Honestly?

I’ve frequently discussed on this blog the tendency many of us have to slip into generalizations about moral decline. That is why I really find myself gravitating toward the research from people like Dan Ariely. Dan has consistently risen to the top of his field of behavioral economics and the science of making choices. Statistical evidence is the best anecdote for generalizations. I also consider it a healthy practice to evaluate the human condition through the lens of multiple disciplines. It should be encouraging to your faith to see how closely scripture parallels “new” discoveries in human behavior.

Ariely just penned a new book called The Honest Truth About Dishonesty: How We Lie To Everyone, Especially Ourselves. In the book, Ariely summarizes his recent collection of behavioral research. He is remarkably clever in designing models which reveal consistencies in how we as humans portray ourselves versus who we truly are on the inside. Research such as this is important in our time as we have developed a cultural shift in how we view ourselves as innately good (I know… that was a generalization).  Historically, human depravity was accepted as the norm while it was understood our universal fight was against our natural inclinations. Presently, it is more accepted that we are all basically good on the inside with external circumstances being ultimately responsible for our outward behavior.

The obvious application to the gospel lies in the need for us to first recognize our own sin if we are to properly understand the need for the cross.  C.S. Lewis once pointed out that the greatest threat to evangelism is a culture that does not clearly define sin. It is hard to throw someone a lifeline if they don’t know they are drowning. Ariely demonstrates through his research the dirty truth of our tendency to deceive not only those around us, but even ourselves. In that, Areily is, perhaps unknowingly, validating the inescapable reality of our heart’s inclination towards self.

To me, the most interesting aspect of Areily’s research is the fact that he confirms we certainly have a tendency to lie, but only a little. In doing this, we justify our behavior as not REALLY that bad. For example, Areily set up a situation where cold cans of coke were left next to a collection of dollar bills in the dining hall of a fraternity house. It was observed that the participants in the study felt much more comfortable stealing a soda than a dollar. To further demonstrate this comparative justification, it was found that the participants were much more likely to take a soda if the dollar bills were present versus when the dollar bills were absent. It is as though the participants are rewarding themselves with the soda as they avoid taking the higher valued dollar.

I am intrigued by the application of this type of behavior to our justification of the “respectable” sins in our life, as Jerry Bridges would define them. Our selfishness, pride, jealousy, gossip, etc. are much more dangerous and susceptible to relativism. It is very easy to excuse our behavior as long as we are able to say it isn’t as bad as someone else. The real threat lies in our false confidence that these are “hidden” sins, and that our internal dialogue and endless justification don’t in many ways affect our spiritual character and ability to do the will of God.

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