Lying (Kindle Single) By Sam Harris, 2011, $2.99 Kindle Edition.
One would not typically think of Sam Harris agreeing with Christians about something. Harris, after all, is the author of books such as The End of Faith and has made a career of being antagonistic towards Christianity, the Bible, and faith in general. However, in Lying, a Kindle Single on the importance of honesty, Harris promotes an idea that is very biblical: that lies (even small, white ones) are always wrong.
This principle of total and complete honesty that Harris tries to live out was instilled in him by a college course he took at Stanford called “The Ethical Analyst,” after which he was convinced that “lying, even about the smallest matters, needlessly damages personal relationships and public trust.” The rest of this short book is devoted to explaining exactly how lying causes those damages and explaining why being honest is always the better option.
Harris works off a definition that “To lie is to intentionally mislead others when they expect honest communication.” This includes false flattery or encouragement, withholding information, and keeping secrets. These things deny the other person access to reality and robs them of time, energy, resources, motivation, etc. that they could otherwise have diverted to other pursuits. Any lie, even a white white, by its nature destroys trust and drives a wedge between two people. “To lie is to recoil from relationship.” Lying causes damage to the liar as well because it feeds one’s addictions (“Lying is the lifeblood of addiction”), destroys one’s integrity, and creates uncomfortable and unenjoyable situations where one is having to continually lie to cover up previous ones.
The funny thing is that while what Harris writes is the truth, it is not nearly as novel a truth as he seems to think it is. He simply repeats what Scripture already tells us.
On the importance of honesty in relationships:
Therefore, laying aside falsehood, SPEAK TRUTH EACH ONE of you WITH HIS NEIGHBOR, for we are members of one another. (Eph. 4:25)
Do not lie to one another, since you laid aside the old self with its evil practices, (Col. 3:9)
On the destructive nature of telling lies:
A truthful witness saves lives, But he who utters lies is treacherous. (Pr. 14:25)
A lying tongue hates those it crushes, And a flattering mouth works ruin. (Pr. 26:28)
On the inevitable consequences of lying:
A false witness will not go unpunished, And he who tells lies will not escape. (Pr. 19:5)
A false witness will not go unpunished, And he who tells lies will perish. (Pr. 19:9)
On the impact of lying on one’s integrity:
There is nothing reliable in what they say; Their inward part is destruction itself. Their throat is an open grave; They flatter with their tongue. (Ps. 5:9)
On the need for the government to be truthful with its citizens:
Excellent speech is not fitting for a fool, Much less are lying lips to a prince. (Pr. 17:7)
Harris’ lack of an absolute moral standard also leaves him without answers for the big question that lies at the root of his book, namely, “Why do we lie?” This is important because the human predilection for lying seems to be humanity’s biggest problem in Harris’ mind.
Harris begins the book by writing, “Among the many paradoxes of human life, this is perhaps the most peculiar and consequential: We often behave in ways that are guaranteed to make us unhappy.” Everyone, including Christians, knows that this is true. For Christians, however, this is not peculiar or perplexing or even new. Nearly two thousand years ago, the apostle Paul wrote, “For what I am doing, I do not understand; for I am not practicing what I would like to do, but I am doing the very thing I hate. … For the good that I want, I do not do, but I practice the very evil that I do not want” (Romans 7:15, 19).
Harris ends the book by asking, “How would your relationships change if you resolved never to lie again? What truths might suddenly come into view in your life? What kind of person would you become? And how might you change the people around you? It is worth finding out.”
The testimony of Scripture is clear, however. We lie because we are sinners. Our sin rends our relationship with God and others. Sure, telling the truth helps, but those relationships cannot be restored simply by telling the truth because lying is not the root problem. Sin is. The solution is not to try harder to tell the truth, but to recognize the desperate nature of your heart (Jer. 17:9) and that you can do nothing on your own to fix it, trusting in Jesus’ death on the cross to save you from your sin and your sins. Restoring relationships, whether with God or with others, isn’t about what you can do but what Jesus has done.
Despite the obvious disconnect between Harris’ writing and a biblical worldview, the book is a good (and short) look at the destructive nature of lying. If not for the author’s underlying misconceptions, I would be more willing to recommend it for I’m sure even Harris himself would be surprised by how much he endorsed biblical concepts throughout the book.