NASHVILLE (Baptist Press)–Media reports of apparent lies by NBC News anchor Brian Williams and President Obama have become an occasion for Southern Baptist counseling professors to reflect on why people lie and how to stop.
“When someone lies, we just have to remember that maybe we haven’t lied on that scale,” Jeremy Pierre, assistant professor of biblical counseling at Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, told Baptist Press, but “we know what it is to sin in order to attain the high opinion of others and thus continue to paint the illusion for ourselves that we’re better than we are.”
Williams was suspended by NBC for six months after an internal investigation uncovered multiple “instances of exaggeration” in the veteran journalist’s reporting, including the false statement that he was riding on a military helicopter hit by a rocket-propelled grenade during the Iraq war.
Obama’s former adviser David Axelrod claimed in a book released Feb. 10 that the president lied about his support for same-sex marriage during the 2008 election cycle. As an Illinois state senate candidate in 1996, Obama stated on a questionnaire, “I favor legalizing same-sex marriages, and would fight efforts to prohibit such marriages,” TIME reported. But Obama said during his first presidential campaign that he only supported civil unions and believed marriage “is the union between a man and a woman.”
Axelrod claimed the lie was an attempt not to offend voters in black churches. Obama countered in an interview published Feb. 10 that he did not lie but was “struggling” to balance between “people’s rights” and “religious sensitivities,” Politico reported. Obama officially endorsed gay marriage in 2012.
Lying is not “an end to itself normally” but a “means to an end,” Pierre said. For children, the purpose of lies often is to avoid punishment or avoid losing the respect of their parents. For adults though, the motivation for lying becomes more complex, he said.
“Many habitual liars that I have dealt with are primarily trying to guard a certain identity, a certain perception of themselves as capable or moral or good or impressive,” Pierre said. Much lying is a form of “self-worship” — “misrepresenting reality so that I can perceive myself in ways that I want to perceive myself.”
Although some lies occur before a large audience and draw widespread attention, many take place on a smaller scale, as when people use Facebook and Twitter to make themselves appear more insightful, funny or honorable than they are, Pierre said.
“We all know the exaggerated story,” Pierre said. “We all know omitting certain details about our day. We all know posting that status or tweeting that tweet that makes us appear as though our lives are more capable and more thrilling and more impressive than they are.
“It’s because … we want a glory for ourselves that should only belong to another. It should only belong to the God of reality,” Pierre said.
Lying leads to estrangement from God and others and must be repented of, Pierre said. But repenting is not as simple as merely deciding to stop because liars often are “self-deceived” and “don’t understand what it means to be a truth-teller.”
People locked in a pattern of lying must first recognize the deceit in their lives and then identify the image they are trying to attain through their dishonesty. Christians can help friends and loved ones inclined to lie by explaining that being identified as a forgiven follower of Christ is better than having an identity projected through dishonesty, Pierre said.
“Cast a vision for the Gospel of grace that forgives [the liar] and that welcomes him into a narrative that is far greater than anything he could have constructed,” Pierre said.
Kathy Steele, associate professor of psychology and counseling at New Orleans Baptist Theological Seminary, agreed. One important step to being honest is establishing humility and admitting that we have weaknesses, she said.
When Steele was younger and struggled to be honest, she cultivated humility by making “a commitment to God that if I lied to anyone, I would go back to that person, confess my lie, ask for forgiveness and tell the truth,” she told BP. “That is a huge inoculation against lying, let me tell you. When you do that a few times, you don’t want to lie anymore because it’s too embarrassing.”
Christians who find themselves lying should pray that God would “build integrity and truthfulness into [their] hearts and minds,” Steele said.
“God promises to answer our prayers if we ask anything according to His will,” Steele said. “And we know it’s His will that we are people of truth.”
Individuals naturally inclined to be “compliant people pleasers” often are more tempted to lie than “strong willed people” and must guard themselves against dishonesty, Steele said. Those who fail to guard themselves can establish lying as a pattern in their brains and even their families, she said, as when Abraham, Isaac, Jacob and Jacob’s sons all told serious lies to protect themselves in the book of Genesis.
Abraham’s family also illustrates that people tend to tell the biggest lies to those closest to them — a truth Steele said has been confirmed by researchers.
In extreme circumstances when the safety of others is at risk, lying may be justified — although it is never God’s ideal, Steele said. As an example, she said Rahab was justified in lying to protect two Israelite spies from the King of Jericho’s messengers in Joshua 2.
Jesus epitomized honesty, Steele said. Though it may appear that Jesus lied in John 7 by telling His siblings He was not going to Jerusalem for the Feast of Booths and then going later, Steele said He was telling the truth. At the moment Jesus spoke, it was not God’s appointed time for Him to travel to the feast, but later when God’s timing was right, He went.
“One of the primary reasons people stretch the truth or ‘speak evangelistically,’ if that’s what you want to call it, is to get the best face forward,” Steele said. “… We buy into a performance focus” rather than “focusing on having our joy in God.”
Whether lies occur in ministry, family life or business, repentance is vital, Steele said, because dishonesty erodes trust with others and robs the liar of close fellowship with God.
“A part of the very nature and character of God is truthfulness — the truth. And so when I don’t make truth an integral part of who I am, in essence I’m saying, ‘I don’t want that part of God in my life,'” Steele said.
She added, “We’re cheating ourselves … from the fullness of His character and nature being built into us.”
David Roach is chief national correspondent for Baptist Press, the Southern Baptist Convention’s news service.