Lying is such a difficult subject to discuss. But since this is a study on what the Bible says, we’ll be honest.
First: God is truth (Jn. 14.6; 1 Jn. 1.5). Since all standards of right and wrong come from the character of God (what God is is right, and what he isn’t is wrong), we have to say the lying is sin. God is incapable of lying, which means that lying can’t be other than sinful because God can’t do it (Titus 1.2), and sin is a falling short of the glory of God. If lying were ever righteous, then there would be something righteous that God can’t do. Therefore truth is universally right, and untruth is universally wrong. There is no situation where untruth is right. This is not, and never will be, situation ethics. Lying is wrong.
Second, being truthful doesn’t mean telling all the truth all the time. No one does that, nor should we. To always speak the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth can be rude and indiscrete. The silly example of the wrongness of that is Jim Carrey in “Liar Liar” (1997, Universal Pictures). The Biblical example is Jesus himself, who didn’t blurt out everything he knew about people whenever he met them. There was a lot he kept to himself that he didn’t make public. We should edit what we say, and filter thoughts between the brain and the mouth. Therefore, not speaking the whole truth in all circumstances to every individual is not to be considered as being deceitful. There are things it’s OK not to say, giving consideration to discretion and discernment.
Thirdly, being truthful doesn’t necessarily mean always being tight with the truth. Example 1: Exodus 1.19-20. The Hebrew midwives feared God more than the king and engaged in civil disobedience and conscientious objection: they didn’t do what the king had told them to do. The king called them to the carpet for it, they didn’t really give the straightest answer of the most rigorous truth. What they said may have been true, but that wasn’t really the reason. “So God was kind to the midwives…”
Example 2: 1 Samuel 16.2. The Lord had commanded Samuel to go to Bethlehem to anoint David as king. When Samuel protested to the Lord that action like that could be so unsettling he could be killed for it, the Lord said, “[Then] take a heifer with you and say, ‘I have come to sacrifice to the Lord.’ ” That wasn’t really the reason for his trip, but it was added for his safety. Hmmm.
Example 3: 2 Kings 6.19. The prophet Elisha is working to protect the city. He prays that the Lord would strike his assassins with blindness, which the Lord does. Then Elisha says to those who are looking for him, “This is not the road, and this is not the city,” and he led them to Samaria.” The Lord cooperated with Elisha in the ruse.
Make no mistake. God hates lying and judges liars (Ps. 101.7; Prov. 6.16-17; 12.22; Prov. 19.5; Rev. 21.8). Lying is something the devil does, not God or His followers (Jn. 8.44). A follower of Christ cannot be a person of deceit (Acts 5.1-11), and believers should drop lying once and for all as a mode of life (Eph. 4.25; Col. 3.9-10). Society can’t function as a just and moral community if witnesses can’t be relied on to tell the truth under oath in court (Ex. 20.16). The corruption that would be the result would undermine civilization itself.
But what about Rahab (Josh. 2.4-6), you may ask, who lied to protect the Israelite spies? Wasn’t that a good thing she did? Since this is a Bible study and an opinion-sharing session, Rahab was commended for her faith in Heb. 11.31, but she wasn’t commended anywhere or in any form for her lying.
But you all know all of this. What you want to know is about all those sticky situations, where your friend asks you if you like her new haircut, and you don’t, but you don’t want to hurt her feelings. Or your wife asks you if you think she’s fat. You know, you just don’t want to go there, so is it OK to lie a little for the sake of tact, manners, and friendship? Or what about the family that hid Jews during WWII? Was it OK for them to lie to the soldiers to protect those people’s lives?
First, let me try to deal with the lie of kindness: “The dress looks great on you!” My first thought is that your friend would probably appreciate an honest answer tactfully expressed, and that our best option is to figure out a way to delicately speak the truth in love (Eph. 4.15). Ultimately most of the time we don’t really need to lie to be kind, but we don’t necessarily have to say everything that’s on our minds either. But we’ve already established that it’s OK to withhold the truth, and in such a situation we should speak words of kindness. It is possible to balance honest living with honoring people.
To be honest, I think most people would read an article like this looking for some justification that it’s OK to tell those little white lies that get us a little more smoothly through life, protect us somewhat, and act as a social lubricant. “Everybody does it,” we say, “and you just sort of have to tell lies every once in a while just to get by.” Well, I can’t give you that clearance. It’s impossible to imagine Jesus telling lies like that, and that’s the point. We’re supposed to be like Jesus, and lying is just wrong.