Thursday, June 6, 2013

Liar, Liar, Pants on Fire

Ouch!  This one really hurts.  A 2012 Gallup poll rated the “honest and ethical standards” of 22 different yet common vocations.  Which vocation do you think came in first?  Nurses—85% of respondents ranked nurses as “high to very high” in matters of honesty and ethics. 

God bless nurses.  They are often up to their elbows in bed pans and buttocks.  They have to give spit baths.  They deal with patients who are not at their best, people who can be pushy, demanding, and ungrateful.  They deal with busy doctors who don’t always respond quickly.  While they usually show up at the bedside bearing helping hands, they also show up bearing needles and IVs and catheters they have to stick in their patients.  God bless nurses.  No way I could do what they do.  But the most honest vocation?  “I’ll be right back to take care of that.”  “The doctor will be by in a few minutes.”  “You can start having ice chips this afternoon.”  “You’re going to like the jello.”  Really?

Also high on the “honesty and ethics” scale are doctors and dentists.  I know many fine doctors and dentists—incredibly bright men and women who truly care about the people they serve, and they seek to do their very best.  But do they always tell the truth?  “I’m sure this medicine will fix you right up.”  “It’s definitely not cancer.”  “I’ll call you with the test results on Tuesday.”  “This won’t hurt a bit.”  “I will see you at 2:00.”  “Just one more little touch with the drill will finish this up.”  Yeah, right.

Another vocation that’s near the top is pharmacists—75% of respondents ranked them “high to very high” in honesty and ethics.   I get this one.  As long as a pharmacist gets the right medicine in the right bottle with the right label to the right person and charges a fair price, how can a pharmacist be anything but honest and ethical?  Plus, if things don’t go right they can always blame the doctor.  No beef here.

Other vocations high on the list are engineers, cops, and college professors.  Engineers better be right or buildings could fall down, bridges could collapse, airplanes fall out of the sky, vehicles catch fire, and property line disputes could reignite Hatfield and McCoy feuds all over the country.  And if you can’t trust cops, we’re all in trouble.  Sure there are crooked cops, but they work very hard to police themselves at that point.  I get engineers and cops, but college professors?  You know, I can’t say that I’ve ever had a college or seminary professor intentionally lie to me or try to convince me to believe something they believed to be untrue.  So, good for college professors!  I’m glad they scored high on the scale.

But let me tell you who didn’t score so well: car dealers and members of Congress scored the lowest.  Probably no surprise there for most of us.  But here’s the one that hurts me: only 52%—barely half of those polled—ranked ministers as being “high to very high” in honesty and ethics.  Ouch!  That’s my vocation.  And we ministers are supposed to traffic in the truth because we represent the One who called himself the Truth.

So why the low number for ministers?  I can only speculate here.  Don’t you imagine some of it comes from the fallout of a number of high profile ministers who have morally or financially crashed and burned since the 1980s—the Jim Bakkers and the Jimmy Swaggerts and, more recently, the Ted Haggards.  These are men who had a huge platform yet apparently preached one thing in public and lived a very different way in private.  The same goes for the recent child abuse scandal involving Roman Catholic priests.  I suspect a lot of honest, upright ministers who genuinely try to practice what they preach are lumped in with ministers like that in the age-old game called “guilt by association.”

Perhaps another reason is the growing cynicism in our culture that finds it hard to believe much anybody about much of anything, a culture that seems to enjoy watching people fail and fall, a culture that assumes most everybody is on the take or in it for themselves—even ministers.

And then there are ministers who lie on their resumes and plagiarize sermons others have preached yet allow their people to believe the sermon is their own.

But there are other reasons too.  Sometimes we ministers don’t tell people the truth.  “Give my ministry a hundred dollars and God will give you a thousand dollars.”  “Name it and claim it.”  “If you just have enough faith, God will heal your cancer.”  “Your poverty is not an economic issue, it’s a faith issue: God wills for you to be rich and healthy.”  When people hear that crock of bull, believe it, and then find it’s just not so, it’s no big jump to assume that ministers don’t always tell the truth.

But we ministers can also shade the truth in other ways.  I don’t know why, but most ministers have a lot of people-pleaser in them.  We typically like people and we want them to like us back.  We want to encourage people and help people.  As the old saying goes, we like to “comfort the afflicted.”  Where we may be too quick to shade the truth is when we refuse to “afflict the comfortable.”  We’re trying to lead and grow a church.  We don’t want to hurt attendance or donations.  It’s too easy for us to fall into what Paul called “ear-tickling”—telling people what they want to hear instead of telling them the truth.  It’s too easy for us to join the league of false prophets in the Old Testament who, even though Babylon was breathing down their neck, told the people that all would be well, that God had no issues over the people’s idolatry and lack of repentance.  Prophets like that were easy to love.  Prophets like Elijah and Jeremiah—prophets who spoke the sometimes uncomfortable truth—were not.  In fact, prophets who spoke the truth took a lot of abuse.  Some even got killed for it.

Maybe that’s why we preachers sometimes shade the truth in our day.  We want to be liked.  We want to be popular.  We want to grow the organization.  And we don’t want to be abused.  So we shy away from issues like greed and idolatry and giving and sexual ethics and hell and sacrifice and commitment.  We are quick to speak of the love of God and neglect to mention His wrath.  Rather than saying, “Ninety-five per cent commitment is five per cent too short” (thanks, Bill Hybels), we say, “Ninety-five, seventy-five, twenty-five, just whatever level of commitment works for you.”  Instead of preaching sermons that exalt Christ and expose our sin and call us to deeper transformation and devotion, we preach a bunch of “practical” how-to sermon series (how to have a happier marriage, how to succeed in life, how to overcome depression, how to raise successful kids, how to get God on your agenda).  People like that stuff—even though they can find it on the self-help shelf at any bookstore in town.  “It helps me live my life better,” they say.  But does it help them live the Christ-life better?  Bottom-line: we tend to make church about “me” instead of about Christ and the Gospel.  And when we do, we shade the truth.  And while people may like us ministers when we do, in their heart of hearts, they don’t believe us.  And they shouldn’t.

I’ve been at this ministry thing for 35 years.  I understand the struggle.  Age and experience have helped me move past the people-pleaser need—though it still raises its head in me from time to time.  But here’s my suggestion to us ministers: let’s tell the truth.  Let’s speak the truth in love even when it hurts us to say it and hurts people to hear it.  Let’s speak it at the right time, in the right way, and with the right spirit.  Let’s also tell the truth by the way we live so that our deeds are so close to our words that any disconnect people notice is the exception rather than the rule.  And let’s trust God in the telling and let the chips fall where they may.

You’ve heard the old taunt, “Liar, liar, pants on fire.”  Many Christian leaders across history have had pants on fire all right, but it was because they told the truth.  And while I wouldn’t wish fire on anyone, I would wish the truth for everyone.   


  1. This was interesting. Some not surprising. As far as ministers I try to trust them. The ones who are on television and ask for money each week, I do not believe nor trust. I am just thrilled we have you as our pastor and leader. Have always felt trust for you.

  2. Don't you think it has a lot to do with the charlatans who pollute the airwaves under the guise of "evangelists" and "rabbis" and "prophets" -- all the while peddling prosperity and health and magic vitamins and awesome anointing oils?