In the middle of my elementary school years, I told a girl who had come over to play that my house had been built on an ancient Indian burial ground.
Reader, it had not.
To this day, I don’t know why I told her that: a mischievous impulse? The desire to shock or awe? She was a cheerleader, the popular girl in our class, so maybe I wanted to simply flaunt something way cooler than being on the sideline at a football game.
What I do know is that it was a lie, and one of many, many, many lies that I have told over the years.
Because we should be honest about at least this one thing: Christians lie. I have lied. You, certainly, have lied. Christians lie all the time for all sorts of reasons. And, I suspect, Christians in sum might lie even more than others ordinarily do.
I have seen Christians lie to spare feelings, to avoid uncomfortable conversations, to retreat from a conflict, and to avoid making a fuss. I have seen Christians lie to entertain, to avoid embarrassment, and to save face when they’re caught off guard. I have seen Christians lie to achieve desired outcomes, manipulate others, and secure their own standing.
I also, mostly, see Christians lie to hide their struggles.
In late high school, I wandered the local mall with two guys from my youth group. We bought sticky sodas and sat out in the parking lot to talk late into the evening. “Hey,” said E. one of those nights, pulling a cigarette out of a pack he’d had hidden in his pocket, “do me a favor?”
I frowned at him and wrinkled my nose. He was a rebellious, stubborn, gentle guy, all but abandoned by abusive parents, living with disinterested grandparents, struggling in school, clinging to God in circumstances that might have been unbearable for others. He smiled at me—he had a wonderful smile, but a sad one, and he always seemed older than his years. “This stays between you and me, okay? Don’t mention this at church -I don’t need anybody else jumping down my throat for everything I’m doing wrong. I love God. I just need a break.”
He was afraid of what our congregants might say – and so he lied, about that and many other things, to give the impression he was “a good Christian guy.”
Early in my marriage, I jumped in a car and drove out to a hotel in the middle of nowhere to retrieve one of the young women in my youth group. She enthusiastically advocated for sexual purity during our times together; she had, she confessed to me between sobs on the way home, been meeting her boyfriend at the hotel for trysts for the past several years. “Don’t tell anyone, please,” she wailed, swearing me to secrecy. “It’ll ruin everything.”
She lied because she was afraid people would learn she wasn’t “the good Christian girl.”
Every time a believer has ever mentioned a deep struggle with sin to me, it is accompanied in the same breath by a plea: “Don’t tell anyone about this.” Christians I’ve known over the years have lied about their sexual sins, their addictions, their spiteful comments, their bad decisions, their youthful mistakes, anything and everything that might mar the image of them as a committed believer.
Which is silly, of course, because committed believers are only sinners saved by grace. We’re all in the same boat: imperfect, struggling, righteous only in Christ. But most of us prefer to emphasize the work of the Holy Spirit in our lives rather than the times we fail and fall, and so must of us appear – at least outwardly – as though we’re forever ascending on a path to righteousness through grace, ever sinning less, ever growing in discernment and wisdom, ever becoming less selfish and more Christ-centered.
And when I think about that, I understand why some believers feel driven to lie. In a world of Christians who appear to be only ever improving, for whom embarrassing sins and mortifying foibles and weakness appear to be solely rearview-mirror territory, the prospect of messing up weighs heavy on the heart. And in a world where Christians can sometimes be the first to withhold grace, the prospect of confessing a significant sin can be daunting.
They won’t like me any more. They’ll think less of me. My parents will be ashamed. They won’t trust me any more. No one will think I’m worth anything. They’ll all be angry. They’ll never forgive me. I should be better than this. No other Christian struggles like this. I’m the only one who can’t get it right. In the face of thoughts like those, believers look into the eyes of their brothers and sisters – and lie through their teeth. The sin, they believe – at least for the moment – is preferable to the consequences of exposure.
We don’t always make it easy for people to tell the truth. When a friend of mine in college confessed a serious problem with pornographic and sexual behavior, many of his Christian friends simply stopped hanging out with him, too repulsed by the issue to show up and eat breakfast with him. He told me he was sorry he ever asked for help. When the young woman I knew eventually confessed her sexual sin with her boyfriend, her father yelled at her in an hourlong tirade and threatened to throw her out of the house.
Instead of forgiving and helping restore broken brothers and sisters, all while acknowledging the seriousness of sin, we heap scorn on them. We forget ourselves, grow angry, and yell. We delight in rubbing their faces in consequences. We gossip and clutch pearls. We forget that we have been there, and if we were never shamed with a sin made mortifyingly public, it is only by the grace of God.
I’m not saying that we should shrug off sin or disregard it. But we should follow Christ’s example of reaching out in love and grace to those bold enough to speak honestly before God and not make the mistake of punishing sincere confession with contempt. We should make common knowledge in understanding and in practice the truth that none of us have sinful periods in the rearview mirror: we have sinned, we will sin, we are sinning, and it is only by the grace of God through Christ that we are saved from it, for all our paltry efforts and attempts.
In a church where humble believers acknowledge their own flaws, and where they extend love and grace and warmth along with restoration and God’s truth, then it’s easier for believers to realize that “good Christians” do exactly what they might fear doing: stumble, fall, and then reach out for help to walk away from what ensnares them. It’s easier to tell the truth, and to start again. It’s easier to be honest.
And in a church where any admission of sin or wrongdoing is met with scorn, contempt, disgust, anger, and alienation? Well. You probably won’t hear many admissions of sin there: the believers there are smiling on the outside, growing daily in righteousness and grace. They are long past the days of significant sin and serious mistakes…except for the lies they tell each other, all the time, about who they are.
Making it easy for others to tell the truth begins with being honest ourselves about who God is and who are, and acting in love accordingly.