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Tell the truth or keep a confidence — part 3

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Tell the truth or keep a confidence — part 3

“Don’t lie to me!” The imperative of truth-telling.

Is it always an unequivocal good to tell the truth? Is it always beneficial to keep something confidential, even secret? The Bible contains a lot of wisdom on these questions. It provides us with an ethic about when, and when not, to share information — especially personal information.

This is the third of a series of posts exploring the ethics and practice of confidentiality and truth-telling in the Christian community in the light of Scripture — especially the Biblical wisdom tradition. The principles are applicable, of course, in many other contexts such as clubs, families, schools, places of work, villages, blocks of flats, etc. The wisdom of Scripture, inspired as it is by the Creator, is true for all human beings everywhere.

Read the first post, introducing the theme of the series, by clicking here.

The second post, on the imperative to withhold personal information, is here.

This third post considers truth-telling – the ethics of imparting personal information.

Should I tell the police?

I knew from pastoring a woman in the church I was serving that her husband had a significant drink problem. He was not an active Christian and had never disclosed his drinking problem to me nor sought for any help. I only had her word that there was any problem. This disclosure, therefore, was clearly information that I must keep confidential. It was not to be shared with anyone, anywhere. I had a little bit of concern, however, because he drove long distances to work. Was he safe to be on the roads?

But then I heard something more. I heard that he’d been caught driving while over the limit and had been banned from driving for three years. I was pleased to hear this because it appeared to absolve me from my moral dilemma. He had not hurt anyone while drink-driving, but he was now prevented from driving and therefore other people were safe from any ill-consequences. Phew!

Time passed and then I heard through a third-party that, despite being banned, he was continuing to drive. And that he’d offered help to a couple at church with whom he was friends, he’d offered to drive them to the airport for their holiday. I was in relationship at some level with all these people that rendered me beholden to each in different ways. Like everyone, I have a general duty of care to all other people. How was I to act to be right and just and fair to all parties. Then again, was this even my problem?

Did I need the courage to tell the truth ⎯ to go to him and challenge his behaviour? Might I then need the courage to make a disclosure to the authorities without his consent despite any distress caused and ructions to relationships?

Or did I need the wisdom to see that this was none of my business? Maybe a desire to interfere revealed my need either (1) to salve my troubled conscience or (2) to fix everything (aka stand in for God because I thought he’d dropped the ball)?

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The imperative to impart information — truth-telling.

When is it a virtue and when is it a vice to share personal information? And what are the dynamics that make sharing either a vice or a virtue? These considerations cover the sort of practical moral decisions every one of us must make often, if not daily. Scripture is not silent on these dilemmas.

Truth-telling is the opposite of lying.

Truth-telling is the opposite of lying which is endemic in western societies. Griffiths asserts that capitalist democracies are built on mendacity. Those who seek elected office are expected to lie, and capitalism expands through mendacious advertising (Griffiths, 2004, p.229). In twenty-first century Britain most people tell lies and in popular ethical thinking this mendacity is fully justifiable. At best we lie to protect people’s feelings. At worst we lie to cover our backside.

A Biblical foundation for the imperative of truth-telling.

In Proverbs truth-telling is applauded (22:21, 23:23), but more often false witness is condemned (e.g., Proverbs 6:16-19; 30:7-8). However, within the worldview often assumed to be promoted by the sages in Proverbs, there is little cost associated with this integrity. That worldview is what I have called a predictable act-consequence worldview that a superficial reading derives from Proverbs (Goldsworthy, 2000, pp.435-436). In that worldview, as I say, integrity is not seen as carrying a high price-tag.

On one hand, it’s “better to be poor than a liar” (Proverbs 19:22), and “a fortune made by a lying tongue is a fleeting vapour and a deadly snare” (Proverbs 21:6). On the other hand, sin may appear to offer immediate gratification. Nevertheless, the wise have seen through this offer. They know that the true path to wealth is via integrity.

The sages are optimistic about how life will turn out if you always do the right thing! (Witherington, 1994, p.114). This is because the sapiental tradition has confidence in the theology it derives from observing how the created order works. If an act has generally been observed to produce a given consequence on many previous occasions, then just keep repeating the act and you will surely see the good consequence you wish for.

If Job is the sequel to Proverbs, as Brown suggests (1996, p.51), the silent young man of Proverbs has grown up to be a patriarch in his own right, a father himself, and exceedingly rich — though he has avoided falling for the idolatry of riches which leads to disowning the LORD (Proverbs 30:9). The distinguishing character of Job is blamelessness and integrity which is attested by God (Job 1:8, 2:3).

Up to this point in his life Job’s prosperity has been emblematic of his integrity — he is an exemplar of the act-consequence worldview apparently promoted in Proverbs. The book of Job, however, describes a reversal of Job’s fortune — an outcome for which the sages had no explanation, and which provokes a crisis of wisdom — a crisis that would find its fullest answer only in Christ (Witherington, 1994, pp.112-113).

Meanwhile, for Job this crisis leads to a clash of integrity with integrity.

On the one hand Job is not willing to “sin by charging God with wrongdoing” (Job 1:22); he proves that his piety has been disinterested by showing that he was not a worshipper of God merely because God had prospered him. He was and is a person of integrity (Job 3).

Yet as events unfold that very integrity gives Job a problem. The friends seek to impose onto Job’s experience an unqualified act-consequence worldview in order to explain his suffering — arguing that he is evidently a sinner or else these bad things would not have happened (e.g. Job 8).

In his integrity Job cannot fully accept the truthfulness of this conventional wisdom that his friends have condensed from Proverbs since it is not nuanced enough to accurately account for his own experience. “You, however, smear me with lies…” (Job 13:4), “Your maxims are proverbs of ashes” (Job 13:12), “who can prove me false?” (Proverbs 24:25). His very integrity leads Job to a rejection of the over-simplified value-system he’d built his life on. Thus, nearing the end of his outpourings he states:

3 …as long as I have life within me, the breath of God in my nostrils,

4 my lips will not say anything wicked, and my tongue will not utter lies.

5 I will never admit you are in the right; till I die, I will not deny my integrity.

6 I will maintain my innocence and never let go of it; my conscience will not reproach me as long as I live. (Job 27:3-6)

Courage needed.

It takes great courage to be committed to truth-telling even when that sets you against the dominant received theology of your own circle. The wisdom literature shows us that truth-telling goes deeper than being truthful in business, true to our word, and truthful in testimony. Truth-telling is also about being truthful with God and with our community about what walking with God is like.

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Experience modifies theology.

In each generation human beings are vulnerable to the habit of fossilising the received truths of God, rather than inhabiting a vital integration of propositional truth and subjective experience.

This reductionist process is sponsored by the powers that be because deed-outcome wisdom supports the status quo. It is suggested that the wisdom literature was largely written by the privileged for the privileged (Witherington, 1994, p.113). It’s not hard to see how the proverbs of Solomon (Proverbs 10:1ff.) with their clear deed-outcome mindset will always appeal to the upwardly mobile and prosperous in any society.

Creation wisdom can easily be bent to serve the agenda of the secular powers that be.

It tends to produce useful and productive members of society because it promotes diligent labour among the majority, and this usually delivers widespread order and prosperity. However, the resulting love of systems (for Christians, maybe read systematic theology?) can lead to worldviews that are not true to reality, and do not adequately account for every experience of life (Goldsworthy, 2000, p.433).

The crisis of wisdom that is played out in Job’s life offers every generation, and every tradition, a creative way of escape from fossilisation through the avenue of truth-telling. The result is not a new system that really accounts for everything but an existential encounter with ultimate reality — the truthful God. This involves a humble admission that as human beings we cannot derive wisdom by any amount of travel, research, or intelligence, but only by turning to him who alone is all-wise (Job 28). Observation of creation can take us only so far. Revelation from God is also required.

The New Testament and the ‘pious poor’

The act-consequence worldview is nuanced in the New Testament with the notions of the ‘pious poor’ (that poverty is not the evidence of being a sinner), the recognition of the dangers of wealth (that wealth can be associated with the wicked), and the expectation of a coming kingdom in which fortunes will be reversed (Witherington, 1994, p.383).

Furthermore, the locus of wisdom on earth becomes particularised in Christ (Witherington, 1994, p.384).

Christ not only nuanced creation-order wisdom, his atonement reveals crisis-order (or should we say eschatological-order) wisdom more clearly. In eschatological-order wisdom, the moral weakness of humanity is admitted, suffering is understood differently, and God’s grace allows for those who trust in Christ to be credited with Christ’s righteousness even though we have not kept the law ourselves.

Wisdom in the gospel

Grace, in other words, cuts across the deed-outcome norms of creation, but it does so without cancelling out the reality that acts have consequences. Those consequences are taken squarely by Christ on the cross! And God acts in salvation to transform the moral ability of believers precisely so they can start to live out the exhortations of Scripture to live holy lives — to embody the instrumental and communal virtues. So ultimately Scripture commends both types of wisdom to us (Goldsworthy, 2000, p.479), and both sponsor truthfulness in community.

Within the context of this clash of creation-order and eschatological-order wisdom, the genius of Scripture is that it still offers us practical wisdom about lying and truth-telling.

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Truth-telling is a communal virtue.

15 Instead, speaking the truth in love, we will in all things grow up into him who is the head, that is, Christ. 16 From him the whole body, joined and held together by every supporting ligament, grows and builds itself up in love, as each part does its work. (Ephesians 4:15-16).

The apostle links truth-telling with community and maturity (Willimon, 2002, p.258-259). God made us to know the truth. The truth sets us free as well as maturing us. Christians believe that truth brings more hope than lies (Hauerwas, 1999, p.120).

What do truth-telling communities look like?

The New Testament describes a transparency that is refreshing and challenging. The early Christians knew they were known by God, and they had been forgiven everything, so what need had they to hide any skeletons?

For the Apostle John light and darkness were not merely metaphorical ideas, but a real experience of transformation, and of transportation into a new world where hiding was no longer advisable or necessary, and in which new-made people relate in a whole new way. In this kingdom, hypocrisy, self-righteousness, and arrogance are tamed by habits of grace which include believing the best about others, considering others better than ourselves, and the public confession of sin. John describes this at the start of his first epistle. Life in the kingdom of God involves embodying communal virtues of mercy, transparency, humility, and truthfulness.

Defining what it means to lie or speak the truth.

“To lie is a verbal act, something we do with words” (Griffiths, 2004, p.25).

Using Augustine as a conversation partner, Griffiths defines the lie as “the mismatch between what’s in your heart (what you take to be true) and what’s on your tongue (what you say to be true)” (Griffiths, 2004, p.26). We lie when we speak words that contradict our thoughts (Griffiths, 2004, p.25). Thus, Griffiths argues, the person who speaks objectively false words while believing them to be true is not a liar — though he is deceived. Duplicity contrasts with the integrity and the correspondence of thought and speech we find in God, who is in himself the pattern of truthful living.

In Scripture lying is banned and truth-telling is obligated

Specific kinds of lying are singled out for the ban in Scripture, and specific kinds of truth-telling are obligated. The Bible writers give pastoral advice so that we can build up the community in love.

Malicious witness is damaging and forbidden.

The ninth commandment, “You shall not give false testimony against your neighbour,” (Exodus 20:16) is probably about truthful testimony in a court of law, though we should not construe that to permit lying in all other contexts! The chapters following Exodus 20 offer a commentary on several of the commandments. The ninth commandment is developed with these words:

1 “Do not spread false reports. Do not help a guilty person by being a malicious witness.
2 “…When you give testimony in a lawsuit, do not pervert justice by siding with the crowd…
7 Have nothing to do with a false charge and do not put an innocent or honest person to death, for I will not acquit the guilty (Exodus 23:1-2, 7).

The Good News Bible renders Exodus 23:1, “do not help a guilty man by giving false witness.” The Scripture forbids not only false charges being laid against an innocent person (that is lying) but also binds us to tell the truth about the guilt of a guilty person! This is essential to the rule of law. Communities become ungovernable just as soon as individuals lose the sense of duty to testify against the guilty (Proverbs 17:15, 18:5).

The Ten Commandments are best understood as nation-building words (Hauerwas, 1999, p.18). This community-building goal is also evident in Proverbs where malicious testimony is the subject of eight separate references.

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Flattery is damaging and superfluous.

Scripture exhorts us to honour others but not lie to them. Near the beginning of “Four Quartets” Eliot wrote “Humankind cannot bear very much reality” (1963, p.190). The community is there, in part, to make us honest — to extricate us from our habit of casting ourselves always as victims and never as culprits.

Flattery is generally evaluated as harmless. It’s asserted that lies save people’s feelings. The sages do not agree. “A lying tongue hates those it hurts, and a flattering mouth works ruin” (Proverbs 26:28), and while “faithful are the wounds of a friend; profuse are the kisses of an enemy” (Proverbs 27:6), and “those who flatter their neighbours are spreading nets for their feet” (Proverbs 29:5).

Too often, in too many families, clubs, businesses and yes, even church congregations, unity is purchased by the world’s means — suppression of information, deceitful flattery, niceness and subterfuge — rather than through the Christ appointed means of speaking truth in love. To have unity or love worthy of the designation ‘Christian,’ we need to be more in love with truth than with either unity or love (Willimon, 2002, p.259).

Truth-telling is not easy, but it is better than flattery in the long run. As the sages confirm: “Whoever rebukes a person will in the end gain favours rather than one who has a flattering tongue.” (Proverbs 28:23).

The association of flattery and ‘gaining favour’ is apt — flattery has to do with power and influence. As Jude wrote, ungodly people “flatter others for their own advantage” (Jude 16). We tend to think that flattery is the special temptation of the follower; and it was a powerful tool for the usurper, Absalom, when he rebelled against his father, King David (2 Samuel 15:1-12). However, in the context of the voluntary community of the church it is the leader who may face the greater temptation to use flattery, either through lack of principle (Romans 16:17-18) or as a practical strategy to seek to influence those followers who are most difficult to lead. In this case flattery is distorted affirmation or feedback.

Feedback is a gift.

In recent years people like Simon Cowell and Craig Revel Horwood have fashioned television-talent-show judging personas known above all for truth-telling. They are hissed at or grudgingly respected for their robust feedback and their unwillingness “to patronise people”. At our best we welcome those who tell us the truth about ourselves (Psalm 141:5 and Proverbs 1:23, 1:30-31, 9:8, 17:10, etc.). I have found Johari’s Window to be a very useful tool when hard truths are to be told.

The failure to tell the truth to our friends may result from fear of rejection. The ideals of friendship espoused in wider society seem to require us to take a friend’s side in a dispute, even when they are manifestly in the wrong, as a proof of our loyal friendship (Calvin — quoted in Hauerwas, 1999, p.125). This infringes the ninth commandment before the informal courts of our community. Our cowardice denies our friend the opportunity to grow in self-awareness — in theological terms, to repent. While spitefulness kills community, politeness can also kill community.

If, in truth, we are merely autonomous individuals, then my observation of my neighbour’s wrongdoing puts me under no responsibility whatsoever. If, however, I have been called into the community of the Spirit, that way of thinking must be replaced. Truth-telling is called for.

Nevertheless, it is not easy to hear the truth about ourselves.

What makes for good feedback?

Undoubtedly, it helps when you believe the person giving you feedback has your best interests at heart. This will likely be the product of a relationship of respect and trust built up over time. That very investment is what makes it harder to tell the truth as there is so much more to lose. Willimon quotes Reinhold Niebuhr speaking about the tension he perceived between the role of pastor and prophet:

I think the real clue to the tameness of a preacher is the difficulty one finds in telling unpleasant truths to people whom one has learned to love… Once personal contact is established you are very prone to temper your wind to the shorn sheep. (Quoted in Willimon, 2002, page 250).

Thomas observes that truthful feedback shows that a leader has noticed our effort and our competence and cares enough to bring suggestions to us for change. “We all want to be noticed accurately.” (Thomas, 1999, p.47). The accuracy of this feedback, while it may conflict with our own self-assessment, ultimately motivates us because it is evidence that the leader cares enough to have observed us carefully. We need the courage and the faith to tell the truth to others, and face the truth about ourselves.

“Background conversation”

Background conversation is the label Blakeley gives to our unspoken judgements about another person (2005). This inner commentary may (possibly) be harmless when it’s about strangers we won’t meet again; however, close relationships will be strained when there’s a large difference between what you ‘say’ and what you ‘think’ about the person.

This unspoken background conversation can be inaccurate — simply a negative perception of the other person. The answer is to correct our unspoken negative opinion which will allow us to perceive the other person accurately again.

Sometimes this truth-deficit exists because we have failed to voice our accurate opinion of the person over a long period of time. In this case the solution requires truthful confrontation. A sudden disclosure of all the opinions that have been kept hidden up to that point would worsen the relationship. Gossip will also be destructive. The better strategy will be to speak in a progressively more truthful way with the aim of developing a more honest, enriching, and productive relationship.

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Biblical qualifications of this ethic of imparting information

It is frightening to imagine what a community may look like should there be an unqualified and simplistic application of this summons to truth-telling. In his Pensées Blaise Pascal wrote “I hold it to be a fact that if all persons knew what each said of the other, there would not be four friends in the world.” (Blanchard, 1984, p.128).

Truth-telling can turn into tyranny and oppression at the hands of the self-righteous, the spiteful and the hypocritical. What safeguards does Scripture supply? In other words, what does “speaking the truth in love” (Ephesians 4:15-16) involve?

Honesty does not mean telling all.

God doesn’t! It would be abusive to tell your eight-year-old child about how you were abused when you were eight — however true! It would be unhelpful to tell everyone you know about every temptation and inner struggle you have. The Bible teaches us to keep confidences as well as to walk in the light.

Beware hypocrisy.

One of the main faults that Jesus attacked was hypocrisy (see Matthew 6:2, 5, 16; 23:13-29). Why? Because reform programmes attract hypocrites. Jesus knew that any attempt at truthful community must be marked by alertness to hypocrisy.

Give respect.

“Honour one another above yourselves” (Romans 12:10). This extends beyond the church community (1 Peter 2:17, 3:15-16). This is nuanced by the recognition that some people are not worthy of honour and respect (Proverbs 26:1, 8; 1 Timothy 3:8, 11, 6:1; Titus 2:2), though some people must be respected ex-officio such as parents, kings and even church leaders (1 Thessalonians 5:12-13).

Respect undermines prejudice and superiority. It calls us to treat all other people with dignity whatever their race, gender, background, education, language, class, or age. Respect is a community-building value.

Avoid meddling.

The sages recognised that taking responsibility for our neighbour could be taken too far. “Like one who grabs a stray dog by the ears is someone who rushes into a quarrel not their own.” (Proverbs 26:17).

The apostle Paul developed this concept more fully under the label ‘busybodies’ (2 Thessalonians 3:11). This sin (1 Peter 4:15) is described further when Paul writes to Timothy about young widows in 1 Timothy 5:13. Paul is aware that there are boundaries to our sense of community responsibility. When we become aware of negative information about someone, we are not always brought under the obligation to speak or act. We must ask ourselves whether the matter has anything to do with us, and if the answer is ‘no,’ then we should take the path of discretion — that is confidentiality. There’s another post here that also touches on the problem of meddling.

What practical advice can help us live out an ethic of just and fair use of personal information?

That is developed in the fourth post in the series.


Scripture quotations taken from THE HOLY BIBLE, TODAY’S NEW INTERNATIONAL VERSION Copyright © 2004 by International Bible Society. Used by permission of Hodder & Stoughton Publishers, a division of Hodder Headline Ltd. All rights reserved.

Scripture quotations marked ESV are from the anglicized edition of The Holy Bible, English Standard VersionTM published by HarperCollins Publishers copyright © 2001, 2002 by Crossway Bibles, a division of Good News Publishers. Used by permission. All rights reserved.

Banks, S (2001), Ethics and Values in Social Work 2nd edition, Basingstoke, Palgrave

Biestek, F (1961), The Casework Relationship, London, George Allen & Unwin

Blakeley, C (2005), Leadership and Relationship, my own lecture notes taken on 27 April 2005

Blanchard, J (1984), Gathered Gold, Welwyn, Evangelical Press

Brown, W (1996), Character in Crisis: A Fresh Approach to the Wisdom Literature of the Old Testament, Grand Rapids, Michigan, William B. Eerdmans Publishing Co.

Brueggemann, W (1983), In Man We Trust: The Neglected Side of Biblical Faith, Louisville, Kentucky, Westminster John Knox Press

Carson, D (1991), The Gospel According to John (Pillar New Testament Commentary), Leicester, Apollos

Clark, C (2000), Social Work Ethics, Basingstoke, Palgrave

Eliot, T (1963), Collected Poems 1909-1962, London, Faber and Faber

Fee, G & Stuart D (1983), How to Read the Bible for all It’s Worth, London, Scripture Union

Goldsworthy, G (2000) The Goldsworthy Trilogy: Gospel and Kingdom, Gospel and Wisdom, The Gospel in Revelation, Carlisle, Paternoster Press

Griffiths, P (2004), Lying: An Augustinian Theology of Duplicity, Grand Rapids, Michigan, Brazos Press

Hauerwas, S & Willimon, W (1999), The Truth About God: The Ten Commandments in Christian Life, Nashville, Tennessee, Abingdon Press

Moo, D (2000), The Letter of James, Leicester, Apollos

Pearson, D (2003), Guidance to Churches: A Working Manual for Child Protection and Safe Practice 10th Edition, Swanley, Churches Child Protection Advisory Service

Thomas, V (1999), Future Leader, Carlisle, Paternoster Press

Willimon, W (2002), Pastor: The Theology and Practice of Ordained Ministry, Nashville, Tennessee, Abingdon Press

Witherington, B (1994), Jesus the Sage: The Pilgrimage of Wisdom, Minneapolis, Fortress Press


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