On the Use of Words – Lie versus Story

In the play Hamlet is a small but telling scene. In it, Polonius, a rather officious busybody, approaches Hamlet, who is reading a letter, and asks him, "What are you reading?" Now, it is really none of his business what Hamlet is reading, but instead of saying so, the Prince says only, "Words, words," which is a very literal answer to the question. Many times we must be as precise in our use of words, not as in this case to foil an impertinent inquiry, but in order to communicate accurately exactly what we mean. Also, we must be aware of others’ precise use of words in order to understand what we have heard. Failing to be precise in our word use and in understanding the word use of others has led many times to great confusion. As a case in point, I refer to the confusion regarding the meaning of "story."

In the southern United States, "story" has become a euphemism for "lie." For some reason, the word "lie," meaning "untruth" has become as odious as some of the harsh four letter words for bodily functions or sexual activity. Unfortunately, the euphemistic use of "story" in its place has now distorted the meaning of "story" for many people. However, there is an important distinction between a "story" and a "lie." Both are invented narratives, but that is all they have in common. Their purposes are different. A story is told to entertain, to amuse, or to instruct others. Sometimes stories are told to illustrate important truths. The literal truthfulness of the story is never in question. We know, for example, that the story of Alice falling down a rabbit hole and having adventures in an underground world is an invention. It never happened. No one ever thinks it did happen. But the narrative is a great story. A lie, however, has a vastly different purpose. It is meant to be believed as if it were truth, and it is meant to deceive others. A lie is told to divert others from the truth, to cover up truths, or avoid consequences of actions. The key is deception. The murderer who gives an alibi to prove he was not where the murder occurred is lying, and he knows it.

Why, then, is this distinction so important? In preaching, it is crucial. A preacher may use many stories to illustrate the truths being presented. The Lord Jesus did this often; His parables are well known. That these stories were literally true, that is, that they referred to real people and real actions, was never part of the narrative. His stories and parables illustrated spiritual truths in ways common to the people around Him. No one needed to know the name of the sower, or who the man and his prodigal son were. But if we blur the meaning of "story" to mean primarily "lie," we lose this important understanding of the truths involved. We also lose an important understanding of Jesus’ character. Jesus told many stories, that is, He told many invented narratives to illustrate important truths, but He never told lies. What He said about Himself, about His Father in Heaven, about His purpose, about how to live, all come in to question, if we insist that "story" means "lie."

A minor confusion because of a euphemistic use of a word would not seem very serious. Unfortunately, it is not a minor confusion. I have heard sermons preached about telling stories, and I could tell that the speaker himself was confused about the meanings. I have heard people vehemently deny that Jesus told stories. I have heard others try to identify the people in his narratives. In fact, some people are so busy trying to prove that these are true narratives, they miss the important spiritual truths couched in them.

In conclusion, let us be careful what we say. Let us say what we mean. And let us be precise about our words. Let us also be quick to clear up misunderstandings arising from others who do not use words precisely. Jesus told many stories. He never told lies. His stories illustrated important spiritual truths, and backed up the plain truths He also told us, but they were never intended to deceive us, as lies always are. We cannot let that confusion continue.

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