Why We Lie

Santa Clarita Signal • Opinion Column • Ethically Speaking • November 21, 2010

Why We Lie

David W. Hegg

Have you ever noticed no one has to teach a child to lie? Lies seem to be part of the natural expression of the human heart, and as we age, we become more and more adept at lying. "Are you almost done with that project? Uh, yes, uh I'm just putting the finishing touches on it." But the truth is you've forgotten all about it, and now need to hustle to bring your reality into alignment with your lie. We all do it, and we all do it for reasons whose ugliness is only surpassed by the ethical necessity to look at them, and learn how to push them out of our lives.

It seems lying is a common practice in our society. We're told 95% of all Americans lie at least twice a day, and the other 5% - you guessed it! - lie about it! We lie about inconsequential things, but they are still lies. When asked if we've read that new book, or heard the latest business news, we want to be considered "in the know" and so we respond with a slightly nuanced "yes." But the nuance is just the coat our lie wears to go undetected. We lie by exaggerating, we lie when we make up statistics (like the spurious one at the top of this paragraph) and we lie by selling half-truths as whole truths. If you doubt it, try keeping track of all the times you are tempted to lie tomorrow, and all the times you actually give in to temptation.

But my intent here is not to talk about whether or not we lie, or even what constitutes a lie. I want to explore the "why" behind the lie. I can't speak for everyone, so I'll speak for myself. When I find I have intentionally shaved the edges off the truth, it is mostly because I don't want to look bad. If fact, I want to look good and escape whatever embarrassment I would feel if the truth were known.

There are lots of other reasons we lie. Some of the sweetest folks I know will lie, not to save themselves, but others from embarrassment. Of course, most lies derive from a desire to get ahead, to get something unearned through deceit, or to escape judgment for a mistake, or an intentional bad act. But in the end, all lies are sourced from the  human characteristic of self-interest. Lies in all their forms are the fruit of pride.

Pride lies at the root of so many hurtful attitudes and actions. But pride is not a self-existent source. Rather, pride takes constant nourishment, and the nutrients that feed and grow it are to be found all around us.

Our society is a pride enhancing society. We have become dependent on adulation, recognition, and the compliments we believe we deserve. And they all become ingredients in the care and feeding of our pride.  

Labeled self-esteem, or confidence, or whatever you want, pride continues to permeate our lives, often to our detriment. Pride keeps us from admitting our weaknesses, our shortcomings, our failures, and our fears. It keeps us from asking for help, seeking the best of others, and championing another's success. But most of all, pride is constantly singing in our souls a siren song that addicts us to our own significance, to a relentless pursuit of reputation, even at the expense of character. And more to the point here, pride is deceit's public relations agent that tells us lying is in our best interest, and a useful tool in the battle for success and personal wellbeing.

A good friend - Alistair Begg - once told me after a public speaking engagement "compliments are like perfume; a little is nice, but you don't want to drink it." I've never forgotten that, and have taken it to heart many times.

What it comes down to is this: if you want to fight pride, you have to speak the truth about yourself, to yourself, on a consistent basis. Pride will tell you you're something that you're not, and then pride will move you to believe it. But honest self-talk can short-circuit the process. We simply have to talk truth to ourselves in order to be the authentic people our world so desperately needs.

An ancient document speaks powerfully to this issue. David, the King of Israel, posed an eternally relevant question in Psalm 15: Who gets to live in the presence of God? He gave several answers, but chief among them was this: He who walks with integrity, and works righteousness, and speaks truth in his heart.  Notice it doesn't say "speaks truth from his heart" but "to his heart."

Ethical living is dependent on real virtue taking control of the life from within. When we speak truth to ourselves, we are preferring authenticity over hypocrisy, life's reality over pride's facade. And speaking truth to our hearts will make it easier to do so everywhere else.