All names in the following stories are fake, except it is true there was a preacher I once nicknamed “Brother Hee-haw.” He was an extremist of the kind who embarrasses other extremists but also pays them a service by making them appear more reasonable by contrast. He was an oracle of God, he thought, sent to Wisconsin to revive the first century church. I recall one sermon in which he invited an old and highly venerated couple to stand. “Brother Treecle,” he interrogated, “do you own a television?”
Brother Treecle flatly replied, “No.”
Hee-haw growled in approval: “This is what an Apostolic family should look like.”
Except I knew then that Brother Treecle did own a television, one he stored in his closet for occasional use. I can hardly blame him for lying under the circumstances. I would likely have done the same in his position. I can imagine his justification began the moment he seated himself. I do own a television, but not really. Not like how other people do. If it were up to me the thing would be in the dumpster. If anything, it’s Mrs. Treecle’s devil-vision.
Lies like this not only help preserve one’s reputation but also protect the faith of impressionable “babes in Christ” who are prone to worry and doubt. I can recall many occasions on which information was deliberately withheld in order to preserve the faith of others. To name just one: a church authority, Sean, found himself in a bad way at one point in his life, to the extent that he questioned the very existence of God. Thankfully, an out-of-state friend of his made a rare and eerily well-timed surprise trip to visit him. It was as though God himself had arranged the affair to rally his spirits, and rally them it did. Little did Sean know, the visit was not proof of divine intervention or clairvoyance – a concerned loved one, Mary, had arranged the visit in secret out of concern for Sean.
The lie of omission came when, time after time, Sean would share this story as a testament to God’s provision. His timely friend would nod along on these occasions as Sean emphasized the implausibility of the event, as Christians so often do. There is no way he knew of Sean’s condition. He never drops by unannounced, and so on. This is another lie for which it’s hardly fair to blame anyone. Neither Sean’s friend nor Mary were eager to burst Sean’s faith bubble and risk a relapse. Christians lie and withhold information regularly to protect others’ faith in much the same way some lie to protect others’ feelings. They work together to keep one another believing, and sometimes the virtue of faith supersedes that of honesty.
Christianity itself is a rich tradition of well-meaning deception. At least four (and as many as six) epistles attributed to Paul in the Bible are pseudonymous letters written by well-meaning Christians who borrowed Paul’s credibility to further doctrines they ostensibly believed to be true. The only first century, non-Christian historical reference to Jesus was made by the Jewish Scholar Josephus, and it is evident Christian scribes added some suspiciously complimentary words about their savior. It’s had the reverse effect in modern times, and Josephus scholars now call into question whether he made any reference to Jesus at all. The point is, this helpful deception has been going on for centuries.
As I write this, more stories in which the truth was warped with the humble intention of giving God more glory flood to mind. I recount none here to impugn anyone’s honor, and I certainly don’t wish to imply Christians are more self-deceived than others. I am prepared to say, however, the self-deception of non-believers can never hope to match cumulative effect achieved by religious deception for the simple reason that we can accomplish much more when we work together.
Eric Hoffer asserts that we lie loudest when we lie to ourselves. If only lying to ourselves required we remain by ourselves. As it stands, we lie most effectively when we lie to ourselves together.