Can’t Get a Straight Answer?

YesNoby Jerry Richardson   8/8/14
How should people answer honest, straightforward questions? Here’s what Jesus had to say about the subject: “But let your statement be, ‘Yes, yes’ or ‘No, no’; anything beyond these is of evil. —Matthew 5:37 NASB

Have you ever wondered about this verse?

Be honest now, doesn’t it strike you as just a bit of an over simplification? I mean, come-on, aren’t there many times when you simply have to qualify your answer to a question?  A simple yes or no just doesn’t always work.  Does it?

Properly understood, Jesus’s statement isn’t an oversimplification; it’s an enormously important bedrock principle of Godly truth-telling: Candidness (”directness in manner or speech; without subtlety or evasion”).  Sadly, it is a principle mostly ignored in our present society.

Proper understanding of Jesus’s statement includes the fact that we must not allow this scripture to be used to justify ignorance, lack of preparation, or weak discernment.  We know that there are times when people will try to trap someone in a false dilemma and then demand an unjustified yes or no answer.  Jesus set an example in dealing with false dilemmas:

They came to him and said, “Teacher, we know you are a man of integrity. You aren’t swayed by men, because you pay no attention to who they are; but you teach the way of God in accordance with the truth. Is it right to pay taxes to Caesar or not?”

“Should we pay or shouldn’t we?” But Jesus knew their hypocrisy. “Why are you trying to trap me?” he asked. “Bring me a denarius and let me look at it.” 

They brought the coin, and he asked them, “Whose portrait is this? And whose inscription?” “Caesar’s,” they replied.  

Then Jesus said to them, “Give to Caesar what is Caesar’s and to God what is God’s.” And they were amazed at him.  —Mark 12:14-17 NIV

The proper response to a false dilemma is to refuse to accept, singularly, either of the two alternatives (often called the “horns” of the dilemma)—accept both, in some qualified sense, or reject both.

The yes or no response we are discussing, and advocating, is the response to an honest, straightforward question (no intentional traps).

In the powerful book, Spy the Lie, in which “former CIA officers teach you how to detect deception,” the authors place all lies into three categories that match phrases that are contained in the oath that is administered to witnesses in a USA court of law:

“Do you solemnly swear to tell the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth, so help you God?” What many of us probably haven’t thought much about is just how brilliant that simple twenty-word oath is. Its brilliance lies in its comprehensiveness: All the lies that have ever been told or ever will be told fall into three categories, or strategies: lies of commission, lies of omission, and lies of influence. And the oath covers all three.

“. . . to tell the truth . . .” covers lies of commission.

“. . . the whole truth . . .” covers lies of omission.

“. . . and nothing but the truth . . .” covers lies of influence.

Houston, Philip; Floyd, Mike; Carnicero, Susan (2012-07-19). Spy the Lie: How to spot deception the CIA way (Kindle Locations 612-621)

The authors indicate that they consider the most powerful of the three lies to be the ones in the third category, “lies of influence.” Chapter 6, where “lies of influence” are discussed, is entitled, The Most Powerful Lies.  I believe that Jesus’s words in Matthew 5:37 (quoted above) are directly apropos to “lies of influence.”

In order to understand the meaning of what Jesus was saying about statements in Matthew 5:37, we have to look at the preceding verse:

Nor shall you make an oath by your head, for you cannot make one hair white or black.  —Matthew 5:36 NASB

To most modern ears, this probably sounds quaint.  But keep in mind that Jesus was not condemning all oath-taking, clearly not oaths taken to God; or proper oaths (commitments) to others.

Jesus was talking about a perversion (“turning to a wrong use”) of oaths that apparently had become common in the society of his day; it was not oaths per se that Jesus was addressing, but the motives for, and the misuse of, many oaths. The improper motives addressed were surely 1) the intent to enhance credibility—convince another of trustworthiness (whether trustworthy or not)—and 2) the intent to be able later to renege on an oath taken:

“The Pharisees were notorious for their oaths, which were made on the least provocation. Yet they made allowances for mental reservations within their oaths. If they wanted to be relieved of oaths they had made by heaven… by the earth… by Jerusalem, or by one’s own head, they could argue that since God Himself had not been involved their oaths were not binding.

“…The fact that oaths were used at all [in certain circumstances] emphasized the wickedness of man’s heart…The Lord was saying one’s life should be sufficient to back up one’s words. A yes always ought to mean yes, and a no should mean no…”
 —The Bible Knowledge Commentary (Matthew 5:33-37)

A statement made with the intent of making yourself more creditable—convincing someone else of your trustworthiness—but also made with the intent of avoiding an honest answer to a legitimate question falls under the category of a “lie of influence”—in other words, an effort to con (influence) another person in order to dodge the act of plainly speaking truth.

Here is an example taken from the book SPY THE LIE, illustrating a “lie of influence”:

Suppose someone asked you, “Did you take the missing money?” Since you’re honest and didn’t take any money, your most likely response would be, “No!” The reason is that’s the single fact that’s most important to you to get across. The guilty person may or may not deliver the “no,” but the discomfort of the facts not being his ally will likely compel him to convey other information to convince you. “I would never do that,” he might say. “That would be dishonest, and I’m not that kind of person,” or “Ask anybody around here, look at my record,” or “I have a good reputation,” or “You think I would jeopardize my job by doing that?”

Houston, Philip; Floyd, Mike; Carnicero, Susan (2012-07-19). Spy the Lie: How to spot deception the CIA way (Kindle Locations 895)

How many times recently have you watched and listened on television while some “important” person used exactly this sort of tactic to avoid a simple answer of yes or no to an honest, straightforward question?

An influencing statement usual is an attempt to shift the spotlight of any potential blame: Stakeout a claim to trustworthiness—for effect, be offended—offer pertinent-sounding, yet irrelevant, alibies or references—any seemingly-plausible distraction; all the while avoiding an honest, direct answer to a legitimate question.

What often makes this a convincing act is the fact that the influencing statement(s) may be absolutely true; but do not doubt: It is a smokescreen, a dodge, a con.

It is not candidness.

These two actions (the influencing statement(s) plus no answer to the actual question) taken together are very much a lie, a “lie of influence.” Sadly, today in America we euphemize this evil deceit with the charming little term spin.

“But let your statement be, ‘Yes, yes’ or ‘No, no’; anything beyond these is of evil.”  —Matthew 5:37 NASB

Jesus’s statement isn’t an oversimplification; it’s an enormously important bedrock principle of Godly truth-telling: Candidness.  Sadly, it is a principle that is most often ignored in our present society; and our society is paying a fearful price, the price of widespread distrust, for this wilful and often tolerated disrespect for truth-telling.

© 2014, Jerry Richardson • (1106 views)

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6 Responses to Can’t Get a Straight Answer?

  1. Timothy Lane says:

    An interesting thing to note about “spin” is that it didn’t start out as necessarily false. Originally, the idea was that a spokesman would simply provide a different way of looking at the facts — a different interpretation, not a denial. The term no doubt was in use among spin doctors for some time before it became public knowledge around 1990. Then came Slick Willie, and spin degenerated into simply dishonesty.

    I’ve noticed that Slick Willie was very much inclined to what you refer to as the lie of influence. When the Monica Lewinsky story first broke, it was very plausible but we had no way of knowing if it was actually true. Then, a couple of days later, the first Clinton response came when his spokesliar said that “There is no” relationship between Clinton and Lewinsky. The use of the present tense was a dead giveaway; if he had decided five minutes earlier to end the relationship, the statement would be literally true. The best lies are like that — mostly true, but clever deceptions anyway.

    • Jerry Richardson says:

      Timothy,
      Very useful comment on the original use of spin, and also the reminder on when and how spin degenerated into what it has become.

      • Timothy Lane says:

        An interesting science fictional take on spin doctoring can be found in Steve Perry’s novel Spindoc. This probably helps remind me of the original concept, particularly since that concept was already degenerating by the time I read it.

  2. Nor shall you make an oath by your head, for you cannot make one hair white or black. —Matthew 5:36 NASB

    The guilty person may or may not deliver the “no,” but the discomfort of the facts not being his ally will likely compel him to convey other information to convince you. “I would never do that,” he might say. “That would be dishonest, and I’m not that kind of person,” or “Ask anybody around here, look at my record,” or “I have a good reputation,” or “You think I would jeopardize my job by doing that?”

    Thank you!!! I have never heard of the third lie ((lies of influence)

    This is the first time that I have heard this scripture explained this way and it makes perfect sense! Brilliant!

  3. Anniel says:

    I have to admit that this scripture drove me crazy for years. Then I finally reached the conclusion that Jesus was telling us to say “yes” to goodness and “no” to evil. This article is so sensible and mind expanding that I have now read and re-read it several times, thanks for the insights you have provided.

  4. Anniel says:

    Today with officials lying to all and not even caring who knows they are lying, I think this article has more relevance than ever. Everything has a “spin” put on it. Fake news, fake scandals, lying politicians, I think this is one of my favorite articles on ST.

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