Does the Bible support a “Justifiable Lie”?
Is it ever right to lie for just reasons? In other words, is lying ever justifiable? Is it the right thing to do in certain situations? The answer is, yes, the Bible does support a “justifiable lie” on rare occasions. I’ve come across occupational ministers that graduated from formidable seminaries who furiously object to this, but they always change their tune once they see what the Holy Scriptures blatantly say on the topic. As with any biblical topic we have to be honest & balanced with God’s Word and resist the temptation to ignore or write off clear passages that might challenge our current position.
I want to stress that lying for selfish, evil purposes is always a sin (Leviticus 19:11 & Colossians 3:9). Please read that again so there’s no doubt. However, a justifiable lie is not a sin for the precise reason that it’s justified and done with the greater good in mind. In other words, a justifiable lie is not evil, it’s good. Therefore those who implement a justifiable lie on an appropriate occasion are not committing an evil act, but rather a righteous one. Please read that again.
Before getting into the scriptural proof for this, it’s important to point out that the Lord plainly described the devil as “the father of lies” (John 8:44) and referred to his followers as “everyone who loves and practices falsehood,” whose fate is the lake of fire (Revelation 22:15). A “lying tongue” is one of the LORD’s most hated things (Proverbs 6:16-19) and “all liars… will be consigned to the fiery lake of burning sulfur. This is the second death” (Revelation 21:8).
We’ve all met pathological liars who lie about anything and everything for egocentric or wicked purposes. Remember when President Bill Clinton, standing with his wife, sincerely said at a press conference on January 26, 1998: “I did not have sexual relations with that woman”?
Modern Liberals are Exhibit A of people who revel in falsehood, like the false accusers of Supreme Court Justice Brett Kavanaugh during his public hearings in September, 2018. Christine Ford’s Lawyer later admitted that her (false) accusations were politically motivated.
Ms. Ford broke the ninth commandment: “You shall not give false testimony against your neighbor” (Exodus 20:16). Please note, however, that this commandment does not say that lying itself — giving inaccurate data — is absolutely a sin on every occasion, but rather lying about the actions of another person, which is slander and can hold severe ramifications for the accused person, depending on the claimed transgression. Keep in mind that ‘devil’ means “accuser” and Satan is described in the Bible as “the accuser of our brothers and sisters, who accuses them before our God day and night” (Revelation 12:10).
It goes without saying that children of God — genuine believers, the body of Christ — should be people of truth, not people of the lie. After all, the Lord is truth and the Spirit is truth (John 14:6 & 16:13) whereas the Adversary is “the father of lies” and “the accuser of the brethren.” If you don’t want to be like Satan, then don’t be a liar who loves and practices falsehood; and don’t be a constant accuser of people, especially fellow Christians. So-called believers who act like this with no concern of repentance reveal their true nature: they’re children of the devil regardless of their lip-service to being a Christian.
That said, justifiable lies may sometimes be necessary in a fallen world where the father of lies is the “god of this world” and his deceived people run things in one capacity or another (2 Corinthians 4:4 & 1 John 5:19).
Even the LORD utilized a lying spirit to carry out his righteous objective of executing wicked Ahab. See for yourself:
Micaiah continued, “Therefore hear the word of the Lord: I saw the Lord sitting on his throne with all the multitudes of heaven standing on his right and on his left. 19 And the Lord said, ‘Who will entice Ahab king of Israel into attacking Ramoth Gilead and going to his death there?’
“One suggested this, and another that. 20 Finally, a spirit came forward, stood before the Lord and said, ‘I will entice him.’
“‘By what means?’ the Lord asked.
21 “‘I will go and be a deceiving spirit in the mouths of all his prophets,’ he said.
“‘You will succeed in enticing him,’ said the Lord. ‘Go and do it.’
22 “So now the Lord has put a deceiving spirit in the mouths of these prophets of yours. The Lord has decreed disaster for you.”
2 Chronicles 18:18-22
It should be stressed that God did not deceive Ahab here, but he authorized a lie being sent which thus gave Ahab a choice between believing a lie and believing the truth, the latter being presented via the righteous prophet Micaiah. Ahab embraced the lie simply because it corresponded to his misguided desire. The bottom line is that the LORD used a lie to carry out his righteous judgment on Ahab. This account is recorded twice verbatim in Scripture (see also 1 Kings 22:19-23).*
* You can read interesting details of this occasion in this article.
Similarly, in the New Testament we observe God sending a powerful delusion in the end times so that the wicked “will believe the lie” (2 Thessalonians 2:11-12).
Prime Examples of Justifiable Lying to Save Innocent Lives
One obvious example is the Hebrew midwives who lied to the king of Egypt to save male babies:
15 The king of Egypt said to the Hebrew midwives, whose names were Shiphrah and Puah, 16 “When you are helping the Hebrew women during childbirth on the delivery stool, if you see that the baby is a boy, kill him; but if it is a girl, let her live.” 17 The midwives, however, feared God and did not do what the king of Egypt had told them to do; they let the boys live. 18 Then the king of Egypt summoned the midwives and asked them, “Why have you done this? Why have you let the boys live?”
19 The midwives answered Pharaoh, “Hebrew women are not like Egyptian women; they are vigorous and give birth before the midwives arrive.”
20 So God was kind to the midwives and the people increased and became even more numerous. 21 And because the midwives feared God, he gave them families of their own.
The midwives lied to the Pharaoh because (1) his command was evil and (2) their purpose was to save innocent lives. These two factors made the lie justifiable. Their actions proved that they “feared God” and thus God blessed them! Someone could argue that, technically, God blessed them because they feared God, not because they were lying, but the proof of their fearing God on this occasion is that they saved innocent Hebrew babies by justifiably lying to the king because his order was evil.
In a similar situation Rahab the harlot lied to the king of Jericho to save the two Hebrew spies:
Then Joshua son of Nun secretly sent two spies from Shittim. “Go, look over the land,” he said, “especially Jericho.” So they went and entered the house of a prostitute named Rahab and stayed there.
2 The king of Jericho was told, “Look, some of the Israelites have come here tonight to spy out the land.” 3 So the king of Jericho sent this message to Rahab: “Bring out the men who came to you and entered your house, because they have come to spy out the whole land.”
4 But the woman had taken the two men and hidden them. She said, “Yes, the men came to me, but I did not know where they had come from. 5 At dusk, when it was time to close the city gate, they left. I don’t know which way they went. Go after them quickly. You may catch up with them.” 6 (But she had taken them up to the roof and hidden them under the stalks of flax she had laid out on the roof.)
Rahab had become a believer in the LORD (verses 10-13) and verified her faith by hiding the Hebrew spies and lying to her king about their whereabouts to save their lives. Her justifiable lying also saved her life and the lives of her family members when the Israelites subsequently sacked the city. On top of this, she is hailed for her actions in the Hall of Faith chapter (Hebrews 11:31) and James commends her actions (James 2:25). The context in of the latter verse is that faith without works is dead (2:14-26): Rahab’s deed of saving the spies via hiding them & justifiably lying about their whereabouts verified her salvation! Nowhere is it suggested in the Bible that Rahab’s lying to the Jericho authorities was evil; on the contrary, she’s honored for her faith and corresponding actions, which preserved the lives of many people.
There are other glaring examples of this type of justifiable lie in the Old Testament:
- When David’s life was in danger from wicked King Saul, he instructed his close covenant friend, Jonathan, to lie to Saul — Jonathan’s father — about his whereabouts and Jonathan did so in order to protect David: 1 Samuel 20:5-6,27-29.
- Michal saved her husband, David, by letting him escape through a window and then making a dummy of David in their bed. She then lied to Saul’s operatives, saying David was ill: 1 Samuel 19:9-17. The account also shows Michal lying to her father Saul about her motive for doing this, which she no doubt did because she feared that Saul would’ve executed her for her actions.
- David lied to Ahimelech, the priest at Nob, to protect the priest from any accusation from Saul concerning involvement with David’s escape; he was also obviously protecting his own life: 1 Samuel 21:1-4. Jesus incidentally cited this occasion and, more specifically, David’s request for bread to which Ahimelech gave David the consecrated bread of the Presence. This illustrated the principle that human need takes precedence over ceremonial Law (Luke 6:3-4). Likewise, innocent lives take precedence over speaking the truth on occasions where the former would be endangered by the latter.
- During Absalom’s rebellion, Ahimaaz and Jonathan — the sons of two of David’s priests — were forced to hide in a well from Absalom’s men. The unnamed woman of the property told Absalom’s men they weren’t there, but had crossed the nearby brook: 2 Samuel 17:20.
The moral we derive from these examples is that it’s acceptable to lie in order to save guiltless people. (‘Guiltless’ as in blameless in the situation in question, not sinless; no one is sinless except Christ). Let’s say you were living in German-controlled territory during WW2 and hiding Jews in your abode. If Nazi authorities came to your door looking for hidden Jews, would you say “Yes, I cannot tell a lie; they are hiding in the attic”? Of course you wouldn’t. In short, you are not obligated to tell the truth to wicked authorities if speaking the truth will result in great evil. Why? Because evil people are not rightfully due data that they will use to abuse and slay. You’re only obligated to speak what the Holy Spirit leads you to say (Mark 13:11).
Jesus Justifiably Lied on One Occasion
Here’s the incident:
After this, Jesus went around in Galilee. He did not want to go about in Judea because the Jewish leaders there were looking for a way to kill him. 2 But when the Jewish Festival of Tabernacles was near, 3 Jesus’ brothers said to him, “Leave Galilee and go to Judea, so that your disciples there may see the works you do. 4 No one who wants to become a public figure acts in secret. Since you are doing these things, show yourself to the world.” 5 For even his own brothers did not believe in him.
6 Therefore Jesus told them, “My time is not yet here; for you any time will do. 7 The world cannot hate you, but it hates me because I testify that its works are evil. 8 You go to the festival. I am not going up to this festival, because my time has not yet fully come.” 9 After he had said this, he stayed in Galilee.
10 However, after his brothers had left for the festival, he went also, not publicly, but in secret.
In verse 3 Jesus’ half-brothers try to steer him to go to the Feast of Tabernacles in Jerusalem. Verse 5 shows that these brothers were unbelievers so their request is basically a challenge for Jesus to go to Jerusalem and prove he is who he says he is. In verse 8 Jesus plainly replies that he’s not going to the festival, but verse 10 shows him going after his brothers had left, in secret.
The word “yet” was added to verse 8 in later manuscripts as in “I am not yet going up to the feast.” But there’s no Greek word for “yet” in the most reliable manuscripts, as verified here. So why was “yet” added to the text? Obviously some religionists felt they needed to cover for Jesus and so added the word, but the Mighty Lord doesn’t need anyone to cover for him.
We know that the Messiah did not do or say anything without the Father’s leading as shown here:
So Jesus said, “When you have lifted up the Son of Man, then you will know that I am he and that I do nothing on my own but speak just what the Father has taught me.”
On this occasion in John 7 the Father instructed the Son to go to the feast in Jerusalem in secret. Why? Because, as verse 1 points out, the religious authorities there were intent on murdering Christ and the Jews could not kill him before God’s perfect timing and plan were ready (Galatians 4:4). If Jesus was commissioned by the Father to go to the festival in secret he naturally couldn’t inform his brothers that he was going. So he told them he wasn’t going; and, after they departed, he went in secret. This was a justified lie because he had divine instructions to do something clandestinely. In order to follow these divine instructions it was necessary to fib about whether or not he was going to the festival. If Christ told these manipulative unbelievers that he was actually going to the feast he would’ve disobeyed his Father’s instructions, which is sin. So — in reality — the Messiah’s justified lie was the very opposite of sin; it was submissive obedience to God.
Now some argue that Jesus didn’t technically lie because he hinted at the truth in his response by saying “My time is not yet here,” referring to his time to go to Jerusalem and die for humanity. This is flimsy evidence because the plain impression his brothers got from Jesus’ reply was that he wasn’t going to the festival and so they left without him, which enabled him to follow the Father’s instructions to go in secret.
It could be argued that Jesus’ lie was a case of not telling his half-brothers the whole truth. He told them “I am not going to the festival” whereas the fuller truth was “I am not going to the festival with you” or “I am not yet going to the festival.” Jesus’s obedience to his Father’s instructions required him to leave out this additional information. Yet leaving out a word or two completely changes the meaning of his response and, as pointed out above, the impression his brothers got was that he wasn’t going to the feast.
Was this justifiable lie a sin? No, because — while lying is a sin (Leviticus 19:11 & Colossians 3:9) — justifiable lying is not. The Bible plainly says that Jesus was “without sin” (Hebrews 4:15) and on this occasion he was simply following his divine instructions to go to the Festival in secret. You can’t do something secretly if you publicly announce that you’re going to do it. So, when asked about going to the festival, Jesus denied that he was going.
Something else was going on here that should be considered in appraising the situation: Jesus’ half-brothers were arrogantly trying to manipulate him; and Christ refused to allow these mocking unbelievers to steer him like he was their puppet. We have to get away from this idea that Jesus was some weak pushover. He discerned the carnality behind his brothers’ attempt to manipulate him and so told them he wasn’t going — strategically leaving out “with you” — but then went anyway in secret. Simply put, Christ refused to allow arrogant people to manipulate him. You can read more on this topic here.
This example from Christ Himself shows that justifiable lies are sometimes necessary to fulfill one’s calling. These types of lies are rare and Spirit-led. They are not the same as the casual, habitual lying of those who “love and practice falsehood” (Revelation 22:15). In short, a justifiable lie is not equivalent to deceiving people for selfish or evil purposes, like lying to your spouse about committing adultery or Christine Ford’s false accusations against Justice Brett Kavanaugh.
This is the only example of justifiable lying in the New Testament, which shows that it should be a very uncommon action, if done at all.
Justifiably Lying to Obey an Authority for a Righteous Purpose
Jesus’ justifiable lie in John 7:8 is an example of obeying an authority for a righteous purpose. The Son’s instruction from the Father was to only go to the festival in Jerusalem in secret because Jesus had to die according to the Father’s timetable. To fulfill this righteous instruction he justifiably lied to his manipulative half-brothers. This is not a sin because it’s not lying for selfish, evil reasons, but rather righteous ones.
We observe this kind of justifiable lying elsewhere in Scripture with Jeremiah’s obedience to King Zedekiah’s instructions:
Then Zedekiah said to Jeremiah, “Do not let anyone know about this conversation, or you may die. 25 If the officials hear that I talked with you, and they come to you and say, ‘Tell us what you said to the king and what the king said to you; do not hide it from us or we will kill you,’ 26 then tell them, ‘I was pleading with the king not to send me back to Jonathan’s house to die there.’”
27 All the officials did come to Jeremiah and question him, and he told them everything the king had ordered him to say. So they said no more to him, for no one had heard his conversation with the king.
Zedekiah was the last king of Judah and hardly righteous, but godly Jeremiah obeyed his instructions on this occasion because Zedekiah was still the king and these particular instructions were appropriate in this context. In short, Jeremiah justifiably lied. But, remember, a justifiable lie is not a sin, only lying for selfish, evil purposes is.
Some argue that Jeremiah didn’t actually lie here. They suggest that he told the Babylonian officials the truth; he just didn’t divulge all the details of his conversation with the king to which the princes had no right. Actually, the text plainly says that Jeremiah “told them according to all these words that the king had commanded” (NKJV).
Justifiably Lying to Purge Evil
Police sometimes conduct sting operations to capture criminals and remove them from the populace for safety, justice and rehabilitation. For instance, officers will pretend to be an underage girl on the internet and set-up a meeting with an interested adult male. When the sexual predator shows up the police cuff him and take him in to custody. We observe this type of justifiable lying in the Bible, albeit decidedly more barbaric:
- Jael, a Kenite, offered welcome sanctuary to Sisera, the commander of a Canaanite army, when the Israelites were chasing him. She kindly gave him a covering and something to drink in her tent, but shortly later drove a tent peg into his temple while he was sleeping: Judges 4:17-24. In the subsequent Song of Deborah Jael is praised for her actions: Judges 5:24-27.
- At the beginning of Saul’s kingship, the city of Jabesh Gilead was besieged by the Ammonites and so Saul swiftly marshalled an army to deliver Jabesh. He sent word to the threatened inhabitants that his troops would be there the next day and so they told the Ammonites, “Tomorrow we will surrender to you, and you can do to us whatever seems good to you” fully knowing that Saul’s God-anointed army would slaughter them by that time: 1 Samuel 11:1-11.
- When David was a fugitive from Israel during Saul’s reign he & his small army found sanctuary in the Philistine town of Ziklag for almost a year and a half. He lied to the naïve Philistine king about his raids on Israel’s enemies: 1 Samuel 27:1-12. He later put on an innocent act for King Achish: 1 Samuel 29:7-9. Keep in mind that David was “a man after God’s own heart” handpicked & anointed by the LORD to take over kingship of Israel from wicked Saul.
- Jehu was privately anointed king of Israel by one of Elisha’s subordinate prophets and commissioned to wipe out Ahab’s wicked heritage. Baal worship was introduced to Israel by Ahab & his wife Jezebel. To eliminate this idol worship Jehu had to draw the Baal prophets out of the woodwork, which he did by announcing (falsely) that he would serve Baal even more than Ahab did and calling for a religious service for all the Baal ministers throughout Israel. Once they were all gathered Jehu had them executed and the LORD commended Jehu for his actions: 2 Kings 10:18-30.
In none of these cases were these Hebrews rebuked for lying; in two of them they are congratulated for their actions. Why? Because these are examples of justifiable lies, which aren’t evil because, well, they’re justified.
Joseph shrewdly deceived his Wicked Brothers to Break Them
Joseph was a type of Christ. A ‘type’ is simply an illustration of some future truth; hence, Joseph’s experiences foreshadowed the life of the Mighty Messiah in seven ways:
- Joseph was the beloved son of his father, Jacob.
- He was sent by his father to his brothers.
- He was hated and rejected by them and sold for pieces of silver.
- He was severely tempted and overcame.
- He was “killed” and “came back to life” as far as his father was concerned.
- He graciously forgave his offenders when they repented.
- He subsequently provided them a new home that was a paradise compared to where they had been living, at least as far as sustenance goes.
The fact that Joseph was a type of Christ makes his example of godly shrewdness all the more pertinent to Christians since ‘Christian’ literally means “follower of the Anointed One.” Needless to say, it’s to every believer’s benefit to pay close attention to Joseph’s example since he exemplifies the very life of Christ.
As noted, Joseph was wrongly betrayed by his brothers and sold into slavery. He spent about 13 years as a slave and prisoner before miraculously becoming second in command of the greatest nation on earth at the time. That’s when his brothers desperately traveled to Egypt to acquire food to endure the famine in the area. In order to break his brothers and bring them to humble repentance Joseph…
- didn’t reveal his true identity to his siblings, which is a form of deception (Genesis 42:7).
- accused them of being spies even though he knew they weren’t (42:9).
- gave orders to fill their bags with grain to be taken back to their families in Canaan, which proved his compassion for them and their kin, but he also slyly ordered that the silver with which they paid for the grain be put in the bags as well, which would freak them out when discovered (42:25-26).
- when the brothers returned to Egypt with Benjamin, Joseph still refused to reveal his true identity and continued to pretend like he didn’t know who they were (Genesis 43:15-16).
- had the brothers’ sacks filled with food to take back home but he also sneakily had his personal silver cup placed in the mouth of Benjamin’s bag. After the brothers left to travel home Joseph sent a detachment to catch up with them and (falsely) accuse them of stealing the governor’s treasured chalice. After the cup was discovered in Benjamin’s sack they returned to Egypt and threw themselves at Joseph’s feet. Continuing his ruse, Joseph asked them why they stole his silver cup (Genesis 44:1-15).
Joseph was a type of Christ and yet he used sly tactics to humble his carnal brothers and spur them to repentance. These shrewd tactics included forms of deception, but they were justified. Justified deception is not evil even if a misguided pastor or sect insists otherwise. How do we know this for sure? Because the Bible clearly teaches it.
“Be Shrewd as Snakes”
Jesus instructed his disciples, “I am sending you out like sheep among wolves. Therefore be as shrewd as snakes and as innocent as doves” (Matthew 10:16). “Shrewd” refers to skill or sly cunning in practical matters, like when Paul mischievously implemented “divide and conquer” tactics when held before the two sects of the Sanhedrin (Acts 23:6-8).
Christians today are often too nice, naïve and gullible yet the Lord said we need to be shrewd while maintaining our blamelessness. He even gave an entire parable commending the shrewdness of a wasteful manager who was about to lose his job (Luke 16:1-9). Why would Christ encourage us to be skillfully cunning? He explained it himself: because we’re amongst wolves. By all means, walk innocently before your Creator but sweetness and naiveté won’t cut it when you’re dealing with arrogant, hostile, deceitful people like Joseph’s brothers. Such wolves will automatically regard niceness and gullibility as marks of weakness and take advantage. In short, they’ll chew you up and spit you out! This explains why Joseph pretended to be a stranger to his brothers, spoke harshly, and falsely accused them of being spies—he was being shrewd. Shrewdness was the only way to break his carnal brothers.
Believe it or not, this is in keeping with the very character of God, as seen here:
25 With the merciful You will show Yourself merciful;
With a blameless man You will show Yourself blameless;
26 With the pure You will show Yourself pure;
And with the devious You will show Yourself shrewd.
27 For You will save the humble people,
But will bring down haughty looks.
Psalm 18:25-27 (NKJV)
This passage shows that God deals with us according to the way we choose to live and treat others. Don’t take this in the wrong spirit because verse 27 plainly shows that the LORD saves the humble so, no matter how bad we might miss it; if we’re willing to humbly repent God will respond with gentle forgiveness and restoration (1 John 1:8-9).
Yet, notice how the Lord deals with devious people in verse 26: He shows himself shrewd. This reveals that being shrewd toward crooked, wolfish people is actually a godly characteristic! The Bible instructs us to “be imitators of God” (Ephesians 5:1). Consequently, if we’re dealing with devious people, like Joseph’s brothers, we need to imitate God by being shrewd, not nicey-wicey and wuvvy-dovey.
How nice was Jesus with the Pharisees and other stuffy religionists? He openly rebuked them and called them “foolish people” who were “full of greed and wickedness” (Luke 11:39). Sometimes he would answer their devious questions in such a way that stunned them to silence (Luke 20:20-26) while others he’d refuse to answer their questions at all and asked them a question instead (Mark 11:27-33). You see, Jesus simply refused to be manipulated by people, including these religious cons. Although this may not have been nice, it was certainly kind and good. After all, the kindest thing you can do for arrogant fakes like the Pharisees is openly rebuke them in the hope they’ll be shocked out of their deathly legalistic stupor. Although some devious people are incorrigible, like Judas Iscariot, shrewdness is the only way to break the ones who aren’t. This explains Joseph’s actions toward his wicked brothers and Jesus’ approach to the rigid religionists.
Is it Okay to Lie if Your Life is in Danger?
Several years ago a mentally dubious man broke into a Christian woman’s abode and she suddenly found her life in serious danger. A strategy flashed through her mind to which she immediately implemented: She told the stranger she loved him dearly and put on this act for the next few hours in order to quell him, eventually talking him into getting help. Thus the man was taken into custody with little harm done.
Was it evil for her to lie to this psycho about loving him in order to save her life, as well as get the man the help he needed? Obviously not. It’s an example of godly shrewdness — cleverly adjusting your behavior in a fallen world to overcome evil in a dangerous situation. No doubt the Holy Spirit gave her this brilliant strategy to save her life and get the ill man the necessary rehabilitation. Joseph enacted a similar clever strategy to break his wicked brothers.
Like this Christian woman, my wife implemented a justifiable lie when visiting Oahu as a young woman. A cab driver drove her to her motel and discovered that she was going to be alone for her first full day so he offered to take her to breakfast the next day and give her a tour of the island. Being young and naïve, Carol accepted. After breakfast and an informative tour that took several hours they were driving in a remote area of cane fields when the man unexpectedly stopped the car and informed her, “You know, I could do whatever I want with you and no one would know.” Carol searched her heart and quickly responded, “Yeah, except for the girl at motel who gave me a wake-up call and knew I was going out with the cab driver who drove me from the airport.” The man clearly wasn’t happy with this response and silently drove her back to her motel.
Carol wasn’t a liar back then and nor is she now. She isn’t comfortable with lying and could never pull it off convincingly. But she did so on this occasion. The Holy Spirit gave her the words and the grace to do it. What would’ve happened to her if she hadn’t justifiably lied on this occasion? Rape for sure; and very possibly death.
David also justifiably lied to safeguard his life when he first met Achish, the Philistine king noted earlier. This was before David acquired his men and he was therefore alone. He fled from Saul’s wrath to Gath where Achish reigned and David felt it necessary to act like a madman to preserve his life: 1 Samuel 21:10-15. Acting, of course, is a form of deception. David felt it was justified on this occasion to deceive Achish & the Philistines in order to preserve his life.
While I think it’s a no-brainer that lying in these types of situations is justified, you should always do what you feel led of the Spirit to do. But obviously you should never deny Christ, even if your life is on the line (2 Timothy 2:12 & Matthew 10:32-33).
I should add that Abraham, our ancient father of faith, felt the need to lie on two occasions by having Sarah tell people she was his sister, not his wife: Genesis 12:10-20 and 20:1-13. However, this was not actually a justified lie because Abraham’s life wasn’t really in danger; he was simply walking in fear rather than faith. In both cases his unnecessary deception caused unnecessary problems for others. Both accounts reveal God’s grace and how far the LORD is willing to go to protect his people when they act foolishly.
A Justifiable Lie is NOT Sheqer or Kazab
The heart of the misunderstanding can be traced to the difference in meanings of the English word ‘lie’ and the Hebrew word translated as “lie” or its variations, like “lying,” “liar” “false,” “falsehood” or “deceitful” (e.g. Exodus 20:16 & Proverbs 6:17,19) The English ‘lie’ means non-factual whereas the Hebrew word sheqer (SHEH-ker) refers to fraudulence or deception with evil or hurtful intent. Fraud means to cheat someone; and to cheat someone means to not give people what they are rightfully owed.
Since Nazis looking to apprehend Jews during WW2 had evil intent they were not rightfully due factual information since it would result in evil, whether unjust imprisonment, abuse or murder. In such a scenario, the person lying to the Nazis would indeed be guilty of giving non-factual information but s/he would not be guilty of sheqer. Giving non-factual data in such a situation is a justifiable lie, but it’s not sheqer. The Hebrew sheqer—to defraud someone or deceive with evil intent—is not used in any of the examples of justifiable lying cited above.
Is trickery inherently evil, that is, sheqer? Only if the intent is to con someone out of what is rightfully due him/her. If the intent of trickery is good then it’s not sheqer. For instance, the LORD instructed David to use deceptive military tactics to defeat the Philistines in 2 Samuel 5:22-25. How was this justifiable? Because the Philistines were the enemies of Israel—God’s consecrated nation—and the noble goal was to defeat them. How about the use of trickery in games, like football? When a quarterback fakes a handoff to a running back it’s trickery, but it’s not sheqer. Why? Because the context of the trickery is a game—a contest—and the goal is to win, not to be transparently honest with the opponent which, needless to say, would be asinine. It’s the same thing with other competitive sports, like basketball and certain card games.
Another Hebrew word translated as “lie” is kazab (kaw-ZAB), which is used in this passage: “God is not human, that he should lie (kazab), nor a human being, that he should change his mind. Does he speak and then not act? Does he promise and not fulfill?” (Numbers 23:19). Kazab literally means “Vain words spoken to deceive, cause failure or disappoint; that which does not function within its intended capacity” (Ancient Hebrew Lexicon of the Bible). This explains the use of kazab in this passage:
“You will be like a well-watered garden, like a spring whose waters never fail (kazab).”
A spring whose waters fail is a lying spring because it’s not functioning according to its intended capacity. When the Bible says “God is not human, that he should lie (kazab)” it means that God is not going to speak vain words that deceive in the sense of failing or disappointing the person rightfully due. When Christ—God in the flesh—lied to his unbelieving, manipulative brothers about going to the festival in Jerusalem it was a justifiable lie since he was following his Father’s instructions to go to the feast in secret. It was technically a lie—giving non-factual information—but it wasn’t sheqer or kazab. Are you following?
Something else to consider: A person can be guilty of sheqer or kazab even if what they say is factual and they’re not technically lying. Say a man is selling a naïve lady a house & property: Everything he says is true, but he shadily leaves out vital data that would dissuade her from purchasing because he’s only interested in getting his big commission. This would fall within the definition of sheqer or kazab. He didn’t technically lie, but his actions where fraudulent; he failed to walk in a spirit of love toward his neighbor.
A genuine “white lie” wouldn’t be sheqer or kazab either if it’s done because you love the person and don’t want to unnecessarily hurt them. Say a wife shows off her short haircut to her hubby beaming with smiles. He doesn’t like it, but wisely tells her it looks great because he doesn’t want to hurt her feelings and, besides, telling her the truth would do little good since it would take at least eight months for her hair to get back to the length he preferred. Once her hair grows back he can tell her the truth and encourage her to never cut her hair short again.
I want to stress that this is not an excuse to be a pathetic bullcrapper. Nor is it a justification to cover up your own sin because you don’t want to hurt the person, like covering up adultery. I’m talking about rare occasions where telling a person how you really feel would unnecessarily hurt them and you don’t want to do that out of love. Nor am I talking about situations where someone asks you for your honest opinion and it concerns his/her work, like an item that’s going to be sold to the public. For instance, if someone gives me their song, artwork or book for my evaluation I’m going to be explicitly honest, albeit tactfully.
In short, these kinds of genuine white lies may technically be lies, but they’re not sheqer or kazab. When David adamantly declared “I hate and detest falsehood (sheqer)” (Psalm 119:163) he was referring specifically to sheqer, not justifiable lies. The latter are non-factual info, but they’re not sheqer. We need to get a hold of this.
Since the LORD hates “a lying tongue” (Proverbs 6:16-19) and those who love and practice falsehood will end up in the lake of fire (Revelation 21:8 & 22:15) it goes without saying that we should be very careful about justifiable lying. We must only do so as led of the Spirit on rare occasions for a righteous purpose, like saving innocent lives, obeying an authority for righteous reasons, shrewdly exposing & purging evil or simply walking in love so as to not unnecessarily hurt.
The biblical data in this article is important to balance out the topic of lying. Yes, lying for selfish, wicked purposes is always wrong and is always sin, period. But justified lies are not wrong and they’re not sin because they’re not sheqer or kazab. Understanding this sets the believer free from the daft “Boy Scout Syndrome,” which is actually religious bondage. I’m talking about the misguided idea that you can never, under any circumstances, tell a lie or put on an act that gives people an erroneous impression; you are always obligated to tell the truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth, even when dealing with wicked arrogant people with evil intentions in a fallen world; even if great evil occurs as a result. This article reveals straight from the Holy Scriptures — God’s Word — that this is simply not true. It’s a religious lie that puts people of God into religious bondage. As Jesus said, “The truth will set you FREE” (John 8:31-32).
For those who disagree even after being exposed to the colossal amount of evidence that supports the necessity of justifiable lies when appropriate, that’s fine. Do what you have the faith to do (Romans 14:23). I’m just glad the midwives — hailed in Scripture for fearing God — weren’t like this, not to mention Joseph, Rahab, Michal, Jonathan, David, Jael, the people of Jabesh, Jeremiah and Jesus Christ, amongst others.
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