Why truth is essential

Truth is the secret of eloquence and of virtue, the basis of moral authority; it is the highest summit of art and of life.

Henri-Frederic AmielBack when the world was younger and people wrestled with how to explain abstract concepts, they turned to concrete images to show the difference between "true" and "false."

That's why our English word "true" is derived from the same word as "tree." It's something firm - firm as a tree. And our word for "false" comes from a word that meant to bend or deviate.

If you needed something you could count on, a foundation to build upon, you wanted firmness - something like an oak. You did not want a willow.

Etymologists find these kinds of connections with the past in our language all the time. It's appropriate now to talk about words in the context of truthfulness and lying, because false words are the essence of deception. Knowing the truth is so important to our lives and society that we place a high premium on the person whose word we can rely on, and we exact a stiff penalty from those whom we can't. To label someone a liar is a searing social stigma.

Think of the heavy baggage that travels with those words that we use to describe untruthfulness. Each of them has nuances, and none of them is good. We say we are deceived - the truth deliberately concealed from us. We say we are betrayed if someone is faithless or treacherous. We can be misled, which means someone took us into error even if that wasn't the intent. We are beguiled by an alluring deception. We may be deluded and unable to even detect that what we are being told is wrong.

Other unkind words: hoodwinked, bamboozled, outwitted, double-crossed. Hardly a nice crowd to hang out with.

In each of those meanings, some harm has been done. Often the casualty is trust, and that's why lying is condemned so thoroughly at all levels. We live in a complex and very interdependent culture, one where we have to rely on others all of the time. Sometimes our very lives are involved. We have no choice but to rely on the truthfulness of people who inspect our food and homes and vehicles, or who guide our journeys through congested skies, to name just a few.

Take a close look at the newspaper and see how many of today's major stories revolve around trust and deception. In one issue you could find stories about deceptive tobacco advertising, arms inspectors, impeachment proceedings, perjury, embezzlement, gambling, Internet frauds - a long list of sorry affairs. The world being what it is, we must be careful.

Those stories illustrate precisely why truthfulness has to be the standard in all our actions. Take away truth and no business would sign a contract or ship a product. The justice system would send innocent people to jail and let cheats and criminals go free. Customers couldn't trust the items they bought to function. Governments would do their business amid suspicion and hostility. How could there be peace in such an atmosphere?

But more than that, trust is the basis of our relationships with others, and, in fact, we take vows to be truthful with each other and with our spouses. We search out people we can count on, who won't lie to us. Something within us needs to be with people who are faithful and loyal, constant in their reliability and trustworthiness. That something is our gift from God, our Father.

From the beginning of the scriptures, the Lord urged us to see the truth and to avoid falsehood. God Himself cannot lie (Heb. 6:18) and He offers us His Spirit to help us discern truth (John 16:13). Liars, on the other hand, are condemned in fierce language: "Their throat is an open sepulchre; with their tongues they have used deceit; the poison of asps is under their lips." (Rom. 3:13.)

One reason the Lord hates lying may also reside in our own nature. God knows our origins and our potential, and in soaring language he told Joseph Smith, "Man was also in the beginning with God. Intelligence, or the light of truth, was not created or made, neither indeed can be. . . . The glory of God is intelligence, or, in other words, light and truth. Light and truth forsake that evil one." (D&C 93:29,36,37)

For God, the distinctions we may draw between scientific truth, legal truth, artistic truth, historical truth or literary truth are meaningless. "All truth is independent in that sphere in which God has placed it, to act for itself, as all intelligence also; otherwise, there is no existence." (D&C 93:30)

Truth, as the early speakers of our language knew instinctively, is the only standard on which you can build a society. It's an oak.

Subscribe for free and get daily or weekly updates straight to your inbox
The three things you need to know everyday
Highlights from the last week to keep you informed