It turns out there’s no such thing as a “little white lie.”
According to a recent study published in the Nature Neuroscience journal, the process of lying is something our brains adapt to over time, making both the frequency and audacity of the lies escalate. The researchers speculate that might explain the “slippery slope” described by everyone from adulterers to embezzlers to disgraced politicians, where a series of small choices led to disastrous ones.
For those of us who are church leaders this has implications on everything from how we lead our communities to how honest we are about our internal lives. It’s also a pretty killer sermon illustration. Here are a few things to know about this study and what it means.
A PENNY FOR YOUR THOUGHTS
The study asked participants to help their unseen partner estimate how many pennies were in a jar. Some participants were told they would be paid more if their partner overestimated the amount while some were told their partner would be paid more or they would both be paid more.
What the study found was participants with a motivation to lie without consequences not only took that option but increased the boldness of their lies over time. Beyond that, their brain activity seemed to respond less to the lie each time. In other words the participants had less of an emotional response to their lying and found it easier to do the next time.
THE MYTH OF THE ‘SMALL SIN’
For followers of Jesus this study is far from surprising. Lying is a big deal in the Bible. Instructions against it show up in the 10 commandments, dozens of times in Proverbs, is one of God’s big criticisms of Israel throughout the Old Testament, and regularly makes Paul’s list of “things not to do” in his letters to the church. This study helps us partially understand why God takes lying seriously.
In his book The Great Divorce C.S. Lewis illustrates how the everyday choices people make are turning them in to a certain kind of person. In his fable, people in hell don’t want to go to heaven because they have become the kind of person that doesn’t fit there. In Lewis’ imagination there are no such things as “small sins” for an eternal creature being turned more every day either into the image of God or Satan.
This study suggests Lewis may have been on to something: With every act we are literally, physically turning in to people more or less inclined toward sinful behavior.
It turns out the Bible’s instructions about telling the truth really do lead to a better life.
LIAR, LIAR, LIVES ON FIRE
In the movie movie Liar, Liar, Jim Carrey plays a lawyer who all of a sudden is incapable of telling lies. It’s played for comedy but the point is profound. How often in our days do we “massage the truth,” inflate the numbers, give our spouse the more comfortable version of the story, or justify the small indiscretion?
What we’re doing with each choice is training our brains, shaping our behaviors and silencing our conscience. This is why we’re to take “every thought captive,” because each one of those thoughts is literally turning us in to a certain kind of person.
You don’t have to be a Christian to get this is true. In a recent New York Times article, neuroscientist Christian Ruff summarized the results of this study: “The implication is that we should watch out that we don’t tolerate lies, in order to prevent people from lying when it really matters.”
But for those of us who follow Jesus we know it’s harder than just not tolerating lies. It’s recognizing the impulse to lie is deep inside all of us, and we need a Savior who can root it out. The good news is what Paul says in 1 Corinthians 6, that we all used to be liars and adulterers and thieves, but now “you were washed, you were sanctified, you were justified in the name of the Lord Jesus Christ and by the Spirit of our God.”
And that’s the God-honest truth.