A Case for Justified Lying

This post is the follow-up to a previous entry where I asked, “Is it always wrong to lie?”  In the previous post I defined a lie as “an intentional deception” and then pointed out ways that we go about using deception every day, but do not think of it as wrong (or at least we recognize a need for it).  Here are some of those ways:

  • We use deception to keep secrets – like when we are trying to throw a surprise birthday party for our child.
  • We use deception in games – we fake passes in football and basketball, we try to deceive our opponent in chess, and we try to either pretend we have a strong hand in Poker or a weak one (whichever is to our advantage).
  • We tell lies (or half-truths) to show love – we thank people for singing at church (even if the song was not so great).
  • We use deception to keep ourselves safe – we instruct our children to never tell a stranger that they are home alone (even if they are).

We also see situations in the Bible where lying either seems to be praised or, at least not condemned as wrong.  Here are some examples:

  • In Exodus 1, the midwives disobeyed pharaoh’s command to kill all male Hebrew children, and then lied to pharaoh when questioned about why they were disobedient.  At the end of the story, we are told that the “widwives feared God.”
  • In Joshua 2, Rahab hides the Hebrew spies and lies to their potential captors to keep them safe.  She is praised for her “friendly welcome” in Hebrews 11:31.
  • In 1 Samuel 16:1-3, God instructs Samuel to keep his mission a secret from Saul by telling him a lie (or at least a half truth).

These are a few examples of where lying seems to be okay in the Bible.  But why is this so?  The Bible clearly tells us that lying is wrong.  Why would it seem okay in some situations and is it okay for us?  I believe that Bruce Waltke in his commentary on Joshua found in The New Bible Commentary has helpful words to give us clarity on this topic.  He writes concerning Joshua 2 and Rahab:

Reconnaissance, espionage, and deception are necessary in war, even holy war (see 1; Jdg 7:9–16). Rahab hid the spies and misled the king of Jericho’s scouts with lies (2–7). She clandestinely let the spies escape and instructed them how to avoid detection by hiding in the mountains pitted with caves to the west of the city—the opposite of what might be expected by a posse (16–17). The deceptions by Joshua and Rahab raise eyebrows. How can they be a legitimate part of holy war? (Cf. Mt. 5:33–37; Eph. 4:14–15).

Indirect analogies of situations where deception and disinformation are right and necessary may help. Hunters use traps and blinds; fishermen, lures and bait. In sport, players will often try to trick their opponents by putting spin on a ball or adopting deceptive postures. In chess a player deceives his opponent into taking his weaker piece in order to capture his stronger one; in poker one keeps a ‘straight face’. God was kind to the midwives for deceiving Pharaoh (Ex. 1:19–20), and ‘by faith Moses’ parents hid him for three months after he was born’ (Heb. 11:23). In all these situations we do not accuse the participants of acting according to the unethical principle that a right end justifies a wrong means. Rather, we recognize that in such situations deception is legitimate, not wrong. So also the OT recognizes that in war intelligence, counter-intelligence and decoys are all part of ‘the game’. Joshua set an ambush (Jos. 8:9), and David used Hushai as a mole in conjunction with a network of spies (2 Sa. 15:32–37; 16:15–22). In the NT Paul escaped the Jews under the cover of night (Acts 9:23–26), and the angel took advantage of the sleeping soldiers to release Peter from Herod’s clutches (Acts 12:6–10). In most situations, however, lies are wrong (Pr. 30:7–8), and truth is required (Eph. 4:15).

So, for Waltke, the Rahab’s lie was okay because the rules of the game (war) did not require truth.  Lying and deception are a part of war, just like they are a part of chess, football, hunting, etc.  So too, are other situations in or lives.  We do not need to tell strangers the truth if it could put us in danger to do so.  If we were hiding Jews in Nazi Germany, we would have no obligation to tell the German soldiers at our door that we were doing so.  We can throw surprise parties for our child without feeling guilty for deceiving him to do so.  There are times when lying is justified because they are properly part of the “game.”

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3 Responses to A Case for Justified Lying

  1. Jay says:

    Great article. That’s right. Those above are true, and/or, here’s another example…when police officers and/or federal agents do it undercover…or on the internet. They’re not doing it for the fun of it, they’re doing it to catch a criminal, so they can arrest them and protect society.

  2. Jay says:

    If the person/s it’s being told to are not entitled to the truth, (such as hiding someone from a murderer), that would be justified. But otherwise, if the person/s IS entitled to the truth, and we don’t tell it…then it counts as lying.

  3. Tim Farley says:

    Jay: Thanks for stopping by. Your example of an undercover agent is a great one. Thanks for the comments.

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