Some Christians say telling the truth is a moral absolute. They say the ninth Commandment can never be broken (i.e. bear no false witness). They point to the Biblical absolutes of truth an God as its source (see Isaiah 55 verse 11 or John 14 verses 6-7 as examples). So how could lying ever be ok? When we face tough questions, like this, we need to turn to the Bible for some guidance on living in a broken and fallen world.
The hard part comes when we read other examples in the Bible where lying appears to be either endorsed or requested by God. God appears to sanction some lies when life and His divine purpose are at stake.
Firstly, Rahab appeared to act with God's blessings with her lie that the spies had left Jericho (when they were actually being hidden by her on the roof). Rahab, in Hebrews 11 verses 31, is actually given praise for her faith. Then in James 2 verse 25 it explains that Rahab's lie and protection of the spies was proof of her faith in God.
Secondly, God seems to give His blessing to the lie of the Hebrew midwives in Exodus 1 verses 8-22. The command from the Egyptian leaders was for the midwives to kill any Hebrew male babies born. This plan would stop God's purpose for Moses. When they didn't kill the babies, the midwives lied, saying the Hebrew women gave birth too quickly, before they could arrive. Verse 22 shows God's endorsement and blessing of this act of deception.
Thirdly, in 1 Samuel 16, Samuel is ordered by the Lord to anoint David as King over the current king Saul. When Samuel stresses that Saul will kill him for this treason God tells Samuel to lie. The lie is a smokescreen to preserve Samuel and David's lives. It appears from these passages that God places a higher priority on life and His divine purpose than truth telling.
So we appear to have situations when God ordains truth and also deception. Welcome to the difficult world of situational ethics. Winston Churchill said, "In wartime, truth is so precious that she should always be attended by a bodyguard of lies." Churchill's brilliant quote sums up the grey world we live in that dwells between the black and the white.
And the grey world of situational ethics has profound questions for our lives today:
Ã¢â¬Â¢ Can a Christian work as a police detective? If they are working undercover and the baddies ask if they are cops, what do they say? If they uphold truth and answer "yes" their life may be over, not to mention the overall objective of the police operation (to make arrests and stop the criminal network). And what are the ethics of a profession such as a spy/intelligence officer? They seek truth by means of deception. After all, wasn't it God who ordered the 12 army intelligence officers (i.e. spies) into the Promised Land in Numbers 13 verse 1?
Ã¢â¬Â¢ What about placing a fake "security system" sticker or "dummy" camera at your home or business to deter criminals? Or have you ever set a timer for a light or radio to come on when you are not home (to deceive possible crooks that you are home)? Isn't this an act of deception for a Christian trying to witness to the world?
Ã¢â¬Â¢ What about the lies needed for a successful surprise birthday party? If truth is absolute how can this be justified?
There are so many situations and Biblical examples that raise questions about truth telling and God's purpose in it all.
So what is the conclusion?
The Bible is clear that truth must be told. God is holy and pure and no sin can be of Him. The Ten Commandments are a reflection of this holiness and the Ninth Commandment explains no false witness (e.g. never lie in the court of justice, or to get personal gain, or lie to God). But there are also clear Biblical examples when God has blessed deception: Rahab, the midwives, Jesus when he was walking on the water "appeared" to walk past the boat (Mark 6 verse 48), or Jesus walking to Emmaus with the two disciples: Jesus "acted as if He was going farther" (Luke 24 verse 28).
Does it mean we are free to choose? No! Does it mean we make our own ethics? No! But it does point to a world that is fallen, tainted by sin and grey in many of its ethical areas. For example, Rahab, like many people in Nazi Germany, hid Jews and told lies to save lives. This is something God praised Rahab for.
God gives a higher priority on saving human life and His divine purpose. We need to be wise and use our brains when dealing with a sinful world. This wisdom is found in the solid foundation we have for our ethics: the Bible.
Jeremy Dover is a former sports scientist and pastor.
Jeremy Dover's previous articles may be viewed at www.pressserviceinternational.org/jeremy-dover.html