Last Monday at our English language Bible study I help facilitate every week with a ministry providing activities like this for Peruvians learning English, we covered the Ten Commandments. We are currently going through a chapter of Exodus each week, more or less, sometimes we consolidate a few chapters into one due to the content. Since chapter 20 is on the ten commandments, we naturally had discussion questions on what each one meant. At my table with the high-level English-speaking guys, we got stuck on the definition of lying for a while, and I asked if there was ever an instance where lying is not considered a sin. My group seemed evenly split between some who thought yes, always, and others who thought that no, sometimes there are exceptions to the rule. Others in my group didn’t care and were more than happy when we moved on to other discussions.
As a result, I got thinking about this some more and dug up my old debate paper which was on this very subject. We had a class in Bible school called Theological Controversies, in which professor Steve Alt taught us about debating techniques and logical fallacies for the first few weeks. The remainder of the semester, students debated, and I had volunteered for this topic, against my at-the-time roommate Jeff. What we debated in front of the class was really the tip of the iceberg in terms of debating and arguing about this at home in preparation for the class.
At any rate, below is a “blogified” version of my paper (so it doesn’t read so dry) but since it was a paper, it is long. The changes I’ve made are that on the front page I had to present a list of Scriptures for and against my side, and then the main few Scriptures I’d tackle. I had ten minutes to present this at the time, and so that list is added to the end instead of the front, for anybody who’d like to look more into this. Also worth noting is we discussed as a case in point the story of Corrie ten Boom hiding Jews in her wall from the Gestapo, and whether she was in sin when she claimed at gunpoint to not know where they were.
The Debate: Are There Any Exceptions To The Command “Thou Shalt Not Lie”?
I don’t have to disprove that all lying is sinful, but merely prove that there can be an exception to the rule. The burden of proof is on my opponent to demonstrate that there are none. My opponent would also have to explain away many passages of Scripture that not only condone lying or do not punish it, but he would have to rationalize away why it appears as though God Himself commanded certain individuals to lie. Thus by inadvertently showing God to contradict Himself, my opponent in actuality then would be accusing God of being a liar, of sinning. Thus my opponent has the unenviable task of proving that lying and sin are always indivisible despite Scriptural demonstrations of God being behind deception in certain instances.
If one carefully considers just what God says about “lying” in the context of Scripture, then one has to see this is impossible. Isaiah 55:9 says God’s ways and thoughts are not ours. When God allows obvious dishonesty to take place, we need to realize that in the Father there are no contradictions, but we however are fickle human beings and capable of misunderstanding things. It is with that premise I’d like to show you that lying and sinning are clearly not always indivisible concepts, because God does command against dishonesty, but does Himself deceive people. If you don’t like my stating that about God, then read 1 Thess. 2:9-11 which mentions that “…God will send them strong delusion that they should believe the lie” and Eze. 14:9 which says God Himself deceives the false prophets.
What About Hiding Innocent People From Wicked Governments Who Would Kill Them?
In the situation during the German occupation of Holland, even though Nollie ten Boom ‘told the truth’ to Nazi officers that she was in fact harboring Jewish people in her house, she was still arrested. Why? Because she knew her friend Anna was a Jew and did not turn her in. The law required everyone to report the whereabouts of any Jews they knew of. Nollie was breaking the law every minute of the day until she was found out. Suddenly she became a law-abider when confronted by the German police. The Bible is opposed to the actions of Nollie, who praised her daughter for telling the truth by betraying her brothers the instant she was asked about them. Both Nollie and Cocky ten Boom were liars because their ‘truth-telling’ actually was betraying the trust of the people they said they’d protect. Colossians 3:9 tells us not to lie to each other. This epistle was written to a congregation and so we see that this command was in the context of community life. That is not the same thing as lying to a wicked government. However, the Bible supports Corrie ten Boom who risked her life to protect her innocent friends.
I’d like to use the Biblical example of Rahab the harlot hiding the two spies on the roof of her house in Joshua 2 to defend this point. When the men sent by the king of Jericho went to Rahab and asked her the whereabouts of the two men, not only did she flatly deny they were on her roof, but made up a lie that they had already left and thus sent the officials on a wild goose chase in the desert. Joshua rewards her and her family in chapter 6 when they conquer Jericho and protect her from destruction when they destroy the city. The hall of faith chapter in Hebrews mentions Rahab, and James 2:25 praises her for her faithfulness—which we must note was demonstrated by lying. So we see that there was nothing wrong with what Rahab did, or else the New Testament authors—divinely inspired by the Holy Spirit, wouldn’t have mentioned it. Therefore we can deduce that Corrie ten Boom should be applauded for her act of love demonstrated in similar circumstances.
What Is The Definition of a Lie?
The other point my opponent may play around with is “what is the definition of a lie?” or where do you draw the line? At the risk of this sounding too easy of an answer, I’d say any true devout follower of Jesus Christ with the Holy Spirit abiding in him can be trusted to make the right and wise decision with regards to lying when it’s simply convenient or to save their own necks, versus lying in order to protect someone else. If lying is always a sin, then is civil disobedience—as Nollie committed, or murder a better sin to commit than lying in certain situations? What if you were living in a country where Christianity became outlawed, and you are given a gun and told to kill the Christians? I’m sure all believers reading this would have no problem disobeying that government in obedience to God.
Let’s change that a little; say you get asked at gunpoint “where are the Christians?” by a wicked government official, knowing that they’d go kill the believers themselves. What is the right thing to do? Rat them out to save yourself by admitting you know their whereabouts? In that second option, how is disobeying them any different from disobeying them when commanded to do the killing yourself? Silence isn’t an alternative necessarily, since your silence could mislead, possibly being considered lying non-verbally, and/or possibly demonstrate rebellion to authority–which the Bible says is as the sin of witchcraft. Not answering is in effect, answering. So, do you tell the truth and become an accomplice of murder? Jesus also said there’s no greater love than this; than to lay one’s life down for a friend (John 15:13). From those words, Jesus would not want you to betray your friends by telling the truth or by misleading with silence. So if lying is a sin also, then you have to pick which sin you’d like to be guilty of in a situation like that—murder, rebellion, or lying. So we’re damned if we do, damned if we don’t. God doesn’t put us in those situations.
A Lifestyle of Deceit Versus One Act?
I think at this point a clear biblical definition of lying is in order. I would agree with my opponent that lying is a willful, deliberate act intending to mislead or deceive someone. However, in light of Scripture, that definition alone doesn’t necessitate lying always being a sin. The Hebrew word for falsehood in the Old Testament, sheqer has a meaning of deceptive character. Surely one instance of telling a lie doesn’t mean your character is one of deception or that you are constantly practicing a lie! Yet most of the times in the Psalms and Proverbs–the majority of the places that this word is used, that is precisely what is stated of the wicked. Thus sheqer defines a way of life that goes contrary to the law of God—that’s to say contrary to the lifestyle characterized by obedience to God. Surely this does not describe single instances of one action being committed.
Look at 2 Kings 8:7-15, when Elisha was in Damascus, Hazael was sent to him to ask if king Ben-Hadad of Syria would recover from his terminal illness. Do you know what Elisha said?
“Go, say to him ‘You shall surely recover.’ However, the Lord has shown me that he will really die.”(v.8)
Why would Elisha lie blatantly to Hazael about the life of a king? Do we see any selfish motives in Elisha that he was trying to deceive for his own gain in some way? Not that I can see from a simple reading. Furthermore, God told Samuel in 1 Samuel 16:2 to lie to Saul about his purposes for being in Bethlehem. In actuality, he was there to anoint David as king, but Samuel reminded God that Saul would kill him if he knew he was there to anoint someone else king while he was still alive. God simply told him to say he was there to offer a sacrifice. What did Samuel have to gain with this lie? Plus, we see God told him to answer Saul this way.
I believe that God is entitled to decide for Himself how to punish wicked kings and remove their kingdoms. If He didn’t want Samuel to tell Saul what he was doing in Bethlehem, He shouldn’t have told him how to articulate a misleading response for Saul, after all, many of my charismatic friends believe in dead raisings—this would have been a great opportunity for God to demonstrate His power if Saul killed Samuel. Maybe my opponent would say since Samuel was offering a sacrifice he wasn’t really “lying”, but he simply was not stating all the facts. If it wasn’t necessary to do it this way, then why would God tell Samuel what to say? Surely God could have protected Samuel from being killed by Saul if he told Saul the truth, so why the lie? Even if it was technically true, it was still an intentional act of deception to keep the truth from the king. Clearly, God is not upset with this particular sort of lying to the wicked.
It should be obvious that all the Proverbs and verses in Psalms that talk about how much “God detests lying lips and a wicked heart”, such as Proverbs 6:16-19, are not the same thing as what these two men of God were doing in the above-mentioned verses. I’d suggest to you to read all four of those verses and see the type of character God’s talking about that He hates. Surely Samuel and Elisha didn’t have hearts that devised wicked plans, feet that were swift to run to evil and sow discord among the brethren, like this passage in Proverbs states God hates along with lying lips. I repeat Col 3:9 and remind you that God says not to lie to each other, but we can also see there that that’s in the context of selfish gain and desires in the midst of a community of believers, clearly not the same as lying to wicked government authorities.
In conclusion, a clear understanding of the fact lying and sin are not indivisible is necessary for understanding what the Bible says about it. It is not always a sin to lie. When confronted with the choice of telling the truth to wicked men, and letting innocent people die as a result, or lying to protect them from death, the Bible teaches that we should lie.
Relevant Old Testament Passages:
Gen 12:13,16, 18-19: Abraham pretends his wife Sarah is his sister so he won’t get killed
Gen 26:7: Isaac pretends his wife Rebekah is his sister for the same reason
Gen 27:18-24: Jacob and his mother deceive Isaac in order to get the blessing
Gen 42:7-8: Joseph acting strangely so his brothers won’t recognize him
Ex 1:15-22: God blesses the midwives for hiding the newborn males from Pharaoh
Joshua 2, 6:22-25 Rahab hiding the spies on her roof
Judges 16: Samson lying to his wife about his source of strength—telling truth gets him captured
1 Sam. 16:2: God telling Samuel to lie to King Saul about why he is in Bethlehem
1 Sam. 21:12-15: David, fearing death, acts crazy in front of King Achish of Gath
1 Kings 22:20-23: The Lord sent a lying spirit to king Ahab to persuade him
2 Kings 8:7-15: Elisha tells Hazael to lie to the king of Syria about if he’ll recover from his illness
Jer 20:7: “O Lord, you have deceived me…”
Jer 38:24-27: Jeremiah instructed on what to say he was talking to Zedekiah about
Eze 14:9: the Lord induced false prophets to deceive (God Himself deceived them)
Verses “against” lying
Ex 20:16 & Deut 5:20: – the ninth of the Ten Commandments
Num 23:19: God is not a man that He should lie
Psalm 4:2: loving worthlessness and seeking falsehood
Psalm 5:6: God will destroy those who speak falsehood
Psalm 7:14: the wicked conceives trouble and brings forth falsehood
Psalm 40:4: blessed is the man who does not respect those who turn aside to lies
Psalm 52:2-4: wicked love lying rather than truth
Psalm 58:3: wicked are born speaking lies
Psalm 62:4: wicked delight in lies
Psalm 101:7: he who tells lies shall not dwell in my presence
Psalm 119:29: remove from me the way of lying
Psalm 120:3,4: punishment for a false tongue
Prov. 6:16-19: God hates a lying tongue
Prov 14:5, 25: faithful witness does not lie, false witness does
Prov 17:4: evildoer gives heed to false lips; a liar listens eagerly to a spiteful tongue
Prov 17:7: lying lips are not becoming of a prince
Prov 19:5: false witness will not go unpunished, speaker of lies will not escape
Prov 19:22: a poor man is better than a liar
Prov 26:28: lying tongue hates those crushed by it
Prov 29:12: the fruit of ruler believing lies is wicked servants
Prov. 30:8: remove falsehood and lies far from me
Isa 57:4: offspring of falsehood = children of transgression
Isa 59:2,3: lies separate us from God
Isa 63:8 God’s children are people who do not lie
Jer 23:14: talks of false prophets walking in lies
Eze 22:28: false visions and divining lies are like unplastered mortar
Hos 4:1,2: lying here is accompanied with gross sins that Israel is accused of
Hos 11:12: Ephraim encircled with lies, Israel with deceit, Judah still walks with God
Zeph 3:13 a deceitful tongue will not be found in remnant Israel
John 8:44: the devil is the father of lies and does not stand in the truth
Acts 5:1-1: Ananias and Sapphira struck dead for lying to the Holy Spirit
Col 3:9: do not lie to one another, since you have put off the old man
2 Thess 2:9: coming lawless one accompanied by power, signs and lying wonders
1 Tim 4:1-2: departing from the faith, giving heed to deceiving spirits, lies in hypocrisy
1 John 1:6: if we say we fellowship with God but walk in darkness, we lie
1John 2:3-6: breaker of the law is a liar and the truth is not in him
1 John 4:20-21 one who doesn’t love his brother is a liar
Rev 21:27,22:15: no one who practices a lie will enter the kingdom of heaven
James 2:25: Rahab the harlot justified by her works—hiding the spies
1 Thess 2:11: God will send strong delusion that the wicked will believe the lie (antichrist)
John 12:37-41: God blinded their eyes, hardened their hearts that they may not believe
Sources used for my paper
Steve Alt, Is it Always a Sin to Lie?: A Debate Presentation in Defense of Truth
Kenneth Harding, Lying for God
Vine’s Expository Dictionary of Biblical Words, Thomas Nelson Publishers