Is it ever okay to lie?

Questions about God, the Bible and the Christian culture

Question: If we are forbidden to lie at all according to the Bible, then why does the Bible allow killing during times of war but it forbids lying? Are we supposed to remain honest with our enemies during times of war while we are allowed to kill them? Often times to win a war one has to deceive their enemies.

Answer: Hello friend. I am glad that you’ve submitted a question about lying… because God hates that stuff! (Proverbs 12:22). But you have made a few fundamental errors in your question which make it look like you are trying to trip-up God on his own words rather than see what he’s saying in the Bible and in life. So, let’s look at those.

The first problem is that your question is prejudiced by a false asymmetry in the justification for lying and killing. Of lying you said, “If we are forbidden to lie at all according to the Bible.” (Emphasis mine). But of killing you said, “then why does the Bible allow killing during times of war…” So, to lying (via at all) you’ve applied a rigidity that’s just not there — like if we lie we will explode! But you did not treat killing that way. In fact, you allowed that it might be appropriate to kill during a war… but not to lie? So, answering your question as it stands would be a tacit agreement that lying is worse than killing… and I do not agree with that… and I doubt God would affirm that.

Second, I can come up with a number of plausible scenarios where it is appropriate to lie. If that is true, then a reasonable interpretation of God’s stand on lying cannot be that it should never occur under any circumstances. Lying can be appropriate — as the following will demonstrate.

Let’s say that you are in a public park, and a woman who is obviously fleeing someone runs by you to hide in the restroom. A few seconds later a red-faced and out-of-breath man with a knife runs up to you and says, “Have you seen a woman run by here?” Would you even have to think about your answer? That would be a time to lie. Why? Because saving a life from imminent harm is more important than not lying… except, perhaps, to those who hold to an extraordinarily rigid puritanism.

This example demonstrates that it is not reasonable to assign the “at all” restriction to not lying because God would want you to protect an innocent woman as a priority… even at the cost of uttering a lie. Lying is bad… but aiding and abetting a murderer would be worse… and a choice had to be made.

Third, the law doesn’t work as you suppose — it isn’t wooden. There was an expectation that people would “break” the law to respond to an emergency, to take care of common needs… or to heal!

Then he asked them, “If one of you has a child or an ox that falls into a well on the Sabbath day, will you not immediately pull it out?” (Luke 14:5, NIV)

The Lord answered him, “You hypocrites! Doesn’t each of you on the Sabbath untie your ox or donkey from the stall and lead it out to give it water? (Luke 13:15, NIV)

On a Sabbath Jesus was teaching in one of the synagogues, and a woman was there who had been crippled by a spirit for eighteen years. She was bent over and could not straighten up at all. When Jesus saw her, he called her forward and said to her, “Woman, you are set free from your infirmity.” Then he put his hands on her, and immediately she straightened up and praised God. (Luke 13:10–13, NIV)

Fourth, your question doesn’t consider the Just War Theory. We live in a global neighborhood where the world’s sovereign nations keep an eye on one another. You see, as bad as war is, we agree that certain offenses warrant a war — but we also agree that there should be rules. Now, despots break these rules regularly, but the rules still exist.

For instance, we do not target civilians, but we are justified in killing enemy combatants — and as your question implied, this might be okay. But just as it is okay to fire a rifle at a nation’s soldiers, so it is justified to fire misinformation at their intelligence operations… and it would be national suicide if we did not. God doesn’t want us to lie or to kill; those are some of his holy standards. But he knows that we live in a world where holy standards are just that — standards… standards that are not reachable in this age. So, God measures our hearts, not our literal success.

Fifth, living and growing in truth is a process — and wherever there is a growth process there are states of relative immaturity. Note the “growth” indicators in the following verses, like guide, teach, speak, tell, approved, worker and handles.

Guide me in your truth and teach me, for you are God my Savior, and my hope is in you all day long.
(Psalm 25:5, NIV)

But when he, the Spirit of truth, comes, he will guide you into all the truth. He will not speak on his own; he will speak only what he hears, and he will tell you what is yet to come. (John 16:13, NIV)

Do your best to present yourself to God as one approved, a worker who does not need to be ashamed and who correctly handles the word of truth. (2 Timothy 2:15, NIV)

If growing in truth is a process as the above verses attest, then God — who designed that very process — cannot condemn a person who is at a point in that process where lying less and less is part of the learning. We are all on the path to truth, not the place of perfect truth. And it is the nature of such a journey that a person will grow from being a less truthful person (a liar) to being a more truthful person (less of a liar). Therefore, every human being is somewhere on that imperfect path… still lying! … and quite by God’s design.

I’ve found five reasons why God and/or the Bible are not in contradiction about lying, and I have shown how lying can fit reasonably into a congruent Christian life. I’m not sure what is going on with you, but it looks to me like you were picking a fight. That is, you are going way out of your way to invent contradictions instead of trying to find the native sense in the issues. This is a common reasoning error.

A challenger must give the postulator the benefit of the doubt; he must try to find ways that his position might be true — and not false — before declaring contradiction… because that’s how reasoning works.

Genuine logical contradictions are hard to find, because if a defender can give just one plausible scenario where the challenge cannot be true (like the lady in the park — which was totally made-up — but which demonstrates that lying is not forbidden in all situations), then the challenge is defeated. Or, if a defender can explain how a Christian can lie and still be a congruent believer (such as truth being a process… not a perfect condition), then the challenge is defeated. One who holds a certain position never has to build a perfect case — just a defendable one… and the case for the standard Christian model is easily defended against this accusation of breaking the law by lying.

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