I have much more to tell you, but you cannot bear it now.
When he comes, the Spirit of truth
He will guide you to all truth.
Jesus in today’s Gospel, John 16:12-13a
If the Holy Spirit leads us toward truth, who leads us away from truth? Jesus himself tells us the answer: “[The devil] was a murderer from the beginning and does not stand in the truth, because there is no truth in him. When he lies, he speaks according to his own nature, for he is a liar and the father of lies.” [John 8:44] It seems that Jesus is convinced that truth-telling and lying is a high-stakes game. And lying is all around us.
So what are disciples of Jesus to do while living in such a toxic culture, in which lying by public figures is taken for granted and all-too-often let slide in social relationships?
Years ago there was a cartoon of a lonely anti-war protester carrying a peace sign. A bystander asked him, “Do you really think you’re going to change the world by carrying that sign?” His response was, “I’m carrying this sign so the world doesn’t change me.” The first rule for living in a toxic culture is, make sure we don’t get infected ourselves.
And that’s not as easy as we might think. Back in 1951 the social psychologist Solomon Asch performed a series of experiments that have become classic. Here’s the setup: You were invited to take part in a study of “visual perception,” and met with a group of seven other participants. Each was showed two cards, one with a single line and another with three lines of obviously different lengths. Each participant in turn was asked which of the three lines matched in length the line on the first card. Your turn was last. Unknown to you, each of the other “participants” was a confederate of the experimenter and each deliberately gave the same obviously wrong answer. The real question under study was whether people like you would give in to social pressure and agree with the previously-given wrong answers, or would believe your own eyes.
Over a series of such experiments Asch found out that only about 25% of participants consistently resisted the pressure to conform. That is, about three people in four “went along with the crowd” rather than standing out by being different – even when that difference was a simple matter of what they could see with their own eyes. Social pressure is very, very hard to resist – and when that social pressure inclines us toward an “easy way out” (which, obviously, lying often is), it takes a great deal of courage.
So perhaps the first thing to do in order to resist infection by the toxic culture is to admit, and take to heart, that followers of Jesus are not going to be like other people, in this or perhaps many other matters. We may have to learn to endure “standing out in the crowd” by consistently telling the truth and accepting the consequences.
How do we become such persons? By minding ourselves in small, everyday situations. Truth-telling has to become a habit, so that we’re practiced at it by our everyday choices. Jesus tells us today that the Holy Spirit will lead us. It has to be our choice to follow. Until next week, peace.