Recently, I tried my hand at creating a “top ten” list, but the first and most famous “top ten” list was crafted by God. I hoped to get a few laughs from my “top ten,” but God hoped to save us from a helluva lot of heartache and trouble. It is precisely why this command came in at number nine: “You shall not give false testimony against your neighbor.” (The Bible, Exodus 20: 16, NIV)
If only we would pay attention. If only I would pay attention. If only Lance Armstrong had paid attention. I cannot recall another person’s story that so vividly displays the broad swath of damage from which God was hoping to protect us with his “ninth” command.
As you may know, Lance Armstrong is an American cyclist who won a record 7 straight Tour De France Championships before recently being stripped of all the titles in light of mounting evidence that he had cheated to enhance his performance, something he had vehemently denied for years…before this week. In a much-hyped interview with Oprah Winfrey, he admitted that he had repeatedly cheated and lied.
The cheating is no small matter. Honest racers(however small their number) were put at a significant disadvantage and robbed of the opportunity to win races. Fans were misled, and some are understandably disillusioned or jaded. Race organizers and their sponsors were defrauded. Others were either pressured to cheat or encouraged to cheat by Lance’s example.
The cheating had a price tag, but it will never come close to the still-rising cost/toll of the lying. Lance repeatedly made false claims, against friends and strangers alike. The devastating consequences of those lies need to be named, if only to remind me just how much damage lying can do.
Lying serves to besmirch the character and reputation of others who are telling the truth, altering their lives. Lance, eager to protect his interests and make himself look good, made others look bad. His lies suggested that the truth-tellers were the liars. He made direct accusations. Most of us lie in order to protect ourselves, but someone else almost always pays a price.
When I was perhaps 7 years old, I ignited a small carpet fire while playing with matches in our Colorado home. Somehow or another, my parents came to believe that it was the work of my younger brother, David! He denied it, I played dumb, and my parents exiled him to Siberia. Actually, I think he got the dreaded spanking, which is precisely what I wanted to avoid.
My deception did more than create pain for his posterior. It left the impression that he both violated the cardinal “don’t play with matches” rule and that he was a liar as well. In order to protect myself, I made him look bad. Lying is rarely ever “victim-less,” and one consequence for the victim is a tarnished reputation.
With his mounting lies, Armstrong framed himself as honest, mistreated, envied, and besmirched. Conversely, people like Frank and Betsy Andreu, Emma O’Reilly, Kathy and Greg Lemond were frames as whiners, liars, sore losers, jealous rivals, and bullies. The tragedy is that many people came to believe that about them for years.
But the damages did not stop with their reputations. Seen as liars and bullies and hateful, they lost jobs and friends and income and a sense of safety. Quoted in a nydailynews.com article, Betsy Andreu spoke of the financial hit: “(Armstrong) just kept getting richer. But for us, there was no profit in the truth. The myth was too big. Sure, we’re vindicated now, but that doesn’t pay our bills.”
More than one writer has expressed it this way: “Lance ruined people’s lives.” Lying can do that. Falsely accusing others…it’s tragically serious stuff, but there’s more damage.
Lying divides people. A recent documentary, “Anita,” chronicles a story which I remember well. In 1991, Anita Hill accused then-Supreme Court nominee, Clarence Thomas of sexual harassment, claims which he fiercely denied. Obviously, one of them was lying. Not only was the liar besmirching the character of the other, the liar also served to create division all across America.
The lie put Americans in a quandary. Because someone was lying, we were almost “forced” to choose one of them to believe. It created a painful and costly dilemma. Some people saw Anita as a politically-motivated liar and others saw Clarence Thomas was a twisted “look out for yourself” liar. When you decided who you thought was telling the truth, it was seen as an attack on the other, leading to arguments, anger, and attacks. It created “us” and “them.” A lie often does.
Lying Undermines Trust. When you lie, you hope people will believe you. Usually they will. They trust your word, your name, your character. When the lie is exposed to the light, their trust in you takes a tumble.
In an espn.com article entitled “It’s All About the lies”, veteran ESPN columnist Rick Reilly reveals the pain of believing and supporting Lance Armstrong for 14 years, only to realize he had been “duped.” He explained why he believed:
“Wrote it, said it, tweeted it: ‘He’s clean.’ Put it in columns, said it on radio, said it on TV. Staked my reputation on it. ‘Never failed a drug test,’ I’d always point out. ‘Most tested athlete in the world. Tested maybe 500 times. Never flunked one.’
Why? Because Armstrong always told me he was clean.’”
“Armstrong… told me.” Rick trusted Lance’s word, which is the foundation for healthy relationships, for a healthy society. Now Rick’s trust has taken a bicycle crash into the wall, and it’s tough to ride quite as fast after that.
In his second interview with Oprah, Armstrong describes the moment when he most clearly recognized the violation of trust. He observed his 13-year old son, Luke, defending his dad. I’m glad that got his attention, even moved him to tears. How tragic, however, that he missed the tens of thousands of people (cancer survivors and others) who–trusting his every word–persistently defended him, and now face a crisis of trust.
Lance’s lies make it harder for people to trust the claims of other athletes. Even my trusting wife, Joy, lamented that it’s harder now to trust that any champ is entirely clean. Lies leave us more suspicious, less trusting, more cynical. Everybody loses…and I mean everybody.
Lying damages the liar as well. In a touch of irony, lying deceives the liar. It promises to improve one’s story. That’s a lie. Lies distort your own sense of reality and perception. Lying feeds selfishness. It desensitizes your heart for people. It damages your credibility. It blows up friendships. I don’t want to be too harsh on Lance Armstrong, but was there a single person watching Lance’s t.v. interview who thought: “I hope I can be just like him one day!”
God: Don’t make false claims about your neighbor. I see it now. Maybe I should go reread the other nine commands, and see what I missed.