Saturday, July 30, 2016

Wrestling with a Lie (my own)

One of the things I'm reading these days is a short booklet called, Deception: Letting Go of Lying by Lou Priolo. A while back, a friend accused me of lying. The old Adam, this old earthly sinner, in me, raised a wail of indignant denial.

But, as time has passed, I've come to believe that my friend was right. I had lied.

Here's what happened. A group of disciples at my former parish had led the charge in favor of the authority of God's Word in a dispute in our congregation. They backed my position. There were votes over whether the congregation would stay within a denomination we thought was turning away from Scripture or move to a congregation that upheld Scripture's authority.

This group who prayed hard, studied hard, and worked hard to move the congregation to the new denomination, and I, would often speak about what we might do depending on the congregation's decisions. In the midst of it, I made the implicit promise that I would stick with them. There were many complicating factors, as there always are in life. But that's the bottom line: I said that I was sticking it out.

After the congregation had decided to be dual-rostered, I found out about a church that was only two years old, had been severely reduced in numbers in a set of conflicts involving the former senior pastor, and, despite it all, had a notable commitment to mission. I later came to learn that some in the congregation, Living Water Lutheran Church, were unsure whether the community would survive much longer. (Two men, in fact, had even made a pact; they would be the last ones out the doors, if it came to that.)

The description of what the congregation was looking for in a senior pastor is what caught my attention, though. It was as if they were telling me, "We created this position for you."

I contacted an official from our denomination about the possibility of submitting my name to the church's call committee. He didn't discourage me, but he didn't give me any encouragement either. "You should know, Mark," he said, "that a lot of good pastors have put their names in there."

My biggest concern was whether I would be abandoning Saint Matthew if I were to leave after six years as the congregation's pastor. Based on prayer and conversation, I decided that there would be no harm in submitting my name and, if the call committee at Living Water decided to proceed, interviewing for the position. I submitted my name and vita with little expectation that the call committee would even want to speak with me.

In all of this praying, talking, and considering, I never once took anyone at Saint Matthew into my confidence, not even that faithful group of leaders to whom I was so close.

I had been taught that you just didn't tell anybody in your current parish when you were contemplating a potential call to another church. The thinking was that if it turned out that God wasn't calling you to another church, you didn't want to be in the position of jerking people around. "I'm your pastor. Follow my lead. But I might be going," are hardly words designed to inspire confidence or assurance.

And I have seen congregations impacted negatively when pastors took calls to other churches two years and more after saying that that was a possibility. In the meantime, ministries lost momentum. And some congregants feel that if the pastor was going to leave anyway, she or he ought to just go.

So much for what I'd been taught or what I saw as the rationale.

I now realize that I should have taken that special coterie of courageous people of faith into my confidence. I needn't have told the entire congregation that I was talking with another church. But I should have told these leaders something like, "I don't know how this is going to turn out. But I've been interviewing with another congregation." I owed them that.

When I finally told these amazing people that it was 90% certain I would be leaving, it was awful. They felt that they'd been deceived. And they had been. It wasn't that I had lied to them overtly. I lied to them by withholding information.

As Priolo explains it, "concealment involves withholding essential elements of the truth from those who have a need to know them. He talks about the lie of concealment that first tripped the human race into sin, when the serpent told Eve (and Adam, who was with her) that if they ate of the fruit from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil that God had forbidden them to eat, they would "be like God, knowing good and evil." (Genesis 3:5-7)

After the two had bitten into the fruit, Priolo notes, "Their eyes were indeed opened, and they did see good and evil. But unlike God (and this is what the serpent neglected to tell them), Adam and Eve would know evil experientially. God indeed knows the difference between the two, but His knowledge of evil is not firsthand--but, as it were, from a distance."

"Of course," Priolo continues, "Satan also concealed the sinful and utterly miserable condition that this 'new state of enlightenment' would bestow upon them."

It was partly because of this lie by concealment that Jesus called Satan, "the father of lies" (John 8:44).

Of course, lying about others is specifically prohibited in the Bible's eighth commandment: "You shall not bear false witness against your neighbor." As Martin Luther explains in The Small Catechism, the implications of this command go way beyond refraining from telling untruths about others. Luther says:
We should fear and love God so that we do not betray, slander, lie, or gossip about our neighbors, but defend them, speak well of them, and put the most charitable construction on all that they do.
But beyond the Bible's condemnation of false witness, it reveals that God takes a dim view of lying generally:
Lying lips are an abomination to the Lord, but those who deal faithfully are His delight. (Proverbs 12:22) 
A righteous man hates falsehood. (Proverbs 13:5)
As I look back prayerfully on those days of concealing the truth from my friends, there are several things that I believe:

First, God's Holy Spirit was stirring me to interview for and ultimately to accept the call to Living Water. His hand was in things from the start, when I read the job description and thought that they were describing me. And I take great comfort from the fact that this congregation, the council, and the call committee approached their task with constant prayer and with thoroughness. I've never had any doubts that God called me to Living Water; I've entertained many doubts about how I handled leaving Saint Matthew.

Second, I should have taken that group of dedicated leaders at Saint Matthew into my confidence and told them what was going on. Yes, that would have been tough. But it would have been more forthright and more helpful had I done so, rather than simply unloading on them one evening, telling them that my leaving was all but a done deal.

Third, I need to be very intentional about incorporating unflinching truth-telling in my everyday living. This is a lot easier said than done. The truth is, we probably all lie. Or, as Priolo puts it: "Who can really maintain that he never breaks this commandment? To make such a claim is to instantly break it."

Lying is part of much of our everyday discourse, whether we realize it or not. During the 1976 presidential campaign, the first presidential election held after Richard Nixon resigned the presidency, done in by the mountains of lies he had spread about his attempts to subvert democracy and justice, Jimmy Carter promised the American people that he would never tell a lie. A reporter asked Carter's mother if her son ever told lies. Miss Lillian replied that he might sometimes tell "a little white lie." The reporter asked what she meant by "a little white lie." "Well," she said, "do you remember how I said that I was glad to see you when you walked in just now?" But a lie is a lie whether we add the adjectives "little white" or not.

The Bible does seem to intimate that there are times, as when you're trying to protect someone from being killed, that lying is acceptable. For example, the book of Exodus tells us that after the Pharaoh in Egypt ordered that all male babies of the Hebrew slaves should be killed by the Hebrew midwives. But the midwives didn't do what the Pharaoh ordered them to do, claiming that the Hebrew women were so strong that they were birthing their baby boys before the midwives could get to them. (Exodus 1:15-21). Exodus says that God "dealt well with the midwives" for this deception that saved lives.

Later, the book of Joshua tells us that when the Hebrews, God's people, prepared to occupy the land that God had given to them, a prostitute Rahab who had come to believe in God lied regarding the whereabouts of Hebrew slaves who had entered the city of Jericho to spy it out before attack. The New Testament book of Hebrews hails Rahab as a person of faith, made right with God by her faith in Him: "By faith Rahab the prostitute did not perish with those who were disobedient, because she had given a friendly welcome to the spies" (Hebrews 11:31).

But these are exceptions. Most of the time, we don't lie to protect other people's lives, but to protect our own skins, our reputations, our desire to have pleasant conditions for ourselves. Those aren't sound reasons for any kind of lying.

I'm reading this booklet in the hopes that it will help me to speak the truth (even inconvenient truths) in love (Ephesians 4:15). Priolo does give helpful pointers on dealing with this particular sin in our lives.

But the first step in dealing with this, as with any other, sin, is to acknowledge its existence within us.
I do acknowledge this sin. 1 John 1:8 says: "If we claim to be without sin, we deceive ourselves and the truth is not in us."

The second necessary step is to confess this to the God we know in Christ, seeking forgiveness. 
Scripture says: "If we confess our sins, he is faithful and just and will forgive us our sins and purify us from all unrighteousness" (1 John 1:9).

The third thing we need to do is to confess to those who have been hurt by our sin. 
This may sometimes be hard to pull off. And our apologies may not be accepted. (More on this below.) Jesus says: "if you are offering your gift at the altar and there remember that your brother or sister has something against you, leave your gift there in front of the altar. First go and be reconciled to them; then come and offer your gift" (Matthew 5:23-24). I have confessed this wrong to the members of this group back at Saint Matthew. I hope that they know how much I regret the my concealment.

The fourth thing we need to do is to accept that, even after God has forgiven us for the sake of what Jesus did for us on the cross, not only may others not accept us or ever trust us again, there may be consequences from the sin of lying we can't imagine.
In Christ, God forgives and grace is free, but the bonds of trust with those to whom we have lied are deeply harmed, sometimes completely destroyed, by our lies. In the Old Testament, we're told that God forgave David for adultery and murder, but that his sins had consequences on earth, his reign as king forever marred by the trust and respect he had lost.

The key thing is to continuously turn to Jesus, God in human flesh, Who took the death punishment that we all deserve for sin and rose from the dead, confirming His power to forgive us and make us new.
Jesus can renew us in His forgiving grace each time we truly repent for our sins. Jesus can also give us the power to live our lives differently. He is "the way and the truth and the life," the only path to life with God runs through repentant faith in Jesus.

Despite my sins and faults, I'm relying on Him to make me new. You can too.

[Blogger Mark Daniels is pastor of Living Water Lutheran Church in Centerville, Ohio.]

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