Liar!

Why are some people so eager to call others’ inaccurate statements “lies”?

Since we’re about a week from a major election, the word “lie” is, as usual, getting an intense work out. But this phenomenon isn’t unique to election year politics. Over and over, and in a variety of settings, I’ve observed this: people encounter what they see as falsehood and immediately leap to the judgment that someone is lying—and say so.

I’ve always found this behavior puzzling, and sometimes head-against-wall maddening. Are these accusers unable to see that everyone (including themselves) is sincerely wrong about one thing or another nearly all the time? Have they managed to miss the memo that to err is human?

Maybe it’s a failure to adjust for bias. Could they really believe that if they dislike someone, or strongly disapprove of his ideas or actions, they are entitled to judge his character by a completely different standard than they use against themselves? Could they really not realize that if they want others to judge their character generously, they should judge the character of others generously?

Or do they just not know what a lie really is?

Sadly, opportunities to talk to people in the act of leaping to the “liar!” judgment haven’t shed much light on how they arrived at that conclusion. To them, it was just obvious.

Mysteries aside, it’s clear that Christians ought to be soberly and humbly cautious about characterizing others as “lying” or “liars.” Here’s why.

Why hesitate to characterize inaccuracy as deceit

1. Because we might be wrong

Not only are we all prone to misread, mishear and misconstrue, but even when our sensory organs and brains are working correctly, we’ve got a fallen nature bending us toward self-obfuscation (Jer. 17:9).

In other words, the one who seems to be speaking falsehood might not even be incorrect, much less trying to deceive people.

2. Because communication is messy

In my experience this holds true: If you say three sentences to three people, they’ll often understand you to have said nine different things—and it probably isn’t their fault. Fortunately, not every sentence is quite that opaque, and often the “different things” hearers hear are only slightly different from what the speakers or writers meant. (Thank God for common grace!)

Still, our communication is always an approximation of what we only approximately mean, which is itself only an approximation of what we approximately understand.

During the Joe Biden-Paul Ryan debate, Biden asserted that he always says what he means. Guffaws echoed across the nation, I’m pretty sure. But he’s actually in good company. Human beings don’t even know what they mean half the time, much less say it precisely.

3. Because a lie is a deep act

Some really do seem to be confused about what makes a lie a lie—or to put it another way, what makes an untrue statement a form of evil communication. Ethicists care a lot about what conditions—if any—might justify an act of deception, but we all know that 99.9% of the time none of those conditions are present. Usually, the difference between deception and lying is irrelevant. So what differentiates a mere falsehood from a lie?

A lie is a deep act because it involves a state of intellect and a state of heart as well as an outward act. It’s like a three-legged stool. Remove any leg and you no longer have a lie.

  • Leg one: a false communication
  • Leg two: communicator knowledge that the communication is false
  • Leg three: intent to deceive

It isn’t hard to find this view in authoritative sources. The Concise Oxford English Dictionary defines a lie as “an intentionally false statement.” Of the verb form, Webster says, “to make an untrue statement with intent to deceive.” The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy claims the following is better: “to make an assertion that is believed to be false to some audience with the intention to deceive the audience about the content of that assertion.”

If a lie is a deep act in this way, we have at least three opportunities to misjudge whether we have witnessed one. We might be mistaken in our belief that the communication is false. We might be mistaken in thinking that the source knows it to be false, and we might be mistaken that the source intends to deceive.

4. Because “them’s fightin’ words”

Time was when a man’s word was intertwined with his honor, and his honor was worth more to him than his life. If the stories are true, the quickest way to get a gauntlet thrown (or a gun barrel blazing) was to suggest that a man might not be honest.

Maybe that was all just a lot of posturing; this, though, is not:

You are of your father the devil, and the desires of your father you want to do. He was a murderer from the beginning, and does not stand in the truth, because there is no truth in him. When he speaks a lie, he speaks from his own resources, for he is a liar and the father of it. (NKJV, John 8:44)

To lie is to act in a kind of kinship with the Father of Lies. It’s bedfellow to murder. So if the men of the old days saw the charge of lying as being among the most serious of accusations, they were right.

5. Because everybody lies

Shouldn’t the fact that we’ve all offended in this way at one time or another make us a little less eager cast stones?

But there’s another important implication here. We understand that everyone has lied, yet we do not believe everyone is a liar. It follows then, that the accusation “he lied” is not the same as the accusation “he is a liar.” The latter is a term for a person who has a persistent pattern of disregard for the truth—an inveterate disregard for others’ right to be dealt with honestly. If we should not quickly judge someone to be lying, we should be even slower to judge someone to be a liar.

[node:bio/aaron-blumer body]

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There are 11 Comments

Susan R's picture

EditorModerator

I think the number one problem with calling someone else a liar is that we are so adept at deceiving ourselves.

It's important to point out inaccuracies when we know we have verifiable support, but without information about what someone else did or did not know, or discernment of their motives, it's mostly pot&kettle. 

I read an article the other day about how words aren't as meaningful as they used to be. "Awesome" is used to describe everything from a ball game to a hamburger to God Himself. Hyperbole reigns supreme. Like totally. So the word 'liar' gets tossed in much the same way, without any thought as to what it means, or what it should mean.

Aaron Blumer's picture

EditorAdmin

There is an irony to the liar, liar phenomenon... using the criteria many do to cast others as liars, the act of calling their target a liar is itself a lie.

Joel Tetreau's picture

Aaron,

This is very good. Over the years I've had to sit in the middle of many episodes when believes have accused other believers of being "liars." This article is excellent! My response has often been - you would have to be God to know that your accusation is true. Great thoughts!

Straight Ahead!

jt

Dr. Joel Tetreau serves as Senior Pastor, Southeast Valley Bible Church (sevbc.org); Regional Coordinator for IBL West (iblministry.com), Board Member & friend for several different ministries;

christian cerna's picture

So what should you do when you catch a person telling a lie? What if your children continually lie to you in order to get out of trouble?

Susan R's picture

EditorModerator

christian cerna wrote:

So what should you do when you catch a person telling a lie? What if your children continually lie to you in order to get out of trouble?

In the case of a child, this is an opportunity to disciple them in an age-appropriate manner. They have to be taught the implications of lying, understand 'why' they engage in behavior they know is against the rules, hoping that by being deceitful they can escape punishment. Just whoopin' them for lying quite often doesn't really reach them. But if they've been discipled properly, and they continue to be deceitful, then it's time for discipleship to turn into discipline. 

In the case of an adult, it's time for a discussion about the incident. Did they know what they were saying wasn't true? Were they repeating something they heard from what they thought was a reliable source? Is there any chance of a misunderstanding? 

I wouldn't go from 0 to lying without a conversation that wasn't confrontational or accusatory.

Aaron Blumer's picture

EditorAdmin

Just to clarify, I do believe that the conclusion that someone is a liar is sometimes justified. My point is that it's an judgment that requires justification. We can't just leap to it because we don't like someone or think their ideas stink or because we're aware of some actual lies.

There's a temptation at this point to say "well how many lies does it take to make a liar?" It's a good question, but can't be answered. It's like "How many whiskers makes a beard?" Can't answer it, but that doesn't mean it's all that hard to tell when you're looking at one. (I do believe I've known a couple of genuine liars. The list is short, though.)

As for judging a statement as a lie, we're dealing with probabilities. How likely is it that the person has said something he knows to be untrue with the goal of making people believe it? There are situations where we can be reasonably certain that the speaker knows. It's usually obvious whether he is aiming to be believed.

Even more common, you have situations where the speaker ought to know what he's saying isn't true. Harder to tell if he actually does or not. But if he doesn't and should, you have something other than deceit going on.... negligence, irresponsibility, "reckless disregard for the truth," etc. The latter is arguably a kind of dishonesty, but not quite lying.

With children, it can be difficult. I've seen situations where a parent claims an intuitive ability to tell when a child is lying. I guess that's not impossible, but I'm skeptical. Either way the principle applies: we owe it to them (and ourselves and others) to engage in some self examination before we make that judgment.

Many times I've seen the "lying" accusation in situations where it eventually became clear that this was nothing more than a way of trying to dismiss what he had to say without actually evaluating on its merits... or a way of trying to achieve a blanket dismissal of everything that person has to say.

christian cerna's picture

One of the Cretans, a prophet of their own, said, “Cretans are always liars, evil beasts, lazy gluttons.” This testimony is true. Therefore rebuke them sharply, that they may be sound in the faith, not devoting themselves to Jewish myths and the commands of people who turn away from the truth.

(Titus 1:12-14 ESV)

 

Sometimes people are just liars, and have gained a reputation for being so. In those cases, one shouldn't be afraid to call it as it is, or to warn people about them.

 

Aaron Blumer's picture

EditorAdmin

No argument there. Given the weightiness of the charge, though, it's always worth it to do some self-examination and see if the pieces support the whole... that is, if the alleged liar's lies are really lies. If we don't really have lies, we don't really have a liar.

Ed Vasicek's picture

Very good and relevant article, Aaron.  When you get out the Christian realm (at least where I am from), you are expected to lie, especially to save money, avoid taxes, etc., etc.

Some people also have a broad view of what is truthful.  If the truth is the bullseye on the target, they think as long as they are on the target somewhere, that's all that matters.  Honesty, truth, and lying are complex matters for sure.  

 

"The Midrash Detective"

Susan R's picture

EditorModerator

...you have situations where the speaker ought to know what he's saying isn't true. Harder to tell if he actually does or not. But if he doesn't and should, you have something other than deceit going on.... negligence, irresponsibility, "reckless disregard for the truth," etc. The latter is arguably a kind of dishonesty, but not quite lying.

The responsibility of leadership to verify information before they go spreading it around is hugely lacking. I wonder if some avoid checking their facts because they are so invested in perpetuating their own particular slant with hyperbole and innuendo. 

If I had a nickel for every internet urban legend I've heard repeated as fact by pastors and evangelists...

Aaron Blumer's picture

EditorAdmin

I suspect that laziness is more prevalent in human nature than dishonesty.... and stupidity outstrips them both. 

Check out this interesting bit on "Hanlon's razor"

"Never attribute to malice that which is adequately explained by stupidity." (FWIW, I think credit for the modern version of this statement really belongs to Robert Heinlein)

I'm not sure how easy it is to back this theologically... bit it seems to fit the person* I know best!

 

(*that would be myself, if there's any ambiguity there)

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