Dr. John B. MacDonald
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Is it ever right to lie? 

Initially, you probably answer ‘no,’ but then you begin to wonder as exceptional situations are described.  

One such exception may be, “Would you lie to save the life of an innocent person?” This is not a hypothetical question. 

For instance, during the Nazi occupation of Holland (1940-45), multitudes of innocent Jewish people (among others) were captured and confined in concentration camps. Millions died during that brutal time. 

Many Dutch people provided hiding places for these innocent people. For most, to be captured meant death. Corrie ten Boom and her family gave refuge to such people fleeing for their lives. One dilemma Corrie faced was how to answer the police when they were searching for Jews: “Where are the Jews hiding in your house?” 

Of course, situations like Corrie’s could be multiplied many times over. 

The question remains, is it ever right to lie?

We discover that this question is more complex and difficult to answer than we first thought.

Some responses

I received more input on this topic than any other in recent memory. 

The answers were diverse. Generally, I discerned three core positions: yes, no, and I’m not sure. Let me expand on those three responses and explain how the next few posts will progress. 

First, the largest number of responses was in the Yes-camp – some lying is justified in certain circumstances. A typical comment was something like, “Yes, I believe it is right in certain situations to lie to protect innocent people.” Sometimes a biblical example of lying was cited such as the Hebrew midwives (Exodus 1) or Rahab (Joshua 2). 

The question this group of respondents needs to answer is, “What are the circumstances that justify lying?” So, the next post will make the case for believing it's okay to lie in certain circumstances. 

Second, is the No-camp – no lying is justified in any circumstances. When support was given it typically quoted some of the many statements of the Bible that condemn lying such as, “Lying lips are an abomination to the LORD” (Proverbs 12:22). 

A question for these respondents is, “How would you answer if you were in Corrie ten Boom’s position?” So, a subsequent post will seek to make the case for not lying in any circumstances.

Third, was the I’m-not-sure camp. Many, if not most, of these respondents expressed some merits of the Yes and the No camps before declaring their current position. Here’s a couple of such comments: 

“Do you have any easier questions? I don’t really know. I hope if it was a life and death situation and I was pushed …” 

“My knowledge of God’s word tells me that it is not okay to lie. My heart sometimes tells me it is okay. To save human lives, I hope I would choose to lie to the Gestapo. Back to situational ethics.” 

I was encouraged by the effort, and the honesty expressed. All the responses confirmed this is a serious question with no simple answer. So, I plan yet another post that will wrestle with our subject. One of the issues that post will ask is, “How did Jesus respond in difficult circumstances?” 

Is it ever right to lie?

Before we attempt to answer the question, let’s first make sure we understand the question

Two words in the question need to be examined and agreed: “right” and “lie.” 

First, what is “right” presumes a standard. But what is that standard, and who determines whether it is met or not? 

I quoted a reader earlier that (in part) said, “My knowledge of God’s word tells me that it is not okay to lie. My heart sometimes tells me it is okay.” What is the standard here? Is it “knowledge of God’s word” or is it “my heart,” or is it something else? 

An article in Psychology Today seeks to establish a standard of when it is okay to lie in the following terms: 

If you’re lying to spare others harm or pain, that’s considered prosocial lying and is often a sign that you’ve got a well-developed sense of empathy and can choose to act compassionately towards others.

But what or who determines what is “prosocial,” “a well-developed sense of empathy,” or acting compassionately? And what about other (perhaps conflicting) standards advocated by others?

For our purposes, the standard for “right” will be that which is identified by the character of the one true God revealed as Jesus Christ, and the text of the Bible.

Second, what is a lie and what is lying? 

Some excuse “white lies” suggesting that they are not really lies. The Merriam-Webster Dictionary defines a white lie as “a lie about a small or unimportant matter that someone tells to avoid hurting another person.” Again, who determines what is “a small or unimportant matter” or what it means to “avoid hurting another person”?  

Let’s begin by defining a “lie”  and “lying based upon our standard of the character of the one true God revealed as Jesus Christ, and the text of the Bible. 

Defining a lie and lying 

I began by reading some common modern definitions of a lie and lying. Then I tested those definitions by the Bible’s language and examples of lies and lying. The Bible provided insights that enriched and clarified my understanding of a lie and the action of lying.

Here is my proposed definition:

A lie is information known to be untrue, and therefore false to reality, with the intent of deceiving. Lying is communicating, disseminating, or advancing a lie.

Perhaps this needs to be amended, so I invite your questions and comments on this definition to make sure that we agree.

Let me explain some of the features of this basic definition, including:

1.    There are three main components: communication; information known to be false; and, intent to deceive. Let’s examine these in reverse order. 

2.    Intent to deceive: the purpose or goal of a lie is to deceive; to persuade of what is false; to convince someone that something is different than what it really is. 

Genesis 3:1-7 sets forth a classic example of the intent to deceive. The Serpent’s first question was designed to undermine what God had said. The Serpent then follows this by contradicting what God said (“You surely shall not die!”) and stating, “For God knows that in the day you eat from it your eyes will be opened, and you will be like God, knowing good and evil.” The intent of that last statement was to deceive humans about the character and purposes of God so that they would disobey God. 

3.    Information known to be false: a lie is known to be untrue, and therefore false to reality, by the person transmitting it. 

Our definition distinguishes a lie from a simple error. For instance, if a person in ignorance says that New York City is the capital of the USA, that statement is wrong and therefore untrue, but it is not, as such, a lie. Even though it is a falsehood (not true), it is not intentional.

We will also have to consider how ‘information known to be false’ may be different from a partial truth. It may also be different from not correcting people and allowing them to continue believing something that is untrue. More on these and other elements later. 

4.    Information: I’m not entirely happy with this word. Perhaps you can suggest something better.

What I am trying to convey is that a lie can be more than a verbal statement. It can also be an action, an object, or an idea. Some modern dictionaries limit a lie to speaking falsely, but one can also lie by their actions. 

As for a lie being an object or an idea, the Bible describes both an idol and idolatry as lies (for example, Jeremiah 10:14; Habakkuk 2:18; Romans 1:25). When Aaron fashioned a golden calf and said, “This is your god, O Israel, who brought you up from the land of Egypt” (Exodus 32:4), both his statement and the golden calf were lies. 

5.    Communicating: The action of lying is conveying a lie. As we have seen, communicating can take place in numerous ways – it isn’t merely the act of speaking a lie.

Let me know what you think of these definitions of a lie and lying. It’s vital that we are talking about the same things as we wrestle with the complex and challenging question of whether it is ever right to lie.

The next post will make the case for believing it's okay to lie in certain circumstances.

Throughout this short series, I invite you to keep writing to me with your questions, your proposals, your practices, and whatever else speaks into a way of living that honors God and blesses people. You can contact me by clicking here

To make sure you don't miss future installments of this series click here to subscribe. I hope to hear from you soon.

Photo credit: No Yes Buttons Show Rejection Or Granted by Stuart Miles

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