’s agenda.

Third, lying and murder are related (“he was a murderer from the beginning”). The liar may begin by simply trying to protect himself from the consequences of his actions, but he ends by dragging others down with him. Satan, who sought to exalt himself, historically has done nothing but drag others down into his own judgment.

Basically, behind the lie is a compulsive, slave-driving killer. When we lie, we prove we are related to him.

Deliberate Intent to Deceive

There is more to lying than simply making a false statement. says a lie is “a false statement made with deliberate intent to deceive; an intentional untruth”.

If we define a lie as any “false statement”, as our Mormon friend from yesterday’s post does, then we all lie constantly. How many times do you misspeak in a day? I’m pretty much off the charts myself. I won’t say such mistakes and errors have no consequences, because they may well produce something quite evil. But such “lies” are told in good faith. They matter, certainly, but they matter far less than an untruth told in service of a particular agenda.

In other words, the phrase “with deliberate intent to deceive” gets to the core of the lie. It is this willingness to do harm to another that really alienates us from God and evokes the comparison to the devil himself.

The Question of “Harm”

Some will say my use of the words “do harm” are an exaggeration in many cases, but they are not. I’m using “harm” in the legal sense, to describe any sort of injury, loss or damage at all. By this standard, all deliberate falsehoods are harmful to some degree.

Let’s take a very simple, comparatively inoffensive prevarication: You and I are friends, and you’re having girlfriend trouble. We have a long conversation in which you ask my advice about your relationship. In the process, reluctant to embarrass yourself, you leave out relevant facts about why your girlfriend is angry with you and reframe some of the conversations you’ve had with her to put your actions in a better light. I put time and thought into giving you a scriptural answer, but my attempt to help is useless to you because the situation you have described to me is so comprehensively misrepresented that my solution misses the point entirely.

Now in one sense, it may be said that you have not “harmed” me. I’ve suffered no financial loss. You didn’t break my leg. You have not burned my house down.

Thanks for that.

But you have done a whole bunch of other things: (i) you have wasted my time, which has some value, however limited it may be; (ii) you have violated my trust; (iii) you have painted yourself in a corner by lying to me in that you now have to maintain those lies as time goes by, which will involve more lying to me; (iv) you have given yourself reason to despise me, because I was stupid enough to believe your lies and am therefore in your mind operating on a lower level” than you are; (v) you have almost invariably succeeding in humiliating me at some future date when it becomes clear that I was a gullible patsy who didn’t see the truth that was right in front of me; and (vi) you have made me an unwitting co-conspirator in your own self-deception and ongoing troubles.

All of that is, of course, insignificant to the chronic liar, since the character of someone who lies regularly, as already established, begins to change in a manner that is very undesirable.

Wherever there are lies there is invariably harm involved to some degree, and I think it is with this in mind that Satan is called a murderer. In one great big sense, when Eve bought into his lies, he murdered the human race. In another less obvious way he continues to do it to us, day in and day out, little by little, as we lie to one another.

Lying With the Truth

The intent to mislead is always the critical component in a lie, as can be seen from the fact that one can lie by telling the truth. This is something a literalist may have great difficulty getting his head around, but it has been the case from the beginning. The more truth there is in a lie, the more effective it is. In scripture there are even numerous examples of statements that were completely true being used to deceive.

The words of the serpent in the Garden of Eden to Eve are all arguably factual in one sense or another:
“You will not surely die. For God knows that when you eat of it your eyes will be opened, and you will be like God, knowing good and evil.”
The serpent spoke truly. Their eyes were opened, and they became like God in the sense that the knowledge of good and evil became part of the human experience. Even “You will not surely die” is technically accurate; Adam at least took centuries to die. There was a legitimate sense in which the statement could be held to be true. By our modern standards, the serpent was under no obligation to explain to Eve all the negative consequences that would follow. After all, it’s not like she asked him.

But his intent was murderous and he lied, lied and lied again.

Lying and Rhetoric

This is where the difference between lying and rhetoric becomes clear. As mentioned, a rhetorical statement MAY be a lie, but it does not have to be. Most rhetoric is innocent, even if it may not be perfectly precise. Rhetoric is a device; it is morally neutral. It is the intent behind it that means everything.

For those incapable of understanding logic or dialectic (which is a very large number), good, moral rhetoric can convey truth more effectively than mere literalism. Moral rhetoric is not designed to deceive but to persuade its audience of the truth. That’s why the Lord used it. That’s why the apostles used it. That’s why we should feel free to employ it today whenever the situation is appropriate.

All good, biblical rhetoric amounts to is speaking to people in language they are capable of understanding. It is not lying.

The new self, created after the likeness of God in true righteousness and holiness, is done with lying. Paul says:
“Having put away falsehood, let each one of you speak the truth with his neighbor, for we are members one of another.”
But “speaking truth” is not about maximizing the technical accuracy of every word that comes out of our mouths. To believe that is to miss the point almost entirely. Speaking truth means to deliver every statement we make, every anecdote we tell, every question we ask, and every thought we share in the spirit of love.

It’s the motive that matters.

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