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What's Wrong With Lying & Cheating?

by James Philipps

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 me up.

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 much.

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.

What Problem?

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, #2485).

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 Exodus.

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 rumors.

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 people thinking.

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 lie.

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, though.

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 trust anyone.

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 people.

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.

James Philipps has been a teacher of religious education and theology on the high school, undergraduate and graduate levels for 10 years. He has written widely for publication in these areas. He lives on Long Island with his wife and young daughter.

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.


Reviewing Some Situations

Thinking about what you would do in a situation where there's a temptation to lie and cheat can help you be prepared when the situation comes up. Here are some possible situations for you to consider and discuss.

  1. As you enter the classroom to take an exam, you notice the answer key on the teacher's desk. The teacher is out of the room and you are the first one there. What would you do?
  2. One day you come home and your parents tell you that they are going away for the weekend. They know how trustworthy you are so they have decided to let you stay home by yourself instead of taking you to your grandma's. When your friends find out that you have the house to yourself, they ask if they can use it to hold the major party event of the season. What would you do?
  3. During your workday as a part-time sales clerk at the record store, a friend of yours walks in, puts a CD into the bag she is carrying, smiles at you and whispers, "Don't tell." As she leaves, a supervisor stops her to ask for her receipt. She says, "That clerk didn't give me my receipt. She knows I paid. Ask her." What would you say?



Aren't there different levels of lying?


Yes. The idea that the "gravity" or seriousness of a lie affects how wrong it is has always been a part of Christian moral teaching. Among the factors to evaluate are the intent of the person telling the lie, the "distance" from the truth the lie falls, and the damage that the lie causes. All lies—even so-called "white lies"—have one thing in common: They are deliberate attempts to present falsehoods as truth. And once we make the decision to tell any lies, it becomes harder and harder to know at what point a white lie becomes something much more serious. Also, Church teaching speaks of a very commonsense principle to consider: There is really no way to know what the final outcome of our actions will be because life is unpredictable. How can we ever be sure of the impact our lie will have down the road?


Could a lie ever be the best thing to do?


In small matters where you hold back information for the good of the other person (you really don't like your friend's favorite tie), this may well be the wisest decision to make. If your intention here is purely to spare people's feelings and not to deceive, you're not lying. But be careful: The line here is not often easy to draw. And under the cover of "sparing people's feelings" we might deny telling them information they have a right to know, even if our intentions are good. (Wouldn't you want to know if you had a bad habit that everyone noticed except you?)


Everybody tells lies. Is it fair to judge public people more harshly than we do ourselves?


Anyone who holds others to a higher standard of behavior than he or she is willing to live up to risks committing the most serious sin Jesus ever singles out: the sin of hypocrisy (being a big phony). On the other hand, there are unique responsibilities that come with being a public figure, especially if you're in a position of public trust such as government. Part of those responsibilities is not only to strive to be honest in all that you say and do, but also to avoid even the appearance that you're involved with dishonest activities or dishonest people.


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