Covering Up

August 5th, 2011

While coverups have been prominent in the news this year, they are nothing new. For as long as people have sinned, they have lied about and attempted to conceal their wrongdoing. And sadly, reports of lies and coverups no longer shock us.

In the past few months, U.S. Representative Anthony Weiner resigned after lying about sending suggestive pictures of himself to women on Twitter; Ohio State University football coach Jim Tressel was forced to resign after failing to notify the NCAA about rules violations involving his players; News of the World, a British paper owned by Rupert Murdoch’s News Corporation, was accused of company-wide coverups of phone-hacking practices; and Atlanta’s public schools are under fire for a system-wide scam whereby hundreds of educators were encouraged to erase and change student responses on standardized tests in order to improve scores. In some cases the alleged coverups involved so many people and went on for so long that lying and covering up became part of the culture of the organizations.

Philosophy of Lying

No one is immune to the temptation to lie to cover up a mistake, to embellish something, or to stretch the truth. People lie for different reasons and have different views about why people lie and if or when lying is ever justified. On one end of the spectrum, eighteenth-century philosopher Immanuel Kant believed that lying was always morally wrong, regardless of the situation. On the other end are those who believe that whether or not we should lie depends on the consequences of the lie. The decision becomes about the greater good.

The problem is that humans are not that good at predicting how things will turn out and can’t anticipate the negative consequences of dishonesty. Kant and others believed that lying to someone devalued that person and robbed others of an opportunity to react based on accurate and truthful information. And if a lie is revealed, it erodes the level of trust within a relationship or community.

Early theologians agreed that lying was morally wrong. But they also recognized that humans live in a broken world where survival instincts often precede moral judgments. During Jesus’ trial, Peter’s rapid denials of being a follower of Jesus were split-second and fear-driven responses to angry accusations. When his own life was on the line, Peter lied without even thinking about it.

Christian Ethics

While ethicists and theologians debate what types of lies are more or less harmful and whether they can ever be justified, Christians know that God holds us to a higher standard. Paul wrote that, in Christ, we are new creations (see 2 Corinthians 5:17). We are set apart. But despite our being set apart, being commanded to not “testify falsely” (Exodus 20:16), and being told to get “rid of lying” (Ephesians 4:25), God’s people have always struggled with the temptation to lie. We see lies and coverups throughout Scripture, beginning with the garden of Eden. After they had sinned, Adam and Eve’s first inclination was to cover up what they had done. After David committed adultery with Bathsheba, the lies and coverup resulted in the death of Bathsheba’s husband, Uriah, and the child that David and Bathsheba had conceived. In Acts Ananias and Sapphira lied about withholding money from the early church.

Most all of us have lied about something at one time or another. But as we mature in faith and discipleship, we must remember that claiming the name “Christian” means putting away things that hurt our relationship with God and others. When we do make mistakes (and we all do), we must stop, repent, and be accountable to our brothers and sisters in Christ.

This article is also published as part of LinC, a weekly digital resource for youth small groups and Sunday school classes. The complete study guide can be purchased and downloaded here.

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