Do your parents have those stories that they tell, over and over again? You know, those embarrassing stories about stupid things you did when you were younger. No matter how many times it has been shared, it always seems to come up sooner or later. Well, one story that I have burned into my memory from my parents sharing it over and over again, comes from when I was just a toddler. It was a few days after Easter, and I had gotten a big chocolate Easter bunny, but was only allowed to have a small amount of it at a time. Allegedly, I didn’t think that was very fair, so one night I managed to push a chair over to the counter, climbed up, stood on top of our bread box, and reached the stash of chocolate on top of the fridge (all as a toddler, mind you). My mom woke up in the middle of the night to get a drink of water, but instead found me sitting in the middle of the floor, with foil wrapping in shreds around me, and chocolate smeared all over my face. My mother, outraged (and probably kind of impressed), asked, “Marc! Did you get into your Easter chocolate!”
Now, obviously, the question wasn’t necessary. The evidence was damning. I literally cannot think of any other possible alternative story that would justify me in that moment. Oh no, I am not eating chocolate…this is, uh, this a new facial cream I’m trying out that just looks like chocolate…
But, lo and behold, I looked back up at my mom, and say, “No.” A bold little child was I. The story then famously winds up with my mother picking me up and plopping me in front of the bathroom mirror, where I am again questioned, but this time respond much more diplomatically with a, “Maybe.”
The Bible tells us that we are born sinners, and therefore, sinning comes naturally to us. Nobody taught me tell lies. It just happened. We have to teach our children to be honest. But as we grow up, our lies become more sophisticated and complex – we may not try a lie as bold as my toddler-self attempted, but it is still the same. We are more careful, more calculating – but we still are drawn towards deceiving others.
Here are some lies that you maybe told this week:
- Yea, mom, I finished all my homework.
- I have no idea where this mess came from.
- Oh, I’m sorry, I didn’t see your text!
- I can’t make it – I have other plans.
- I’m feeling sick.
- I had no idea that would happen.
As we sit here and think about it, we probably see that deceiving one another is something that we do more often than we would like to admit. The passage we are looking at today deals with a uniquely specific type of deception that may not seem apparent to us at first, but is extremely relevant to our day-to-day lives. James explains, “But above all, my brothers, do not swear, either by heaven or by earth or by any other oath, but let your “yes” be yes and your “no” be no, so that you may not fall under condemnation.” (5:12). So as we look at this text, we are going to examine What Deception Is, Why We Deceive, and How to Become Honest People.
What Deception Is
Deceiving and lying are not necessarily the same thing; a lie is a smaller circle inside the bigger circle of deception. A “lie” is when I say something that isn’t true. To deceive someone is to manipulate the facts so that something sounds true. So, if I spent the afternoon watching TV, and you ask me, “What did you do today?” if I respond with, “I worked out,” then that is a lie; that is just pure falsification. But if I respond with, “I worked on cultural studies,” then in my head I am thinking, Technically, I studied that TV show, which is kind of cultural, then I am being deceptive.
James’ command for us to refrain from taking oaths is a command for us to refrain from being deceptive people. James tells us that we should not “swear” by heaven or earth – and here he is not talking about curse words, but is referring to making oaths. In James’ time, it was commonplace for people to make oaths when they wanted to be taken seriously and trusted. So, perhaps they were making a deal with someone else, they would swear by heaven, or earth, or the temple, or even their own life that they would keep up their end of the deal. This oath essentially was saying, “If I don’t do what I have promised to do, then may this thing I have sworn by be destroyed.” It was a kind of exaggerative way for people to sound trustworthy. We have modern day equivalents, of course, like the very serious, and solemn, “pinky-promise.” If you make a pinky-promise and don’t keep the promise, then I get to break your pinky – so don’t screw it up.
Now, why does James say this is bad? Well, it’s not only James, but also Jesus,
“Again you have heard that it was said to those of old, ‘You shall not swear falsely, but shall perform to the Lord what you have sworn. ’ But I say to you, Do not take an oath at all, either by heaven, for it is the throne of God, or by the earth, for it is his footstool, or by Jerusalem, for it is the city of the great King. And do not take an oath by your head, for you cannot make one hair white or black. Let what you say be simply ‘Yes’ or ‘No’; anything more than this comes from evil” (Matt.5:33-37).
James and Jesus give us two reasons why making oaths is “evil”:
- It is arrogant. Jesus tells us not to swear by heaven, earth, or Jerusalem – because they all belong to Him. Even our own heads, we “cannot make one hair white or black.” When I “swear on my life” that I will do this or that, I arrogantly presume that my life is my own. I am saying, “If I don’t do this thing, then you can take my life”, which assumes that I have the rights over my life – but I don’t, God does (1 Cor. 6:19-20). Remember James’ argument earlier in chapter 4, where he said that we shouldn’t even say, “Today or tomorrow we will go into such and such a town and spend a year there and trade and make a profit”— yet you do not know what tomorrow will bring. What is your life? For you are a mist that appears for a little time and then vanishes. Instead you ought to say, “If the Lord wills, we will live and do this or that.” As it is, you boast in your arrogance” (James 4:13-16).
- It encourages deceit. In Jesus’ time, if you made an oath to prove that you could be trusted, then when you didn’t make an oath, your word seemed suspect. Many scholars say that during Jesus’ time on earth, many Jewish teachers believed that the only word you had to keep was an oath to God, therefore if you didn’t swear on something, you were not bound to keep your word. You see, the practice of oath making made it so that your “yes” and “no” were empty promises. James says that our “yes” should be yes and our “no” should be no. This is because we are made in the image of God; we are made to reflect God’s character and nature to those around us, and when we fail to follow through on our word, we are saying “God is like that. You can’t trust His word.”
A Christian’s word should be loaded with weight; we are lights in a dark world, trying to shine and reflect the beauty and wonder of Christ. We are showing the world why they can come to Jesus and trust Him. We are reminding one another that God is trustworthy and to be obeyed by maintaining our word.
This means that when I say “yes” to something, I mean it. And when I say “no”, I mean it. I don’t just flippantly agree to things, support things, or participate in things without counting the cost, and intending to follow through with it. This means that when someone asks me a question, I answer honestly. Ephesians 4 tells us, “Therefore, having put away falsehood, let each one of you speak the truth with his neighbor, for we are members one of another” (Eph. 4:25). Proverbs tells us, “Put away from you crooked speech, and put devious talk far from you” (Prov. 4:24). Our speech is to straight, honest, and full of integrity. This means obviously we don’t lie, we don’t gossip, we don’t tell half-truths, we don’t mislead others, and we don’t speak hypocritically.
A good diagnostic question for you: If the other person I am talking to/about were to discover my intentions, would they still believe and trust me?
Why We Deceive
To figure out how to stop our desire to deceive others, we need to figure out why we do it. As you take a category of your words, let’s think through what is motivating us to bend the truth and speak crookedly.
We tell lies to avoid getting in trouble.
We exaggerate to impress people.
We tell half-truths to get away with something without a guilty conscience.
We lie to get out of doing things we don’t want to do.
We agree to things we know we cannot do because we don’t want to look bad.
There are numerous reasons why we want to lie, to have our words be fluid, shifting and moving around as we see fit. But I think we could chase it all back to this one root: “I want to be in control”. When I begin to bend and reshape the truth, I am basically saying, “My version of reality is better, and life will be better for me if I take control of it.”
So, when I fib a little when telling a story to impress other people, I am saying, “I am not interesting enough on my own, but if I doctor it up a little, I can make it more appealing.” When I ignore someone’s text message, and then tell them that I just didn’t see it, I am saying, “I can’t bear to look bad, so I’ll refashion the story so that I come across looking better.”
See, we in our deceitfulness, we subtly and indirectly take on a part-time role of playing God in our lives. And that is the crux of the matter: deep down, we believe that we can control our lives better than God can. God tells us to be honest, straight-forward people – that is His design for our lives. So that means that when I come to the point of desiring to deceive others, I must answer this question: who controls my life, me or God? Who will I submit to? My desires or My King? We cannot be indifferent on this – will our “yes” simply be yes, or will our “yes” be yes…when we think it’s beneficial for us.
How We Become Honest People
Here is what we are saying, God’s Word is calling us to become radically honest people, who do not bend the truth and let their “yes” be yes, and “no” be no. However, we still lie and deceive others because deep down we feel like we know best, and we can control our lives better than God can. So the real question then is how do we become honest people? Well the answer is simple: we need to trust God.
In the book of Jeremiah, God reminds His people, “For I know the plans I have for you, declares the Lord, plans for welfare and not for evil, to give you a future and a hope” (Jer. 29:11). God’s design for us is not a bad one – it is one that is good, very good! God doesn’t call us to be honest people because He hates us, but because He knows what’s best for us. Proverbs warns us, “A false witness will not go unpunished, and he who breathes out lies will perish” (Prov. 19:9). And again, “Truthful lips endure forever, but a lying tongue is but for a moment” (Prov. 12:19).
See, God’s Word isn’t telling us, “Don’t lie…because I say so!” It is saying, “Don’t become a dishonest person because it will ruin your life! Trust the Lord’s plans, they are so much better!” And friends, don’t we see this? Don’t we know this to be true? Some of the most miserable people in the world are those who have made dishonesty a pattern, and have burned all their bridges in their life, because no one trusts them. If you want to live a miserable life, make lying, deceit and dishonesty a regular practice.
But, I bet that, honestly, still isn’t enough to change your heart. Here’s why:
Imagine with me, you have been caught doing something by your parents that you were not supposed to do. They ask you to explain what’s going on, and you realize here, in this moment you have a choice. You can lie, and tell a story that will maybe get them off your back and spare yourself, or you can tell the truth. If you tell the truth, there will most certainly be a punishment of some kind. And if you just tell yourself, “The Bible says it will go better for me if I tell the truth, and bad for me if I lie,” it probably won’t be enough to sustain you in that moment, especially if you already have a pattern of dishonesty. Why? Because that truth, though it is true, is abstract. Emotionally, you aren’t sure that you can trust these distant abstractions.
You need more than abstract truth – you need a Person. Someone you know you can trust, and friends, His name is Jesus. Jesus is the friend you can trust more than anyone else. No one knows you better than He does, because He made you, and not only did He make you, but He knows you. In the book of Revelation, Jesus is described as having eyes that are blazing with fire, and while He is judging one church He says, “‘The words of the Son of God, who has eyes like a flame of fire…I am he who searches mind and heart,” (Rev. 2:18, 23). The imagery there is meant to describe that the flaming eyes of Christ can see through us, through our smoke screens of self-righteousness, through our lies, through our false identity, down to the very bottom. Down to the place where we don’t let anyone else see. Often, when we are lying or deceiving others, we are doing so because we are terrified of anybody ever seeing who we really are, what we have really done. When we meet other people, we are on our best behavior, but we know there is this old ugliness that is lurking below – and we do everything we can, especially telling lies, to make sure no one sees it. That would be incredibly shameful – but not only does Jesus see all of that, but He sees it actually better, and deeper than even you do.
But the baffling thing is, Jesus is not repulsed. Jesus doesn’t think you are damaged goods. Jesus isn’t searching around inside of you, hoping to find a better version – no, He wants you, broken, jacked up, sinful, two-faced you. And He proved it by being willing to go to the Cross to have you. So you see, in the Gospel you have a God who knows your flaws deeply; deeper and more truly than anyone else, even yourself. But you also have a God who, despite all of your flaws, still desires you, still loves you. Isn’t that really what we are looking for in all of our friendships and relationships? To be both known and loved? In the Gospel you have both, to the deepest possible level they could be.
Jesus saw you in the alley of your sin, being mugged and beaten to death by your guilt and shame, and He jumped in and said, “If you want him, you’re going to have get through Me.” And he was devoured by our enemies, so we could go free; He was able to surrender Himself to be destroyed, because of the joy of knowing that you would be safe; by His wounds, we are healed (Isa. 53:5). Friends – when you see the beauty and gravity of what Christ did for you, you will trust Him. You will know that no matter what, He cares for you and wants good for you.
In the book of Colossians, Paul encourages us, “Do not lie to one another, seeing that you have put off the old self with its practices and have put on the new self,” (Col. 3:9-10). His argument is simple: a life of dishonesty is for your old life – you don’t need it anymore now that you have Christ.
So when you are standing before your parents, and the escape door of dishonesty presents itself, remember: trust the Lord, He cares for you, He loves you, He wants good for you, and tell the truth. Even if you get into a boatload of trouble and life gets way more complicated for you, trust that God is working your good together even in that (Rom. 8:28). If we are able to cultivate an unshakeable trust in Christ, the reasons that are so tempting to be dishonest will slowly shrivel, and in time, our “yes” will be yes, and our “no” will be no, by the grace of Christ.