There is a story in the Bible about a time when the religious leaders of Jesus’s day confronted him with questions as to why, contrary to the religious tradition of the time, Jesus’s disciples ate before ceremonially cleaning their hands. In response, Jesus said, among other things: “What comes out of a person is what defiles them. For it is from within, out of a person’s heart, that evil thoughts come – sexual immorality, theft, murder, adultery, greed, malice, deceit, lewdness, envy, slander, arrogance, and folly. All these evils come from inside and defile a person.” (Mark 7:20-23)
I have never fully understood this story until I began preparing for a trial recently. Odd, I know. But, I was considering whether certain evidence would be admissible at trial or not and had to analyze this evidence under the hearsay rule. Hearsay is any statement made outside of court, and is generally not admissible at trial, with certain exceptions, because it is inherently unreliable. For example, if I go to court and seek to testify about what my friend Joe told me as to whether the traffic light I went through was red or green, this testimony would not be permitted. Joe can testify about what he saw, but I cannot testify about what Joe told me he saw. Similarly, if, just after I ran a red light, I said to Joe: “The light was green,” I cannot testify about that either. That is hearsay – an out-of-court statement. You can see why this is the rule. After all, if I’m on the stand and could bolster my case by saying: “Well, right after the accident, I told Joe the light was green, and therefore the light must have been green,” I would have a motive to lie.
There are exceptions to this hearsay rule, though, for certain types of hearsay evidence that has the mark of reliability and can be trusted. One of these exceptions is the “excited utterance” exception. Under the excited utterance exception, a statement relating to a startling event or condition, made while the person testifying in court was under the stress of excitement that it caused, is admissible. Such statements are considered inherently reliable – in other words, when we yell something in the midst of some stressful or startling event, it is likely to be true. Accordingly, such statements would be admissible. In our example above, let’s say I had been driving with Joe, drove through the light in question, and just before a car side-swiped me, I yelled out: “My light was green!” That statement could be admissible under the excited utterance exception to the hearsay rule.
Thoughts of the excited utterance exception led me to remember riding in a van almost three years ago with a group of people from Ndola, Zambia to Lusaka, Zambia. A now dear friend of mine, Lawrence, was driving us along a two-lane road and we were probably going 65-70 miles an hour. Frequently, we would come upon cars or trucks carrying large objects, or people, or animals that were going slower, so we would go into the oncoming traffic lane and pass that particular vehicle. This happened on the other side too. Constantly, we were heading straight for another car that was passing. At one point, a car using our lane to pass cut it too close and was heading right for us. It didn’t appear that the car would get back to its side of the road in time and it would hit us head-on. The car got closer and closer and was not getting over to the other lane. I clenched my body and my heart began to race. Lawrence yelled out: “Father in heaven, save us!” The other car swerved back into its lane just in time and we were safe.
I have not forgotten this experience. Not because it scared me so much (which it did), but because of what Lawrence yelled out at this time of incredible stress. His words revealed something remarkable about him that I could not and did not grasp in the moment. The words he used were not the words that came to my mind first and nearly found their way out, as the car headed toward us. You know exactly what I mean.
And now I not only get what Jesus meant, but I get why there is an excited utterance exception to the hearsay rule. What comes out of us, particularly in such stressful, startling moments, reveals the inherent truth about the condition of our hearts. Indeed, what comes outside in these moments is a trustworthy reflection of the state of things on the inside. We don’t have the presence of mind to pretty ourselves up, straighten our shirt collars, and present ourselves for inspection. What we see of ourselves in such times should remind us of what God sees and seeks to transform – the inside, where the evil and sin live. Imagine.
The next time a car is heading straight for me, I want to cry, in the midst of my stress: “Father in heaven, save me!” And so I pray, “Create in me a pure heart, O God, and renew a steadfast spirit within me.” (Ps 51:10)