A colleague of mine was once in over his head with investors to whom he owed millions of dollars. On one particular day, they paid him a polite visit at his home, asking about the status of the investment and hoping for some indication of how soon they would receive their promised return. My colleague was about to tell the investors the unfortunate truth — that due to circumstances beyond his control, their investment had been lost — when a moment from his childhood flashed before his eyes.
When he was 17 years old, he’d loaned an associate of his $50 — a lot of money for him at the time. Weeks passed, well beyond the time the $50 was to be repaid, yet he heard no word from his associate. When he finally managed to confront him, the boy told him truthfully that he did not have the means to repay the loan. This so enraged my colleague that, without thinking, he beat the boy almost to the point of death.
Fearing the wrath of the investors, my colleague lied and told them they would have their money in one month. About two weeks later, he was talking to a friend of one of the investors, who said to him, “I’m glad you told us that you were getting us the money and giving us hope, because we were prepared to take you out.” Although the investors sensed that the money was lost, they didn’t want to hear the truth. They had read my colleague’s body language and sensed that he was not being truthful, but the lie nonetheless gave them hope. And that hope had saved my colleague’s life (or so he believed).
Of course, he was then forced to live the lie. He would go on fake business trips to fictitious destinations, in order to shop for nonexistent products. He had to use an alias whenever he traveled, and constantly had to look over his shoulder. His life was in shambles, with one lie leading to the next. As he sees it, he now suffers a thousand deaths.
Some of the greatest lies ever told are spoken at funerals. I heard a story recently wherein someone involved with the drug culture had died a violent death. At the funeral, the minister decided to tell the truth and said that, as the result of his many evil deeds, the deceased was going to hell. Predictably, a fight broke out, and the family attacked the minister. They wanted him to tell them what they wanted to hear.
Of course, that’s not the typical story. At most funerals, the minister, who is usually paid by the family of the deceased, will tell the grieving family all the usual things: “John was a good man who fought hard to overcome obstacles, and we can all take comfort that he is in a better place now.” That’s how you’ll hear a mass murderer eulogized. In all honesty, none of us knows what is going to happen to someone else on the Day of Judgment. We are instructed by God to “judge not lest [we] also be judged.”
While as Christians we are instructed not to judge, the first minister actually believed what he was saying to be true. The second minister, though he acquiesced to the demands of the family and performed his healing role as minister, did not.
Maybe their example says something about the ecology of truth: Truth exists within a context, a story in which various factors are constantly at play in the lives and environment of the people and principles involved. The Sufis understood this in their caution to consider three things when we speak: Is it true? Is it wise? Is it kind?
Sometimes what we say might be strictly true, but because we don’t tell the whole story, we give the impression that the small part we have told constitutes the whole. It may have been strictly true that the drug dealer committed evil acts, but omitting facts becomes deception when the speaker has the duty to tell the entire truth (such as in a court of law). The minister who omitted the fact that the deceased was a drug dealer may have had a higher purpose in mind. Rather than trying to chronicle and judge every facet of the dead man’s life, his job was to give the living hope, and to pray for the soul of the departed.
What about the minister who was beaten for his honesty? Was the family right in expressing their indignation about the condemnation of their loved one (though they were obviously wrong to use violence)? What about his role as healer?
As it turns out, there’s a bit more to the story. This was not the first time the minister had been asked to speak at a funeral. In fact, just a week before, he had addressed the mourners of an addict who had died of an overdose from the drugs sold by the now-dead dealer. And before that, he had presided over other funerals of people killed in conflicts over drug turf. The minister saw his community decimated by the scourge of drugs, and by people like the man who he condemned.
The minister knew that there would be many young people at the man’s funeral, and, as a teacher and healer in the community, he wanted to get across the fact that the life of crime is wrong and will lead only to the death of the soul. He knew that many of these young people would never attend church; this would likely be his only chance to reach them directly. So he decided to risk the ire of the family in order to get across a more important message to the youth. In this, the minister demonstrated courage and humility, knowing he might not be liked or appreciated, but nonetheless understanding that he held responsibility for leadership within his community.
Understanding the ecology of truth acknowledges its power for both help and harm. All of us know people who use truth as a sword to attack others, and a shield to hide behind, once they’re called to account for their rudeness. It is not always appropriate to express what we believe, and there is no penalty for remaining silent. Using the truth to needlessly offend someone is simply another kind of sin (though just because someone is offended by the truth does not mean that is itself a sin).
Maybe the Sufis have it right. Before speaking, ask yourself: Is it true? Is it wise? Is it kind? These questions are like filters, separating the true and helpful from the merely true.
Armstrong Williams is heard daily from 5 a.m. to 10 a.m. on WWRL’s Drive Time Dialogue (www.WWRL1600.com). He is an author, conservative commentator, and syndicated columnist. Visit his Web site at www.armstrongwilliams.com.