Q&A: Is there a righteous lie?

Question: Is there ever a situation where it is righteous to lie? What about Rahab hiding the spies?

Answer: Thank you for your question! This is something I have wrestled with often myself. There are two basic positions to take. First, “It is always wrong to tell a lie. Period.” Second, “It is ok to lie if it is necessary for the greater good, or if it is the lesser of two evils.” Both of these positions are problematic in their own way.

            First, “It is always wrong to tell a lie” is problematic because it becomes a sort of exercise in keeping the letter of the law even if the spirit of the law is abused. As long as the words spoken are genuine truth in some sense, then it is completely permissible if the hearer is deceived by them nonetheless. For instance, in the case of the midwives in Egypt lying to save the Hebrew baby boys (Ex. 1:16-21), some advocates for this position have argued that these women weren’t lying at all. Perhaps, the midwives were delaying their own arrival to provide more time for the Hebrew women to give birth and thereby saving the children. While this view saves the women from speaking an untruth, they are still very guilty of deception because it is clear that they are presenting the statement as if the situation is completely out of their hands when in fact it isn’t. People wouldn’t accept this type of “truthfulness” from their own children. If your son says he’s going to school, but stops at three friends’ houses on the way. He technically told the truth, but clearly aimed to deceive. Perhaps then, we should condemn deception in every form, but that’s impossible because God himself practiced this with Samuel (1 Sam. 16:1-3). He tells Samuel to go to Jesse’s home to anoint David as the new king. Samuel is afraid because he thinks Saul will kill him when he finds out. So, God tells Samuel to explain to Saul that he is going for the purpose of making a sacrifice. The sacrifice did in fact happen, but it was never the reason that Samuel went to Jesse’s home. God instructed Samuel to deceive Saul. At another point, the Lord even sends a lying spirit to deceive Ahab’s prophets (1 Kings. 22:19-23). To say that all lying is wrong and can be avoided simply by speaking truth is a very reductionist position that fails to see the spirit of the law behind the letter. If we learn anything from the Sermon on the Mount it is that there is a greater spirit behind the laws then just the letter (Matt. 5:21-22, 27-28, etc.). I think this is also true of lying/deception.

            However, the alternate position is also problematic. “It is ok to lie if it is necessary for the greater good or if it is the lesser of two evils.” Who gets to determine what is the greater good? Do we? The Bible teaches that our own hearts are deceitful and we should be wary of trusting them (Jer. 17:9). We may think that we know the outcome could be positive and we may think we know the only way to get there is through lying, but we are finite and sinful beings. It would be naïve to trust our own judgment. And in the case of committing the lesser of two evils, we could do so, but only as long as we continue to call what we did “evil”. We can’t suddenly switch and say it was a righteous decision or that we did the only thing we could. Sin will always be sin, regardless of our motivation for committing it.

            So where does this leave us? In all honesty, I’m not too sure (I told you I’d been wrestling with this). The best answer I can provide is that it would be foolish for us to waste too much time with speculation when a solid answer may be beyond our reach (1 Tim. 1:3-5). I know this can be disappointing, but the Bible specifically warns us that vain discussions have the potential to derail our faith (1 Tim. 1:6-7). We have to trust God’s Word here. This debate is almost always hypothetical since people rarely, if ever, find themselves in a situation where they are unsure if their lie is sinful. We can pray that God would give us the necessary words to say at the right time should we ever find ourselves in a “lesser of two evils” situation. He promised his disciples that they would receive the words at the right time and we should ask for the same wisdom (Matt. 10:19-20).

Q&A: Is there a righteous lie?