Can I throw a dummy? I can, and every once in a blue moon it comes off. But should I? ‘Not at your age’ would be the impertinent response of my rugby team mates. They don’t share my conviction that my best years are still ahead of me. But is it ethically appropriate for me to create a false impression in the mind of my opposite number so that I can deceive him and get past him? If only the lads knew that I was tortured by these moral dilemmas. It might explain to them why my form has plateaued in recent weeks!
Does my bum look big in this? Please don’t ask me that. But am I required to tell the truth? Is a white lie still a lie? Should I seek clarification on the exact dimensions of ‘big’ before offering an opinion? Will my delaying tactics be misinterpreted? And will it be worth living for the rest of the evening?
Why am I asking this? I’m on Joshua 2 this Sunday and Rahab’s morally questionable deception of the Jericho Police Department raises the issue of truthfulness. When Homeland Security came knocking at her door demanding the Israelite spies, she deceived them. ‘They went that way’ she lied and there’s no suggestion of God’s condemnation on her activities. In fact, the New Testament commends her actions as an act of faith (Hebrews 11 and James 2). Coincidentally we kicked this one around at the Apprentices Workshop this week. Sometimes the discussion can be conceptual and detached. But for some of our brothers it’s not. One of the pastors had recently returned from a mission in Rwanda. Some Rwandan Christians are racked with guilt because Hutus hid their Tutsi neighbours and lied when the Hutu militia came knocking. They’re asking whether they did what God wanted them to do and they’re worried that they didn’t.
There are three key principels to keep in mind as we begin.
1.God never lies
God is a God of truth. In Titus 1:2 Paul says that God never lies. In Hebrews 6:18 the writer says that it’s impossible for God to lie.
2. Satan always lies
In John 8:44 Jesus says that Satan is the father of lies. Lying comes naturally to him; it’s what he does best. The Bible records his efforts at deceiving Adam in the Garden of Eden, to disastrous effect, and his vain efforts at deceiving Jesus in the wilderness and the Garden of Gethsemane.
3. Christians shouldn’t lie
The ninth Commandment reads, ‘You shall not bear false witness against your neighbor’. Bearing false witness is distorting the facts in such a way to harm your neighbour. It matters in a legal context. Without truthfulness from witnesses the legal system collapses. It matters in a relational context. The cohesion of the covenant community rests on truthfulness. And so this commandment provides the basis for the New Testament prohibition on lying. In Colossians 3:9&10 Paul instructs his readers not to lie to one another. In Ephesians 4:25 he tells his readers to speak the truth. In 2 Corinthians 4:2 he explains that he’d renounced anything approximating to deception in the way that he presented God’s word. Lying causes untold damage in the Christian community. A church ridden with malicious gossip, slanderous accusations, distortion of someone’s words is a church about to go down the pan.
And so it all seems pretty straightforward thus far. We shouldn’t lie, not at all, period. That’s been the predominant view amongst the Reformed camp. Disagreeing with the theological giants makes me nervous. But I do, because scripture does. And though I hold the Reformers in high esteem I’d prefer to go with the Bible. David Field, in his lecture notes for Ethics, lists 17 instances in which someone misleads an enemy without incurring any condemnation from God.
1. Exodus 1:15-21, the Israelite midwives in Egypt.
2. Joshua 2:4-6, 6:17, 25, Hebrews 11:31, James 2:25, Rahab’s deception. Note that apart from what Rahab told her countrymen, even hiding the spies amounted to a deception.
3. Joshua 8:3-8, the ambush at Ai. God himself authorized this deception.
4. Judges 4:18-21, 5:24-27, Jael and Sisera.
5. 1 Samuel 16:1-5, Samuel misleads Saul as to the reason for his mission.
6. 1 Samuel 19:12-17, Michal deceives her father’s troops.
7. 1 Samuel 20:6, David’s counsel to Jonathan.
8. 1 Samuel 21:13, David feigns madness.
9. 1 Samuel 27:10, David lies to Achish.
10. 2 Samuel 5:22-25, another military deceit.
11. 2 Samuel 15:34, Hushai counselled to lie to Absalom.
12. 2 Samuel 17:19-20, women deceive Absalom’s men.
13. 1 Kings 22:19-23, God sends a lying spirit against Ahab.
14. 2 Kings 16:14-20, Elisha misleads the Syrian troops.
15. Jeremiah 38:24-28, Jeremiah lies to the princes.
16. Luke 24:28, Jesus acts as if he intends to go further.
17.2 Thessalonians 2:11, God sends powerful delusion so that His enemies will believe a lie.
Clearly then there are some instances in which it’s alright for God, Jesus and believers to deceive. So what have we missed? I think there are two qualifying statements that clarify the ‘limitations’ inherent in the nith commandment.
a. Not every false impression is lying
We need to clearly define what a lie is. Let’s begin by saying what a lie is not.
A mistake is not a lie; it’s an error. If someone asks me how to get to the Bedford Pub and I tell them to go down Emmanuel Road and forget to tell them that it becomes Fernlea that’s not a lie, it’s a gaffe. I didn’t deliberately deceive them. It was a lapse in memory or incomplete knowledge.
A joke is not a lie; it’s playful banter. When I wind my kids up that their school reports were so awful that I’m not going to let them out to play for a whole year it’s not a lie; it’s Daddy being an idiot.
A fictional tale is not a lie; it’s a story. As long as we don’t present it as fact everyone knows that it’s an invented narrative to entertain. There are lots if literally untrue statements that we use all the time as part of a commonly understood linguistic convention. When I say ‘I’m ready to die’ no one thinks I’m off to Dignitas. It’s turn of phrase.
A deceptive strategy in a game is not a lie; it’s fun. Everyone knows that when you play Perudo with the Vicar he’ll employ every deceptive tactic under the sun to convince you that his dice are the best hand going. Humour him! It’s just part of the rules of engagement in the game you’re playing.
A magic trick is not a lie; it’s a sleight of hand to amuse and cause wonder. Lots of magic involves deception as we hide something or reveal something but it’s just a delightful and entertaining technique to mislead.
John Frame, in his Doctrine of the Christian Life, says that lying is ‘a word or act that intentionally deceives a neighbour in order to hurt him’. I think that encapsulates the meaning of the ninth commandment pretty well.
b. Not everyone is my neighbour
God tells me not to lie to my neighbour. But is everyone my neighbour? No. In the Parable of the Good Samaritan Jesus does not teach that everyone is my neighbour but that my neighbour is anyone in need. If someone comes to my front door seeking to murder the fugitives I’ve hidden in my loft they are not my neighbour, they are my enemy. My neighbour to whom I’m obligated is hiding in fear of their life. And so I’m not obliged to tell everyone the truth. Sometimes, perhaps rarely, God allows me to lie to someone. As Frame writes, ‘It does appear that the Bible passages listed above, which justify deception in certain cases, all have to do with the promotion of justice against the wicked, especially when they seek innocent life’.
And so, my position is this. In general we tell the truth. But in specific situations it’s the right thing not to tell the truth. There are times when God wants me to lie. That’s clearest when I’m protecting my neighbour from an enemy.