There is beauty in words. A sentence well written—a phrase that captures a thought and holds it for a moment—these are the moments for which readers search. But the nature of a sentence is a strange thing. Words by themselves are not bound by any ethics; they are empty vessels in which nothing but a single unit of information is contained. Claiming that the words “fruit” and “tree” are true or false is meaningless. However, the moment words are grouped together into a sentence, they gain a truth value. That is to say, a sentence has the emergent property of “truthfulness” not found in the individual nouns and verbs that compose it. Take, for example, the sentence “The fruit doesn’t fall far from the tree.” It makes a claim about the state of both the fruit and the tree, which can be verified by reality.
Sentences are the smallest grammatical units that can tell truth or lies.1 When the serpent spoke the phrase “You will not surely die” (Gen. 3:4, ESV), those words, arranged in that order, entered into the realm of meaning. They formed a proposition that could be falsified: mankind would either die or it would not. Thus, not until those handful of words were grouped into that complete and unholy sentence was the first lie ever spoken and the father of lies born.
Truth and falsehoods are ships in need of a language on which to cast anchor. Without a mode of communication, it would be impossible to deceive or apprise others. Perhaps that is the reason why the serpent first spoke: because without words, he could not deceive. In the United States Constitution, fraud and libel are not protected precisely because they undermine the whole purpose of free speech, which is to “seek and share the truth.”2 Yet, what about the sentences we don’t speak, those words we conceal within our minds and hide from the view of others?
“You also were with Jesus,” said an unfamiliar voice. As those words left the young girl’s lips and landed upon the ears of Peter, they kindled fear.
It always begins that way. Fear of embarrassment, or perhaps fear of consequences—that’s why we hide the truth. What were Peter’s thoughts in that moment? Perhaps he had none. Perhaps the same fear that caused him to look at the roaring waves beneath his feet, and plunge beneath them, also prompted him to look at the roaring waves of multitudes around the Messiah, and be pulled by them.
The social world around us is like a net that drags us along the ocean floor. It causes us to choose the wrong answer when we know which is right.
For example, imagine you are in a room with your peers. A professor raises a card with a single vertical line drawn on it and tells you it is the prototype. He raises a second card, this time with three unique lines, and asks the class which one matches the first. The answer is immediately obvious: the third line matches. What isn’t obvious is that your peers are really confederates of the study, actors paid to influence you. One by one the professor goes around the room. One by one each student says the wrong answer. It’s your turn. You question your sanity. How could so many be wrong? Do you trust yourself? Trust the group? Maybe you’re the gullible one falling for the illusion. The uneasiness of nonconformity is not promptly digested. Solomon Asch designed this famous experiment, and his results showed that 35 percent of the time you will—like Peter—deny the truth.
The Urge to Disclose
“You also are one of them,” said another voice. A little time had elapsed between the first and the second accusation. Why, then, didn’t Peter get away with his denial? Why did people become increasingly adamant that he knew Jesus? Simple: our brains are bad at possessing secrets. The harder we try to keep something hidden, the more likely we are to disclose it unintentionally.
Imagine sitting at a table, with a friend across from you. On the table are four cards with a specific shape on each. A circle is to your left, and a heart is on the right. The two in the middle are both triangles—one large, the other small. Only three of the shapes are visible to your friend. The fourth is visible only to you. Do you think you can keep it a secret?
When Liane Wardlow Lane and her colleagues designed this experiment, they came up with an intuitive way to gauge when people disclosed secret information. Researchers asked participants to describe the shapes to the person across the table—all except the hidden one. Interestingly, many described the visible triangle as the “small” triangle. Their use of the adjective “small” unnecessarily revealed important information. Two different cards show triangles, but the friend on the other side of the table doesn’t know that. By calling the visible triangle small, the describer was leaking privileged information—that there was a larger triangle hidden behind the partition.
Curiously, this unintentional confession occurred more often when researchers asked participants to keep the information secret than when they didn’t. It’s as if an attempt to hide the truth made people more likely to tell it.
With every denial, the thought of his relationship to Jesus pressed harder upon Peter’s mind. His own neurophysiology refused to side with his crime. His voice, the words he used to betray Jesus, now betrayed him and called attention to him. In fact, research shows that people experience a rebound effect after attempting to suppress thoughts. Participants report thinking more about the thoughts they were told not to think than about those they weren’t, creating a preoccupation with the suppression.
“Certainly, this man was with him,” said a third voice. Thrice was Peter asked, and thrice did he deny it. Our brains don’t like keeping secrets. Suppressing information has been shown to increase stress. For example, one study found that when participants were asked to write about a certain topic and then suppress all thoughts about it, there was a significant decrease in lymphocyte levels in their blood; in other words, their immune system was being compromised.6 It’s as if the stress of lying turns on the body’s defense mechanisms, shutting down the immune system in the way it does when we are trying to escape from danger. Stress levels began to increase in Peter’s brain, and he began to curse and aggressively deny all accusations; his fight-or-flight response had activated.
Then the rooster crowed twice. Some thoughts seem to just awaken in consciousness, while others seem prompted. A few hours prior, the disciples had sat together celebrating the Passover. Jesus had said something to Peter. In that moment, the sights and sounds of Jesus’ words activated a chemical cascade in Peter’s eyes and ears that streamed across his nerves and into his brain. Out of those perceptions a memory was formed, a memory he had subsequently forgotten, repressed by the chaos of the night.
Certain sounds and smells seem to take us back in time, to relive forgotten memories. We return to the very place where those memories first formed. Experimentation shows that retrieval cues aid our recollection. Then the rooster crowed again. In that moment, the sight and sounds of the rooster’s crow activated another chemical cascade that rushed across Peter’s nerves and into his brain. Aided by those perceptual cues, a memory was retrieved. Peter remembered the words Jesus had spoken to him, warning him of this moment. Scripture tells us that Peter immediately went out and wept bitterly.
Our brains were not designed to lie. We go contrary to our nature when we suppress the truth, deny our beliefs, and reject our high calling. In the case of traumatic events, studies show that not confiding them with another person can be more emotionally damaging than the events themselves.8 Ellen White paints that night of the crucifixion thus: “A tide of memories rushed over him. … Unable to longer endure the scene, he rushed, heart-broken, from the hall. He pressed on in solitude and darkness, he knew and cared not whither.”
We don’t know much of what happened after Peter left. But we have reason to believe that Peter’s brain gave him no peace— that sadness and guilt continued until his brain was given the opportunity to confess the truth he had denied so adamantly. Thrice did Christ ask if Peter loved him (John 21:15-17), and thrice did the repentant disciple say yes.
Neuroscientist David Eagleman gives us the following thought: “It [the need for disclosure] may similarly explain the appeal of prayer, especially in those religions that have very personal gods, deities who lend their ears with undivided attention and infinite love.” That hymn of old asks: “Have we trials and temptations? Is there trouble anywhere? We should never be discouraged, take it to the Lord in prayer.” Like Peter, we too need to confess and to
tell the truth to someone. Our story began with the first recorded sentence, which contained a lie.
I said earlier that a complete sentence, not a standalone word, is the smallest grammatical unit that holds a truth value. I lied. One exception exists. It is not a phrase, nor a sentence, but a single word. A Word whose existence has been from the beginning. A Word that alone contains the entirety of Truth incarnate: Jesus.
Trevor A. Harley, The Psychology of Language, 4th ed. (London: Psychology Press, 2014).
Steven Pinker, The Stuff of Thought: Language as a Window into Human Nature (New York: Penguin Books, 2007).
Solomon E. Asch, “Effects of Group Pressure on the Modification and Distortion of Judgments,” in H. S. Guetzkow, Groups, Leadership, and Men (Pittsburgh: Carnegie University Press, 1951).
Liane Wardlow Lane, Michelle Groisman, and Victor S. Ferreira, “Don’t Talk About Pink Elephants!” Psychological Science, April 2006, Vol. 17, No. 4, pp. 117-129.
David M. Clark, S. Ball, and D. Pape, “An Experimental Investigation of Thought Suppression,” Behaviour Research and Therapy, Vol. 29, 1991, pp. 253-257.
Keith J. Petrie, Roger J. Booth, and James W. Pennebaker, “The Immunological Effects of Thought Suppression,” Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, Vol. 75, No. 5, November 1998, pp. 1264-1272.
Endel Tulving and Zena Pearlstone, “Availability Versus Accessibility of Information in Memory for Words,” Journal of Verbal Learning and Verbal Behavior, Vol. 5, No. 4, 1966, pp. 381-391.
James W. Pennebaker, “Traumatic Experience and Psychosomatic Disease: Exploring the Roles of Behavioural Inhibition, Obsession, and Confiding, Canadian Psychology, Vol. 6, No. 2, April 1985, pp. 82-95.
Ellen G. White, The Spirit of Prophecy, Vol. 3 (Battle Creek, MI: Seventh-day Adventist Publishing Association, 1878), p. 110.
David Eagleman, Incognito: The Secret Lives of the Brain (New York: Vintage Books, 2012).
Every story must begin somewhere. And this one begins on the seaside. Nature loves to hold on to mysteries, as if to disclose them meant she’ll lose a part of herself. For a long time, it was a mystery how turtle hatchlings found the sea. Perhaps the gentle sound of waves was calling out to them, saying “come, this is the way home.” But there is a stronger explanation. Not the call of the sea, but light from the moon glistening upon the horizon (Rivas, Tomillo, Uribeondo, & Marco, 2015). These turtles follow the moonlight as it reflects over the ocean. They keep their eyes on its glow, as they make their way towards the freedom that the ocean brings.
Seldom is victory gained at little cost, and us as humans have added many costly obstacles to their already rough path. Light pollution from nearby cars, streets, and buildings have begun to disorient these hatchlings (Howell, 2013). Their gaze once steadfast, has now been compromised by the multitude of brighter, and more attractive lights. Not only do these lights lead away from the safety of the ocean, they lead towards the dangers of streets and sewers.
We are not so different from these hatchlings. In our Christian journey, we hear the voice of One say, “Do you see yonder shining light? Keep that light in your eye, and go directly to it” (Bunyan, 1628, p. 11). There are a multitude of lights, attractive and distracting, that will divert our gaze. Like the atoms in a molecule, drawn together by falling to their lowest energy state, so too are we effortlessly drawn and attracted to the lowliness of the world. “If they kept their eyes fixed on Jesus, who was just before them, leading them to the city, they were safe. But soon some grew weary, and said the city was a great way off, and they expected to have entered it before” (White, 1915, p. 64). Like these molecules, it takes energy and effort to tear apart those bonds; to separate us from the world, and not be distracted by it. Yet the Light of Christ is soft and steady, and anyone willing to keep their eyes on it will—like the turtle hatchlings—find the shores of salvation. As it is written, “Look unto me, and be ye saved, all the ends of the earth: for I am God, and there is none else.” (Isaiah 45:22, KJV).
Bunyan, J. (1628). The Pilgrim’s Progress. Grand Rapids: Christian Classics Ethereal Library.
Howell, E. (2013, June 7). Light Pollution Deters Nesting Sea. Retrieved from Live Science: http://www.livescience.com/37278-light-pollution-sea-turtle-nesting.html
Rivas, M. L., Tomillo, P. S., Uribeondo, J. D., & Marco, A. (2015). Leatherback hatchling sea-finding in response to artificial lighting: Interaction between wavelength and moonlight. Journal of Experimental Marine Biology and Ecology, 143-149.
White, E. G. (1915). Life Sketches of Ellen G. White. Mountain View: Pacific Press Publishing Association.