by Horace Alexander | 11 July 2023 |
In the current political climate, “spins,” false equivalences, misrepresentations, misinformation, conspiracy theories, and outright lying have become a new normal. Artificial intelligence can now show people, in their own voices, saying things they never said, or doing things they never did. ChatGPT enables people to take credit for writings they never wrote.
Pontius Pilate’s question to Jesus, “What is truth?” (John 18:38) is a question increasingly more difficult to answer. Fact, history, legend, and myth are blurred together.
In times like these, believers naturally turn to the Bible for guidance. Is lying a human propensity that has escalated to a new level recently, or has this been a problem from time immemorial? The following biblical examples may surprise you.
The Bible says that lying is wrong (Exodus 20:16; 23:1,7; Leviticus 6:2-4; 19:11; Deuteronomy 5:20; Proverbs 12:22; 13:5; 24:28; Ephesians 4:25; Revelation 21:8). However, many biblical characters have lied without condemnation—and some were rewarded for lying.
- Rahab lies to her own people about the whereabouts of Israelite spies and is praised and rewarded. She becomes an ancestor of Jesus Christ (Joshua 2:4-6; Matthew 1:5; James 2:25).
- Egyptian midwives lie to Pharaoh, and God rewards them (Exodus 1:18-20).
- Elisha accepts a bribe, tells Ben-Hadad what he wants to hear—a barefaced lie—and is not condemned (2 Kings 8:10).
- Moses lies to Pharaoh and is not condemned. Pharaoh sees through the lie (Exodus 5:3).
- Samuel, under God’s orders, anoints David as king under false pretenses (1 Samuel 16:1-5).
- An older prophet lies to a younger, and the latter loses his life as a result. The older prophet is neither condemned nor punished. Ironically, the older prophet gets to tell the younger prophet about the lie he told him and the deadly consequences of believing it! (1 Kings 13:11-30).
- Abraham lies without condemnation about his wife being his sister (Genesis 20:1-17). She was his half-sister, but the intent to deceive is clear in this story.
- Isaac tells a similar lie and is not condemned either (Genesis 26:1-11).
- Jacob and his mother lie to Isaac. In this case Jacob suffers anguish from not seeing his mother alive again and lives in fear of reprisal from his brother Esau (Genesis 27). Nevertheless, he still enjoys the privileges and promises of the birthright he acquired by lying and deception.
- Israel is instructed to offer peace to a city it plans to invade. If the offer is accepted, and the gates are opened, Israel must enter, conquer, and enslave the people despite the peace agreement (Deuteronomy 20:10-18).
Although in some Bible passages God is portrayed as never lying (Numbers 23:19; Titus 1:2), other texts seem to say otherwise. 2 Thessalonians 2:11 shows God inflicting delusion and using lies for His purpose. In 1 Kings 22:19-23 and 2 Chronicles 18:18-23 God is shown giving direct orders for prophets to lie to destroy Ahab.
You may recall dilemmas like the following discussed in your college ethics class:
You are a Christian in Nazi Germany hiding a Jew in your basement and the SS officers knock on your door and ask, “Do you have any Jews here?” Do you lie to save the Jew’s life, or tell the truth, and leave the result to God?
You are a fast-food worker at a drive-thru window, and you notice an armed man hiding in the back of a woman’s car. She is obviously unaware of her danger. Do you walk up to the window and tell her the truth and hope the armed man doesn’t jump up and shoot her—and you? Or do you tell a lie: “Madam, there seems to be a problem with your credit card. Can you pull to the side and come into the store, please?”
The above life-or-death scenarios may justify a situation ethics approach to decision-making.
This writer would do the loving thing. This writer would let love overrule complicity with evil.
This writer would tell the lie.
Tact or a white lie?
What of the so-called “white lie,”—a lie about an inconsequential matter that is told to avoid hurting another person’s feelings?
You are in a situation where someone is seeking affirmation for how they look—perhaps seeking self-confidence for an important job interview or a date. Do you say, “Oh, you look fine! Just great!” Would it be better to tactfully tell the truth: “You look okay, but I have seen you look better”? Or bluntly say (if it is in fact the case), “You don’t look good at all”?
Is tact a distortion of truth, or is it truth made more palatable? The latter is more often the case.
Our words have consequences and should be used with careful stewardship. We have all seen instances when the truth has been used in the most unloving, destructive manner as a battering ram, or a club that leaves a person feeling battered and bludgeoned. A simple rhyme by William Edward Norris that was quoted at you as a child is still relevant:
If your lips should keep from slips,
Five things observe with care:
Of whom you speak,
To whom you speak,
And how, and when, and where.
As with most issues in life, the Bible, taken in its entirety, has few absolutes. Perhaps Solomon’s wisdom is the best counsel:
Do not be over-righteous, neither be overwise—why destroy yourself? Do not be overwicked, and do not be a fool—why die before your time? It is good to grasp the one and not let go of the other. The man who fears God will avoid all extremes (Ecclesiastes 7:16-18 NIV).
Horace B. Alexander M.A., Ed.S., Ed.D., is a Professor Emeritus of English with a specialty in the literature of the Bible. The author of the historical novel Moon Over Port Royal, he has also served as a school principal, District Superintendent, Dean of Instruction, and College Vice President.