Books Christianity Ethics

SEEK 13 – The Good Lie

SEEK 13: The Good Lie

Question: If someone wants to kill (maybe my parents) it is okay to lie to him and save my parents? Or punish me for lying (even when I am lying to save my parents)?

 Bible Reading: Joshua 2

Text: “By faith the prostitute Rahab, because she welcomed the spies, was not killed with those who are disobedient” (Hebrews 11:31)

First, we need to remember what lying is. The dictionary definition is helpful – “to make an untrue statement with intent to deceive”. Sometimes we are far too quick to accuse people of lying. On social media someone might say something that is false – temperatures in the world have risen by 10% – without telling a lie. They read it somewhere and have passed it on as fact. It is wrong – but not a lie. Nonetheless we should try to make sure we get our facts right!

But deliberately telling falsehoods – seeking to deceive someone is wrong. It is the devil who is the father of lies. The ninth commandment tells us not to wear false witness; Proverbs 6:16-19 warns us that the Lord hates a lying tongue and a false witness who pours out lies; Jesus is the truth, and he wants his disciples to speak the truth.

We live in a world where the devastation of lies is seen all the time. We don’t like it when politicians, shop traders, family or friends lie – yet we ourselves are guilty of it many times. We teach our children that it is important to tell the truth.

One of the most famous stories about the importance of truth telling is that of George Washington. As a six-year-old he accidentally damaged his father’s cherry tree. When confronted with this he responded “I can’t tell a lie, Pa. You know I can’t tell a lie. I did cut it with my hatchet”. His father was delighted with his honesty and ever since that story has been used as an example. The irony is that the story itself is almost certainly a lie. It was made up by Mason Locke Weems who wrote a biography entitled The Life and Memorable Actions of George Washington. It was only in its sixth edition that he added this story. Weems was trying to present Washington as a model citizen. It is ironic that in order to present the importance of telling the truth, Weems used a story that was a lie! As a clergyman he should have known better!

So, we know that lying is wrong and that we should always seek to be honest and tell the truth. But are there exceptions? In a fallen world I think we have to say yes. There are two instances in the Bible where people are commended even though their actions involved lying. The Hebrew midwives told Pharoah a lie about why they could not kill the Hebrew babies and the Lord rewarded them for it (Exodus 1:15-21). Then in Joshua 2 Rahab lied about the Israelite spies – yet as Hebrews 11:31 points out, she was commended for her faith in doing this! You could argue that in these examples people were not commended for lying – but they were commended for their actions – of which lying was the key part!

An obvious modern example is that of Corrie Ten Boom. Have you read her story – The Hiding Place’? I would strongly recommend you do so. Corrie and her family hid Jews in their home in the Netherlands during the second world war. When the Nazis knocked on the door and asked them if they had any Jews in the house – should they have said ‘I cannot tell a lie – they are upstairs in the loft?”. Even keeping silent would have been an answer.

I would certainly argue that in very rare circumstances lying might be the right thing to do. But remember that good exceptions made bad laws. Such is the world that we live in that we will sometimes find ourselves in the situation where the only options seem bad ones – and we are compelled to choose the lesser of two evils. In the case you cite – we know that lying is wrong – but so would giving up your parents to be killed – so what should you do?

The situation you describe is highly implausible. Would it not be better to shout out to your parents to warn them – rather than tell a lie which the gunman is highly unlikely to believe anyway? But if, somehow, the only option was telling a lie and saving your parents or telling the truth and killing them – then I don’t believe the first would be a sin. I very much doubt that you will ever be in a situation where the only good alternative is to tell a lie.

Our motto should always be – “speak the truth in love” (Ephesians 4:15).

Consider: Have you ever told a lie that was good or necessary? Have you ever told a lie which you thought was good or necessary, but then it turned out to be wrong?

Further Reading:

The Hiding Place – Corrie ten Boom

Prayer: Lord, you are the God of all truth. And we keep on living, telling and enabling lies. Have mercy on us. Enable us to speak the truth in love. Grant that we may live honest lives – seeking to bring light into a dark world. May we never use bad means to try and achieve good ends – but help us to live by faith in you, Amen.

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  1. However, if I remember correctly, in The Hiding Place (the book), a German asked Corrie Ten Boom’s sister directly whether they were harbouring fugitives. To Corrie’s horror and dismay, she answered truthfully. For some reason, though, nothing bad happened as a result of Corrie’s sister’s surprising honesty when questioned.

  2. I have read Corrie Ten Boom’s book more than once and found it an incredible and inspiring story of a woman who never lost her faith in God even in terrible circumstances. Someone once said to her ‘You must have great faith’, to which she replied ‘ No, I have faith in a great God’!
    There are one or two films of Corrie speaking on you tube. The film is very poor, but that doesn’t matter because it’s just lovely to hear her speak – she had such wisdom and also a real joy and love for Christ which shone out of her. The one I love to listen to the most is her talk on prayer – it’s well worth watching. Such a joy!

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