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Righteous Lying?

March 25, 2007

Is it ever ok to lie? Really? And just what kind of lies would we be talking about? Little white lies? Bold faced whoppers?

Whenever this topic comes up in Christian circles, the answer is usually the same – although maybe not to the same degree. For instance, everyone would agree that the answer is “no,” but when your wife asks you about her new hairdo, well, that’s less about lying and more about “building her up” (or protecting your hide, as the case may be). The true life example that seems to frequently pop up in these discussions is the World War II scenario. Was it wrong for Christians to lie to the Nazis and hide the Jews in their homes? I have heard more than a few respected people say “yes,” believe it or not. To their credit, its because they hold the Word of God above all else, and desire to uphold His commands – regardless of the consequences. Unfortunately, I believe their understanding of what the Bible says on this issue is wrong (Its a good thing Anne Frank didn’t come knocking on their door!).

So what are the parameters for lying? Where does the Bible draw the line in the sand? First of all, lets look at the various categories of lying. St. Augustine divided lying into three categories:Playful lies, which are told in jest or performed on stage by actors; Obliging lies, which are told to protect someone else; and the Destructive lie – this is the bad one, a violation of the ninth commandment. The Playful lie is not wrong because it is done in jest, and can even be enjoyable – as long as it is not mean-spirited and it is clear it is playful. The Obliging lie refers to the World War II scenario given above. I like what Luther has to say about it: “[the obliging lie] not only serves the advantage of someone else, who would otherwise suffer harm or violence, but also prevents a sin. Therefore it is not proper to call it a lie; for it is rather a virtue and outstanding prudence, by which both the fury of Satan is hindered, and the honor, life, and advantages of others are served. For this reason it can be called pious concern for the brethern, or, in Paul’s language, zeal for piety.” (This was taken from Luther’s Lectures on Genesis).

Luther touches on something here that I think is worth noting – he says that the obliging lie shouldn’t be called a lie at all. Ok, but its still not telling the truth, isn’t it? Those that are quick to say that all lies are sins never actually deal with the scenario that Luther speaks of: That some lies prevent greater sin. So, on one hand we could make a list of the hierarchy of sin, weighing which sins are worth preventing through lies… but that’s moralism – we don’t want to go there. So let’s go the biblical route – distinguishing between sinful lying and righteous lying.

So what does the Bible say about lying? Thou Shalt Not Lie! Well, not exactly. You shall not bear false witness against your neighbor. The context: the covenant community. The command: Do not lie to your brother. I don’t want to get into a discussion here about who our neighbor is, because for all practical purposes, I believe this command – applied to believers today – extends beyond the scope of the covenant community. But I do want to point out who our neighbors aren’t – enemies of God, specifically Satan.

Satan is the Great Deceiver. With his sly tongue he tricked Eve into eating from the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil – while Adam stood by and failed to protect her. Because of this, Adam, Eve and the serpent were cursed. The Lord God said to the serpent…..”I will put enmity between you and the woman, and between your offspring and her offspring; he shall bruise your head, and you shall bruise his heel.” And thus began the greatest battle between good and evil.

What’s interesting to note is that both parties – the woman and the serpent – would have offspring. Clearly the ultimate fulfillment of the woman’s offspring is Jesus – who crushed the serpent’s head on the cross – but there are many minor fulfillments as well – Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, Moses, etc. And the battles these godly men fought were covenant battles – Satan’s seed trying to destroy the woman’s seed by destroying the covenant. A good example of this is the story of Moses’ birth. The serpent (Pharaoh) tries to destroy the woman’s seed by killing all the male Hebrew babies. Naturally, he failed.

But how, exactly, did he fail? By the strength of an army? By the appeals of a great leader? No, by the deception of the Hebrew midwives. 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.” (Liars!) And because the midwives feared God, he gave them families. So, the midwives feared God, lied to protect the seed, and God blessed them. Later on in the same story, Moses’ mother and sister use deception and are blessed as well.

I’ve already noted that the offspring of the woman would be engaged in battle with the offspring of Satan. But where, exactly, is this offspring coming from? The godly seed is the easy one – through the covenant. God called Abraham to be the father of many nations and the line of David (and ultimately Jesus) can be traced back to Abraham (Matthew 1). But what about the seed of Satan? Well, I think in one sense the curse in Genesis 3 refers to the fact that wicked people would also come from the woman. This is clear right from the get-go, when righteous Able is killed by wicked Cain. And obviously the trend continues with the stories of wicked offspring throughout the book of Genesis (Ham, Esau, etc.). I think there is another sense as well, though. Throughout these Old Testament stories Satan tries to cut off the offspring of the woman, and he uses his wicked offspring to do it. In fact, over and over again we see the woman being attacked by the serpent, and her husband must defend her. He must become a new Adam – one that pictures the Second Adam (Christ), not the first one. But its interesting how the husband defends his wife in these stories. God uses godly men to defeat Satan at his own game – through deception and lies. Abraham is first. He protects Sarah twice by lying about her being his wife – first to Pharaoh, then also to Abimelech. Had Abraham not lied, he most likely would have been killed, Sarah would have been taken, and ungodly offspring would have been produced – the line would have been cutoff. Instead, Abraham deceived the rulers by making them believe Sarah was only his sister – which is only a partial truth. Abraham was blessed because of this – in each incident he grew more prosperous and powerful. The same goes for his son Isaac, who protected his wife Rebekah from a new serpent, when he lied to another Abimelech and said Rebekah was his sister. Again, the one who preserved the covenant was blessed and made mighty.

Perhaps the greatest example of righteous deception, though, is that of Jacob and his mother, Rebekah. In his later years, Isaac grew wicked and became serpent-like. He knew Jacob was to inherent the covenant. He also knew that Esau had despised his birthrite and had legally signed it over to Jacob. But it didn’t matter. Isaac loved the beastial Esau more than the righteous Jacob and decided to go against God’s command. The covenant was in danger of being broken and the godly seed cut off. But through the shrewd deception of his godly mother, Jacob was able to thwart Satan’s plan. And just like with the pagan king Abimelech, God used this deception to cause Isaac to repent of his sins. And of course, Rebekah and Isaac were blessed. I highly recommend Jim Jordan’s book, Primeval Saints, for an excellent treatment of this story and righteous lying.

It’s a shame that the actions of these godly people have been judged unfavorably through the years. The common sentiment is that God made things right despite their sins – but this is not how the Bible describes their actions. And these are not isolated incidents either. The Bible is full of them. In the Old Testament we can point to Jael’s deception on the battlefield, Joseph’s deception of his brothers in Egypt, Rahab’s lying to protect the spies in Jericho, Nathan’s deceptive story in order to bring David to repentance, as well as the wise woman of Tekoa’s deceptive story in 2 Samuel 14. The Bible is not primarily a moral code book, full of shall and shall nots. The Bible is primarily a story, a story of God’s people and their redemption through covenant – fulfilled in Christ Jesus. The story doesn’t make sense when we pick and choose parts to apply to our lives,  and as the case with lying, we can completely lose the context and miss the point. Of course, in many cases, lying is wrong, but it’s not always wrong…. it’s sometimes righteous.

11 Comments leave one →
  1. K. Staggs permalink
    March 30, 2007 10:33 pm

    I don’t think lying is ever righteous. God worked through the situations you cited from the Bible in spite of lying, not because of lying. Where do we draw the line? I’ve often heard people use the same arguement with killing and murder. It’s ok to kill during times of war, but the taking of another’s life with evil intent is murder. Some have declared “war” on abortion and found it “righteous” to blow up abortion clinics and kill abortion doctors and nurses in order to “prevent sin.” For now, I’m going to stick with all lying is sin.
    Too bad you’re not still with me at UPS! This discussion would make the mornings go by faster! : )

  2. March 31, 2007 10:23 am

    I wish I could return the sentiment, but I’m glad I’m not at UPS having this discussion 🙂 Besides, we’d probably be discussing with Jeff how bad Louisville’s going to stink next year without Petrino.

    Your view on lying is clearly the more popular view held amongst the church, but I think it misses the point of the stories that I refered to in my post. In fact, I think this view is a big part of the reason why these stories are misunderstood. As I mentioned before, it’s hard to go with the view that God worked through these issues despite their lies, when God is blessing them because of their lies. You mentioned murder as a similar example, but maybe there is a good – though imperfect – analogy there. While murder is a sin, killing is not always a sin. Murder serves selfish reasons, while killing can serve righteous reasons. In fact, when capital punishment was instituted after the flood, this was an example of the difference between murder and killing/judgment. Lying is similar to this. Lying as described in the ninth commandment is always a sin because it serves selfish reasons. But there’s no getting around the fact that deception is used as a means of judgment/ defeating God’s enemies. Also, lying only occurs when the deceptive party is weaker or subordinate to the enemy. For example, Abraham lied about Sarah because brute force would have been futile. But later, after Abraham had been blessed with a great household/army, he used force and killed his enemies. This is especially true of those godly women who could only use deception to defeat the enemy (Rebekah, Rahab, the Hebrew midwives, etc.). This is why lying was righteous in reference to the World War II scenario. Retaliation/Force was not an option. And honestly, I think common sense should tell us this. When lying is viewed in it’s scriptural context, there really is no blurry line, and there really is no solid footing for the person who wants to justify their selfish lies.
    While I think the issue of lying is certainly an interesting topic – especially because many people have never even given it a second thought – I was more concerned with getting people to read/think about the stories of the Old Testament in a different light. The New Testament makes it clear that these Old Testament saints were heroic men and women of faith – they are to be looked to as examples and imitated – which doesn’t happen as often as it should.
    I appreciate your comments, Kev, and would love to hear more about what you think – and what some of the others think if this topic ever comes up at UPS – if Nathan is still there he’ll keep you busy all morning long with this one!

  3. K. Staggs permalink
    April 5, 2007 7:31 pm

    Hey, speaking of Louisville, I had the pleasure of meeting the new coach, Coach Kragthorpe. He is a real class act, which is a big change from what they had with Petrino. I like him a lot and will probably find myself pulling for UL while he’s here. I told him he was my first choice when the Bama job was open. He laughed and appreciated the complement. He has also hired Charlie Stubbs as one of his offensive coaches. He coached at Bama in the late 90’s under DuBose.

  4. April 6, 2007 10:34 am

    How did you come to meet Kragthorpe? Through CAL? I didn’t think Petrino was that bad – I liked him as a coach, I guess I don’t know much about his personality off the field…. although there’s not an interview he didn’t like! I was thinking the other day that I’ll probably never go back to Florida (hopefully), so maybe it’s time to change my NFL allegiance (I’m tired of Gruden anyways). I was leaning toward the Titans, but after the whole Pac-man thing, and with Petrino going to the ATL, I might jump on the Falcon bandwagon. And No, don’t even try to convince me to become a Cowboy fan.

  5. June 6, 2007 12:42 pm

    How does tact fit into all of this? I see people using deception in business and social situations and calling it tact. How do we know what is acceptable to God?

    • June 6, 2010 4:33 am

      We are called to always examine ourselves and our actions and motivations.

      For something to be a lie that offends God, you simply have to act in selfishness. If your words are to cause harm, or for selfish gain or motivation, then chances are it’s wrong.

      It’s hard to say that lying to save the lives of children is evil, but not so hard to think that lying to make more money is wrong.

      We are called to live in love, knowing that love is an action (I Cor. 13) and not a feeling or emotion, we must always look at our actions towards others and ask ourselves…”is this for their good, or mine?”

  6. June 9, 2007 5:22 am


    I think the thing to remember is that those who used righteous deception were obeying God and had the covenant in mind when doing so. There is a Huge difference between lying for one’s own gain – financially or socially – and lying to protect someone.
    I recently finished reading I and II Samuel – its amazing all the deception that David used and how the Lord blessed him. Just this morning I was reading in II Kings of the story of Jehu – who used deception to obey God.

  7. July 15, 2007 11:25 am

    You of course are on the right track. You are to use your eyes to ferret out the adherents of ‘the father of all lies/liars’

    One doesn’t always have to lie to his wife. He might well keep his big mouth shut. Comprende’?

    It is the people who have a total inability to use the truth as a weapon you need to look out for.

    Never give people hell…tell them the truth and they’ll guilt up all the hell they can handle….Perpetual Armageddon (E)

  8. Bruce Ramsey permalink
    October 18, 2007 2:42 pm

    Whether or not our religious books lie, it’s so important that we ourselves keep our word, because, if you are found to be untruthful on one thing…

  9. December 20, 2007 8:43 am

    I would like to see a continuation of the topic

  10. May 9, 2017 8:55 am

    Super article on Abraham! Very, very rare to find someone who sees Abraham the way the Bible portrays him to be. Traditional teaching on this subject is wrong all over the place! He was neither a liar nor an adulterer! He was the father of all those who believe!

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