“So then, putting away falsehood, let all of us speak the truth to our neighbors, for we are members of one another. Be angry but do not sin; do not let the sun go down on your anger, and do not make room for the devil … Let no evil talk come out of your mouths, but only what is useful for building up, as there is need, so that your words may give grace to those who hear. And do not grieve the Holy Spirit of God, with which you were marked with a seal for the day of redemption. Put away from you all bitterness and wrath and anger and wrangling and slander, together with all malice, and be kind to one another, tenderhearted, forgiving one another, as God in Christ has forgiven you.” — Ephesians 4:25-32
As we continue our reflections on truth, I want to offer this new claim: Truth is interpersonal and covenantal. Truth exists between people, in their relationships. Indeed, truth binds people together. Another way to say it is that truthfulness is part of the covenant that exists between people in community and that makes those covenants succeed.
Likewise, lies corrode relationships. Lies damage interpersonal ties. And lies violate the covenants that exist between people at every level of community.
I am struck by how the passage above from Ephesians 4 bans lies and commands truthfulness because, “we are all members of one another.” That is, in the church, we are spiritually, mystically, interpersonally connected. One cannot help but think of Paul writing so famously that the church is the Body of Christ — many members, one body. We are members of one another. To lie to one another is to harm a body part, like the right hand taking a knife and cutting a gash into the left shoulder.
Notice that the author lumps in lying with other kinds of body of Christ self-harming activities — unmitigated anger, evil talk, bitterness, wrath, wrangling, slander, malice. The overall passage seems to be emphasizing verbal sins. What makes these verbal sins so bad is that they harm the community. They tear down rather than build up. They bring hurt rather than grace. They give the devil a foothold, grieve the Spirit of God, and weaken Christ’s hold on the life of the community.
“Lying is a speech-sin that harms people and relationships.”
Lying is a speech-sin that harms people and relationships, and in the body of Christ that is an attack on Christ himself. This idea that lying is harmful to people and relationships is obviously true of lies that themselves constitute attacks on others, such as slander, mentioned in this passage, and perjury (“bearing false witness”) mentioned in the Ten Commandments (Exodus 20:16) and many other places (Proverbs 14:25). Slander is character assassination using words. Bearing false witness, such as in a capital trial, can constitute judicial assassination.
Zoom in a bit and think about the truth that binds together our most intimate relationships. I am thinking about my marriage to Jeanie, now of 36½ years. Upon reflection, I see that there is an interpersonal truth that exists between us and helps bind us together. It consists of truthful memory of our long journey together, consistent patterns of promise-making and promise-keeping, and truthful communication in every one of a thousand little daily interactions. But it also looks like not the slightest deviation into misdirection, deceit or dissembling. It sure looks like the greater the level of vulnerability of a relationship, the more truthfulness matters, and the more lies harm.
But this is true not just of intimate relationships. Among normal people in most settings there is an assumption of truthfulness that comes with every sentence. I say to you, “I saw your email and will respond by tomorrow.” I don’t have to say, because it is implied: “I am telling you the truth: I saw your email. I am telling you the truth in advance: I will respond by tomorrow.”
“There can be no human community without the trust that follows from consistent truth telling.”
When we tell someone something, we are implying (implicitly communicating, just by the very act of speech) that we respect them and will tell them the truth. If we speak to them as if we were telling them the truth, we owe them the actual truth. One might say that every speech act involves an implicit covenant to tell the truth. A covenantal web, one might say, invisibly binds me together with the persons to whom I am speaking. There can be no human community without the trust that follows from consistent truth telling.
If we had to double-check every word that even one person spoke to us each day, we would not have time to do anything else. Indeed, we would lose our minds. It must be that reality is so important to human mental and social functioning that those who consistently lie to us threaten not just their relationship with us but our relationship with reality, and thus perhaps our very sanity. This is the meaning of the term “gaslighting” — “to manipulate someone by psychological means into questioning their own sanity.” And the chief way to gaslight someone is to lie to them.
I am arguing that truth is interpersonal and that there is an implicit covenant to tell the truth to people under normal circumstances. Meanwhile, there are explicit covenants to tell the truth in certain specific contexts, most obviously when making an oath. But implicit and sometimes explicit covenants bind all kinds of relationships — friends, spouses, parents and children, fellow church members, patient-medical professional, and so on.
Society runs on such covenants, even when we forget about them. We mainly notice the problem when people start breaking their covenants and all hell breaks loose.
David P. Gushee is Distinguished University Professor of Christian Ethics and Director of the Center for Theology and Public Life at Mercer University. He is the past-president of both the American Academy of Religion and Society of Christian Ethics. He is an author or editor of 25 books. His most recognized works include “Righteous Gentiles of the Holocaust,” “Kingdom Ethics,” “The Sacredness of Human Life,” and “Changing Our Mind.” He earned the Ph.D. from Union Seminary. He and his wife, Jeanie, live in Atlanta.
Other articles in this series: