Isn't Lying Permissible in Certain Situations?
I read your article titled “Did God Approve of Rahab’s Lie?”1 but I’m still of the belief that lying for noble reasons is permissible. Don’t parents occasionally deceive their kids for good reasons? Didn’t Elisha lie to the Syrians in 2 Kings 6? Did God not suggest a life-saving deception to Samuel in 1 Samuel 16? Surely lying for noble reasons is okay sometimes.
Since objective, moral goodness is logically rooted and grounded in the very nature of God’s goodness,2 the most logical place to begin any ethical discussion is with the very nature of God. What does God reveal in Scripture about His own moral character, specifically about truthfulness and dishonesty?
God is innately pure and holy (1 Peter 1:15-16; 1 John 3:3). “God is light and in Him is no darkness at all” (1 John 1:5). Everything about God is true, including His Spirit, Son, judgments, works, laws, and commandments—all are true, 100% true.3 The simple fact is, “God…cannot lie” (Titus 1:2); “It is impossible for God to lie” (Hebrews 6:18). His perfectly truthful nature will not allow Him to lie. Furthermore, throughout God’s truthful Word, honesty is commended, while lying is condemned.4 So, if God is always truthful, and if His truthful Word teaches us to be honest and not lie, how can we ever say that God has authorized us to lie in certain situations?
“But What About Elisha’s Lie?”
As Ben-Hadad, the king of Syria, made war with Israel, the prophet Elisha warned Israel’s king (Joram) time and again how to avoid the Syrians. Ben-Hadad eventually learned that Elisha was the one who kept the king of Israel informed, so he commissioned “a great army” to go arrest the prophet of God (2 Kings 6:13-14). When Elisha saw the Syrian army, he prayed that the Lord would strike them with blindness, which He did. The prophet then told the blinded Syrians, “This is not the way, nor is this the city. Follow me, and I will bring you to the man whom you seek” (2 Kings 6:19). Elisha proceeded to lead them to Samaria, the capital of Israel. Only after the Syrians were inside Samaria did God return to them their sight. Undoubtedly, it was here that Elisha revealed himself to the Syrians.
Rather than reveal himself to the Syrians when he first met them, he said, “‘This is not the way, and this is not the city. Follow me, and I will bring you to the man whom you seek.’ And he led them to Samaria” (6:19, ESV). Did Elisha, a prophet of God, lie to the Syrian army?
Bible students must keep in mind that every person who has ever lived, except Christ, has sinned (Romans 3:10,23; 1 Peter 2:22). All of the godly people mentioned in the Bible sinned at various times in their lives. Even inspired penmen, including Moses, David, and Peter, sinned at times.5 No doubt, at various times in his life, Elisha also sinned against God. Thus, whether Elisha lied on this occasion or not, he definitely fell short at some point in his life.6
Is All Deception Lying?
In any discussion, it is very important to consider the meaning of words, the sense in which they are used, and how some words can have broader meanings than other (similar) words. For example, the Bible condemns murder (Exodus 20:13; Romans 1:29), but condones certain killings. In fact, just one chapter after giving the Sixth Commandment (“Thou shalt not kill/murder—ASV/NKJV; Hebrew ratsach), God commanded that the Israelites were to put to death various lawbreakers, including those guilty of kidnapping, cursing their parents, or premeditated murder (Exodus 21:12-17). In the New Testament, in the very chapter that Paul reminded the Romans, “You shall not murder” (Romans 13:9), he noted that governing authorities do “not bear the sword in vain; for he is God’s minister, an avenger to execute wrath on him who practices evil” (13:1-4).7 When the entirety of Scripture is considered, the Bible student learns that all murder is killing, and is sinful, but not all killing is murder. In truth, throughout history God has authorized some killing in certain situations.8
Similarly, though all lying is a form of deception, not all deception is equivalent to the sin of lying. The Greek noun “lie” is pseudos9—a “conscious and intentional falsehood.”10 The English word “lie” may be defined as “to make an untrue statement with the intent to deceive.”11 A fake handoff in football is deceptive, but it’s not lying. A no-look pass in basketball is tricky, but not dishonest. Wearing a disguise or camouflage fatigues in war so as not to be seen (or seen as easily) by the enemy is deceptive, but not untruthful. A woman may color her hair to “cover up” her gray so as not to appear as old as she is. That’s not lying, but it is a form of deception. The same thing can be said about a man’s toupee. A “lie” would be for the man to say something like, “This is my actual hair. I am not wearing a toupee.”
What’s more, aren’t many “knock-off” brands a form of honest deception? When I was a child, I wore fake “Air Jordan” shoes. They looked kind of cool (to me anyway), and were only a fraction of the cost of real Jordans, but they weren’t actual Jordans. If people mistakenly thought I had on Jordans, I didn’t mind, nor did I have an obligation to correct every person who may have thought they were real Jordans. But, if I ever actually said, “I have a pair of Jordans,” then I would have been lying.
Back to Elisha
When the Syrians invaded Israel in order to find and arrest the prophet of God, Elisha appeared to them without first revealing himself to his blind enemies. Instead, he said to follow him and he would bring them to the one they sought. He eventually revealed himself to them, but only after he had led them to Samaria and their sight was returned to them. Did Elisha trick his pursuers? Yes. But misleading enemy soldiers, intruders, or others who might want to do us harm is not necessarily the equivalent to lying.
The Scriptures do not clearly indicate whether Elisha lied to the Syrians or not. (Of all the communication that likely took place between them, only one line is recorded in Scripture; 2 Kings 6:19.) If Elisha did lie, such a sin would neither reflect poorly on God or the Bible—“for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God” (Romans 3:23). Still, we must be careful not to presume to know what Elisha did. In a time of war, he strategically led his God-given “captives” to “the city” of his choosing, where he would reveal “Elisha” to them, as he said he would.12
Must We Reveal Everything We Know?
Consider the very nature of God: in addition to being 100% truthful and by His very nature unable to lie (as discussed earlier), He’s also omniscient (Psalm 139:1-4; 1 Chronicles 28:9). Are there innumerable things that our Creator and Savior knows that we do not know? Certainly. Does His perfectly honest moral character compel Him to tell us everything He knows, even when we ask? Absolutely not. One lesson to learn from our most upright, moral Maker is that telling the truth is not equivalent to “revealing everything” we know.
When God sent the prophet Samuel to Bethlehem for the purpose of anointing David as the next king of Israel, Samuel mentioned that Saul would kill him if he heard of it. God’s response: “Take a heifer with you, and say,‘I have come to sacrifice to the Lord.’ Then invite Jesse to the sacrifice, and I will show you what you shall do; you shall anoint for Me the one I name to you. So Samuel did what the Lord said” (1 Samuel 16:2-4). When the elders of Bethlehem asked Samuel if he came peaceably, the prophet said, “Peaceably; I have come to sacrifice to the Lord” (16:5). Was the sacrifice the primary purpose of Samuel’s visit to Bethlehem? No. But Samuel was under no obligation to tell his questioners the central reason for his visit. He simply revealed to them one reason (a secondary reason) for his arrival into town.
Can We Distract and Divert Attention?
How many truthful, though blatantly illusive, things can a passionate husband and wife say to their child who finds a way into their room in the middle of the night? What do conscientious parents say to a young child who asks somewhat blunt questions about sensitive matters—answers for which innocent children are not yet prepared? The fact is, there may be many wise, truthful (though admittedly somewhat allusive) ways to respond. A dad may use the “distracting technique” and try to divert attention away from the sensitive topic. A mother may use the “Samuel technique” (1 Samuel 16:1-5) and tell the child only a part (or parts) of the fuller answer—the few part(s) that are prudent for the child to know. Parents may also use the “generalize technique” and simply speak in very broad, vague, but truthful generalities. Though parents are not authorized to lie to their children, we may righteously use various creative ways to respond to sensitive questions.
Can We Deceptively Outwit Enemies and Those Who Want to Harm Us?
In Judges 7, God said to Gideon, “By the three hundred men…I will save you, and deliver the Midianites into your hand…. Arise, go down against the camp, for I have delivered it into your hand” (7:7,9). How did God use Gideon’s 300 men to help bring down an enemy with 135,000 soldiers (cf. Judges 8:10)? In the middle of the night, they surrounded the enemy’s camp, blew trumpets, shouted, made loud noises by breaking pitchers, and held up torches (7:16-22). And what did the enemy no doubt think as they were suddenly awakened from a deep sleep? That they were under attack by a great army. But was there really a great army? No, just a great God, Who authorized Gideon to use a tiny army to outwit the enemy. No lie was told, but approved deception was used.
In the often-used, extreme example of someone breaking into our house and asking questions for the purpose of harming ourselves and family members, what can we do?13 Many seem to ask this question as if it somehow proves that lying is permissible, yet nowhere in Scripture does God authorize lying. God’s command to tell the truth and not lie, however, does not mean we cannot act cleverly and courageously. The intruder has no lawful right to be in the house, so we are under no obligation to do anything he instructs us to do. We may simply remain quiet and pray that the same God Who providentially delivered many thousands of Jews out of the hands of the Persians some 2,500 years ago will providentially provide a remedy to our situation (Esther 3:1-9:17). We may try to escape. (On more than one occasion, Jesus hid and escaped from His murderous enemies—Luke 4:30; John 8:59; 10:39.) We may (like Samuel) only tell the criminal secondary truths. We may (like Gideon) have a way to outwit the intruder. Or (as odd as this may sound to some), we may attempt to talk to the intruder about the Gospel. (Who knows how God could use such a terrible, frightening situation to His glory? After all, was the greatest missionary the world has ever known not a formerly violent man, who previously “made havoc of the church, entering every house and dragging off men and women, committing them to prison”—Acts 8:3?)
Although human life is an extremely valuable gift from God (Genesis 1:26-27), the most important thing in this life is not merely to live, but to be faithful to God, regardless of the situation. Jesus could have lied and worked things out to spare His own life, but He died (and rose) for a higher purpose. He submissively fulfilled His Father’s will. Jesus and His inspired spokesmen could have instructed the early church to avoid persecution and death by lying for each other or by denying their own faith in Christ, but they didn’t. In fact, to those first-century Christians who were suffering (or were about to face great tribulation), even to the point of death, Jesus declared, “Be faithful until death [“even to the point of death”—NIV], and I will give you the crown of life” (Revelation 2:10). Whatever course of action the Christian takes, it should be done honestly and wisely (Matthew 10:16).
Lest anyone think that we are suggesting sinful deception, or “lawful deception” for sinful reasons, we must remember that our motivations matter—in everything we do. Jesus spent a great deal of time exposing the “righteous” Pharisees for their sinful hypocrisy. Although they “outwardly appeared righteous to men” (Matthew 23:28)—praying, fasting, doing charitable deeds, etc.—many of their “lawful” actions were negated by their sinful motives. If we pridefully pray “truthful” words, but for the wrong reasons, we sin (Luke 18:9-14; Matthew 6:5-6). If we do the “right” works, but for the wrong reasons, we will have “no reward” from our Father in heaven (Matthew 6:1). Paul wrote, “And though I bestow all my goods to feed the poor…but have not love, it profits me nothing” (1 Corinthians 13:3). God has made it abundantly clear in Scripture—“technically” we may look and sound like we are doing what God authorizes, yet if such things are done without proper, godly motives, then our actions are tragically wrong.
Thus, otherwise lawful deception (such as not telling the “whole story” for righteous reasons—cf. 1 Samuel 16:1-5) may very well be sinful for the teenager who does not reveal to his questioning parents who he’s been hanging out with. If he mentions everyone except the one person whom his parents have forbidden, has he lied? Not necessarily. But did his unrighteous motives make his deception sinful? Certainly. Children are to submit to their parents (Ephesians 6:1-3). If they say the “right” things for the wrong reasons, they are no more submitting to their parents’ authority than any improperly motivated child of God is submitting to the Father in heaven.
Similarly, if an adulterous husband tells his wife “truthful” things, but just not everything, is he lying to his wife? He may not be outright lying in various “carefully worded” (“I-don’t-want-to-get-caught”) specific statements, but is he sinfully deceiving and cheating on his God-given spouse? Certainly! He’s being immorally deceptive by not keeping his original oath and commitment that he made to his wife when they exchanged vows at their wedding ceremony. He’s being untrue in his actions. He’s being altogether unloving to the precious bride that God commands him to love “just as Christ also loved the church and gave Himself for her” (Ephesians 5:25). The man’s unrighteous motivations and “lying life” expose his deception as terribly sinful and destructive.
I may have misstated something in this article, but that would not necessarily be a lie, unless I intended to be dishonest. After all, “to err is human.” Everyone occasionally says things that are wrong, and yet those honest mistakes are not lies. In addition to the actual act of stating an untruth is the motivation behind it. How many times has an honest, conscientious preacher unintentionally cited the wrong Bible verse in a sermon? Or how many times has an honest husband forgotten to get milk on the way home from work after having told his wife, “I will get milk on the way home”? Indeed, lying is a “conscious and intentional falsehood.”14 What’s more, when we look at the entirety of Scripture (Psalm 119:160), and “rightly divide the word of truth” (2 Timothy 2:15), we find that, while God never condones the sin of lying, He does authorize righteously motivated, honest deception.15
The purpose of acknowledging certain examples of authorized deception must never be to rationalize the sin of lying—any more than giving scriptural justification for capital punishment should ever cause us to rationalize murder. The fact is, lying is a terrible sin. It is the first sin that we read about in the Bible (Genesis 3:4). It is of the devil (John 8:44). It is abominable and hated by God (Proverbs 12:22; 6:17,19). It is damnable (Revelation 21:8). And it is very, very tempting at times.
There is never a justifiable reason to be untruthful. Christians must be resolved to “be imitators of God as dear children” in all things at all times (Ephesians 5:1). As we follow the example of Jesus, “the truth” (John 14:6), we must be resolved to put away lying (Ephesians 4:28) and to be fair and honest all day, every day.
1 Eric Lyons (2017), https://apologeticspress.org/apPubPage.aspx?pub=1&issue=1250&article=2718.
3 1 John 5:6; John 14:6; Daniel 4:37; 2 Samuel 7:28; Psalm 119:14,151; 19:9.
4 Leviticus 19:36; Psalm 15:2; Proverbs 16:11; Ephesians 4:25; Revelation 21:8.
5 Inspired spokesmen and writers communicated the Spirit’s supernatural revelation accurately as He “carried” them “along” (2 Peter 1:20-21), but inspiration was not a 24-hour-a-day, supernatural process that protected inspired men from being able to sin.
6 Keep in mind that God often did not stop to specify when individuals lied (and sinned) in Scripture (cf. Genesis 3:4; 4:9; 27:24; 37:31-35; 1 Samuel 21:2), any more than He always paused to specify when someone performed a righteous or courageous act.
7 “This passage clearly affirms that the state—civil government—has the God-ordained responsibility to keep law and order, and to protect its citizens against evildoers. The word ‘sword’ in this passage refers to capital punishment. God wants duly constituted civil authority to invoke the death penalty upon citizens who commit crimes worthy of death” [Dave Miller (2002), “Capital Punishment and the Bible,” https://apologeticspress.org/apcontent.aspx?category=7&article=683].
9 Frederick Danker, William Arndt, and F.W. Gingrich (2000), Greek-English Lexicon of the New Testament (Chicago: University of Chicago), p. 1097.
10 J.H. Thayer (1977 reprint), Greek-English Lexicon of the New Testament (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker), p. 676.
12 Or is it possible that when Elisha said to the Syrians, “I will bring you to the man whom you seek,” that he meant “the king of Israel” (whether the Syrians understood him or not)? Elisha may have been thinking, “These people are at war with the king of Israel, not me. The king is who they really want, so that’s where I will take them” (2 Kings 6:11, 21).
13 This scenario reminds me of the “rape-exception” that is continually brought up in discussions about abortion and the value of human life. Rape, of course, is a terribly repulsive sin, which warrants the most extreme forms of punishment. However, one terrible act (rape) does not authorize another (the murder of an unborn child). Furthermore, the “rape-exception” is used by many in hopes of validating all abortions, not just “the exception.” Similarly, many people seem to think that a violent intruder into our lives gives Christians the “right to lie,” yet again, one wrong does not make another wrong “right.”
14 Thayer, p. 676, emp. added.
15 Thus, the condemnation of “deception” in Scripture (e.g., 2 Timothy 3:13) would be a condemnation of dishonest deception or sinfully motivated deception.