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You (don’t) have to tell the Truth

February 16, 2024

To tell the truth or not to tell the truth? Here’s the ethical conundrum: Should I always speak truthfully no matter what? Should I, under no circumstance, never ever lie? Is this question even that important?

Let’s dive right in.

“As long as I’m not the one being lied to, or as long I’m not too naïve to be taken advantage of, then occasional little white lies here and there are really harmless, and not much to be made a big deal out of”, some would tell me. As for “big” lies, it all depends on the repercussions and whether or not I’m causing more harm than good by telling the truth. So, common sense is required in each case.

On the other hand, some will quote for me: “Thou shalt not lie!” (It’s somehow more convincing in King James English). The command is clear and unambiguous. Only those with strong religious convictions actually believe this. Most times we all end up lying (especially when it serves us); but for these people, living a life of integrity is a serious question. They’re not naïve nor are they blind to the fact that truth sometimes costs and they’re willing to pay.

So, which is it? But first, let me tell you what got me thinking (or why we’re talking about this in the first place).

Dietrich Bonhoeffer was a Christian minister turned spy in Nazi Germany who thought that those who are of the (legalistic) view of never telling a lie are narrow minded in regards to common sense but also in regards to the biblical teaching that they claim to follow:

It is only the cynic who claims “to speak the truth” at all times and in all places to all men in the same way… He wounds shame, desecrates mystery, breaks confidence, betrays the community in which he lives, and laughs arrogantly at the devastation he has wrought and at the human weakness which “cannot bear the truth”.
“Ethics”, Bonhoeffer D. Quoted from “Bonhoeffer: Pastor, Martyr, Prophet,Spy”, Metaxas E.

His biographer Eric Metaxas gives us an example of a time Bonhoeffer managed, against the Board for the Regulation of Literature guidelines, to publish a book that contains pro-Jewish views—this was heavily censored Nazi Germany time. He achieved that by pretending that the book was a pure disinterested scholarly exploration; yet in actual sense, he knew very well that he was implicitly fighting the regime. He considered lying in this case to be God’s will for that time. After all, so goes his reasoning, he didn’t owe the Nazis the truth.

Now, this really puzzled me for at least three reasons. First, it is commonly thought that lying is just inevitable with the current level of corruption in this world; no matter how good your intentions are—and, by extension, no matter how deep your christian commitment goes (E.g. You must sprinkle a little falsification if you ever want to see your business get off the ground). Secondly, Bonhoeffer is not your average christian minister; if you’ve ever read his book “Cost of Discipleship” (like I did years ago), you won’t find it hard to understand why it is now considered a “classic”. The above is really jarring; coming from a sound theologian of his acumen. Thirdly, this wasn’t a case of uttering lies for self-serving purposes; on the contrary, these were actual dangerous and life threatening lies in service of the greater good. I was ready to listen!

I thought of two other stories that not only are relevant to this question but also make this question even more interesting. We first have the Hebrew midwives story: they lied to Pharaoh, disobeying his order (out of fear of God) to kill new born Jewish baby boys. God afterwards “deals well” with the midwives(Exodus 1:20). We also have the story of Rahab the prostitute who lies to the King of Jericho in order to hide Joshua’s spies (Joshua 2:5-7). She’s later on listed among the heroes of faith in the New Testament—a faith made manifest the very day she lied.

Well, then this settles it; you might say: Even the Bible says that it’s ok to lie… occasionally. But does it though? Remember, when lying is explicitly addressed, at least in one occasion, in a yet another story from scripture, a couple; Ananias and Sapphira, died as a punishment(Acts 5). You might suggest that maybe the line is drawn when it comes to lying in church (or to church leaders, or in sacred dealings) but that scripture is realistic enough to make room for lying when it comes to imperfect, corrupt, dirty secular affairs(as is the case for Rahab and the Hebrew midwives). Is this really how we should understand this issue?

I’d point out first of all that if we read the two stories well (Rahab and the Hebrew midwives), we’ll note that there is no explicit comment made on the act of lying itself. In those two episodes at least, scripture is silent on the ethical question of lying at hand. Granted, God deals well with the ‘liars’ not because of their lies but because of their faith and their fear of him—so really, it’s in spite of the lies. The fact that they’re dealt well with is no divine stamp of approval on the act of lying and neither does it make everything they ever did right. This is to say that I’m not seeing sufficient and indisputable ground for us to consider that the two stories give us green light to deceive.

In addition, if you look at these stories from a different angle, you will realize that at the end of the day, God’s ultimate and foretold plan is accomplished—even through the lying dirty business at the very center in each case. In another story, Isaac’s “blessing” falls on Jacob, just as God has planned—despite the web of deceptions that made it happen. Even in the core story of the gospel, the Son of God dies and secures our salvation—despite Judas’ betrayal that enabled it all. In short, yes, whether we like it or not, evil sometimes made possible key events which we sing praises about. But was there any endorsement of the evil done? In fact, in the latter example, there was judgement instead.

So then, you might ask, if God can use evil to bring good, why not us? Why can’t we sometimes borrow evil’s own ammunition and have it (as it were) taste its own medicine? As long as our intention is to kill evil… Right? In Bonhoeffer’s case, he was totally and fully confident that Hitler’s death was and will be ‘objectively’ for the good of the whole world (How can I argue with that?) and therefore, in some cases at least, the end justifies the means.

You’ll undoubtedly note that I’m now talking about “evil” in general and not just lies, because when you concede for one, you concede for all. Moreover, I’m a bit uneasy with this line of thinking (of occasionally using evil against itself) and I wouldn’t blindly embrace this view for these reasons:

  • First, it begs the question: Where do we draw the line? Do we now have permission to do any despicable thing as long as it’s in service of good? If there’s a line to be drawn, where is it and at what point do we know we’ve crossed it? Because here’s the thing: we humans are masters at justifying ourselves; we’re able to rationalize just about anything that we do—even if we’re wrong and even when we don’t know we are wrong and (not surprisingly) even when we know full well we’re in the wrong but stand to benefit. Are we then really ready to base our ethics on such frailty, limited knowledge and partiality in judgement?
  • Secondly, how do we know that after a ‘successful’ use of said evil we ourselves do not become evil? It is commonly acknowledged that evil calls for more evil and history is full of such examples: blood calls for more blood and lies call for more lies. Are we certain we’ll be able to restrain from evil when it’s calling for more? Can we guarantee that we won’t be affected by it? Will our conscience and innocence and virtue remain unchanged after that? “Can a man scoop fire into his lap without his clothes being burned?” (Proverbs 6:27). Are we certain we’ll casually walk away unscathed? It is my opinion that we underestimate evil’s power when we are confident in our ability to withstand the power of its corruption.
  • Moreover, even if our motives were pure, how sure are we that deception (or evil in general) will bring out the best outcome? Who’s to judge what that best outcome is? Us? What if someone else has a different view of this ‘best outcome’? Whose version should be best then? Isn’t it misguided when we assume there’s no better outcome just because we can’t possibly think of any? Can we even ensure that ‘best outcome’ we envision is what will certainly happen? Also, hasn’t it ever happened in your own life when what seemed like a bad and horrible outcome (to you and everyone around you) turned out to be the best thing to happen to you in hindsight? Why are we then so confident we’re wise enough to know what should happen all the time?
  • “Am I then supposed to not fight against evil?” “Am I supposed to sit on my hands and let all kinds of evil happen to me when I have the power to avoid them?” That’s far from what I’m saying. Evil is never the desired state of things; by all means fight it. The subject at hand is how we fight it.

    Truth sometimes can also be like a sharp sword in the hands of a mad man, that is to say that it would be foolish to tell the whole truth to anyone regardless of who they are, whether the time is right or not, whether it is fitting for them or if they’re able to handle it or not. For instance, Jesus (who never lied) preferred at times to say something cryptic to crowds (because it’d easily cause a riot) and explain it later on plainly in secret to his followers. So, the Bible offers a wealth of wisdom about secret keeping and discretion (Prov11:13), prudence, grace and shrewdness in speech(Prov12:23); so in short how truth should be communicated matters just as much: e.g. we should speak the truth lovingly (Eph4:15) and discern very well who we’re telling it to (Mat6:7).

    With that said, I see so much going on with the mere act of lying; regardless of the motive(fear, pride, shame, love, etc.) But one thing is sure, when it comes to the divine command not to lie, there’s more to it than meets the eye—it’s certainly not a narrow-minded restriction as some would think of it. Personally, as I ponder on this issue, and from whichever angle I look at it, I fail to see anything that comes close to the superior wisdom of keeping of God’s command.

    Obviously, there’s much more to consider on this and so many questions unaddressed; but my hope is to at least to offer a helpful and general way to think about this issue. It might be easy for me to write this stuff from the comfort of my chair and in a war-free country, but I might fall short of this standard when trouble comes. I better pray and seek God’s help to not fail.

    “The LORD detests lying lips, but he delights in those who tell the truth.”
    Proverbs 12:22


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