Sin is something with which we all struggle in this fallen world. Though each person is tempted by different kinds of sins, every sin, no matter how small its reach, is an evil. I want to discuss one sin that is a particular blight on our modern society. This sin looks relatively innocuous in some instances, possibly even better for the one who is victim of the sin. Many people do not even consider it wrong anymore, regardless of the harms it causes. It has become more and more pervasive in different guises, but is not normally called by its real name.
The sin to which I refer is that of lying and deceit. In order to strengthen us in our fight against this sin, we should understand that lying is never so harmless as it might appear.
Before I get into exactly why deceitfulness is so big a problem, I want to define it clearly, so as to avoid ambiguity. For the purpose of this essay, I will define lying as “telling another person something believed to be untrue with an intent to deceive.” (There is legitimate debate as to whether the definition should include, “someone who has a right to know the truth,” but I prefer not to discuss that distinction here.)
Lies Are a Misuse of Trust
Now, one might argue that a small lie now and again is not incredibly destructive, or at least no more so than other venial sins. I do not know whether lies are more or less harmful than other sins of equal magnitude, but here is why even a small lie is more dangerous than it seems. In the first place, the whole reason a lie happens is because one person does not want another to know the truth about something. There are multiple different reasons for this. But — though there are rarer, more serious scenarios, up to and including matters of life and death — most of the time such reasons are rooted in selfishness, such as mere convenience, or even evil in more extreme instances, like framing an innocent person for a crime. Of course, lies work because the persons to whom they are told expect the liars to tell them the truth. Someone who lies to a total stranger would have little reason to care about this. However, as we all know, it can be just as easy to lie to a friend as to a stranger, so misuse of trust can then have greater consequences.
Is That Harmless? Not to a Friendship
For example, if John doesn’t want his friend Tom to know which book he was reading and successfully deceives him, John is displaying mistrust of Tom, hardly helpful to the friendship. The fact that in this imaginary scenario John would rather lie to Tom than tell the truth, even a truth that is not the one Tom wanted, such as, “I don’t feel comfortable sharing that,” says that in this regard John has little respect for Tom. If Tom never finds out that John lied to him, then the lie might have less of an effect than if he did, but the lie still isn’t “harmless.”
In the first place, if John did not immediately attempt to put his lying in check, his justifications for lying to Tom—or to anyone else—could become steadily greater and more frequent. John could tell himself that he only intended to deceive Tom once, and he might hold to that at first, but if John had no concrete reason to stick to this resolution, eventually he could come to the point of losing all trust and mutual respect for Tom.
Conversely, if Tom ever found out that John lied to him, even over something as small as the name of a book, that could then destroy his trust of John, even to the point that Tom would not want to be friends anymore. After all, even if John promised to be totally sincere in the future, what reason would Tom have to think that he was no just lying again? That is a common problem lies can cause, as in the children’s story, “The Boy Who Cried Wolf.” Even when it seems entirely beneficial, lying is an easy way to erode relationships.
Who Can’t Handle The Truth?
The example of John and Tom shows one instance of a lie causing a harm that another kind of sin might not. However, a more serious repercussion of lies, though it may seem unimportant to the person telling them, is that they give the person receiving them an incorrect picture of reality. Something like the question of whether John was reading an enriching book or a pornographic one is not an extremely serious matter for another person to understand wrongly.
Furthermore, honest mistakes do happen, often with the same overall effect. But lies and justification for them can snowball into bigger faults all too easily. Is it okay to cheat someone out of credit for a sale if you desperately need the money, more than the other salesman possibly could, so you think? Or, what about one of the kings of modern lies, “That’s not a baby inside you; it’s just a blob. Besides, you need to get back to your own life.”
Even aside from the myriad consequences such lies could create, tricking someone into an alternate picture of reality is not only disrespectful of him as a person, but cruel. Some lies do not simply change one perception here and now, but can even change perceptions throughout a whole life, even if only Tom thinking John liked and trusted him more than he really did. There is also the point that lying often appears easier in an earthly sense for both parties, as immortalized in the film quote “You can’t handle the truth!”
Could a Lie be Necessary?
Then, too, some of the most enticing lies have some grain of truth in them. It’s certainly easier to take the credit for the sale if you desperately need the money, and have no reason to think the other salesman has dire need. Even so, a lie is still a lie, and were one to justify even a small lie on the grounds that the consequences of telling the truth would be too great, there would be no real way to draw a distinction between “necessary” and “unnecessary” lies. Eventually almost any lie could be rationalized in some way. The Church teaches that “[o]ne may not do evil so that good may result from it” (CCC 1756), so clearly we Catholics should not be telling even “necessary” lies. The more pervasive the idea of the “necessary” lie becomes, though, the harder the lie becomes to avoid.
We Must be Honest With Ourselves First
Additionally, there is the problem of self-deception. “That person doesn’t need to know this,” is a way to prevent oneself from considering the true reality of lying. Another is more a matter of phrasing. “Just say this instead of that,” society recommends in a lot of tough situations. The problem is, “saying this instead of that” is still lying, but packaged more prettily. If we do not stop to consider the nature of our actions to at least some degree, our concern becomes less slanted toward others and more toward our personal convenience, again priming us for sin in general. Finally, as with all other sins, if we convince ourselves that our deception really isn’t deception, then we won’t try to eradicate it. We cannot be honest with anyone if are not honest with ourselves about lying.
Remember the Father of Lies…
Those are a few reasons why I personally loathe being told a lie. Even more relevantly, though, lies are an integral part of who Satan is, and his strategy to trap us with him. The first sin of man, back in the Garden of Eden, was founded on the lie that, “You will be like God if you eat this fruit,” when in reality Eve and then Adam became less like God, at least in regards to goodness, than they had ever been. This pattern of lies and sin has continued all the way up to today, since all sins are still founded on the fundamental lie that disobeying God will be better for us in some way. From a logical standpoint, of course, this lie makes no sense, since nothing could ever be better for us than obeying God’s plan. Yet we continue to both trick ourselves and let ourselves be tricked into thinking otherwise. In this sense, then, lying is the root of all sin.
Now, again, sometimes it can very difficult to tell the truth in this fallen world—I certainly do not wish to exacerbate the problem and say that I have never lied. That being said, lies, like all sins, even though easy and appealing, are also avoidable. Maybe next time you are tempted to tell a lie, consider why you want to lie, what the consequences of that lie would be, and what the consequences are for telling the truth instead. It may seem like one small lie would do very little harm, or even that telling the truth could be more harmful, but every present action influences the future. It is only through striving to cultivate honesty here and now that we can work to overcome the vice of lying and dishonesty. The more we conquer deceitfulness in our own lives, the more we can help others to overcome Satan’s web of lies, so that everyone can become better servants of God.