I’m sure that you’ve heard this story in many different ways and many different situations, but the basic question is a crucial one for all of us. Is it ever okay to lie? And if so, when?
A good friend of mine and I were having this discussion a few days ago, and it got me thinking. The three main verses that are often brought up (and were in this discussion) are the following:
Exodus 20:16 You shall not give false testimony against your neighbor.
Proverbs 6:16-18 There are six things the Lord hates, seven that are detestable to him: haughty eyes, a lying tongue, hands that shed innocent blood, a heart that devises wicked schemes, feet that are quick to rush into evil, a false witness who pours out lies and a man who stirs up dissension among brothers.
Proverbs 12:22 The Lord detests lying lips, but he delights in men who are truthful.
I’m going to address the subject using these three verses. The first thing to do is to find a definition of a lie. According to Merriam-Webster’s Dictionary, the definition of “lie” is the following:
1 : an assertion of something known or believed by the speaker to be untrue with intent to deceive
2 : something that misleads or deceives
I think we can all agree that this is an accurate description of a lie. So we are presented with this problem: Is it ever okay to “lie” (as we’ve just defined it)? Well, let’s look back at our scripture verses. We often quote these verses with the intention of showing that God hates lying in all its forms. But if we look closely at the wording used, one of the first things we notice is what it is exactly that God detests: lying lips, a lying tongue, a false witness, false testimony.
It seems that what God hates is a little deeper than just “something that misleads or deceives.” He hates specifically the lips that are lying, the tongue that is lying, the witness who is false, the testimony that is false. Now, if you learn anything about the way God views sin in general from the Bible, it’s that “man looks at the outward appearance, but God looks at the heart” (1 Samuel 16:7). What you do on the outside isn’t what ultimately counts. If you’re respectful to your parents outwardly but are mad at them in your heart, you’re sinning just as much as the kid who starts yelling at his parents. This concept will help us as we look at lying specifically.
Let’s start by evaluating the two passages from Proverbs. They talk about lying lips and a lying tongue. The idea that these passages give us is more one of habit. For example, would you be considered to have lying lips if you told one white lie once in your life? No, but you still lied. But if you were known for telling outrageous whoppers, trying to get people to believe them, than you would be considered to have lying lips. It seems as though that’s what the passages mean when they say “God detests lying lips”: lips, and by extrapolation a heart, that is focused on lies and consistently lies. That’s what God hates.
But wait, you say, does that mean that God doesn’t mind the occasional white lie? Well, I think that’s where the other passage in Exodus comes in. It helps us to see exactly what kind of lie God despises. It says “You shall not give false testimony against your neighbor.” And after considering this, it seems to me that the kind of lying that God detests is the lying that is intended to hurt somebody else. Whether you’re getting them in trouble or making them look bad or whatever, that’s what God hates. That’s what he specifically condemns in the Ten Commandments.
But what about the lie that you tell when you’re trying to get out of trouble, you might ask. How does that fit in to your definition of sinful lying? My response would be that you’re actually hurting them by depriving them of the opportunity to bring justice, and that is a real harm indeed.
Using this definition of lying, which I believe and have tried to show is biblical, it would be perfectly fine to tell those Nazi soldiers at your door that you are not hiding Jews in your house. You are not trying to hurt somebody else, but in fact you’re helping them and saving their lives, and I believe that you would have God’s support. The same would go for throwing somebody a surprise birthday party: you’re allowed to lie to them in the process of planning it in order to bless them in the future. You’re not harming them in any way.
There are stories in the Bible which I believe support this view. Specifically there are the stories of the Egyptian midwives and Rahab the prostitute. In the stories of the midwives (from Exodus 1), Pharaoh had ordered the midwives to kill all the Hebrew boys as they came out of the womb. The midwives believed this was wrong, and would instead deliver the babies and then tell Pharaoh that the babies were already born by the time they got there. And Scripture says that “God was kind to the midwives…because the midwives feared God.” Wait, they lied because they feared God? According to my view, that lines up exactly with biblical standards. They were lying in order to save lives, not to hurt somebody.
The story of Rahab shows the same principle. When the Israelite spies sought refuge with her, she hid them on the roof and told the soldiers in pursuit that they had left the city (does this sound like the Nazi scenario to anyone?). She was then rescued from the city and blessed because of her actions. Once again, she was helping people, not hurting them, and so her lie was not considered sinful.
In conclusion, I believe that Scripture supports the view that it is okay to lie at times. And like all other sin issues, it all comes down to the heart motives. What is your purpose in telling this lie? Are you trying to hurt somebody or deprive them of justice? I would venture that it is rare that we are presented with the situation where we can tell a lie without sin, but nevertheless I think the situations do exist.
Another topic that has been brought up is that lying can often be a lack of trust in God. If you aren’t trusting God to do what he sees best, then you’ll lie in order to make things work out the way you think they should. In the scenario with the Jews, your first response might be to think “There’s nothing God can do right now, so I’m going to have to do something.” In that case, you are sinning by lying, because you are not trusting in God. However, your first response might also be “These people have placed their trust in me to keep them safe, and if I betray them, then I have essentially murdered them.” If that is what you’re thinking, then I think it would be a sin to betray them. So if you’re lying because you don’t trust God, you’re sinning. But if you’re lying to save a life, then I don’t believe you are sinning.
The most important thing to remember, though, is this: “The heart is deceitful above all things and beyond cure. Who can understand it?” (Jeremiah 17:9). It is rare that the situation will be as cut-and-dried as hiding Jews from the Nazis, and when it gets grey, our tendency is to think the best of ourselves and assume we’re doing it for the right reasons. So distrust your heart, and don’t assume you’re in the right. That’s the most dangerous thing you can do.
In other words, save the Jews, but otherwise don’t take the chance.