Is it Ever Okay to Lie, and Why Does it Matter?

Everyone instinctively knows that lying is wrong – no one wants to be lied to, and we feel guilty when we do it. But haven’t we all considered certain scenarios and wondered whether or not lying could be justified? This ethical issue is worth considering, because if lying is never justified, then we need clear direction for handling some tricky dilemmas.

If there is a justifiable reason to mislead another person, then the virtue that exceeds honesty at all times needs to be emphasized and taught to our children. Take for example the case of Corrie ten Boom’s family who hid hundreds of Jews from the Nazis. When the authorities pounded on the door and asked Corrie’s father if any Jews were hiding inside, should he have taken the “high road” and answered honestly about the Jews he was hiding?

We are not questioning here whether or not honesty is a virtue. Truthfulness is more than a mere act of kindness to our neighbor. It reflects the image of God. It is impossible for God to lie (Hebrews 6:28); Jesus claimed “I am… the truth” (John 14:6), and the Holy Spirit is the “Spirit of truth” (John 14:17). Since God is holy, deceitfulness thereby defies His nature – God is truth. Thus, God hates dishonesty and even promises to punish it. “A false witness will not go unpunished, and whoever pours out lies will perish” (Proverbs 19:9). A “lying tongue” is an abomination to God (Proverbs 6:17), and “all liars” are included with those who will be tormented in the lake of fire (Revelation 21:8). We should detest dishonesty as much as God does, in our personal lives, in our homes, and in our parenting.

However, what about those dilemmas when telling the truth doesn’t seem like the choice God would want us to make? For example, consider the example of Rahab who was rewarded for her lie. This biblical story in Joshua 2 has perplexed many people because her heroism required dishonesty. Rahab assisted the Hebrew spies, lied to the king’s messengers about hiding the spies on her roof, and consequently saved their lives. In addition to not being chastised by God for lying, Rahab and her family were rewarded. Twice, the New Testament (Hebrews 11:31; James 2:25) praises the actions of Rahab. Some have attempted some rather creative textual calisthenics to explain away the fact that Rahab actually told a lie. Others have deduced that her reward was for saving the spies, but not for the actual lie.

This second interpretation is a little more plausible since every person takes their sinful flesh with them when they do the will of God. Even when we do the perfect will of God, we do it with imperfections. However, this explanation of Rahab’s story still seems incomplete. After all, the scenario came to a very specific decision point, much like it has for others throughout history (e.g., the ten Boom family). The messengers told Rahab that they knew the spies entered her house, and she specifically denied knowing where they came from and where they were. All the while, she knew exactly where they came from, and she knew where they were because she had hidden them on her roof. She deceived the messengers – period. Why does the Scripture place her deception in the right instead of the wrong?

Another story from several decades earlier offers some insight. When Pharaoh was doing his best to lower the birth rate among the Hebrews in Egypt, he commanded the midwives to throw the newly born Hebrew boys in the Nile. Rightfully, the midwives refused to do the king’s dirty work; they would not be used as soldiers in his campaign for infanticide. The midwives went about their usual business of helping Hebrew mothers deliver babies rather than drowning them, and that’s when the king called them in. When he asked why they had not complied with his decree, their answer was deceitful. They came up with an excuse: Hebrew mothers are “rigorous” (Exodus 1:19). The midwives claimed that the Hebrew women delivered babies more quickly than the Egyptian women. So quickly, they couldn’t get to the babies in time to steal them from their mothers. Some have justified the midwives’ lie by claiming that it was a half-truth – perhaps the Hebrew women actually do deliver quicker than Egyptians. Regardless, half-lie or complete fabrication, they deceived Pharaoh, and God blessed them for it. For their scheming to protect the Hebrew boys, God rewarded them with families of their own.

It would be convenient to explain these “approved” lies as well-intentioned people choosing the lesser of two evils, but it’s difficult to believe that God would bless an evil act, even if it’s less evil than the alternative, especially considering His hatred for deception. A case has been made for “war time deceitfulness,” arguing that lying to overcome an evil enemy is biblically ethical. A good case for justifying trickery and strategic deception during times of war certainly has credence, but to say the story of the mid-wives and Rahab are war-time scenarios may be somewhat of a stretch.

The best explanation signifies just how highly God values human life. It also helps us understand a little more about God’s justice. The heroic ladies in these scenarios lied to save innocent lives, and God’s justice values saving innocent lives over complete cooperation with murderers. Deceitfulness would ordinarily be considered an abomination because it opposes truth and God’s justice, but God’s justice has not been served when one cooperates with a murderer’s savage agenda. Being intentionally forthright with murderers and thereby aiding their abominable acts earns no favor with God – His justice is not a legalistic system that values by-the-book action over love. God loves human life. He created it in His own image. He died to save it, and God wants us to prioritize life as much as He does.

Why does this matter? We already stated that God hates deceitfulness; therefore, we are not searching for “justifiable” ways to break God’s law. First, this ethical scenario should teach us how much God loves people and expects us to treat people lovingly. Second, let’s apply this to our family lifestyles and our parenting. Our families should be prioritizing acts of love, noticing hurting people, and helping our neighbors – even if it requires rolling up our sleeves and getting a little dirty. Let’s teach our children to be discerning followers of a pure, loving, and just faith rather than unwise followers of a legalistic, unloving form of Christianity.