Is It Ever Right To Lie?

The question of truth and lying pervades all that is said or left unsaid within our families, communities, and working relationships. In this study we will be answering the question: Is it ever right to lie? Conduct seems to indicate that many believe it is right to lie, at least on certain occasions. Professors exaggerate the excellence of their students on recommendations for employment, physicians lie to their patients, parents lie to their children about such things as adoption, social investigators use deception while trying to uncover medical and welfare fraud, the police and journalists lie and deceive in order to expose crime and corruption, and even Dr. Laura, under the pretext of offering moral advice, frequently tells people to lie in order to avoid what she considers to be more serious problems.

Conditioned To Lie

We find ourselves living in a society that actually conditions us to lie. Our employers ask us to lie for them on many occasions. For instance, the secretary who "covers" for the boss when he doesn't want to be disturbed and the salesman who makes claims for his product which are not true are both lying. Many times our "embellishments" on job recommendations for friends and acquaintances are nothing but lies. I suppose it is possible that the Christian might try to convince himself that these little lies are not really important enough to worry about. But God makes it clear that "all liars shall have their part in the lake that burns with fire and brimstone, which is the second death" (Revelation 21:8).

Telling The Truth Is Not Easy

Of course, telling the truth is not the easiest course of action to follow. On the contrary, telling the truth is often difficult, and frequently places us in circumstances that are quite unpleasant. The following information was related to me by a Christian who retired from the military as a Lieutenant Colonel and serves to illustrate just how difficult it can be to tell the truth, even for a Christian trying to do what is right. Job advancement and retention in the military depends on an evaluation report made by one's supervisor. Form DA67-7, 1 January '73, U.S. Army Officer Evaluation Report called for officers to be rated as OUTSTANDING, SUPERIOR, EXCELLENT, EFFECTIVE, MARGINAL, and INADEQUATE. Although most of us would find it nearly impossible to distinguish between OUTSTANDING, SUPERIOR, and EXCELLENT, experience had taught Army raters that anyone rated less than OUTSTANDING would be at a great disadvantage and would probably become a likely candidate for discharge. Such an inane rating system coerced most to be somewhat less than truthful while actually creating even greater ambiguity as to the true qualifications of those being rated. Imagine the difficulty caused the Christian who objected to the rating system as being totally ridiculous, and the extra work he had to undertake to amend each rating to reflect what he believed more accurately mirrored the qualification of those he was assigned to evaluate. On top of this, add the realization that his rating of a fine officer somewhat less than OUTSTANDING—although he explained in writing his reasons for doing so and actually recommended him for advancement—might result in the officer not being promoted to a position he was clearly qualified for and, in fact, might actually cause the officer to be thrown out of the service. What would you have done?

The realization that we have a military capable of developing such a fiendish rating system is disturbing. Nevertheless, our military industrial complex seems to reflect nothing more than the current societal standard. Everywhere we look in our society we find glaring examples of lying and deception. Having experienced Vietnam, Watergate, Abscam, and the Iran-Contra affair, most Americans believe "this country's leaders have consistently lied to the people" (Cambridge Survey Research, 1975, 1976). Add to this the Clinton Whitehouse, where perjury is to be determined by what the meaning of "is" is, and one must admit the mistrust Americans have for everyone and everything, and just how much this blight on America's moral landscape has affected us us all.

Furthermore, it may be disturbing for us to think that Christians, of all people, need to develop the proper attitude toward lying, but the apostle Paul, guided by the Holy Spirit, admonished the Christians of his day thus: "Wherefore, putting away lying, speak every man truth with his neighbor: for we are members one of another" (Ephesians 4:25). In order for a Christian to be the victorious soldier the Lord expects him to be, it is imperative he have his "loins girt about with truth" (Ephesians 6:14a).

"Okay, okay," you might be thinking, "but it could be right, could it not, to lie? The answer, unequivocally, is "No!" In Revelation 22:14-15, the Scriptures say:

Blessed are those who do His commandments, that they may have the right to the tree of life, and may enter through the gates into the city. But outside are dogs and sorcerers and sexually immoral and murderers and idolaters, and whosoever loves and practices a lie.

Unfortunately, not all have understood the absolute nature of God's moral requisite against lying. Martin Luther, the famous "reformer," was reported to have said: "What harm would it do, if a man told a good strong lie for the sake of the good and for the Christian church...a lie out of necessity, a useful lie, a helpful lie, such lies would not be against God, he would accept them" (Cited by Luther's secretary in a letter in Max Lenz, ed., Briefwechsel Landgraf Phillips des Grossmuthigen von Hessen mit Bucer, Vol. 1). Stanly Paher, writing in one of the brotherhood papers, justifies the lying of Rahab the harlot in order to save the two spies by writing: "It was, therefore, a Godly thing to lie and the Holy Spirit's commendation of her actions show this, It was not sin" ("Commandments in Conflict?, II," Vanguard, Vol. 11, November 1984, pp. 300,301).

Something Called "Graded Absolutism"

Both Luther and Paher could be classified theologically as "graded absolutists." A graded absolutist believes that there are many moral absolutes taught in the Bible and that they sometimes conflict. He believes there are higher moral laws taught in the Bible and when moral laws conflict, one is under obligation to follow the higher law. Therefore, according to those who hold this position, lying is sometimes right because showing mercy to the innocent is a greater moral duty than telling the truth to the guilty. For instance, while listening to a religious radio station, I heard a denominational preacher teaching a lesson on the need to lie under certain circumstances. Like Paher, he used the story of Rahab the harlot to substantiate his teaching. This shows earthly wisdom on the part of these teachers, because even among those who know that the Bible condemns lying, the truth of what Rahab did (viz., she lied), and the fact she is mentioned in a positive manner in the New Testament, has caused some perplexity among God's people (cf. Hebrews 12:31 and James 2:25). During his lesson, the aforementioned preacher used this illustration:

Suppose there was someone chasing after me with a shotgun threatening to kill me. Here you come walking down the street and here I come running around the corner and pass you by. Soon, here comes the man with the shotgun. He stops and asks you which way I went; I hope, for my sake, you'll tell him a lie.

What this teacher wanted those who heard him to think was that they were under a higher obligation to show mercy to him than they were to tell the truth to the man with the shotgun.

First of all, one is not under any obligation, morally or otherwise, to give an answer to the gunman. Jesus did not sin by refusing to answer some questions asked of Him (cf. Matthew 27:11-14; Luke 23:8,9), and neither do we! Secondly, as God's Word instructs, one ought to do unto his neighbor as he would have his neighbor do unto him. In this case, this might entail preventing or subduing the potential assailant, if possible. But under no circumstances is one under any Biblical obligation to aid, answer, or assist the evildoer.

Now, let's consider the case of Rahab. What Rahab did in assisting the spies to escape (viz., she lied) was wrong, and consequently, it is nowhere praised in the Scriptures. Those who use the case of Rahab to justify lying, simply "err not knowing the Scriptures, or the power of God" (Matthew 22:29). Neither Hebrews 11:31 nor James 2:25 commend Rahab for lying. Instead, she is commended for the faith she exercised in believing God. Likewise, when David, an adulterer and murderer, was identified as a man after God's own heart, one can be sure that these two sins were not being recommended to those of us trying to live godly lives. And maybe—notice that I said maybe—if the aforementioned denominational preacher understood this (i.e., that adultery is condemned in God's Word and is, therefore, always wrong), then maybe—again, I said maybe—he wouldn't be so concerned about conditioning his flock to lie for him whenever they see some man chasing him with a shotgun.

Something Called "Unqualified Absolutism"

When one tries to take the Lord's teaching on "the weightier matters of the law" (cf. Matthew 23:23) to justify breaking any part of God's law, one is simply "wresting the Scriptures." Yes, Jesus spoke of the weightier matters of the law (e.g., "justice," "mercy" and "faith"). And what the Lord was teaching was that we ought to put first things first. But, He made it clear that the other less weightier things ought not to be left undone. In other words, one ought to keep all of God's commandments, not just the ones that are convenient. This position, which is, I am convinced, the only Biblically tenable position, the theologians would call "unqualified absolutism." The unqualified absolutist believes there are many absolute moral laws, and none of them should ever be broken. In other words, the unqualified absolutist believes one cannot justify lying even when such lying is for the sole purpose of saving the life of another. The one who holds this position believes that lying is always wrong! To many, this just seems too harsh. Therefore, there is a third position to which some Christians turn.

Something Called "Conflicting Absolutism"

This third position is called "Conflicting Absolutism." I first heard it articulated by a fellow Christian who I would otherwise consider to be a very careful Bible student. The one who takes this position believes that we inherently live in an evil world where absolute moral laws sometime run into inevitable conflict. In such cases, the conflicting absolutist believes it is his responsibility to do the "lesser evil." He will break what he considers to be the lesser law (viz., lying) to uphold the greater law (i.e., preserving life). Then, after doing so, he prays for mercy and asks God to forgive him for breaking a lesser commandment that circumstantially conflicted with the "greater good."

In principle, this position is far removed from graded absolutism which says under certain circumstances lying is not a sin. On the contrary, and to his credit, the conflicting absolutist believes it is always wrong to break an absolute moral law of God. There are no exceptions or exemptions, he tells us. One's lying to save a life is always wrong (i.e., it is sinful), but it is truly the lesser evil and, therefore, must be done under the circumstances. But, just as it is wrong to lie, the conflicting absolutist believes it would be wrong (i.e., sinful) not to lie to save a life. Consequently, in practice, both the graded and conflicting absolutists would practice lying in order to do what they would consider to be the higher good.

But why would anyone want to think himself obligated, as the conflicting absolutist does, to do that which is evil? Such a position is morally absurd. In addition, this lesser-evil position implies that Jesus probably sinned during His earthly existence. Remember, this position claims that sin (i.e., the lesser evil) is actually unavoidable in this evil world in which we live. Of course, the Bible says that Jesus was tempted in all points as we are (Hebrews 4:15). If so—and if moral conflicts require us to do the lesser evil, as these folks claim, then Jesus must have sinned. But this conflicts with the remaining part of Hebrews 4:15 which says that Jesus was in all points tempted as we are, but without sin. Furthermore, if Christ is our complete moral example, and Paul says He is in 1 Corinthians 11:1,2, and if He was tempted in every way just as we are (Hebrews 4:15), then He either sinned by having to choose the lesser evil, or He never faced the moral dilemmas the rest of us face. If the former, then He was not the perfect sacrifice for our sins; and, if the latter, then He is not our complete moral example. Who can believe it?

"The Way Of Escape"

The conflicting and graded absolutists miss the truth of God's Word on lying. One is never permitted to lie, much less morally obligated to do so. The only moral obligation one is under with reference to lying is not to do it. This, and this alone, is the clear teaching of God's Word.

Now, I don't want anyone to think that I'm saying that living in this evil world is easy, for it most certainly isn't! But the answers to the difficult situations we sometimes find ourselves in are not found in the idea that we can, or ought to, violate one of God's moral absolutes in favor of another. To do so is spiritual and ethical suicide. One who takes this position is "mistaken, not knowing the Scriptures nor the power of God" (Matthew 22:29, NKJ). The Bible clearly teaches: "No temptation has overtaken [us] except such as is common to man; but God is faithful, who will not allow [us] to be tempted beyond what [we] are able, but with the temptation will also make the way of escape, that [we] may be able to bear it" (I Corinthians 10:13). I certainly don't understand all the hows and wherefores of this promise, but I do understand that they are backed up by the faithfulness of Almighty God. The promise to the Christian is that GOD IS FAITHFUL, and that in His faithfulness, He will not allow us to be tempted BEYOND WHAT WE ARE ABLE TO BEAR, and through His power He will MAKE FOR US THE WAY OF ESCAPE. This tells me that Satan is not the only one active in this present world. The Lord is at work in our lives and simply will not allow us to be tempted without a way of escape. Many would say the way of escape is simply following His commands. This, of course, is only half of the formula—our faithfulness. But the passage under discussion has to do more with God's faithfulness—what He will do for us. What then is it that He will do for us? He will, He says, make for us a way of escape. Do you believe this? I do.

We must not be mistaken concerning the "Scriptures" (God does not permit lying) "nor the power of God" (with every temptation, He will make a way of escape). Let us be of the mind to do His will in all things and then trust in His power to take care of us. When we pray, let us pray: "And do not lead us into temptation, but deliver us from the evil one. For Yours is the kingdom and the power and the glory forever. Amen" (Matthew 6:13).

What Is A Lie?

It is always wrong to lie. I know this is true because the Bible says so. But, what is a lie? In asking this question, I have no desire to justify lying. As I've already pointed out, lying cannot be justified. Many who will have no problem agreeing with everything I've said up to this point, will have some serious problems with what I am about to say. Many otherwise serious students of the Word rely upon a man-made, rather than a Biblical, definition of lying. In doing so, they all too frequently wind up condemning the guiltless (cf. Jesus' statement about this in Matthew 12:7). Because they do not know the Bible's definition of a lie, they place restrictions on themselves and others that God never intended. Consequently, they have not only missed opportunities for service themselves, but they have also stood in the way of others who were trying to faithfully serve the Lord. For example, some gospel preachers have failed to obtain visas into foreign countries for the purpose of preaching and teaching the gospel because they have felt they were under obligation to tell the whole truth when filling out visa applications (i.e., when they mentioned they were "gospel preachers" their applications were denied). Okay, I realize that this statement probably caused an alarm to go off in your head. Good, because I need your undivided attention if I am to make my point. Is it really true that the Biblical prohibition against lying requires us to tell the whole truth in every circumstance? When a foreign country will not grant a gospel preacher a visa, is it a lie for that preacher to list his occupation as "teacher"? Furthermore, when asked by a government hostile to the preaching of the gospel the purpose of one's visit, is it wrong for a preacher, who during the course of his visit plans to visit different areas of the country in order to preach the gospel, to say, "to visit and travel about in your country"? Some would answer all these questions with a "Yes." However, I am convinced the answer to these questions can be "No." What follows, then, is a Biblical defense of not telling the whole truth in every circumstance. Before you dismiss this as "ethical sloppiness," I bid you to consider what I have to say.

Webster Versus The Bible

According to Webster, to lie is "1: to make an untrue statement with intent to deceive; 2: to create a false or misleading impression" (Webster's Seventh New Collegiate Dictionary 1981). Although Christians will sometimes quote Webster as an authority on this subject, it is obvious, at least from a Biblical standpoint, that he is not totally correct in his definition of a lie. Obviously, "to make an untrue statement with intent to deceive" is an accurate description of a lie, but "to create a false or misleading impression" is not. How do I know this? Well, in 1 Samuel 16, we have a perfect example of this point. Samuel, the prophet, is instructed by Jehovah to go to Bethlehem for the express purpose of anointing another king over Israel. Understandably, the prophet was concerned about King Saul learning of his mission because he was afraid Saul would have him killed. Knowing something about the character of Saul, we have every reason to believe that Samuel was not just being overly cautious—Saul was certainly the kind of man who would kill to protect his throne. But, in order to allow Samuel's primary purpose to go undetected, Jehovah devised a stratagem (i.e., a cleverly contrived scheme to outwit the enemy and gain an end). The Lord told Samuel to take a heifer with him and say: "I have come to sacrifice to the Lord" (verse 2). Then we are told:

So Samuel did what the Lord said, and went to Bethlehem. And the elders of the town trembled at his coming, and said, "Do you come peaceably?" And he said, "Peaceably; I have come to sacrifice to the Lord. Sanctify yourselves, and come with me to the sacrifice" (verses 4 & 5a).

I think you will agree with me that Samuel did not tell the whole truth. Although what he said was true, it served to conceal his primary purpose, which, if discovered, would most assuredly not have been considered peaceful by the elders who questioned him. In other words, if Saul had known what was going on, he probably would have been trying to kill not just the prophet, but he would more than likely be wanting to execute any in the town he thought to be accomplices. Therefore, otherwise critical information was being withheld from the elders, and they would not have thought the prophet's visit peaceful.

So, according to Webster's definition (viz., "to create a false or misleading impression"), not only did Samuel lie, but God actually instructed him to do so! Who can believe it? Obviously, any definition of lying that would have the Lord encouraging one to do what is sinful cannot be correct (cf. James 1:13). Therefore, from a Scriptural point of view, the creating of a false or misleading impression is not necessarily a lie. Let's consider yet another situation. In Joshua 8, God, who "cannot lie" (Titus 1:2), instructed Joshua to "lay an ambush for the city [of Ai] behind it" (v.2). Now, it seems impossible for anyone to try and deny that an ambush, by definition, is deceptive. An actual reading of Joshua 8:1-8, makes this very clear:

Now the LORD said to Joshua: "Do not be afraid, nor be dismayed; take all the people of war with you, and arise, go up to Ai. See, I have given into your hand the king of Ai, his people, his city, and his land. 2 "And you shall do to Ai and its king as you did to Jericho and its king. Only its spoil and its cattle you shall take as booty for yourselves. Lay an ambush for the city behind it." 3 So Joshua arose, and all the people of war, to go up against Ai; and Joshua chose thirty thousand mighty men of valor and sent them away by night. 4 And he commanded them, saying: "Behold, you shall lie in ambush against the city, behind the city. Do not go very far from the city, but all of you be ready. 5 "Then I and all the people who [are] with me will approach the city; and it will come about, when they come out against us as at the first, that we shall flee before them. 6 "For they will come out after us till we have drawn them from the city, for they will say, '[They are] fleeing before us as at the first.' Therefore we will flee before them. 7 "Then you shall rise from the ambush and seize the city, for the LORD your God will deliver it into your hand. 8 "And it will be, when you have taken the city, [that] you shall set the city on fire. According to the commandment of the LORD you shall do. See, I have commanded you (NKJV).

Therefore, if all deception is a lie, then the God who cannot lie commanded Joshua and the Israelites to lie. Again, who can believe it? So, since it is impossible for God to lie (Hebrews 6:18), neither the stratagem at Ai nor the subterfuge at Bethlehem could be inherently evil, although both clearly involve what most would identify as deception. Consequently, I believe it Scriptural to say that although lying is always wrong and can never be justified under any circumstances (this makes me a moral absolutist), hiding the whole truth from one's adversaries is not always wrong and ought not to always be categorized as lying. The aforementioned preacher, in carrying out the commands of the Lord to carry His gospel to a lost and dying world would not be lying when listing his occupation as "teacher." Yes, it is true that he was hoping to conceal his true occupation, but he did not state anything that was untrue (i.e., he did not have to deny that he was a gospel preacher), for a preacher is, in deed, a teacher of the Word. Therefore, I believe the Christian who charges this preacher with sin, as some are more than willing to do, is guilty of condemning the guiltless which, in turn, is the charge Jesus made against the religionists of His day (Matthew 12:7). Unfortunately, those who would condemn this preacher are the same ones who feel justified in saying that "Abraham lied about Sarah being his wife." They do so because they have allowed the world (sacred and secular) to define lying to include any and all concealment and deception. If this were true, and many think it is, then Abraham lied when he answered in such a way as to conceal that Sarah was, in fact, his wife. But when correctly interpreted, I believe the passages mentioned in this article teach just the opposite—namely, all deception is not lying. In the case of Abraham, the Biblical account makes it clear that Abraham was not guilty of saying Sarah was not his wife, which would have been a lie. Instead, what he said was, "She is my sister" (Genesis 20:2), which was true (v. 12). Likewise, Sarah did not say that Abraham was not her husband, which would have been a lie. What she said was, "He is my brother" (v. 5), which was true. Sure, it was not "the whole truth," but it was not a lie either. In fact, after this whole episode played out, Abimelech acknowledged that Abraham and Sarah were brother and sister (cf. verse 16a). Was this not Abimelech's own admission to the truthfulness of Abraham's and Sarah's statements? Originally, Abimelech believed he had been wronged by Abraham not telling him the whole truth (verses 9-10), but was Abraham required to repent to the king? No, it is the king who must, and does, repent toward Abraham and Sarah, even though he did what he did without knowing Sarah was Abraham's wife (i.e., he did it in the integrity of his heart [verse 5]).

When contemplating this story, it is important to realize that it was common for ancient kings and potentates to "take" women into their harems (verse 2 says he sent and took Sarah), and this is probably what happened to Sarah here and also back in chapter 12. If, per chance, the "wanted" women had husbands, they were either killed or imprisoned. This certainly played into Abraham's thinking back in Genesis 12 and was, no doubt, the strategy in this episode, and with God's help, it all worked out wonderfully. For not only was Abraham handsomely compensated by the king, but he was permitted to dwell anywhere in the country without being molested. Now, if Abraham had actually sinned against Abimelech, would God have sent the king to him so he could pray for him? Not likely! So, although Abimelech originally felt justified in taking Sarah into his harem, second wife, or whatever, God still held him responsible for his actions which, in God's sight, were not right, and this was true regardless of the local or universal customs in play at the time. What right did Abimelech have to "take" (the Hebrew connotes force) Sarah, even if she were single? Therefore, Abimelech's privileged arrogance caused him to take another's man's wife and God, in this instance, was making it clear to Abimelech that He was holding him directly responsible for his actions. Deceived or not, his arrogance had put him in harm's way and he was, in fact, a dead man if he didn't give Sarah back. Consequently, it was only after Abimelech gave Sarah back and Abraham prayed to God on his behalf that the king was healed (verses 17-18). To find in this story a reason to condemn Abraham, as many Christians do, is totally unwarranted and makes the one doing it guilty of condemning the guiltless.


Is it ever right to lie? Absolutely not! The Christian must recognize lying for the evil it is and never try to justify it under any circumstances, no matter how difficult they may be. Nothing will destroy our influence quicker. No confidence can be placed in a liar. The Christian is instructed: "Stand therefore, having girded your waist with truth" (Ephesians 6:14). But, at the same time, let us make sure we understand the difference between Webster's definition of a lie and God's definition. Remember, Webster missed it on baptism also, referring to baptism as sprinkling, pouring, or immersion.

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