Have you ever told a lie? We often deceive others with our words – both with the words we speak and the words we omit. We can even deceive others with the tone of our voice and the gestures that we make. We tell ourselves we don’t do it on purpose, but when getting what we want is threatened, lying is often the most convenient option.
However, Jesus says those who live in the Kingdom of God are truth-tellers. They don’t manipulate people for their own benefit. We need to confess our lies to those we have deceived and begin living a life that is trustworthy. We need to make a commitment to tell the truth, even when it is costly, for it is essential to building authentic community and relationships.
Today we’re going to learn what Jesus teaches about telling the truth… and about human deception from the sermon on the mount.
This is Matthew 5:33-37:
Again, you have heard that it was said to the people long ago, ‘Do not break your oath, but fulfill to the Lord the vows you have made.’ But I tell you, do not swear an oath at all: either by heaven, for it is God’s throne; or by the earth, for it is his footstool; or by Jerusalem, for it is the city of the Great King. And do not swear by your head, for you cannot make even one hair white or black. All you need to say is simply ‘Yes’ or ‘No’; anything beyond this comes from the evil one.
Alright, now, what’s Jesus teaching here?
Let me start with the way things work with kids.
If a child doubts what you’re saying is true, the child will generally ask you one question because, to kids, the idea that you might violate this question is just unthinkable.
A child will ask you, “Do you promise?”
A child can’t conceive of an adult violating a promise. You might tease them for a while, but if they say, “Do you promise?” and you say, “I promise,” it has to be truth.
So if a child wants to convince you that he’s telling the truth, then the way he will do that is to say: “I promise.”
And if he really wants to convince you, if you’re reluctant to believe him, he’ll say: “I promise. I promise. I promise. I promise. I really promise.”
And if that’s not enough, there are other darker elements that they will attach to their promise:
“I promise — cross my heart!”
“I promise — cross my heart, hope to die!” That’s pretty serious.
And if that doesn’t do it? “I promise — cross my heart, hope to die, stick a needle in my eye!” Which is kind of gross.
Now, when we grow up, the same thing still goes on.
You go into a courtroom and before you can testify you place your hand, traditionally, on the Bible, and you raise your other hand, and you say, “I promise to tell the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth, so help me God.”
You swear an oath.
Now, why is it necessary — kids and adults — why is it necessary for people to swear oaths?
It’s because people lie. Right?
Dietrich Bonhoeffer in his teaching on the Sermon on the Mount said oaths give evidence to lying.
Little kids lie. Big kids lie. Adults lie. We all lie.
The most famous study on lying in our day found that the majority of adults lie two to three times in just a 10-minute conversation.
Lying is found in every culture in the world.
We lie about our motives.
We lie about why we’re really late.
We lie about what we really said.
We cheat on our taxes, our expense accounts, and our résumés.
We lie to our spouses.
We lie to our children.
We lie to our bosses.
We lie to get stuff.
We lie to sell stuff.
We lie to impress people.
We lie to get out of trouble.
We lie in the games we play — “What did you get on that hole?” “Put me down for a five.”
That’s interesting language, isn’t it? “Put me down for a five. I really got a six, but that number makes me feel bad. I’d feel great about a four, but that’s too big of a lie. Then I’d have to admit I was a big, fat liar. Five feels like a good lie: not too big, not too small, it’s just right.”
This is the human condition. We want to speak the truth, but we’re prepared to lie if we think it’s necessary.
One researcher said the number one finding in surveying people about lying is people lie about how much they lie.
One of the things I’ve been thinking about is how many opportunities there are in a day to lie — every phone call, every conversation, every interaction. We have dozens and dozens of opportunities to lie.
Studies show that we either lie or hear someone lie to us over 300 times per day.
Actually it was 200, I just wanted to show you how easy it is to lie.
Now, this is the backdrop against which Jesus is teaching — people who want to speak the truth, but are prepared to lie.
Again, you have heard that it was said to the people long ago, ‘Do not break your oath, but fulfill to the Lord the vows you have made.’
In other words, there was a kind of a teaching back then that if you say, “I promise, so help me God” you have to honor that promise.
But there were loopholes. People would say if you swear by heaven or earth or Jerusalem or by your head, then that’s a non-binding oath.
That’s the kind of thing that actually went on.
So Jesus just goes through a list of these things that people would use to try to serve as loopholes to get them out of having to tell the truth, and he says, “It’s absurd.” He says, “Don’t do this sort of thing.”
Jesus gives another picture of this in Matthew 23.
Here Jesus is teaching on the same subject of truth-telling against the same backdrop.
Woe to you, blind guides! You say, ‘If anyone swears by the temple, it means nothing; but anyone who swears by the gold of the temple is bound by that oath.’ You blind fools! Which is greater: the gold, or the temple that makes the gold sacred?
You also say, ‘If anyone swears by the altar, it means nothing; but anyone who swears by the gift on the altar is bound by that oath.’ You blind men! Which is greater: the gift, or the altar that makes the gift sacred?
Therefore, anyone who swears by the altar swears by it and by everything on it. And anyone who swears by the temple swears by it and by the one who dwells in it. And anyone who swears by heaven swears by God’s throne and by the one who sits on it.
In other words, Jesus is saying, just stop playing games.
Okay, back to Matthew 5, verse 37.
Here Jesus, in a very direct way, says what he’s after. Verse 37:
All you need to say is simply ‘Yes’ or ‘No’; anything beyond this comes from the evil one.
The reason we need oaths is that people are deceptive. They twist words or they omit things or they manipulate or they massage or they shade.
Jesus says, “I want you to become another kind of person. I want you to become the kind of person who says, ‘Here’s the way it is. This is what happened. This is what I plan to do.’”
You simply speak the truth.
You give up trying to shade it and massage it and manipulate it. You just speak the truth, and then you let go of it.
Jesus is saying — now here’s your chance to live in truth.
Jesus is addressing the world in which you and I live — every day… every time we open our mouths. He’s addressing the deceptiveness of the human heart.
And the difficulty he’s up against is that people try to turn his teaching into rules… and the reason this is so important is as soon as they do that, they neglect the state of their heart and they begin to try to find loopholes.
We do this with truth. We play little games with it so that we can say to ourselves, “Well, you know, technically, I wasn’t really lying.”
I heard a story about a pastor who who named his office bathroom “Arizona” so that when he got a phone call he didn’t want to take, he could just go into his bathroom, and his assistant could tell the person on the end of the line, “Sorry, he’s in Arizona. Can I take a message?”
Now, you laugh at that, but the truth is, we play those kinds of games. Technically, it’s not a lie.
So, let’s cut through all that stuff.
Jesus is after the heart of lying here, which is the intention to deceive.
One of the classic verses in the Old Testament from the Prophet Jeremiah is Jeremiah 17:9.
The heart is deceitful above all things and beyond cure. Who can understand it?
The heart is deceitful.
Now, that’s not the whole truth about the heart. The heart is also capable of tenderness and warmth and many other wonderful things.
But it is truth about the human heart: We’re deceitful, and it’s a heart problem.
We can deceive through the words that we speak, but we can also deceive through the words that we omit.
We can deceive through the tone of our voice
or through gestures
or through expressions on our faces
or through a shrug of the shoulders
It’s the heart that is deceitful.
What Jesus is after now is something that you can’t skirt around by identifying loopholes. He’s talking about this pervasive tendency that we have to deceive people.
Jesus is also up against the way we use words to try to control people. That’s part of why he talks about this business of oaths.
Our words get used largely to manipulate people.
If you pay attention tomorrow, as you go through your day, to people and to media and so on, you’ll discover words are used in a constant attempt to finesse you, persuade you, flatter you, hype you, soundbite you, manipulate you.
Those of you in this room who are highly verbally skilled, you’re going to have to work hard at noticing this because the truth is you’ll shade stuff and twist stuff and put a spin on stuff. You do it so well you’re not even aware of it. It just becomes a way of life.
The basic function of words in our world is: “How can I make sure I get my own way?” So we use words to make sure that we get our own way.
Jesus says, “Stop using words like that. Stop using words to control people so that you get your own way. Just simply say it, and let go of it.”
Of course, that creates great anxiety, because then our question is, “Well, how do I get my own way, then?”
Well, that’s the question, see, because that’s not my job — to get my own way.
This brings us right to the issue of trust now. Do I really trust in God, in the Kingdom of God? Do I trust it enough to speak the truth and let it go?
See, now you really start to come up against what trust is about.
If we’re going to live in the Kingdom of God, we need to make a deep decision.
So what I want to do is talk about the need for you and me to come to grips with the decision to say, “I’m going to put lying away. I’m not going to deceive people.”
I think this is very important.
I’ll put this in the form of a question — If you just float along in life, if you operate on the general level of truth-telling that our society embraces, do you think you will gradually float into becoming a radically truth-telling person?
Our society is very ambivalent about the truth.
The most famous story about truth-telling in American history is, of course, the story of George Washington and the cherry tree.
George Washington’s father comes home and the cherry tree that he loves has been chopped down, and he says, “Who chopped down this tree? George, did you do it?” And little George, standing there with his hatchet, says, “I cannot tell a lie.”
Now, some of you are aware that that story was written by a guy named Parson Weaves in the early 19th century in his biography ‘The Life of George Washington,’ and it never actually happened.
It’s a great irony about American history… that our most famous story of truth-telling is, in fact, a lie.
That was a couple hundred years ago. Would you say that, in general, the regard for truth-telling and integrity has gone up over the last couple hundred years?
I mean, think over the past several decades.
Some of you can remember The Watergate scandal:
In the early 1970s, Ronald Ziegler, who was the press secretary was in front of the press one day, and he had been caught in a bold-faced lie.
So the next day, when he got up, what he said was, “The statement that I made yesterday is now ‘inoperative.’”
Which is a wonderful thing if you can get away with it.
“Honey, I know I said I’d be home by six o’clock, but that statement is now inoperative.”
“I know I said we’d make these mortgage payments on time, but that statement is now inoperative.”
So the issue is no longer truth or lies. It’s just credibility. Can I get people to believe it so they’ll do what I want them to do? If I can, great. If I can’t, well, then I’ll try another statement.
We live in a society where regard for the truth is not such that you’re just going to float into being a radically truth-telling person.
In addition to that, some of you grew up in homes where truth-telling got trashed.
Some of you grew up in homes where, on a regular basis, you heard your father or your mother pick up a telephone and say, “I can’t come into work today. I’m sick” when, in fact, they were not sick.
Some of you grew up in homes where you’ve heard family members get out of a social engagement with a lie.
Some of you grew up in homes where, to avoid conflict, your parents or someone else in your family would absolutely deny having said something or done something that you saw them do or heard them say.
You just breathed that in, and that became a kind of baseline for you, standard operating procedure around your house.
Or you ran with a group of peers that, on a regular basis, lied to their parents about
where they’d been
or what they’d done
or to their teachers about their homework
or cheated on tests
You just grew up with it. You just assimilated it by osmosis.
So Jesus comes to human beings who have these deceitful hearts and says, “There is another way.”
And then he lived it.
This is one of the most beautiful verses about Jesus in all of the Bible from John 1:14.
The Word became flesh and made his dwelling among us. We have seen his glory, the glory of the one and only Son, who came from the Father, full of grace and truth.
John, who knew Jesus, says that truth was so essential to who he is, it was such a deeply woven part of his identity that it’s not just that he spoke truth or that he refrained from lying. He was full of it.
You know, we say about people sometimes, “You’re just full of it.” But rarely do we mean, “Truth is what it is you’re full of.”
Jesus was just full of it, John says. And the “it” was “truth.”
So that when he got squeezed — kind of like toothpaste — whatever’s inside is what comes out. When Jesus got squeezed, when he was under pressure, what came out of him was truth. He was just full of it.
So here’s the decision today. The decision is I’m not going to lie anymore.
I’m asking you today if you will follow Jesus in a commitment to truth-telling… and you will say, “I’m not going to lie anymore.”
It may very well be helpful for you to say those words out loud.
I won’t ask you to do it here because I don’t want to pressure you into it; but if you’re willing to say it, go to the people in your family and say to them, “I’m not going to lie.”
Go to the people in your small group, and say to them, “I’m done with lying.”
That’s a radical thing.
Most of us, I think, think this way about lying: Lying is a bad thing. You shouldn’t do it. God doesn’t like it. But man, it’s a nice option to have if you’re backed up against a wall and you really need it.
Now, we don’t acknowledge that, but our behavior shows that that’s the way our minds are working because, when we’re really shoved up against the wall and a lie is the only thing to get us out of there…
Old story about a Sunday school kid who got his Bible verses mixed up. They came out like this: “A lie is an abomination unto the Lord and a very present help in time of need.”
And if you were to get an honest reading of our theology of deceit, that’s not a bad summation of it — based on the way we live.
Are you willing to make the decision — “I’m not going to lie anymore.”
Now, understand, there will be times that you fail and you stumble… but every time that happens, you get another chance. You get another chance. You can say it again, “I’m not going to lie anymore.”
Because what’s the alternative?
“I’m going to keep lying. I’ll never change in this area of my life.”
That would be sad.
Now, understand the cost if you make this commitment.
One of the costs is you’ll endure significantly more pain.
The number one reason people lie is to avoid pain.
We learn this very early in life.
If you’ve lied a lot, if that’s been standard operating procedure for you, you’ve been escaping a lot of pain with it.
What that means is you’re going to endure a lot more pain when you switch over to truth-telling.
This means no more casual promises. One thing that happens all the time in our world is people say: “Will you do something for me?”
“Yeah, sure,” when we have no intention of doing it.
Jesus here is talking about vows or about oaths, people saying, “I’m going to do something” because they want other people to think they’re nice or think they’re friendly or think they’re spiritual. But then they look for loopholes to get out of doing it.
Jesus is saying, “Don’t do that anymore. Don’t say to people, ‘Yes, I’ll do something,’ if you’re not going to do it.”
Then you have to ask, “Why is it that I do that? Why do I deceive people? What is it about earning their approval or getting them to like me that’s so powerful that I’m willing to sacrifice my integrity for it?”
Okay. Pop quiz time.
Here we go. Pop quiz today: Try to apply Jesus’ teaching in our actual, ordinary, everyday world.
Someone is going to ask you to do them a favor.
Okay, let’s walk through this. You’re trying to think now about how you apply Jesus’ teaching in your everyday life.
Number 1 — Lie your head off; you’re living under grace. Christians aren’t perfect, just forgiven. Right?
Number 2 — Give them an answer that’s vague enough that they think you’re going to do it, but you can still back out without feeling guilty. Kind of an ingenious approach to it.
Number 3 — Tell them you have no intention to do what they want, you resent them for asking, and they have a bad breath. Just dump massive truth on them, the whole truckload of it, you know — truth that they’re not even asking for. “You want truth? I will give you truth.”
Now, you have to stop and ask, “Is that what Jesus is after?”
Or option number 4 — Pause. Reflect on your natural impulse. In other words, what would you be likely to do? You’ll need to reflect on that.
And then give them a fearless — in other words, you don’t respond out of fear of what they’ll think of you
Tactful — in other words, you don’t use words to hurt people
It will take discernment and so on — but you give a fearless, tactful response.
Or number 5 — Say “yes” while shaking your head “no.” This will confuse them and give you a clear path.
Now, you can decide.
It would be a wonderful thing if we would just agree to say, “I’m not going to give my word casually. I’m not going to say to someone in my small group or someone at work, ‘I’ll be there; you can count on me’ without honoring my word.”
Now, the Bible has some difficult things to say to people who do not speak truth.
One of them is in Psalm 101:7. God says:
No one who practices deceit will dwell in my house.
And of course it must be this way — not because God’s not going to let him in, but because in God’s house truth reigns. It just reigns.
In God’s house that’s all people know how to speak, and anyone who is not full of truth would be miserable there. It’s the last place in the world they’d want to be.
If you don’t want to live in truth, you don’t want to live in communion with God.
See, when you deceive, when you lie, something happens to you. It corrodes your spirit; and each time you lie it gets a little easier to lie the next time, and it bothers you a little less.
It is an addictive thing, and your psychological barriers go down.
It becomes easier and easier and easier… and something that a year ago would have kept you up at night because you lied, now doesn’t even register a blip on your moral radar screen. You come to depend on it. It comes to be standard operating procedure… and it demeans the other people in your life — every time you deceive someone.
See, God’s dream is community. And community is built on trust.
Relationships are built — authentic relationships — are built on this delicate fabric of trust… and every time you deceive someone, you unravel one thread in that fabric.
You create a world in which trust is a little harder, and when you do that, God’s dream of community dies a little bit… and so does God.
So Jesus says, “This is not about following rules or demonstrating what a righteous person I’m going to be now. This is about God’s dream of community and the kind of people who make community possible.”
I want to say one other thing about truth-telling, and that has to do with telling hard truth because a commitment to truth-telling not only means, “I’m going to put away lying.”
It also means, “In situations that are difficult, I am going to be courageous to speak hard truth.”
Jesus does this all the time.
The classic statement about truth-telling is from Paul in his letter to the Church at Ephesus. He says:
Instead, speaking the truth in love, we will grow to become in every respect the mature body of him who is the head, that is, Christ.
“Speaking the truth in love.”
And Jesus is the master of this.
One day a rich, young ruler comes to Jesus, and his life is on the wrong track. He says, “What do I need to do?” This is a moment of truth. Jesus needs to tell him a hard truth.
Jesus could have said, “You know what, you’re doing fine. I don’t want to offend you, so just keep going the way that you’re going.”
But he doesn’t do that.
He says one thing: “You must sell everything you’ve got, and then come and follow me.”
He tells him the hard truth. But in that same verse it says, “Jesus looked at him and loved him.”
He loved him enough to tell him the hard truth.
I was talking to a couple recently who were struggling with keeping their house. They were on the verge of losing their house.
Now, there was a long run leading up to this. They had made a series of bad decisions, and there had been a series of misbehavior — behavior clearly not pleasing to God — that had placed them in this situation.
But now their expectation was that God was going to bail them out, and one of them said, “You know, if God doesn’t come through with money for us so that we can make this payment…”
And you know what, if they didn’t make it, if they lost their house, they were not going to starve. They were going to be fine; they just might not be able to have as nice a house as they had.
The statement was, “If God does not come through for us this time, it’s really going to shake my faith in God.”
In my spirit I thought, “You know, you’re in this situation because of things that you have done and now you’re saying if God doesn’t bail you out from the mistakes that you have made, that’s going to shake your faith. There are children starving to death in the developing world who need the help that you in your affluence can give them, and their starvation does not shake your faith. But the fact that you might not be able to stay in such a nice house, that shakes your faith.”
Now, that’s what I was thinking inside, but I didn’t say that. I didn’t say much of anything, and I’ll tell you something. In reflecting on it, I failed them.
For their own well-being, they needed to hear hard truth, and I did not love them enough to be willing to spend the energy to speak it to them.
Now, again, understand — this business of speaking hard truth — some of you love to speak hard truth. That’s like your spiritual gift — speaking hard truth. That’s your favorite flavor.
I’m not talking about doing damage.
It’s possible to do great damage to people and then to justify it by saying, “Well, it’s the truth” — you know, to spread terrible news about other people and then to justify it by saying, “But it’s true.”
I hope you understand now — hopefully you’re far enough along in understanding Jesus as a teacher — to say, “We can’t play that game.”
“Speaking the truth in love.”
Alright, this is Jesus’ teaching: “I’m going to put away lying. I’m going to be full of truth. It’ll cost me pain. It will mean sometimes I won’t get stuff or be able to persuade people like I could if I was deceiving them, but I’m willing to do it.”
Now, this week, you have a chance to put into practice what it is that Jesus is teaching.
Every day this week, each moment this week, you have the opportunity to live in truth. Every time you open your mouth, you have the chance to speak truth.
So there’s a little phrase I want us to remember so that we can live in this school of Jesus, and the phrase is: “Here’s my chance.”
“Here’s my chance to practice what it is that Jesus is teaching.” And let’s make this week all about practicing truth-telling.
So I’m going to run through a couple scenarios. After each one of them, I want you to say together with me these three words: “Here’s my chance to tell the truth.”
This week there’s going to be some time when you’re late for a meeting or you mess something up, and you’re going to be tempted to cover it up by excusing yourself even though it was your own fault.
Instead of deceiving people, you’re going to stop and say to yourself… “Here’s my chance to tell the truth.”
You’re in an awkward social situation sometime this week. It would be so easy to tell just a mild lie to get yourself off the hook… but instead of doing that you’re going to say, “Here’s my chance to tell the truth.”
Understand this will probably mean pain. Probably for most of us this will mean pain.
The more you’ve relied on lying, the more pain it will mean; and when that pain comes around and you’re tempted to avoid the pain to escape legitimate suffering by telling a lie, when that pain comes, that pain will be a little reminder that even though it hurts, it’s an invitation to follow Jesus in the school of life.
That pain will cause a little voice inside your brain to say, “Here’s my chance to tell the truth. Here’s my chance to suffer pain to follow Jesus.”
Because, you know, his followers did that. His followers suffered pain to follow him, and they even knew a kind of joy in it.
I’m going to ask you to do even a harder thing.
I’m going to ask you to go back and repair the damage that your deceit has caused.
Go to people that you have deceived and make a confession and repair the bridge.
Now, that’s hard.
Everyone in this room knows the pain of having a friend betray you behind your back, and everyone in this room knows the pain that you’ve inflicted on someone by deceiving them.
I recently had to go to a person and confess to him that I just flat-out lied to him. I would love to be able to use another word to describe it, but I can’t.
I faced a situation with him where the truth was painful and embarrassing and I didn’t want to go through the pain, and so I flat-out lied to him.
It was like a ball of pain inside me that kept getting bigger and bigger and bigger and bigger until it was just not livable anymore. So I went to him.
I would have paid a lot of money to get out of that because that was humiliating and embarrassing to go to this person and say, “I have to tell you the truth, and the truth is I looked you in the eye, and I lied to you. And I am just ashamed of having done it and I want to tell you the truth and I want to ask if you’ll forgive me.”
There was like a little knife inside of me for a while because there was not only my own personal embarrassment, but I caused hurt to someone I love.
There was a look in his eyes when I told him that, that I don’t like seeing in the eyes of someone I love, and it was directed at me. I had destroyed something very precious which was trust — not all of it, but some of it — between us, and it’ll take a while for that to be repaired.
That was hard, but you’ll understand if I had not done that, then it would be like a little death between the two of us. It would be like a little cloud over me and over our relationship that would not go away.
And the truth is — and you just need to hear this and you just need to believe it or begin to rehearse it — when you do that, when you endure pain to speak truth, when you go back to someone that you have deceived and allow that knife to go in you as you tell them the truth, as you confess, you need to know that the angels in Heaven throw a party… God says, “Someone got it right!”
That’s a major Kingdom victory. Which gets into the hiddenness of the Kingdom.
That moment will get no applause on this earth. No one will write it down. No one will write a book about it or write a song about it.
But in the Kingdom of God, those moments are the hinges on which swings the door of life or death.
So this is your chance, Blue Oaks, to be full of truth, to be just full of it. This is your chance.
Alright, let’s pray as the band comes up to lead us in one more song.
Blue Oaks Church