* to encourage a reasoned awareness of how our beliefs impact the way we interact with the world around us
* to foster intelligent and open dialogue
* to inspire a sense of spirituality that has real meaning in day-to-day life

Tuesday, August 23, 2011

Liars Deceive Themselves First: A Life Lesson from Genesis 12

Some of what I've been suggesting as a re-interpretation of the Bible may be difficult to accept without question, especially with the number of competing beliefs and assumptions we already have running around in our minds.  We have certain ideas about other people and about what we have to do to survive in this world.  Not all of them are accurate, but they all seem absolutely true.  One of the most common conclusions we draw is that it would be easier to deceive others than to tell the truth.  Or if not easier, then at least safer or wiser.  As many of us know from experience, lies often wind up being much more costly than the truth in the long run, even when our motivation seems on target.

Reasons for lying or bending the truth often seem quite logical, but it almost always amounts to a matter of safety.  We think that we will be somehow safer if we keep the complete truth hidden.  Through maintaining falsehoods, however, we put ourselves in a position of constant threat.  At any moment, someone may find us out, our deception will be revealed, and we will suffer the consequences of that deception, regardless of the truth we initially sought to hide.

At their core, people are not frightening or untrustworthy.  It’s true that there are some people who do frightening things, and there are some individuals who betray confidences.  That doesn’t change the value of the adage that "honesty is the best policy."  Fewer people get hurt by honesty than by deception, and after all, most deceptions spring from fear that could be entirely irrational.  When we are willing to wrestle with the possibility that people may actually embody a deep truth, beauty, and inspiration, and that our fears may be nothing more than the creations of our own imaginations, deception seems quite unnecessary.

I have largely steered clear of story-telling because of how subject to interpretation stories can be.  For now, though, recall the story in Genesis 12 of a man journeying to a foreign land with his wife.  A famine had struck their own homeland, so they were traveling to a place of greater abundance.  This man didn’t trust the people of the foreign land, however, believing that the men of the land would kill him and take his wife.  So he told them that the woman with him was his sister and not his wife, thinking that this would keep them safe.  Since she was an attractive woman, the ruler of the land desired her.  After claiming that the woman was his sister, what could our traveler say to the ruler’s proposal of marriage?

The traveler was given many gifts as a result of his deception, and he lived a life of luxury since the ruler welcomed him as a brother-in-law.  But the ruler and his court soon experienced a plague of curses which could only be traced back to the marriage born out of deception.  Calling the traveler into his presence, the ruler rebuked him for his persistent lie, and he returned the man’s wife and sent them both packing.  They had to leave behind all of the gifts and luxury, and they were no longer welcome in a place that could have provided for them while their own land was in the throes of famine.  Although it may have held some benefit in the short term, deception wound up costing the man the very security he had lied to obtain.

There are those who will conclude, "Ah, but if the traveler hadn't lied, things would have been much worse."  Such arguments have very little merit.  No one can tell the future, and no one knows what would have happened if...  For every un-manifested bad consequence a person can imagine, a more desirable outcome could likewise be conceived.  The fact is that when we deal in deception, we rob ourselves of our innate value and we create a reality for ourselves defined by suspicion and fear.

Of course, the way we choose to express the truth also makes a difference.  Angry or belligerent truth-telling can be difficult to hear.  Such tones stem from some potentially false assumptions about the willingness of other people to hear truth and the ability of ourselves to speak it clearly.  Connection and trust often requires a bit of vulnerability, and when we are willing to see the intrinsic value, beauty, and inspiration in others and ourselves, that vulnerability and truth-telling becomes easier.

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