Discernment / Faith / Maturity and Flourishing / Scripture

Random reflections on lying

“I’d like to move next February,” my mother told me. She looked me in the eye intently and repeated herself. “I’m going to move next February. A friend and I have been looking at places when we go out for walks and I’ve found a house I like. It has a big kitchen which is good so I can do more cooking.”

I had this conversation with Mom about seven months ago. It was on one of her more lucid days. She’s dead now, but at the time lived in the secure memory care unit of a lovely retirement home about five minutes from where Margie and I live. At the time she could only get around with a walker and then only for short distances: from her room to the dining area, or with my help to the commons area. She simply didn’t have the strength to get past the front door of the place with her walker. Going for a walk required me to push her in the wheelchair I had purchased. There is a little kitchenette in her room, to make it feel more like home but the stove is not plugged in. And the facility provides all her meals—health regulations insist even I can’t provide homemade treats for anyone other than my mother.

I asked her about the house she’d found and she happily told me about it. And then because I love her I told her lies: That I was delighted she’d be moving into her own house, that February is a fine month for moving in Minnesota, and that it’d be great she’d be in the kitchen more since I’d missed her cooking.

We talk about her new house for a while and then she leans forward and her voice drops to a whisper. “Don’t tell anyone I told you this because it’s supposed to be secret,” she said. “All the residents are required to bring refreshments to activities, so I do. My friend and I walk to the grocery store for supplies. And my treats are the most popular, you know. Most just bring store bought stuff, but mine are always homemade, made from scratch.” That’s the way people are, I said, and she should know how proud I am of her. “And then they come by my room and say they want to be my friend, but all they want is more treats, so I send them away.” And so you should, I reply, real friends want more than refreshments even if they are homemade. Most people weren’t raised right. Mom agrees. She asks if I’ll make the arrangements for her to move and I assure her I will. “Don’t forget, now,” she says sternly. I won’t, I say. I promise.

It’s been interesting lying regularly, convincingly to the woman who punished me as a boy for not telling the truth.

In dementia care, everybody lies. Although some nursing homes have strict rules about being truthful, a recent survey found that close to a hundred per cent of care staff admitted to lying to patients, as did seventy per cent of doctors. In most places… there is no firm policy one way or another, but the rule of thumb among the staff is that compassionate deception is often the wisest course. “I believe that deep down, they know that it is better to lie,” Barry B. Zeltzer, an elder-care administrator, wrote in the American Journal of Alzheimer’s Disease & Other Dementias. “Once the caregiver masters the art of being a good liar and understands that the act of being dishonest is an ethical way of being, he or she can control the patient’s behaviors in a way that promotes security and peace of mind.” Family members and care staff lie all the time, and can’t imagine getting through the day without doing so, but, at the same time, lying makes many of them uncomfortable. To ease this “deception guilt,” lying in dementia care has been given euphemistic names, such as “therapeutic fibbing,” or “brief reassurances,” or “stepping into their reality.”

Six months after our conversation about moving, Mom’s dementia had deepened in remarkable ways. When I visited her and asked a simple question she got confused trying to answer and was embarrassed. I told her not to worry and started telling a story of what Margie and I did that week. How I longed for lucid days that required me to lie. To agree to things I know can’t be true, to ask questions about things that never happened, to be happy about things that are nothing more, sadly, than delusions thrown up by her failing memory. To try to enter in love the reality she lives in, even though it is warped and misshapen by the disease that was slowly taking her mind and memory and life.

I’ve occasionally been asked how I feel about lying to my mother, and the question always amuses me. I hated the dementia that afflicted her, of course but the lying never bothered me. From a Christian perspective lying is not necessarily forbidden in a fallen world.

What is forbidden is stated in the ninth commandment: “You shall not bear false witness against your neighbor” (Exodus 20:16). The Living Bible, a paraphrase rather than an actual translation, renders it “You must not lie,” but though that may be what is popularly understood as what God commands, it is not true to the original language. The commandment is concerned with speaking so as to hurt our neighbor. “The context is that of legal testimony,” theologian John Frame says. “The sin of false witness is that of distorting the facts in such a way as to harm one’s neighbor.”

This is not, of course, to suggest that lying is insignificant, or that it is never a sin against God and our neighbor. The prophet Hosea produces a list of sins he condemns in the people of God, and lying is included (Hosea 4:1-2). As the people of God we want to be truth-tellers because we follow the one that self-identified as the truth. When we lie we prove ourselves to be less than trustworthy, a reputation that can undercut our ability to stand for the truth. It’s easy to lie out of cowardice but that is never admirable, or because we want to protect someone but that is a calculation that must be made with fear and trembling.

The Scriptures record a surprising number of stories in which lies are told, “without incurring any condemnation,” Frame notes, “and sometimes even being commended.”

Exodus 1:15-21—the Israelite midwives in Egypt.
Joshua 2:4-6; 6:17, 25; Hebrews 11:31; James 2:25—Rahab’s deception. Note that apart from what Rahab told her countrymen, even hiding the spies amounted to a deception.
Joshua 8:3-8—the ambush at Ai. As John Murray recognizes, God himself authorized this deception.
Judges 4:18-21; 5:24-27—Jael and Sisera.
1 Samuel 16: 1-5—Samuel misleads Saul as to the reason for his mission.
1 Samuel 19:12-17—Michal deceives her father’s troops.
1 Samuel 20:6—David’s counsel to Jonathan.
1 Samuel 21: 13—David feigns madness.
1 Samuel 27:10—David lies to Achish.
2 Samuel 5:22-25—another military deceit.
2 Samuel 15:34—Hushai counseled to lie to Absalom.
2 Samuel 17:19-20—women deceive Absalom’s men.
1 Kings 22:19-23—God sends a lying spirit against Ahab.
2 Kings 6: 14-20—Elisha misleads the Syrian troops.
Jeremiah 38:24-28—Jeremiah lies to the princes.
2 Thessalonians 2:11—God sends powerful delusion so that his enemies will believe a lie.

These biblical texts are worth some careful study and reflection. Some are surprising, some are offensive and all are instructive if we want to truly understand the nuances of a deeply Christian understanding of truthfulness and love of neighbor.

The basic issue is that in a fallen world both the truth and a lie can be used as a weapon to harm someone. Telling someone they are overweight may be the truth but unless we have permission to speak in such terms it is also deeply unkind and hurtful. And we know how easy it is to hurt someone by telling a lie—a painful non-truth can even be hurled against someone by remaining silent.

“What, then, is a lie?” Frame asks. “I would say a lie is a word or act that intentionally deceives a neighbor in order to hurt.” The lies I have told my mother—told and retold many times—are meant just the opposite, as an expression of love and care. Trying to correct her mistaken memory brings confusion and embarrassment, and I can see the pain in her eyes when she realizes she is no longer able to think and remember as she once did.

Some of this is widely understood. When a tennis pro deceives her opponent by feigning a shot to the left and instead places one in the right side of the court, no one accuses her of being untruthful and untrustworthy. And this is so even though the lie hurts the opponent’s chance of winning. On a far more serious note, no one thinks the villagers in Le Chambon-sur-Lignon were wrong when they lied to the Nazis about the Jews they were sheltering. And, I suspect, few readers will condemn me for promising my mother I would help her move from the memory care unit into a house next February.

But these are easy cases, and sometimes the situations we find ourselves in are far less clear. Reality is messy, the world is fallen, our hearts are deceptive and we see only in part.

People usually want the rules to be clear and simple, a series of bullet points they can consult to keep in the right. The ninth commandment is clear enough, though applying it with humility and righteousness requires great wisdom. And wisdom is found only by growth, by waiting on God, on having his word so deep in our bones that we see as he sees.

There are subtle ways the truth can be misused to people’s hurt. I grew up in a Christian family and church, and in neither were honest questions welcomed. And I had questions, lots of them. I did not raise them in a spirit of rebellion, but because I wanted to know why I should believe what I was told was the truth.
Could we be certain Jesus actually was raised from the dead?
How could we know the Bible was God’s word?
Isn’t it circular reasoning to believe God exists because the Bible teaches it because it is God’s word?

My questions—and there were many more—were seen, especially in such numbers, as a symptom of a deficient spiritual life. Time and again the identical question was asked of me: did I have sin in my life that I was not confessing as sin to God? Unconfessed sin was seen as a great danger, a poison that rots the soul and keeps one heart from freely embracing the grace of God in Christ. I must have unconfessed sin, I was told. That was the only reason anyone could think of as to why I would have so many questions.

And so I would look within, and wouldn’t you know it? I found some. Unconfessed sin, I mean.

But my questions remained, and soon I was caught in a bondage that began to turn my questions into doubt and unbelief.

I realize now the question I was asked was an ungodly trap. I am a sinner, and although I desire holiness and grace there will always be sin lurking in some crevasse of my heart and soul and imagination that I have not specifically confessed. That’s merely one definition of being a sinner.

Honest questions need no justification, and they deserve honest answers. End of story.

Sinners will always have unconfessed sin in their lives. To meet that truth with the grace of the gospel is to allow the promises of God in Christ to bring healing and freedom. To turn that truth into a question that traps sensitive souls in a cycle of self-recrimination and doubt is to pervert the truth into a weapon that not only hurts, it destroys.

My lovely wife lied to me—intentionally lied to me—last year.

While we were on the East Coast celebrating our 50thwedding anniversary I lost my turquoise ring. I had purchased it in the Seventies, in New Mexico from a Navajo jeweler. I loved that ring because it reminded me of all that I loved about the American Southwest. The blend of three rich cultures, Hispanic, Native American and white; the amazing expanse of the high desert; the mountains jutting down out of Colorado; the surprising river bottoms within deep canyons lined with cottonwoods and aspen; the clear sunlight, blue skies and earth tones beloved by artists; and the ubiquitous turquoise that adorns jewelry and sundry other crafts.

I lost the ring in New Hampshire. We were in Portsmouth, NH, walking along the wharf. Towering high over everything was a massive cruise ship that had disgorged its passengers, which judging from the snatches of conversation we heard seemed to be from central Europe and Scandinavia. We enjoyed the sights, stopped into several shops, bought coffee and walked some more. It was October, and quite cold, with a steady wind blowing in off the water. I used my iPhone to take pictures, taking off the glove of my right hand to work the camera. Apparently one of those times my ring slipped off my cold fingers and was lost.

I noticed the loss later when we arrived back at our car, and by then it was too late. It upset me. I had worn it for over forty years. It was only a ring, I realize, a piece of jewelry, but it was meaningful, a repository of memories for me that are essential to the story of my life. At first we wondered if I had dropped it in our rental car since we were chilled to the bone when we got back to it, but a search turned up empty.

So, now fast-forward a couple of months to a morning in November when I discovered my wedding band was missing from the pocket of my pants which had been placed on my nightstand in our bedroom. It is also inlaid with turquoise and is even more meaningful to me than the ring I had lost in New Hampshire. Now it was missing, too. I double-checked the pocket, and then all my pockets but no ring. I checked the pockets of my bathrobe, with the same result. I looked on the floor, in our bed, under the nightstand. It was gone.

I complained bitterly to Margie about my loss, and said some entirely reasonable things about the unfairness of life, my growing decrepitude, and how we should just sell our house and move into a retirement center. After breakfast she disappeared into the bedroom and a moment later walked out with my wedding band. “It was under your nightstand,” she said. “In plain sight if you had bothered to look.”

That comment hurt since it confirmed my complaint about my decrepitude but I was so delighted to have my wedding band back I didn’t pursue the topic.

The next month, at Christmas she and Anita gave me a new, lovely turquoise ring. Margie had ordered it from a shop in New Mexico so even that connection has been maintained. Turns out she had taken my wedding band from my pocket that night to size it to order the new ring and had forgotten to replace it until I said it was lost. She had taken the ring with her into the bedroom and then told me that hurtful lie about it being in plain sight if I had bothered to look more carefully. Wearing it doesn’t cure my decrepitude, of course, but I’m very glad to have it, and to have the memories—including the new ones—that accompany it.

It was such a lovely lie she told, a heart-felt expression of affection and good humor.

And that, I would say, is the truth.


Sources:“The Memory House: Should the illusions of dementia be corrected or accepted?” by Larissa MacFarquhar in The New Yorker(October 8, 2018) p. 47. “The Ninth Commandment: Truthfulness,” chapter 43 in The Doctrine of the Christian Lifeby John M. Frame (Phillipsburg, NJ: P&R Publishing; 2008) pages 830-843; https://www.brainyquote.com/; https://www.goodreads.com/