I remember the night clearly. Only a month or
so into my freshman year in the fall of 1976, I was going to
my first high school party. My mother reluctantly agreed to
let me go, provided that my father would drop me off and pick
After the party had been going on for a while, someone managed
to smuggle in a case of beer and share it with us, even though
most of us were under the drinking age. Several kids drank too
The next morning my father, who hadn—t said anything during the
ride home, asked me if there was beer at the party.
—Yes,— I said.
—Did you have any?— asked my dad.
—No,— I lied.
I still feel a sense of guilt and regret.
When I consider why I feel bad about an incident
that occurred years ago, my thoughts take me to the heart of
what—s wrong with lying and cheating. They are words and acts
of deception that separate us from the people we love and from
the person each of us knows he or she is really meant to be.
A basic definition of lying, according to the
Catechism of the Catholic Church, is —speaking falsehood
with the intention of deceiving.— While it—s true that all lies
aren—t equally as serious—lying about drinking beer one time
to my father, for example, is not nearly as serious as lying
under oath in a courtroom—all lies are lies. And while
Christian moral teaching recognizes these distinctions—referred
to as the —gravity— (seriousness) of a lie—the conclusion is
that, —By its very nature, lying is to be condemned— (Catechism,
There—s also a second type of lying. When you
hold back information that you know is necessary for another
person to get a true picture of the situation, you are also
intentionally deceiving. A wonderful Gospel story that I—ll
talk about shortly gives a clear example of this type of lie.
Cheating is a combination of lying and stealing.
When you cheat, you are misleading others in one way or another,
and that—s lying. Often, cheating also involves taking information
or ideas that really belong to someone else.
For example, if you copy from the test on the
desk of the really smart student who sits right in front of
you and then hand in those answers as your own, you are stealing
the results of that student—s hard work and study. You are also
giving your teacher the false impression that you figured out
the answers yourself.
Nobody likes a —spitball— pitcher. That—s a player
who throws a baseball from the pitcher—s mound that—s been altered
just slightly—either by placing a small amount of saliva or
gel on the ball or even by roughing up the surface a bit, perhaps
with a small nail file concealed in the pitcher—s glove. As
a result, the ball moves in unpredictable ways (even the pitcher
won—t know) and it makes it that much harder for the batter
to hit it.
The major leagues don—t allow this pitch because
it—s not the skill of the pitcher that makes the ball harder
to hit, yet that—s the impression everyone who watches the game
gets. In other words, it—s cheating.
Perjury, Gossip and Rumors
The Bible has a lot to say about these two issues.
The first and clearest prohibitions against lying and cheating
with which most Christians are familiar appear in the Book of
The Ten Commandments (Exodus 20:1-17) prohibit
lying and cheating specifically in the Eighth Commandment, which
says, —You shall not bear false witness against your neighbor,—
and also in the Seventh Commandment, —You shall not steal.—
(Remember that cheating is a form of stealing.) Let—s take a
brief look at this idea of —bearing false witness— before we
go any further.
In ancient times, before there were formal court
systems to hear complaints and dispense justice, most disputes
were dealt with more informally within a certain tribe or clan
(a very extended family).
The only reliable and recognized evidence to determine
the guilt or innocence of anyone accused of a crime was the
testimony of two or three witnesses asked to stand up at the
clan meeting and describe what happened. If those witnesses
lied, an innocent life was at stake.
Today, this aspect of —bearing false witness—
still survives in our criminal justice system. It—s called perjury,
and it happens when a witness in a criminal case lies after
taking an oath to tell the truth. But I think you will be much
more familiar with other types of false witness: gossip and
Have you ever heard a really —juicy— story about
someone at school, something really bad about that person, and
just couldn—t wait to tell someone else?
If you gave in to this desire (and if you didn—t,
by the way, you are on the way to a level of maturity that a
lot of adults never reach), ask yourself a couple of questions.
Did you stop to check whether or not the rumor
was true? Did you ask the subject of the rumor what he or she
thought about it? If you didn—t, you—ve learned a lesson about
how easy it is to fall into the trap of bearing false witness.
If we look at some of the other books of the Hebrew
Bible we find more powerful thoughts on the subject of lying.
For example, take Proverbs 19:22: —From a person—s greed comes
[his or her] shame; rather be poor than a liar.—
The biblical books of the prophets, those holy
men and women living during the time before Jesus who took the
teachings of the Jewish religion very seriously (especially
the Ten Commandments), often talk about cheating.
The prophet Amos really tears into the wealthy
people of his time who were cheating the poor—the worst kind
of cheating imaginable—by overcharging them for the basic necessities
of life (Amos 8).
Amos—s charge may speak more powerfully to us
than to the people of his own time. Every time you put on a
pair of sneakers or wear a shirt or buy a coat or bag manufactured
in a third-world country, you might unknowingly be involved
in a system that regularly cheats the poor.
In some cases these products are being manufactured
in so-called —sweatshops— in less economically developed countries
where workers make barely enough money to feed and clothe themselves
and work in dangerous conditions for over 12 hours a day every
day. Our low-priced goods are a result of the unfair wages and
inhuman conditions they suffer.
Can—t Fool Jesus
It—s not surprising that Jesus also understood
how important it is to be honest. He was Jewish and therefore
knew the value of all of these counsels from his people—s Scriptures.
But Jesus put his own spin on things—clarifying and simplifying,
mostly by using parables and short sayings of his own to get
Jesus reminds us, for example, —Let your —Yes—
mean —Yes,— and your —No— mean —No—— (Matthew 5:37). Then there—s
the parable where Jesus asks us to compare two sons (Matthew
21:28-31). The first son tells his father that he will not do
his assigned chores, but later he is sorry and does them. The
second son eagerly says he will do them but never really has
any intention of following through.
While neither son is perfect, Jesus makes it clear
in this story that a response which is basically faithful and
honest is much more meaningful than even the sweetest and smoothest
And now let—s take a look at the story from John—s
Gospel I mentioned earlier. It takes place in an out-of-the-way
area of the Holy Land known as Samaria and clearly shows an
example of withholding information a person needs to get a true
picture of the situation.
Samaritans and Jews were related, but they disliked
one another. When Jesus speaks to the Samaritan woman who is
coming to the center of town to draw water from the well, she
is shocked. Nevertheless, she begins chatting with Jesus, not
saying much at first but gradually getting more and more comfortable.
Then Jesus asks what seems to be a simple question,
—Do you have a husband?— The woman says, —No,— and leaves it
at that. There—s not much point withholding the truth from God,
Jesus says to her (and I always picture him smiling
as he says it) that yes, it—s true, she has no husband. Actually,
she has had five, and she—s not married to the man she
is presently living with! The woman is probably left speechless
and awfully embarrassed.
But then something amazing happens. Now that the
woman has been stripped of the lie that had previously separated
her from Jesus and all he had to give her, she can begin to
see him for who he really is. By the story—s end, she has become
Jesus— first missionary to the people of Samaria (John 4:4-42).
A Lonely Life-style
This story can help us begin thinking about just
why lying and cheating are so wrong. Let—s go back to where
we started—the idea of separation. Every time you lie or cheat,
you are choosing to put a little distance between yourself and
other people, your true destiny and, ultimately, God.
From time to time, I ask my students what qualities
contribute to a good and lasting friendship. One of the first
qualities every class comes up with is trust, and that makes
a lot of sense.
We all experience a certain amount of difficulty
in opening up to and getting close to people we don—t know.
We—re afraid they won—t like us or that they—ll make fun of
us or will try to trick us.
It takes a great deal of time and experience before
we—ll trust someone enough to consider him or her a true friend.
All it takes is just one lie to set that whole process back
or to destroy the friendship altogether.
When I was in the fifth grade, I became friends
with a boy whom no one really liked because he was —different.—
One day, a group of kids came over to me and asked if I was
this boy—s friend.
I didn—t want to seem weird and risk being unpopular,
so I lied and said that not only was he not my friend, I didn—t
even like him. I can still remember how hurt he looked when
he found out what I had said.
The effects of lying and cheating go way beyond
ourselves, however. Every individual act of lying and cheating
contributes to a feeling we all have at times that we just can—t
The level of trust in our society has been noticeably
affected by too many acts of lying and cheating. We lock up
our valuables, keep our guard up against strangers and sometimes
give in to the temptations and pressures to lie and cheat because
we think —everyone else is doing it.—
There—s nothing wrong with being cautious, but
did you ever stop to think about how many good friendships never
happen because of the mistaken belief that no one can be trusted?
Here—s something else to think about: If God is
absolute truth, wouldn—t it follow that the more a person gets
used to lying and cheating, the harder it gets to recognize
God—s presence in his or her life?
All Is Not Lost
The good news is that none of this is inevitable.
If we can choose to lie and cheat, then we can also choose to
be honest. Think of it this way: Every time you make a decision
to be honest when you could have been dishonest, the world
becomes a little bit more honest. Imagine what could happen
if every person made that decision!
If you—ve fallen into the bad habit of not being
truthful, that doesn—t mean you have to continue to lie and
cheat. Being truthful is a decision; it—s recognizing,
with God—s help and the strength that comes through prayer,
that the long-term rewards and the rich friendships that come
with being a person of integrity are much more valuable than
anything you seem to gain in the short term from being dishonest.
Just like acts of dishonesty, honest acts build
on one another; the more honest you are, the easier it is to
be honest, and the more you—ll find yourself surrounded by honest
So the next time you feel pressured or tempted
to lie or cheat, stop and think for a minute. Try to figure
out why you want to be dishonest. Is it out of fear? Anger?
A desire to have something that doesn—t belong to you? (That—s
called —coveting— in the Bible.)
Next, think about all that will happen, both in
the long and the short term, if you choose the honest response.
It won—t take long for you to see that the reason you are an
honest person is not because you—re a —nerd,— but because you—ve
made the choice for a life of meaning and meaningful relationships.
Bethany Boland (15), Jake Butera (16) and
Joanna Butera (15), members of Queen of Martyrs Parish in Dayton,
Ohio, critiqued this edition of Youth Update, providing
a teen perspective on the topic and suggesting revisions.