They sat across the table from me, telling the judge all about how much damage I had caused. Panic attacks leading to an inability to work, stemming from a car accident in which they had suffered whiplash and traumatic injuries and bruising. The thing was, it was all a pack of lies.
I had been reversing at about three miles an hour when I bumped into their car. We got out, surveyed the damage (a cracked fog light), exchanged details, and I went home feeling a little sheepish.
But later on, when the false injury claims were made, it was the lies that infuriated me. I was happy to take the blame for the accident (and did so in court), but I couldn’t stand listening to these lies.
We’ve all been touched by dishonesty and lies, and I suspect that as a society we are growing more and more dishonest. You arrange a gathering of friends and people start flaking out last minute despite having said they were coming. The CVs that land on your desk need to be double-checked for those ‘white lies’ and exaggerations. Whether you’re buying or selling a house, you now expect the other party to do something dirty at the last minute so that you lose money. The newspapers literally make stuff up all the time. Colleagues take the credit for your work, or pass the blame on for their mistakes, or simply fail to do what they said they’d do. Your spouse leaves you because they’re no longer ‘in love’, even though they said they’d stay with you until death.
One evidence of this growing dishonesty is the increased need for legal protections and padlocks. Legislation abounds to regulate everything from billion pound trades to sales worth pennies on eBay, and it’s all for one reason alone: we lie. We need to use the law to protect ourselves. If there were no lies, there would be no contracts, no regulations, no forms to sign or courts to arbitrate. A culture that doesn’t know how to trust one another is a culture that is crumbling apart, tied together only by the contracts we sign.
I wonder why truth is rapidly declining, why we live in a post-truth world, why it is so hard to trust one another these days. When did a man’s word stop being his bond?
Telling the truth matters, and the most powerful version of truth-telling is the capacity to make promises. Lewis Smedes was an author and ethicist who wrote about the extraordinary power of promising as ‘the only way to overcome the unpredictability of your future’. Why?
When we make a promise we take it on our feeble wills to keep a future rendezvous with someone in circumstances we cannot possibly predict… to create our future with someone else no matter what fate or destiny may have in store. This is almost ultimate freedom .
A promise is the only way we can create future certainty in an uncertain world, the only way of making ‘a small sanctuary of trust within the jungle of unpredictability’.
The modern fear of promises and commitments must have a cause. I would argue that it has to do with our increasing distance from God. Smedes asks about making promises, ‘Can any human act, other than the act of forgiving, be more divine?’ The entirety of the Christian faith is based on promises: God’s promise to forgive, his promise not to hold our sins against us now that Jesus has died in our place, his promise to resurrect those who have believed in Jesus to eternal life. Without promises there is no relationship with God, and there is no Christianity. Smedes unfolds this thought some more:
The future of the human family rides the fragile fibres of a promise spoken. One thing assures us that the cosmos will not climax its arduous odyssey turning itself into a stinking garbage heap. Only one thing affirms that the human romance will have a happy ending, and that the earth will be populated one day by a redeemed family living in justice and shalom. The one thread by which everything hangs is a promise spoken and not forgotten.
I confess that I lie. I’ve been lied to many times. But as truth seems to disperse, the peace that comes through knowing the God who keeps his word more than atones for whatever disappointment I feel in life, not least with myself. That is why God is often described as a rock — immoveable, unchanging, steadfast. And that is why Jesus invited us to build our lives on that rock as the only way to control the future.