Is God Ever OK with Lying?
God’s attitude toward lying is clear in Scripture: lying lips are “an abomination” to the Lord (Proverbs 12:22), and Jesus calls the devil “a liar and the father of lies” (John 8:44). But what about the hard cases where it seems that one must lie to protect life? Does Scripture condone such cases, as in the biblical character Rahab’s lie to rescue the spies in Jericho, or should we understand those passages in a different way? Is it possible to justify lying for the greater good, or are we running the risk of excusing the lies we wish to tell? This week, Vince and Jo tackle the thorny issue of situational ethics and the question of whether there are exceptional circumstances where lying is permitted.
Question Asked in This Episode:
“Is God OK with lying under certain circumstances?”
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Michael Davis: Hello and welcome to another episode of Ask Away with Vince and Jo Vitale. I'm your host, Michael Davis. The human heart loves to look at other people's sins and condemn, but it is more difficult to look upon our own sins. Lying is no different. We love to make excuses for the lies we tell. We are trying to spare someone's feelings. We don't want to get involved in someone's mess. We want to do the loving thing. Even when we know that our motivations aren't pure, such as wanting others to think more highly of us, we relegate our sins as trivial.
Michael Davis: But what about when things are not so clear? What about when lives are at risk? What happens when if telling the truth can cause the death of someone else? Does God see shades of gray when it comes to something that He declares is sin, when telling the truth could actually lead to an evil act? But before we get started, could you tell our listeners a little bit about what is coming up at the Zacharias Institute?
Jo Vitale: I would love to, I'm really excited about the next few events that we have on the horizon. On September the 10th, put it in your diaries. We have the marvelous Dr. Sharon Dirckx coming to speak at our Trending Questions series, which is a series where we tackle some of the toughest, most timely questions of culture. And Sharon is going to be speaking on the topic of her new book, which just came out a couple of months ago called “Am I Just My Brain?” And Sharon is a member of our speaking team based in the UK, but she's going to be with us for the evening. You can come to the Zacharias Institute to hear from her, but also you can listen online. This is a free event. It'll be live streamed on Facebook. You can watch it through Azam Connect as well, so please get involved in that event. Ask your questions. It's going to be awesome.
Michael Davis: Very cool. Okay, let's get to the question. This question is from Jimmy. "Is God okay with lying under certain circumstances?"
Jo Vitale: I'm so worried that I say something untruthful in this episode.
Michael Davis: Yeah, I was going to say.
Jo Vitale: Of all the episodes to say the wrong thing. I'm like, I can't lie. I'm so nervous Jimmy, thanks for the question.
Michael Davis: Obviously you guys lie to me all the time by telling me you guys like me.
Jo Vitale: Seriously. It's just a cultural thing, Michael. It's just being British and polite.
Vince Vitale: You're trying to get us in trouble with Jimmy.
Jo Vitale: That was a lie.
Michael Davis: Aw, that's sweet. Wait, is that a lie.
Jo Vitale: No.
Vince Vitale: That's a great question, Jimmy. Yeah, thank you for that. “Is God okay with lying under certain circumstances.” And we're going to get into the challenges of this question, because it is a complex question. But at the outset I just want to say, we do need to take lying very seriously. Whatever conclusion we come to on this specific question. This is one of the 10 Commandments. We need to be careful about any type of slippery slope. It's funny how if we say lying is okay in some circumstances, it then seems to be always okay in our circumstance, never in anyone else's.
Michael Davis: That's right, that's right.
Vince Vitale: So we need to be careful about that. And just remember that the Bible says the Lord detests lying lips. Another translation, "Lying lips are an abomination to the Lord." That's in Proverbs. And then John eight, the devil is referred to as a liar and as the father of all lies. So there are some complications here and we're going to work through them. But let's make sure whatever conclusion we come to here we are recognizing that God is very serious about the truth and about what comes out of our mouths.
Jo Vitale: And I think if there, which we'll get to, if there are any circumstances in which you think there is some kind of qualification here. And they're going to be the most rare, the most absolutely rare of instances is the general policy. I think we differentiate sometimes between the big lies and then the little white lies, but that isn't a differentiation that you'll find within scripture. And in fact, sometimes I think it's the little lies that can do more damage than anything else, especially the way they build up. I mean, I think this is particularly challenging if you're someone in apologetics. For example, I think there can be a temptation to exaggerate, and that's still a lie. To put your case more strongly than it actually is and more to overstate things because you're just so wanting to persuade someone that God exists and that he loves you. But that can be so damaging if you go too far in a statement and then someone finds out, actually that wasn't true, it's going to undermine your whole testimony. So when you're testifying about the truth, be truthful.
Jo Vitale: I think another way we can overstate the truth, which is also a lie, is in the lies that we tell, even think about what we do on social media. I've been so convicted in this area. Am I creating a false impression of the person that I am through what I put on social media? In other words, am I lying about who I am and what does that say to people? Particularly if we're creating this idea that our lives are perfect in some way, which I think we will work hard to do on social media. Everything's filtered. And then are we telling people a lie and are we actually really negatively impacting their own experience of life? Because they look at those things and they say, "Well my life isn't like that. My life is really hard." I was been convicted to the point of thinking, can I do an Instagram series of super honest thing about life?
Michael Davis: Oh, that will be rad.
Jo Vitale: It's like, well I need to take a picture of this dead cockroach lying on our living room floor. That would be an honest thing about life. Or what about the stacks of unpaid bills we have sitting in our home, because we've been so busy on the road, that would be a good thing to put out there. Or what about the way we kind of look like we're smiling in that photo, but actually it's really a grimace because we were tired and grumpy and we didn't want to be in the picture. Or is there a way to really tell the truth about who you are online so that you don't create false impressions to people.
Jo Vitale: And actually it's one reason I like doing a podcast because I really hope that through this podcast we've burst the bubble of anybody who has the illusion that Vince and I have a perfect life or have everything sorted out. If you've thought that we don't, we do not.
Vince Vitale: We have cockroaches.
Jo Vitale: Yeah, we have cockroaches. A lot of cockroaches in Georgia, it's terrifying.
Vince Vitale: And a baby who spits up all the time.
Jo Vitale: It's true. And my worst nightmare is a cockroach getting anywhere near the baby. But anyway.
Michael Davis: And you mentioned Jo, pictures. I think that's an interesting one as well. Because it's so easy now to so quickly doctor a photograph to not look the way it actually looks and post it online.
Michael Davis: We do that all the time as well.
Jo Vitale: Yeah. And I think especially needing to tell the truth about the Christian life. And I think one of the most damaging things for evangelism has been the lies people are told to get them in the dual. Whether it's a sort of prosperity gospel, your life will be perfect if you become a Christian, which in a sense is what we were just talking about. A very devastating lie when people don't experience that.
Jo Vitale: Or what about, we're having a big discussion in culture at the moment about purity culture. And that's very interesting, isn't it? Because one of the negative effects of what sometimes come out of purity culture has been this idea that if you're just celebrate before you get married, you're going to have a perfect marriage afterwards with perfect sex, with perfect everything. And then when people discovered that to be a lie, they feel so disillusioned. Then the whole thing can crumble. Because you think, "Well, I built my life on this promise of a perfect marriage." Whereas the Christian faith was never meant to be built on what does or doesn't happen in your marriage. It's built on Jesus Christ. So let's not promise people things that scripture doesn't promise them.
Jo Vitale: That's why it's so important when it comes to truth telling about the Christian life, that we have a Bible that is the Word of God. And that is true because if you're saying anything about Christianity that doesn't line up with the Word of God, then actually either way exaggerating or understating or we're telling a falsehood that can be really damaging. So in your evangelism, in the Christian life that you live, even if you think it's going to help get people in the door, don't tell people lies that is setting them up for failure down the line.
Vince Vitale: That's a really good encouragement. So I think it's the extreme cases that are the most difficult. Personally, I find birthday surprises and anniversary surprises are the extreme cases, which are hardest. When you're trying to do a surprise for an anniversary and you're getting asked all these questions and...I don't want to give away the surprise.
Vince Vitale: So I don't know if that counts as an extreme situation, but there are more extreme situations. I mean you can just get hypothetical, but if somebody was going to severely hurt a family member of mine if I didn't tell a lie to them, boy, that's tough. That's really tough. Yeah, I mean I know I'm going to be inclined to lie in that situation. Or another interesting case, what if you've made a promise you shouldn't have made? I mean, what if somebody promised to someone that they would commit adultery with them. And now they've promised it, but they become convicted that that's not right to do. I mean, in that case it seems like you're obligated to break your promise and is breaking a promise, a form of lying, because you're intentionally making your words untrue. I'm not sure whether that's the right definition of lying there or not, but you can see how these cases get complicated pretty quickly.
Jo Vitale: I feel like it's the movie classic where someone goes into a confessional and speaks to a priest and says, "I'm going to blow up the city and everybody's going to die." And then the priest is like under confidentiality rules, and then does he break his confidentiality because he's promised that to save lives.
Vince Vitale: Yeah, definitely. Definitely.
Jo Vitale: Just another one of these cases where you're like, "Oh, there's a moral conflict here."
Vince Vitale: Yeah. And these extreme cases, they do show up in the Bible as well. So here's two that can help to focus our reflections. But first Joshua two, probably the better known of them Rahab. The spies going into Jericho. Rahab houses them and then hides them in her roof. When then she's asked about it by the King of Jericho, she says, "Oh yeah, they did come, but I didn't know where they came from. And they've already left and I don't know which way they went." And they were hiding in her roof.
Vince Vitale: And now she winds up in Hebrews 11 as one of the heroes of faith because of the way that she acted in that circumstance. Then you have Exodus one, the King of Egypt is threatened by the number of Israelites who are growing in his realm. And he commands the midwives to, in the process of delivery of the newborns, if they see it's a boy to kill the boys on the way out. The midwives don't do it and then when they go back and speak to the King, they lie to him and say that the reason that they haven't done it is because the Hebrew women, they give birth really quickly and so actually the babies have already been delivered before we ever got there.
Vince Vitale: Okay. Wasn't true, but that's what they said. And then again it says, "So God," this is verse 20 of Exodus one. "So God dealt well with the midwives and the people multiplied and grew very strong. And because the midwives feared God, he gave them families." And so again, another instance where it seems like God is at least responding positively even though there is a lie at place. So I don't know, what do you think Jo? Is it okay?
Jo Vitale: Thanks for passing that off.
Michael Davis: The one I hear all the time is there is a family of Jews and this is Germany in 1942. Nazis come, they say, "Are you hiding Jews?" And you're Christian, should Christians have said, "Yes I do. I cannot lie."
Vince Vitale: Wow. Yeah, that's tough. That is really tough. And so both in that situation and in both of these biblical examples, I think first thing to note is that these are life and death situations. Both the Rahab situation and the midwives in Egypt, and the example you just gave Michael, life and death are on the line. So this is not going to excuse lying about your taxes or anything of that sort. Life and death on the line here.
Vince Vitale: And then there is one other interesting thing about these passages from Joshua two with Rahab and Exodus one with the King of Egypt. The Bible doesn't actually explicitly condone the lying in the passages. So Thomas Aquinas noted this about the midwives. He says they are commended for not obeying the King, not specifically for lying. It says in the passage, "And because the midwives feared God." So that is what is commended in scripture, that they feared God. It doesn't say whether it was right or wrong for them to lie one way or another. It says they were commended because they feared God. And then in Rahab. When you go to Hebrews 11, again commended not specifically for lying, but it says, "For welcoming the spies." So she welcomed them at the risk to her own life, that is why she's commended again. It doesn't explicitly say one way or the other with respect to the lying itself.
Vince Vitale: And I was just wrestling this morning with how do we understand this. And the best I could come up with is that we are never perfect and God always is. Okay. God, for him, every word proves true, Proverbs 30. And for him, Hebrews six, it is impossible for God to lie. But maybe there are situations in which the best we can come up with, even with good motivations and life and death on the line, is to lie. And the scriptures don't tell us that's right. It doesn't tell us that's what we should do. But the Bible says, "For all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God." That's at the end of Paul's most extensive explanation of sin in Romans one to three. And sin can be used in a variety of ways with a variety of different words in scripture, but that one is a term that comes from archery. And the idea is that you sin if you miss the mark. You might still be on the target, but if you don't hit the bullseye right in the middle, then it's a sin.
Vince Vitale: And maybe there's some reality to that in our lives that no matter how well we do, even if we're doing the best we can come up with in the circumstance, even with pure motivations, maybe we can't figure out the perfect way to respond. And maybe in that situation with Rahab or with the midwives, I'm thinking if Jesus was there, he probably would have found some perfect way to both protect everyone involved, saved their lives, and not to have lied. But God seems to have mercy on us in our sinful state, that we can't always figure out that perfect wording that Jesus would have. And he's most concerned with what is in our heart and our desire to protect and to save those who might be in our care.
Vince Vitale: So I think that's maybe what's going on here. This recognition of the fact that you know, even our best actions, in some sense, they still miss the mark. They're still imperfect. And so the Bible is not saying yes, it was good to lie, or yes, that's what we should do. But it's also recognizing that sometimes the best we can come up with in a life and death situation might be a lie. And if that is still done with a motivation to, desire to please God, then God is understanding. And in fact he could even commend the state of the heart even if not the specific action.
Michael Davis: And it's interesting that in all three of those instances, by lying they've put their own lives at risk for the lives of others.
Jo Vitale: Yeah. Yeah. And I think that's the thing, it's other-oriented, isn't it? It's not even about saving yourself in these instances. It's about the harm that could come to another. And I mean you might even say maybe a similar thing is true when it comes to self-defense. If someone is coming at your family and they're trying to kill them, God doesn't condone violence here. There's a lot in scripture that speaks against violence. And yet sometimes if in the moment if we're trying to react and find a way in that instance to prevent someone from doing harm to another, sometimes a physical response is the anyone that we have. So I think it's the case isn't it that we'll often say, it's the lesser of two evils. It's still an evil. It's still an evil. It's kind of an instance of situational ethics where it really is a catch 22, it's an absolute conundrum.
Jo Vitale: But I think God has mercy for the motivations of the heart there, as Vince is saying. I thought it was interesting as well. I did find an article on The Gospel Coalition by Sam Storms. And he made an interesting point about this whole conversation about how do we actually define what is a lie? Because people will talk about this in different ways. Some people or someone might say, well even to admit the truth is to lie. To not give an answer when someone asks you a question. But I don't think that is the case. Jesus doesn't answer a bunch of questions. Sometimes people don't have the right to know something. Some things are meant to be kept private and we don't call someone a liar because they're holding to privacy.
Jo Vitale: But then even going further than that. So Sam Storms talks about, he defines a lie as an intentional falsehood that violates someone's right to know the truth. But there are cases in which people forfeit their right to know the truth. And so he's talking about instances of evil, where actually they don't have the moral and legal right to know that truth anymore. And so I guess, he's trying to say actually it's not a lie anymore and that maybe there's a distinction between a falsehood and a lie, is the case that he's trying to make. So I guess that's one way that you might talk about it as well.
Jo Vitale: But I think it's going to come down to underlying motives of the heart that God is primarily going to be looking at. Which is a good way to discern in this question because I think really 99% of the lies we tell, when you dig down to the motivations, it's very clear one way or the other what the purpose is in these things. Because primarily when we lie, it's either because we're trying to hide something about ourselves, or we're trying to hide something about somebody else. But either way, usually in these situations it's something that actually should be brought into the light and there is a kind way to do that. I think sometimes we can go so far in not telling lies that we are very unkind with the truth. Truth in love is an underlying principle here.
Jo Vitale: But sometimes maybe it is something that we're trying not to offend somebody or hurt their feelings, but sometimes the best way to love someone might be to let them know something. Whether it be the ridiculously small example of they have spinach in their teeth, they'd rather know than not. Or down to the level of actually they think their life is meaningful and hopeful and actually they don't know God and they need to know him. And we have a duty to do evangelism and to tell the truth about the world and tell the truth about God, and to tell them the truth about where their at.
Michael Davis: Well guys, that is all the time we have today. Vince sum it up for us.
Vince Vitale: Well Jimmy, thank you for this landmine of a question. But actually we did really appreciate it.
Michael Davis: Yeah, for sure.
Vince Vitale: It asked us to think deeply about what we believe and how that informs how we're going to act. And as we've talked about some extreme circumstances, Jo's also brought us back to the fact that this really affects the way that we live and the way that we speak on small matters. And also how we speak about our faith to other people and how we engage with people about what's most important in life. So this is really significant.
Vince Vitale: And Jimmy, I love the way you put it, "Is God okay with lying under certain circumstances?" I don't know. Maybe that's exactly right. You didn't say, "Is God for it? Is God affirming of it." You said is God okay with it. And that's kind of what we see in scripture. He does not explicitly affirm it even in the most extreme situations. But he also commends the people who told the lies in those situations, not specifically for their lies, but because of the state of their hearts and their desire to follow God as best they could in those situations.
Vince Vitale: I spent some time pole vaulting in high school. And-
Jo Vitale: As you do.
Vince Vitale: As you do. And I always found it an interesting sport because if you've won the competition, unlike most events, if you won the competition, you get to keep going. So you get to keep vaulting to try to get your best. So maybe you've jumped 14 feet, no one else has. Now you get to move it up to 14 feet, three inches. And if you do that, you get to move it up to 14 feet, six inches. And the competition always ends with you missing the mark, with you failing. Even if you've done fantastically, it always ends with you not quite having gotten over the bar.
Vince Vitale: And when we think about this biblical understanding of sin, and this speaks to us about just the depth of our own sinfulness, our own imperfection, how much we need God's grace. Even in some of the situations where we've done really well, God is really pleased. This is even one of the reasons why he was going to speak about Rahab as a hero of faith in Hebrews 11. And yet it still could be the case that it's not to the level of the perfection of the way that Jesus would have acted in the circumstance. I actually find that very comforting in knowing that there are ways that I can please God, even in my imperfection. And even in my imperfection, god is going to respond to me with mercy and with grace and he's going to be able to say to me, even in my imperfection, well done. Good and faithful servant. That's my hope for myself and for you as well.
Michael Davis: Vince, Jo. Thank you guys so much for joining me. Thank you all for listening and we will catch you guys next week.
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