White Lies, Hard Truths

by Donald W. McCullough

Donald W. McCullough is president of San Francisco Theological Seminary and professor of theology and preaching.

This article is adapted from Say Please, Say Thank You: The Respect We Owe One Another, forthcoming from Putnam (1998). This article appeared in The Christian Century, September 9-16, 1998, pp. 820-822. Copyright by The Christian Century Foundation; used by permission. Current articles and subscription information can be found at www.christiancentury.org. This article prepared for Religion Online by Ted & Winnie Brock.


When it’s the wrong person or time or reason for telling the truth, a white lie may have integrity. But unless we tell the truth we’ll be nothing more than isolated islands in a scary, untrustworthy world.

Verna claims that I said her baby was ugly. I can't imagine being that insensitive, but it was a long time ago and my memory isn't exact in these matters. I do recall Verna holding up her new-born and saying, "Isn't she cute?" And I, seeing a splotchy, scrunched little face and being committed to complete honesty, must have said something like, "Well, she really is ... a baby". Or maybe, "It takes an infant a few months before she can really be considered cute" Or I suppose there is a teensy-weensy possibility I said, "Strictly speaking, she's kind of ugly at the moment but will undoubtedly become a ravishing beauty."

Nearly 30 years have passed, but whenever I run into Verna she reminds me that I called her baby ugly. I don't know her daughter; for all I know she became Miss Universe, or perhaps my words lodged in her tiny subconscious and she has spent the last 15 years in psychoanalysis working to overcome low self-esteem. In any event, I now wish I had lied. It would have saved all of us a lot of grief.

Occasionally, courtesy calls for a lie. Let me stress that I'm talking about white lies, not black or gray or even off-white lies. Snow-white lies. Even so, I realize I've launched into very dangerous waters, with rocks and rip tides of tough ethical questions all around.

It's difficult to talk about the importance of lying when lying is so endemic in our society. Politicians lie to get elected, doctors lie on Medicare reports, universities lie about athletes, advertisers lie to sell products, ordinary citizens lie on income tax returns, and yes, even preachers lie. In the words of a Time magazine essay, ours is "a huckstering, show-bizzy world, jangling with hype, hullabaloo, hooey, bull, baloney, and bamboozlement." We live in a market-driven society, and to make the sale--whether it be of a car or a candidate or a can of beer--the truth gets pulled and stretched past anything resembling reality.

And yet, strangely, we also live in a tell-all culture. We have elevated the personal confession to an art form: supermodels confess insecurity about their bodies, movie stars confess shyness, politicians confess frustration, and preachers confess sexual indiscretions. It's the Alcoholics Anonymous approach run amok: "Hi, my name is Bill, and I'm a recovering alcoholic/gambler/overeater/sex addict/couch potato." I have nothing against AA, mind you. The Twelve-Step program provides an excellent way to overcome a variety of addictions. But there is a time and place for psychological stripping; call me uptight and closed-down, but I don't think it should be in front of just anyone who will listen, not to mention on national television or in supermarket magazines.

This sharing, unfortunately, has a way of spreading outward toward others, as if my openness gives me the right to pull you out of whatever closet you are in. It's the aren't-you-glad-we're-so-psychologically-mature-that-we-can-be-completely-honest manner of relating to others: "Theresa, really, you have too much of an inferiority complex about your figure; it's not as bad as you think." We did the same thing in junior high school, but now that we're more mature we practice psychobabble hit-and-run as we sit in the hot tub and sip chardonnay. Frankly, I would just as soon go back to the good old days when a put-down was a put-down.

How can we speak truthfully about lying in a schizoid environment torn between deceitful hype and compulsive confession? The ancient philosopher Aristotle may be of help. He said that honesty was more than unloading everything to everyone. Rather, it is speaking the right truth to the right person at the right time in the right way for the right reason.

Not every truth is mine to tell: a truth shared in confidence or a truth that would needlessly hurt another is not mine to tell. Not every person has a right to know the truth: some willfully distort what they hear; some use facts to bludgeon the life out of larger, more important truths; some have unrelenting and undiscriminating tongues. Not every time is appropriate for the truth: some seasons call for tactful silence. The day your friend's daughter dropped out of school is not the day to tell her that your daughter made the Honor Roll. Not every way of communication honors the truth: sometimes the manner in which something gets conveyed subverts reality, as when a preacher says all the right words about God's love but in a tone of voice and with a concluding string of "oughts" (therefore we ought to do this and we ought to do that) that makes you feel guiltier than ever. Some motives for telling the truth are simply too destructive to deserve to be clothed in respectability; some expressions of "honesty" are really attempts to demean and belittle another person.

When it's the wrong truth, or the wrong person or the wrong time or the wrong way or the wrong reason for telling the truth, a white lie may have more integrity than a facile, insensitive "honesty." But when does a white lie begin to turn a slight shade of gray? When does it cross over and become immoral?

Perhaps a good test would be to ask, "Does this lie protect the other person or does it protect me?" Let's admit that it's not easy to tell the difference. On the surface, a lie may appear to protect someone else from unnecessary pain; on closer examination, however, it may actually serve to save me from uncomfortable exposure. In Graham Greene's The Heart of the Matter, a police officer in a West African colony has an affair, and in an effort to "protect" his wife from the pain of knowing the truth, walks down a road of falsehood that leads to disaster. Greene's story expresses a profound truth reenacted every day. It's easy to convince ourselves we're guarding the feelings of others when we're only trying to protect our own hides--and this sort of deception often ends in more complication, lying and pain than we ever imagined.

But just because it's difficult to tell the difference between an appropriate and a morally unacceptable lie does not mean we should give up the attempt to make the distinction. Life, after all, is difficult. So we press on, doing our best, knowing we're not God and counting on the grace of God when we blow it. Though committed to honesty, we know that sometimes courtesy calls for creatively stretching the truth.

The telephone rings and when you answer it, you hear the voice of your wife's best friend. She speaks in the perky, over-friendly way that's a dead giveaway she thinks you're a first-class horse's heinie. And the feelings are mutual. But your wife likes her a lot, and so you return the banter. She asks to speak to your wife, of course, but she's out for the evening. "Well, I guess I can mention it to you," your wife's friend says. "I'm calling to invite you two to dinner Friday evening. Yesterday your wife said she thought you were free, and I told her I'd get back to her. What do you think?"

What you really think is that you've already seen more than enough of that woman and her boring husband, and that even if next Friday weren't the opening game of the NBA championship series you still wouldn't want to be with them--not for any reason, not under any circumstances, not if they were the last people on earth, not in a million years. So you say, "Well, I suppose that would be just fine. We'll look forward to being with you. Thanks for the invitation."You lie! Yes, but it's not a bad lie, as lies go. It's the sort of white lie that helps lubricate the inevitable friction in social relationships. And though it hides some of your true feelings, it also protects a larger truth--the truth that your wife, at least, will look forward to the evening and really does love her friend, who happens to be going through a difficult time, and that you love your wife and want to make her happy. In the interests of this larger truth you told a white lie, and it was the courteous thing to do.

Still, while the occasional white lie is necessary, we ought to cringe at telling it, knowing that this makes sense only as an occasional practice. For unless we tell the truth to one another we'll be nothing but isolated islands, left to fend for ourselves in an untrustworthy and scary world. Only by speaking the truth can we build bridges to others--bridges that we ourselves will most certainly need someday.

In the middle of a conversation with a medical missionary from Africa, I complimented him on his facility with languages. "You're really amazing," I said to him. "I'm in awe of you. I really don't have a gift for languages." To which he responded, "That's nonsense. Out in the bush where I work the uneducated people speak three or four languages. Actually, Don, you're just lazy. You and your American friends just don't want to be bothered with learning other languages."

Ouch. That was painful. I didn't like him slashing away at my self-justifications, which are among my most treasured possessions. As the late Carlyle Marney said, "You shall know the truth and the truth shall make you flinch before it makes you free."

Yes, the truth might make you flinch, but it will also make you free--free enough, maybe, to find your way on the terrain of life. Without commitment to the truth, the underbrush of falsehood quickly grows up and you become lost, unable to know where you are, let alone where you're going. M. Scott Peck has written that for psychological and spiritual health, we must be dedicated to reality, and he offers a helpful image: "The less clearly we see the reality of the world--the more our minds are befuddled by falsehood, misperceptions, and illusions--the less able we will be to determine correct courses of action and make wise decisions. Our view of reality is like a map with which to negotiate the terrain of life. If the map is true and accurate, we will generally know where we are, and if we have decided where we want to go, we will generally know how to get there. If the map is false and inaccurate, we generally will be lost." By speaking the truth, we enable one another to chart accurate maps and thus get from here to wherever we're going with integrity and greater wholeness.

Our relationships, for example, depend on truth. Unless others speak truthfully to us, we never engage real people but only phony images; unless we speak truthfully to others, we never experience the exquisite joy of being known and accepted for who we really are. Any friendship worth cultivating demands honesty.

Tony Campolo told of a time his mother made him go to a funeral to show his respect for the deceased, Mr. Kilpatrick. He drove to the funeral home, entered the chapel, and bowed his head. When he looked around, he noticed he was the only one there, and when he peered into the casket, he did not see Mr. Kilpatrick. He had gone to the wrong funeral. Campolo was about to leave when an elderly woman clutched his arm and pleaded, "You were his friend, weren't you?" Not knowing what to do, he lied and said, "Yeah, he was a good man. Everybody loved him." After the funeral, Campolo and the elderly woman went to the cemetery in a limousine. The casket was lowered into the grave, and both tossed a flower on it.

On the way back to the funeral home, Campolo confessed the truth: "Mrs. King, there's something I've got to tell you. I want to be your friend, and we can't have a friendship unless I tell you the truth. I'm afraid I have to tell you that I didn't really know your husband. I came to his funeral by accident." She squeezed his hand and said, "You'll never, ever, ever know how much your being here with me today meant."

I don't know whether Campolo and Mrs. King became friends; I only know they could not have become genuine friends without Campolo's honesty.

Does this mean we always blurt out the truth, no matter what? No, I don't think so. Let me suggest two guidelines. First, the truth must be pertinent to the situation. Lewis Smedes has beautifully summarized what this means: "A politician ought to speak the truth about public matters as he sees them; he does not need to tell us how he feels about his wife. A doctor ought to tell me the truth, as he understands it, about my health; he does not need to tell me his views on universal health insurance. A minister ought to preach the truth, as he sees it, about the gospel; he does not need to tell the congregation what he feels about the choir director. [Telling the truth] does not call us to be garrulous blabbermouths. Truthfulness is demanded from us about the things that we ought to speak about at all." It is neither ethical nor courteous to dump all our feelings at all times on all people. When it is appropriate, though, we have an obligation to speak with honesty.

Second, the truth must be used to build up and not tear down. The truth can be used to ream out, beat up and put down; it can be used to force someone into submission or to flatten into nonexistence another person's feelings of self-worth. But those who respect others will speak it with sensitivity, in ways that help others grow toward greater responsibility and maturity. This is part of what St. Paul had in mind, I think, when he wrote about "speaking the truth in love."

So Tom, after investing a lot of capital in his friendship with Mike--after much laughter and tears and Monday Night Football and jogging together--takes the risk over beer and pizza to say, "Mike, by now you know how much I care about you. Because of my love, I need to level with you. I'm worried you're spending far too much time at work. To put it to you straight, buddy, you're neglecting your wife and kids, and I think you're headed for serious trouble. Now that I've spoken my piece, I won't keep bugging you (at least about this). But know that I want to help in anyway I can."

Or Susan says to Andrea, "Well, my friend, before we get back to work, I want to share with you something I've been thinking about for a while. You know how much you've meant to me, not only as a friend but as my pastor. You know you're my spiritual mentor. I'm not a trained theologian or preacher, but I want to give you some feedback on a mannerism you have in the pulpit that's pretty annoying."

If you're blessed to have a friend like Tom or Susan, a friend who cares enough to speak the truth, even when it hurts, immediately get on your knees and thank God for this blessing. And if you want to be a courteous person, dedicate yourself to speaking the truth, when it's pertinent and with love, even when it's difficult. If we would all do this, we'd help one another chart maps that correspond to reality, and we just might have an easier time finding our way in life.