On Truthfulness

“Lying lips are an abomination to the Lord, but those who act faithfully are his delight.” – Proverbs 12:22

A few months into my very first ministry, the church that I was serving went through a rough split. There were a variety of factors that led to this happening. However, one of these factors was more damaging than the others. It was the nail in the coffin that sent the congregation into a spiral of chaos.

The leadership was not truthful.

Secret meetings were being held. Sunday school teachers were avid spreaders of gossip and misinformation. The senior pastor chose to lie in front of the entire congregation instead of admitting fault. And consequently, serious harm was done within that community in the name of Jesus.

I think about those few months a lot. They’ve shaped the way I approach ministry and my role as a pastor. But they’re also a reminder to me that much of the culture I am a part of is fueled by pride. My former church is only a small example of a much larger issue happening all over.

A lot of us have a strong desire for control. This might manifest itself differently depending on who you are and what social circles you have influence over. But when our control is threatened, we are sometimes tempted to do questionable things in order to maintain it.

We might lie to our children so that they don’t begin to challenge our authority. We might lie to our co-workers about why a project we were in charge of failed so as not to seem incompetent. We might lash out in anger, or intentionally gaslight a friend, so they don’t find out something we don’t want them to. We might talk badly about someone behind their back in order to elevate ourselves over the person we’re maligning.

But when followers of Jesus participate in such actions, more damage is done than just to the individuals being lied to.

Dishonest action distorts our witness. It makes little of the name of God.  

Confirmation Bias, Gatekeeping, and the Pursuit of Fantasy

There is another layer to all of this that should also be considered.

Dishonesty and the distortion of truth isn’t done on just an individual level. It’s also practiced on the level of epistemology. That is, knowledge itself, and the methods we use to gain and interpret knowledge, can be manipulated in order to serve self-centered ends.

It’s relatively easy to offer up data, and then only allow the interpretation of that data through a biased lens. That’s what many media outlets do on a regular basis. However, it’s also just as easy to do this type of thing to ourselves. In fact, all of us have the tendency to seek out information that only confirms our pre-existing understanding of a subject. This is called “confirmation bias.” And even the most open-minded people cannot easily escape this.

Here’s how confirmation bias works.

When I am sick, I sometimes consult the internet to figure out what bug I might have caught. But oftentimes, the internet will diagnose me with some terrible disease because the symptoms I’m experiencing somewhat match a life-threatening illness. On a surface level, I know that this diagnosis is incorrect, but I can’t help myself to begin interpreting my symptoms through the lens of these misleading findings. I might have a slight cough, but if I then begin developing a fever, my mind immediately jumps back to that Web.md cancer diagnosis.

And that example, of course, was a silly one. But confirmation biases can be much more dangerous when they affect other important areas of our lives. And things can get deadly when we mix these types of biases within our expression of religion.

I grew up in the 90’s surrounded by a church culture heavily influenced by the Moral Majority.[1] Because of that, it seemed natural to me always affirm anything that the Right was doing in my country. If big named pastors backed politicians, this must mean that the platforms these elected leaders held were biblical in some sense, right?  

Yet, I also learned rather quickly that if you asked too many questions about this process, or expressed a desire to learn more about why someone might oppose these viewpoints, you were labeled a “liberal” or a “bad Christian.”  

There was an intentional funneling of data into only one interpretive lens. And this happened on both an individual-level and on the group-level. Because of the culture we were in, it only seemed natural to affirm a certain set of ideals. If something arose that might have made us question our conclusions, we looked within to sources we already trusted to help affirm that which we already believed.

I don’t mean this to be taken as a comment on the rightness or wrongness of one particular political party. Nevertheless, I do mean to criticize the tendency to refuse to seriously evaluate why we believe what we believe. So, political preferences aside, this is another example of confirmation bias.

This type of self-manipulation is found everywhere, though, not just in politics or in our attempts to self-diagnose disease through the internet. We do it in both little things and in big things.

But it’s dishonest.

And, again, I think that it also stems from our strong desire for control.

We do not like it when things don’t go our way. We get uncomfortable when new information threatens a deeply held belief. And consequently, many of us are more than willing to commit sin in order to hold on to what we think we might lose. My former senior pastor’s lies were an attempt to manipulate others onto “his side” of the church split. Those who called others “liberal” for questioning the political propaganda being peddled in my childhood did so as an attempt to bully them back into conformity.

And in addition to that, our desire for control coupled with our tendencies toward confirmation bias, sometimes leads us to accept, or even promote, half-baked ideas, theologically lazy thoughts, or flat-out misinformation.

It’s mostly harmless when we bring out our flannelgraphs, dust off our dinosaur figurines, and pretend that the Earth is only a few thousand years old. It gets to be more harmful when we argue that the coronavirus is no worse than the common flu. But this blows up in our face when our deceptions help to incite an act of sedition at the Capital building of the United States.

The Book of Proverbs and Truthful Action

So where do we go from here?

How might we learn to reject dishonesty and manipulation? How might we fight against our own confirmation biases in order to discover genuine truth? Well, and towards this goal, I suggest that we all would do well to spend time meditating on the book of Proverbs.

I don’t want to do this work for you. Spend time in God’s word. And spend time in prayer, asking God to reveal to you the areas in your life that you are being dishonest to yourself or to others.

But briefly consider how Proverbs can speak into the topic of truthfulness, and how the Lord has laid out a blueprint for us when it comes to honest action.

What can this book teach us? Here are a few things that it has to say:

1. Dishonesty and manipulation are abominable acts.

The strongest phrase used in the Old Testament to describe actions that God finds unfavorable is: “an abomination to the LORD.”[2] This descriptor is used in Torah for only heinous crimes or sexually deviant acts. But Proverbs also takes it up to condemn purposefully dishonest action.

Those who deceive others through devious means are abominable (3:32). God hates a lying tongue (6:16, 12:22) and dishonest action, especially when to comes to matters of money and economics (11:1, 20:23). Conversely, He delights in those who are faithful to the truth (12:22, 24:26).

2. When pursuing truth, seek out honest evidence and listen to expert advice.

Those who lie are often eventually found out. When you pile lie on top of lie in order to hide your deception, you’re more at risk of being exposed. That’s why it’s better to tell the truth immediately instead of hiding behind façades (12:13-15, 12:19). In relation to this, those who desire to be of truth should share only honest evidence (12:17).

This means that, when we desire to share knowledge with others, or wish to post informative “memes” on our social media accounts, we need to make sure that what we are sharing is legitimately truthful. And as we’ve seen, that’s not always easy to do. Our biases might trick us into believing lies or misinformation. We’ve got to do the hard work of finding the truth through self-education, research, and by listening to expert advice on subjects that we ourselves aren’t experts in.[3]  

3. It’s better to listen and learn than to talk without understanding.

This book has much to say about using proper judgement when considering sharing information with others. But what if we don’t know much on a particular subject? Well, Proverbs reminds us that only fools spout off on that which they have little understanding about. It’s better to exercise self-control than to speak only empty or thoughtless words (12:23, 15:2).  

It’s better to say, “I don’t know” or “let me research that, and I will get back with you,” than to make yourself into a fool.

4. When you are wrong, accept it and move on.

Fools believe that they are always right. They don’t listen to the reasoning of others. By contrast, the wise listen to advice (12:15). They are willing to accept that they might be wrong.

Scripture like this should speak directly into our tendency to grasp for control. When faced with an opportunity to influence another person through the use of questionable motives, Proverbs should make us think twice. When faced with facts that legitimately disprove a position we might hold, Proverbs gives us the permission to change our beliefs.

5. Our goal should never be to cancel, to shun, or to silence.

We’re not to envy those who are violent or imitate any of the ways of the contentious (3:30-31). By the same token, wisdom tells us that harsh words only stir up anger, but soft answers turn away wrath (15:1). And kindness of speech brings life, but unruly or confrontational speech brings destruction (15:4).

It’s sometimes the case that, after learning something new, we weaponize our new knowledge and turn our perspective into an attack on others. Spend any time on Twitter and you’ll quickly learn what I’m talking about. Those with strong opinions often attempt to cancel, shun, or silence those who don’t believe the same.

But this is not a biblical way of promoting truthfulness.

In fact, doing this is also a form of manipulation. If our desire for the truth causes us to behave in this way, we’re doing something wrong. Speaking words of hatred or contempt for another person with the same mouth we use to praise Jesus is wicked.  

Conclusion

Christians are meant to be people of the truth.

But this needs to mean more than just a desire to affirm orthodox theology. We need to speak honestly, evaluate our world sincerely, and examine our biases and beliefs earnestly.  

And again, this is hard work. But it’s necessary for the sake of our witness.


[1] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Moral_Majority

[2] תוֹעֲבַ֣ת יְהוָ֣ה

[3] On this note, it would also be wise for us to consider how the Dunning-Kruger effect might trick us into thinking that we are experts in things we’re not. Take a hard, honest look at the understanding you do have on a subject before saying something about it claiming to be “knowledgeable.” We are not all microbiologists, virologists, or hold PhD’s in foreign policy.

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