This past Sunday we considered commandment number nine in the Ten Commandments: “You shall not bear false witness against your neighbor” (Exodus 20:16). We went beyond false testimony in a court of law and pointed to God’s call for His people to speak with integrity.
As part of the message, the question was posed: “Is it ever okay to lie?” In an attempt to provide an answer to that question, I pointed to two instances of deception recorded in Scripture:
Exodus 1:15-21 –
Then the king of Egypt said to the Hebrew midwives, one of whom was named Shiphrah and the other Puah, “When you serve as midwife to the Hebrew women and see them on the birthstool, if it is a son, you shall kill him, but if it is a daughter, she shall live.” But the midwives feared God and did not do as the king of Egypt commanded them, but let the male children live. So the king of Egypt called the midwives and said to them, “Why have you done this, and let the male children live?” The midwives said to Pharaoh, “Because the Hebrew women are not like the Egyptian women, for they are vigorous and give birth before the midwife comes to them.” 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.
In order to preserve the lives of the male Hebrew children, the midwives disobeyed the pharaoh’s order and deceived him.
Joshua 2:1-7 –
And Joshua the son of Nun sent two men secretly from Shittim as spies, saying, “Go, view the land, especially Jericho.” And they went and came into the house of a prostitute whose name was Rahab and lodged there. And it was told to the king of Jericho, “Behold, men of Israel have come here tonight to search out the land.” Then the king of Jericho sent to Rahab, saying, “Bring out the men who have come to you, who entered your house, for they have come to search out all the land.” But the woman had taken the two men and hidden them. And she said, “True, the men came to me, but I did not know where they were from. And when the gate was about to be closed at dark, the men went out. I do not know where the men went. Pursue them quickly, for you will overtake them.” But she had brought them up to the roof and hid them with the stalks of flax that she had laid in order on the roof. So the men pursued after them on the way to the Jordan as far as the fords. And the gate was shut as soon as the pursuers had gone out.
In order to save the lives of the Hebrew spies, Rahab hid them and lied to the men sent by Jericho’s king by telling them that the spies had already left the city.
Here we see two examples of lying so that a “greater good” could be achieved, i.e., preserving the life of another. My initial response to the question of whether is was ever okay to lie was a qualified “yes,” based on these two instances. I did warn, and quite adamantly, that we are accountable to the Lord for everything that we say, and that lying (even for a “greater good”) must never be taken lightly.
I think most people could sympathize with the point of view that lying may be justified under some rare circumstances because it seems reasonable. Would you lie to protect your child? Would you lie to protect your spouse? A godly person may be put in a situation where he or she feels compelled to lie in order to preserve a life or lives, such as the examples previously mentioned.
In interpreting Scripture, it is important to differentiate between verses that are prescriptive (those that instruct us on what to say or do or avoid saying or doing) and those that are descriptive (those that simply tell us what happened). The examples of the Hebrew midwives and Rahab are descriptive. They relate the facts of the story without providing specific instructions on how we are to act.
Furthermore, in neither of the two examples is deception specifically commended or endorsed. There is no “Go and do likewise” attached.
What we read about the Hebrew midwives is that God “dealt well” with them, and because they feared God (rather than pharaoh), He gave them families (Exodus 1:20-21). What we read about Rahab is that she was commended for hiding the Hebrew spies (Joshua 6:25; Hebrews 11:31). In both cases, there was a reward for the action without specifically commending their lying.
People have debated and will continue to debate whether it is wrong to lie in situations like this. We must acknowledge that occasions where lying is required to preserve life are extremely rare, and the two instances referenced should not be seen as permission to lie. In addition, our temptation to lie is rarely to preserve life but primarily to protect ourselves, gain an advantage, impress others, or hurt people.
In my message, I mentioned the midwives and Rahab examples of a potential “gray area.” Although I stated that it might be acceptable to lie in a situation like this, I also emphasized that a person must never view this as a loophole to lie for other reasons. I also highlighted the Scripture’s overwhelming call to be people of integrity and to tell the truth. Let us consider some of the testimony of God’s Word:
Proverbs 6:16-19 –
There are six things that the Lord hates, seven that are an abomination to him: haughty eyes, a lying tongue, and hands that shed innocent blood, a heart that devises wicked plans, feet that make haste to run to evil, a false witness who breathes out lies, and one who sows discord among brothers.
Proverbs 12:22 –
Lying lips are an abomination to the Lord, but those who act faithfully are his delight.
Proverbs 14:5 –
A faithful witness does not lie, but a false witness breathes out lies.
Acts 5:1-4 –
But a man named Ananias, with his wife Sapphira, sold a piece of property, and with his wife’s knowledge he kept back for himself some of the proceeds and brought only a part of it and laid it at the apostles’ feet. But Peter said, “Ananias, why has Satan filled your heart to lie to the Holy Spirit and to keep back for yourself part of the proceeds of the land? While it remained unsold, did it not remain your own? And after it was sold, was it not at your disposal? Why is it that you have contrived this deed in your heart? You have not lied to man but to God.”
Ephesians 4:25 –
Therefore, having put away falsehood, let each one of you speak the truth with his neighbor, for we are members one of another.
Colossians 3:9-10 –
Do not lie to one another, seeing that you have put off the old self with its practices and have put on the new self, which is being renewed in knowledge after the image of its creator.
Revelation 21:8 –
But as for the cowardly, the faithless, the detestable, as for murderers, the sexually immoral, sorcerers, idolaters, and all liars, their portion will be in the lake that burns with fire and sulfur, which is the second death.”
This is in no way an exhaustive list of all the Scriptures directly or indirectly relate to lying, deceit, or false testimony. Because Satan is the father of lies and God is the author of truth, our lives are to reflect our Heavenly Father. Our lives are to overflow with truth, and we must never be a people looking for ways to skirt the truth or minimize deceit. We have been called to put off our old, corrupt nature and to put on Christ who is the Way, the TRUTH, and the Life.
After prayer, conversation, and study, let me change my answer to the question, “Is it ever okay to lie?” My answer is this: Nowhere in Scripture are we ever instructed to lie or told that lying is anything other than sin. We have two examples where lying for a “greater good” turned out well, and a multitude of examples where lying was condemned and/or led to tragic consequences. There is a danger in using the two descriptive instances of Rahab and the midwives as being prescriptive for our behavior, and the argument for the “greater good” can become a catchall category to justify lying for almost any reason.
I pray that none of you will ever find yourself in a situation where lying seems to be the only means of escape from harm to yourself or others. I pray that we will be a people known for our integrity, not for our skill at skirting the truth. I pray that we will shine like stars in a very dark universe and reflect the glory of Jesus. Let us walk in the light as He is in the light.