There is a common concern among those who have experienced doubts in the church as to how much they should disclose about their doubts, to whom, and what the consequences of that disclosure might be. A recent internet discussion involving someone whose temple recommend was withheld for sharing her struggles and doubts with a well-meaning Stake President resulted in a discussion of the well-written essay on StayLDS.com about how to effectively navigate interactions in the church while working through doubts. Whenever this topic is raised, the discussion inevitably turns to integrity. Can a person maintain integrity in these circumstances while still maintaining a desired relationship with the church and full insider status? If so, how?
A recent post at BCC also talked about the high social cost to repentance in a church where we hold public callings and can be asked to speak or pray publicly at any time. The post observed that being honest and coming clean with priesthood leaders exacts too high a cost socially, and that most of our conversations about repentance are theoretical as a result. This problem creates even more of a conflict of interest for employees of the church whose employment is contingent on having a valid, current temple recommend. That post referred to bishops providing “pastoral care,” which is a common expectation from church goers toward their clergy, and yet, a point made by wayfarer on StayLDS.com also brings up a great point about the role of a bishop in our church:
“The inherent problem is that the BP is the ‘judge in israel’, not a spiritual counselor. When you have a major sin to confess . . . [the bishop] lays out the punishment path so that you have adequately ‘repented’ of those sins. . . [The system] does not allow for ‘advice’ without consequence. So, in the scenario, you go to the BP or any other priesthood leader with an honest interest in sorting out disaffection or doubt. Sitting on his side of the table, he has to interpret what you’re saying as ‘confession’ because you need to repent of something. The obvious major sin that involves ‘doubt’ is ‘apostasy’. So the only tools he has to offer are the means to punish your apostasy and prevent you from contaminating his ward or branch.”
I recently finished reading famous atheist Sam Harris’ book “Lying.” Atheists have a reputation for being tactless and relentless in telling the truth. Mormons, OTOH, may be truthful to a fault because tend to be very trusting and not too good at creating boundaries in relationships with authority. Is honesty always the best policy?
Honesty is an investment in a relationship. When you tell someone the truth, you increase intimacy; the more unsavory or difficult the truth, the greater the potential for intimacy. When you tell someone a lie, you erode trust and decrease intimacy.
“People lie so that others will form beliefs that are not true. The more consequential the beliefs—that is, the more a person’s well-being depends upon a correct understanding of the world—the more consequential the lie.”
Harris specifically calls it deception to misrepresent our beliefs to others.
“Sincerity, authenticity, integrity, mutual understanding—these and other sources of moral wealth are destroyed the moment we deliberately misrepresent our beliefs, whether or not our lies are ever discovered.”
Telling someone a lie is a rejection of the relationship. People who deceive others lose respect for those they deceive and also come across as inauthentic. One study showed that 10% of communication in marriages was deception in some form . Another study showed that 38% of interactions between college students were deceptive . So why do we lie? From Harris’ book:
“People tell lies for many reasons. They lie to avoid embarrassment, to exaggerate their accomplishments, and to disguise wrongdoing. They make promises they do not intend to keep. They conceal defects in their products or services. They mislead competitors to gain advantage. Many of us lie to our friends and family members to spare their feelings.” And of course, we lie when we deem someone untrustworthy, when we deliberately divest ourselves from that relationship. We lie to enemies. When we lie to our own people, we make them enemies.
Why are lies so bad?
- They are less efficient than the truth. “Unlike statements of fact, which require no further work on our part, lies must be continually protected from collisions with reality.” And all other vices require lies to cover them up and so that people can avoid consequences.
- They are anti-social. “Lying is, almost by definition, a refusal to cooperate with others. It condenses a lack of trust and trustworthiness into a single act. It is both a failure of understanding and an unwillingness to be understood. To lie is to recoil from relationship.” This recoiling can also be recoiling from perceived consequences or judgments we would receive if we accurately represented ourselves.
- Lies linger. “We seem to be predisposed to remember statements as true even after they have been disconfirmed. For instance, if a . . . story is later revealed to be false, some significant percentage of people will recall it as a fact—even if they were first exposed to it in the very context of its debunking. In psychology, this is known as the “illusory truth effect.” Familiarity breeds credence.”
As perennial liar George Costanza says: “It’s not a lie if you believe it!” Consider whether the following are lies:
- Omitting facts. “Nor does truthfulness require that one speak the whole truth, because communicating every fact on a given topic is almost never useful or even possible.” In a court of law, a defendant is not required to self-incriminate (which only seems polite to me), and witnesses are confined to answering the questions asked without elaboration. And that’s for good reason. More often than not, the incremental information is more misleading than its omission would be.
- Not disclosing one’s personal subjective views. “To speak truthfully is to accurately represent one’s beliefs. But candor offers no assurance that one’s beliefs about the world are true.” This relates mostly to subjective information, like our opinion about something or our beliefs. Here the strength of our conviction is what matters in whether we are accurately representing ourselves. If the jury is still out, we don’t have to strongly avow in either direction to be honest. There is a fine line between doubt and disbelief.
- False encouragement. “False encouragement is a kind of theft: it steals time, energy, and motivation a person could put toward some other purpose. This is not to say that we are always correct in our judgments of other people. And honesty demands that we communicate any uncertainty we may feel about the relevance of our own opinions. But if we are convinced that a friend has taken a wrong turn in life, it is no sign of friendship to simply smile and wave him onward.” Again, this relates to strength of conviction and the confidence we have in our opinions.
- Responding to the subtext. “If the truth itself is painful to tell, there are often background truths that are not—and these can be communicated as well, deepening the friendship.” The classic example is “Does this dress make me look fat?” Is the question behind the question “Do you still find me attractive?” or “Do you love me?” If so, you can answer that question honestly without addressing the particular demerits of the dress.
- The politician’s trick. This is usually an evasive tactic: answering the question you wish they had asked rather than the one they did ask. Sometimes politicians even admit that is what they are doing because they can put the questioner on the defensive in the process. IMO, this is one of the most effective ways to avoid telling a lie (or an unsavory truth).
- Lying to protect lives. “If lying seems the only option, given your fear or physical limitations, it clearly shifts the burden of combating evil onto others. Granted, your neighbors might be better able to assume this burden than you are. But someone must assume it. If nothing else, the police must tell murderers the truth: Their behavior will not be tolerated.” While this seems a noble lie, it may still have unforeseen consequences. The criminal you lie to may act on that misinformation and commit a different crime than the one you averted. And you are merely kicking the problem forward to the next person, who may or may not be better equipped to deal with it. Come to think of it, this sounds like an excellent premise for a movie plot.
- When the person can’t be trusted with the truth. Matthew 7:6 says “Give not that which is holy unto the dogs, neither cast ye your pearls before swine, lest they trample them under their feet, and turn again and rend you.” In the book, Harris points out that the problem with unjust laws is that they tempt otherwise good people into lying about their behavior to avoid consequences for behavior that is ethically blameless. IOW, people tell lies when it is unsafe to tell the truth, even when the truth is not indicative of wrongdoing.
The essay from StayLDS.com that I referenced in the beginning includes the following statement toward the end:
“[W]e are not in any way advocating dishonesty or deception here. We are simply noting the undeniable reality that many of these questions are subject to at least some private interpretation. We should feel assured in knowing that the brethren ultimately and wisely have left this decision between us and God — and for good reason. In conclusion, always answer honestly. But do not unnecessarily exclude yourself from the blessings of the temple because of rigid interpretations if it is something that you feel might be good for you spiritually.”
So what do you think? Do you ever feel pressured to lie at church or about your beliefs? Do you succumb to that pressure or not? How do you navigate it, and do you consider yourself honest in the process? Do you experience a conflict of interest in the TR interview process? Are people being dishonest in a TR interview if they have doubts? Where do you draw the line?