To Lie Or Not To Lie

Bryan Davis asked an interesting question on his Facebook page yesterday: when, if ever, is it OK to tell a lie? Actually, he was asking in relationship to a character in a story, and the specific instance was in regard to saving a life.

Back in April I explored a more broad form of this question in a post discussing Lost Mission by Athol Dickson. But from time to time I’ve thought specifically about the issue of lying, primarily because some of the heroes of the Bible told lies.

Here, then, is what I wrote about the issue yesterday (with just a little editing 😉 ). In part I was responding to earlier comments that pointed to the idea that if God blessed the person, it was verification that their lying was justified.

    Abraham lied about Sarah being his wife—twice, and it is clear in the second incident that the king who suffered for it thought it was wrong.

    [Then Abimelech called Abraham and said to him, “What have you done to us? And how have I sinned against you, that you have brought on me and on my kingdom a great sin? You have done to me things that ought not to be done.” Gen. 20:9]

    Yet God blessed Abraham.

    Jacob deceived Isaac, yet God still gave him His covenant promise. Clearly, Esau thought Jacob was wrong, and even Jacob thought he was wrong—first when he was afraid he’d be caught, then twenty years later when he went home and anticipated facing his brother.

    My point is, I don’t think blessing from God is evidence that the lies were OK. I think they were sinful and God forgave them.

    But what about in the instance of saving a life? Abraham thought his lie was justified because he believed he was saving a life—his own. But what about saving someone else’s life?

    When David went on the run from Saul, he lied to the priest about being on a mission for the king (see I Sam. 21:1-10; I Sam 22:11-19). The consequence was that the priest and all those serving with him were killed—over seventy of them, if I remember correctly [actually eighty-five]. Yet Jesus used the incident as an example of “law breaking” that was OK—a layman eating the Bread of the Presence which was against the Mosaic Law (Matt. 12:1-5). Jesus gave no commentary about the lie David told.

    Yet Jesus says that Satan is a liar and the father of lies.

    I’m leaning toward this idea: My heart is the issue.

    If I don’t want to lie because I want to preserve my own righteousness, I think I’m like the priest and the Levite in Jesus’s parable who wanted to keep themselves clean, so avoided the man who’d been mugged. [Or like the Pharisees who wanted to remain clean so they could celebrate the Passover and therefore wouldn’t go into the Praetorium to speak with Pilate when they wanted to ask him to crucify Jesus (John 18:28).]

    If, on the other hand, I don’t want to lie because I want to please God, I think He can work no matter what.

    I guess that sounds quite relativistic. Let me be clear. I think lying is sin. Period. I think God can forgive it and work in the same way He worked when Joseph’s brothers meant him evil—God meant their actions for good.

    A person may lie for a good cause, rather than trusting
    God to work in the situation. The lie is still a sin, but God can use it for His purpose. The story of David mentioned above illustrates this. [Even as it illustrates that lies have consequences.]

So what do you think? My comments came at the end of the discussion. Because Bryan had to get back to work, he brought the responses to an end, so I never got much feedback and would love to hear how others view lying for a good cause (especially to preserve life).

Published in: on September 23, 2010 at 4:53 pm  Comments (16)  
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16 Comments

  1. Well, with all due respect, I think his use of that incident was more to the point of the Pharisees trying to get him to say it was okay to break the Sabbath – which is one of many things they repeatedly missed the forest for the trees on. It’s really no more than his not telling the story of the unjust judge and adding “But of course we know the judge was unjust and a mean, selfish person.”

    I honestly always found myself frustrated by questions in this, even in high school (they always cite Nazi Germany). In the end I think trying to find the line by sitting on it isn’t always a good thing.

    Abraham, Jacob, and David all had one thing in common: They had made a covenant with The God Most High. Regardless of their actions, that oath was unbreakable. That oath was sealed with blood.

    There’s a passage in II Timothy that reads like this:

    “Here is a trustworthy saying:
    If we died with him, we will also live with him;
    If we endure, we will also reign with him;
    If we deny him, he will also deny us;
    if we are faithless, he will remain faithful,
    for he cannot deny himself.”

    I’ve never fully understood the latter half of the passage: Denial v. faithlessness. But I think there’s something to be said in that God does not break his promises. Abraham tried to “help” by having Ishmael with Hagar – and, quite frankly, that was as least as bad as what he did to Sarah. Nonetheless, Abraham’s faithfulness did not make God faithless.

    I think God blessed Abraham because he’d already said he would. He promised Isaac and Rebekah Jacob, not Esau, would be the one. (It is Esau’s, not Jacob’s, sin that is dubbed the poster child of what not to do, btw, without letting Jacob off the hook.) God anointed David king. He promised to make David king – that’s largely why David wouldn’t touch Saul (other than I and II Samuel are very, very clear that you do not touch the Lord’s anointed).

    So in the end, I think it’s more accurate to say that God blessed them because he said he would.

    With things like this, I’m with King David: “Better to fall into the hands of God than men.”

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  2. I think of those kings who went for help to the surrounding the nations…. We look with our eyes and we see that we need to fix something. There are too many people coming against us. So we have to make an alliance with a neighbor. But God tells us to rely on him.

    Why would we have to lie? Does God ever put us in the place where we have to choose the lesser of two evils? Or is it safe to obey and to trust him to intervene if he wants?

    I think every time we step in to help God out, we mess things up.

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  3. Becky,
    This is a very interesting subject. Years ago I felt certain that lying for any reason was wrong.
    But then I read “The Hiding Place” and the account of Corrie Ten Boom’s sister. As I remember it, the sister was hiding a jew in her house. But the gestapo came to search it and asked if there were any jews in the house. She told them the truth and the jew was taken away.
    Corrie was furious until she later learned that resistance fighters had freed that jew and others as well. Mrs ten Boom’s conclusion was that God had honored her sister’s obedience to his commandment ‘thou shalt not lie.’
    But upon reading that story I drew a different conclusion. If I were harboring a jew at that time would I have been able to keep quiet about it? I imagine the conflicting emotions, but in this case telling the truth seems wrong and selfish. After all, didn’t she have that jew’s trust that she would keep him hidden? Instead she exposed him. It would have been harder to lie, but I believe it would have been the right thing to do. To lie, she would have had to accept the fact that, if the gestapo found the jew, the consequence would have been her arrest and not only the jew’s. Instead she turned that individual over.
    It is truly a deep subject, but I think there are instances where it is good and right to lie. I myself haven’t had one of those occasions, but I live in safe America.
    I think all of this falls under obeying the ‘spirit of the law, rather than the letter of the law.’ In the ten commandments the Israelites were commanded to keep the sabbath. And so, when Jesus came, he was condemned by the Pharisees because he ‘broke’ the sabbath. But the spirit of the law was upheld. The ten commandments also included thou shalt not kill, but God then directed the Israelites to kill men, women, and children from neighboring lands. Was that contradiction? No. In context, his command (and the purer interpretation) is ‘thou shalt do no murder.’
    The law was given to point out our need for a saviour. The saviour was given to conform us to God.

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  4. I’ve put much thought into this issue, I’m not entirely sure I agree with any of the comments yet 😉 Though each one definitely has it’s own merit….I suppose it depends on what we are called to do as Christians, follow Christ’s example, or live sinless lives? Or both? I rather think both, but quite often I believe we try to make living sinless lives synonymous with following Christ’s example. It’s Not. At least, not by my thinking. I quite agree that Christ lived a sinless life, but his coming wasn’t about living a sinless life it was about doing His Father’s will even unto death. As Christians we are called to be imitators of Christ, to live purely is definitely one of those things that helps conform us to his image! I do NOT deny that! FAR from it 😀 But……Christ was always able to help those in need without breaking anything but man’s laws, that was what made him perfect. Quite frankly, I believe he could face all of those “impossible” situations where you either have to lie and save someone or not lie and condemn them, and he could save them, and not sin. But that’s just a fragment of what makes him God, and a blaring klaxon that shows I’m not. So, what do we do in those situations? I believe that depends on the person who has to make the decision, as well as the circumstances surrounding the situation, but remember, living a *spotless* life is only a part of living like Christ. Perhaps a larger and more overlooked piece is, serving others.

    Willing to take the blame for the sin of saving another, or(hopefully I would) the death because one would not sin.

    Millard

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  5. The two examples I think of first when it comes to lying to protect life are the two Hebrew midwives and Rahab. All three were blessed after first protecting life (letting the males babies live and hiding the spies) and then misleading authorities to continue to protect life.

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  6. I’m with Katie on this one; I think the Bible makes it clear that we have a moral duty to protect a worthy life. I make this distinction of a worthy life because I don’t believe I could lie to protect a criminal; I believe that God would not approve of it.

    Although there was THAT movie–I forget the name–set in France, where the former convict stole the priest’s silver candlesticks and the priest lied to keep him from being sent back to jail… Not that I take my morality from the movies, but I thought that this particular scene was food for thought, because it showed Christian mercy and compassion in action–in the form of a protective lie. How fraught! And, when the gardai left, the priest told the convict to go and sell the candlesticks; that he clearly needed the money worse than the priest needed his possessions, and he blessed him. It was a most incredible moment in a movie full of amazing moments–

    I suppose it just goes to show that life sometimes can be very messy, with no clear-cut directives on “You will do it this way every time to be right.” My dad, a retired missionary, has always cautioned us to be wary of formulating or following strictly defined, extra-Biblical moral codes because they can lead us off the path of righteousness into legalism, the sin for which Christ so often chastised the Pharisees and Saducees.

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  7. Thought-provoking answers.

    Scott, I’ve used the example of Corrie ten Boom and her sister, too. If fact I just recently re-read The Hiding Place. For clarification, this was Nellie who was hiding a couple young men of conscription age. They were in the cellar, accessed by a trap door under the table.

    When the soldiers came in demanding where the young men were, she said, Under the table. They looked and she laughed. They thought she was mocking them and left in a huff—never found these in hiding.

    Some of the family was upset that she had risked telling the truth. Corrie was not one. Instead, they continued to debate this issue because the resistance movement meant they lied to the Germans often.

    Corrie lied about having only the one radio she turned in. They falsified papers, stole ration cards, and lied about hiding Jews when the raid came. Was all this OK because the Nazi government was doing immoral things? Was this actually an example of obeying God, rather than men?

    But Katie and Krystie, the examples of Rahab and the midwives receiving a blessing is precisely why I cited other examples of people in the Bible who lied in ways that we can clearly see are wrong, yet they were also blessed. In other words, I’m suggesting that Rahab and the midwives weren’t blessed because they lied, but for some other reason.

    Or perhaps they also, like those under Nazi control, were obeying God rather than men. Could the midwives have stood up and said no to Pharaoh? Probably. At the cost of their own lives. And then what would happened to the Jewish baby boys, one of which very well may have been Aaron.

    What about Rahab? Could she have said, I refuse to tell you where the Jewish spies are. Probably. Also at the cost of her life, and likely at the cost of the spies’ capture and all her family members who were later spared when Israel conquered Jericho.

    But do we know this—that the lies “worked”? Might not God intervene far more often if we trust Him than if we decide we have to give Him a helping hand?

    Look at David. In the example I cited in my post, he was certainly in the right. Saul was trying to kill him, and he was running for his life. But what would have happened if he had told the priest the truth instead of lying to him? What if he had trusted God to protect him? Eighty-five people died because of his lie. It seems apparent that at the least those people would have lived.

    Anyway, I appreciate all the thoughts on the subject. I’m still processing … 😕

    Becky

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  8. Millard,

    I’ve put much thought into this issue, I’m not entirely sure I agree with any of the comments yet 😉 Though each one definitely has it’s own merit….

    I admittedly took a simplistic POV. I’ve never been in a situation like that, and likely never will.My thing is, even the act of hiding someone is, technically deceptive. So, at least for me, I couldn’t in good conscience hide someone unless I was willing to take any measure. (But, let’s face it, I’d probably freak out, decide I’m about to get caught, and go out shooting. For better or worse.) It’s a matter of conscience, in my mind. I certainly don’t think the lie is good, nor the first option. I’m just saying, even Nellie’s statement “They’re under the table” is deceptive (even if a gamble) by way of allowing the Nazis to draw their own, false conclusions. A misdirection or misleading statement is, by definition, still deception. And silence, when asked a direct question, is itself an answer – in which case you might as well just tell.

    At any rate, I was mostly just clarifying the particular passage used in the original post.

    I suppose it depends on what we are called to do as Christians, follow Christ’s example, or live sinless lives? Or both? I rather think both, but quite often I believe we try to make living sinless lives synonymous with following Christ’s example. It’s Not. At least, not by my thinking.

    I’m going to be mean and ask you to clarify.

    I quite agree that Christ lived a sinless life, but his coming wasn’t about living a sinless life it was about doing His Father’s will even unto death. As Christians we are called to be imitators of Christ, to live purely is definitely one of those things that helps conform us to his image! I do NOT deny that! FAR from it 😀 But……Christ was always able to help those in need without breaking anything but man’s laws, that was what made him perfect.

    Quite frankly, I believe he could face all of those “impossible” situations where you either have to lie and save someone or not lie and condemn them, and he could save them, and not sin.

    Well, sure he could. I don’t really think of them as impossible situations. But, like I said, mine’s a simpleton’s approach. 0=)

    But that’s just a fragment of what makes him God, and a blaring klaxon that shows I’m not.

    That’s the cool part. 0=)

    So, what do we do in those situations? I believe that depends on the person who has to make the decision, as well as the circumstances surrounding the situation, but remember, living a *spotless* life is only a part of living like Christ.

    Yeah, like I said, in the end it’s a personal conviction. I think, though, if you can’t lie to save a life without betraying your conscience, you’re better off not taking the person in. It’s sort of like creating the temptation.

    Perhaps a larger and more overlooked piece is, serving others.

    Hmm..

    Willing to take the blame for the sin of saving another, or(hopefully I would) the death because one would not sin.

    Could you clarify here?

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  9. Becky,
    No, that was not the instance in The Hiding Place that I was talking about. But I looked it up:

    Nollie was hiding a jewess named Annaliese. The S.D. entered her home, asked if Annaliese was a jew, and Nollie said ‘Yes.’
    It is in Chapter 8 Storm Clouds Gather
    Corrie’s thought was: “How could she (Annaliese) sing, when she had betrayed a fellow human being?”
    Nollie sends Corrie a message that “No ill will happen to Annaliese . . . God will not let her suffer because I obeyed him.”

    But in my opinion Corrie’s first reaction was correct: that girl betrayed the jewish girl’s trust. I’m sure she assured the girl that she would be kept safe in her home, instead she turned her in. Either she was not committed to hiding her in the first place, or she was a bit flighty?

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  10. oops, I mean to say that Nollie was singing after the jewish girl’s arrest, not Annaliese!

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  11. In the end we have to ask ourselves is God in control of the situation? And what has God has said clearly on lying?

    I can’t get around the fact that God said lying is sin. Period. He doesn’t have an addendum that says “unless *fill in the blank*”. I believe that when we fully put our trust in God and believe that he is control of EVERYTHING, then we can take a step of faith and tell the truth and not lie.

    It is a slippery slope when we begin to say sin is sin unless *fill in the blank*. Soon there is a reason to get around anything being sin.

    As for using biblical people as a reason to lie for “righteous reasons”, biblical people were sinners just like us. I don’t believe God blessed them because they lied to help people, he worked in spite of it. They were righteous because God made them righteous.

    As for me, I don’t want to stand before God someday and make a case for why my particular lie was not sin. I don’t think I would win that argument lol.

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  12. Remade:

    “Willing to take the blame for the sin of saving another, or(hopefully I would) the death because one would not sin.”

    Could you clarify here?”

    Sure 🙂 It really had less to do with my post and more to do with my personal opinion, at this point. At this current juncture of thought in my life I’d sin(lie) in some situations such as the ones mentioned by others. But I also want to believe I would accept what comes from someone not lying and causing me harm in that way. Don’t see where I get the right to tell them to sin, *shrugs* So I just hope that I am ready to accept another taking the different path than I.

    To clarify, I always think lying is a sin, but unless something real clever came to me in a situation like Nollie’s then I’d probably sin.

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  13. Millard – Ah, ok. Yeah, that’s why I said if your conviction is such that you really couldn’t lie in that situation, it’s better you never put yourself there. It would have been better for Nollie to simply direct the girl to another safe house than agree to hide her, then backpedal on it (at least in my estimation, but, again, in my view the mere act of hiding her would’ve been a deception).

    Morgan – Your post is partly why I drew the lines, personally, the way I did. I don’t think it’s ever a good thing to start looking for loopholes in the system, and, to put it James’ way: “Elijah was a man just like us, with a nature like ours.”

    As it is, there’s a precedent in Scripture to always err in favor of life. So there’s no arguing “sometimes lying is okay” and, while I really don’t think God’s going to ask me to defend myself, I really wouldn’t. It is what it is. I don’t think my faith in God would be the question – I’ve no doubt in my mind he’s perfectly capable of handling it – and, in the end…

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  14. even Nellie’s statement “They’re under the table” is deceptive (even if a gamble) by way of allowing the Nazis to draw their own, false conclusions

    This is a good point. When I was young I read a lot of slightly old-fashioned books (Enid Blyton etc.) in which the good characters never lied. But when necessary they frequently made statements that, while literally ‘true’ were intended to deceive.

    The Nazi example is a much used one and very tricky. But we’re most of us not in that situation. However, we can still have smaller moral dilemmas where no course of action seems right.

    For example, when I was a student I had two flatmates called X and Y. My best friend, X, told me she fancied a boy called Z and asked me not to tell Y, and I promised. Now, supposing Y asked, “Does X fancy Z?” I have two options: Break my promise or lie (saying “I’m not telling you” would not help, as it would be obvious the answer was yes).

    We need to make sure we don’t place ‘not lying’ above other moral considerations.

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  15. For example, when I was a student I had two flatmates called X and Y. My best friend, X, told me she fancied a boy called Z and asked me not to tell Y, and I promised. Now, supposing Y asked, “Does X fancy Z?” I have two options: Break my promise or lie (saying “I’m not telling you” would not help, as it would be obvious the answer was yes).

    Yeah, in that case, it can be a bit dicey, as, as you say, refusing to go into it would have been just as much of an answer. The only real out is to make sure both girls know you’re simply not going to get into the subject because you won’t be caught in the middle. Like you, I can’t and won’t lie when asked a direct question. I have, however, explained to an authority that I didn’t want to name names because I couldn’t remember who was all present (which was true) and I didn’t want to get someone in trouble or someone get off the hook.

    So yeah…I’m talking too much…

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  16. The Bible says we are to speak the truth in love. I think it always comes back to this. It’s never just about lying or telling the truth, especially when we get into the gray areas where telling the truth as we see it may cause more harm than good.

    I wrote a longer response, but then I thought maybe I should post it on my blog instead, because it got really long. 😀 So that’s what I’m doing. Have a great day, Becky!

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