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Is It Ever Permissible to Lie?

Lying is one of the most common practices in human society. We usually lie because it is not in our self-interest to tell the complete, honest truth. A real-estate agent tells a client a property won't last long on the market in order to motivate that client to buy. A secretary says the boss is "on another line" when she really isn't. A student tells the teacher he forgot to bring his homework when actually he never got around to doing it.

The general rule holds that truth should never be violated. If society is to function efficiently, its citizens must have the security of being able to believe their fellow citizens. Following this principle, individuals must be willing to suffer occasional inconveniences, embarrassments, and financial losses by always telling the truth. But clearly, many who tell lies don't believe the fate of society stands or falls on their absolute truthfulness. Is lying ever permissible behavior?

Lying is verbal deception. The liar makes statements that intentionally attempt to deceive or mislead. A basketball player who makes a head fake and causes an opponent to leave his feet prematurely is a deceiver but not a liar. Society obviously accepts some deception as "part of the game." For many people, lying is simply part of earning a living. Lawyers may lie to protect their client's confidences. Doctors may lie to patients in order to calm their irrational fears. Salesmen may lie to customers to preserve a fair commission. Journalists may lie in order to get information about a story. Even presidents may lie to protect what they consider to be the national interest. Some see lying as necessary for survival in a highly competitive world.

Lying is effective because human beings seem to be "hard-wired" with a predisposition to believe. Our natural inclination gives others the benefit of the doubt. Were this not the case, we could accept nothing we hear or read without independent confirmation. This means that veracity is the norm expected in human relationships. Any lie constitutes a deviation that must be justified.

The Bible strongly condemns lying (1 Timothy 1:9-10; Psalm 5:6; Revelation 22:15), but will God punish any and every lie? If using force to prevent a murder would be justifiable, why wouldn't telling a lie to prevent a murder be justifiable? Isn't that what Rahab did to protect the spies in Canaan (Joshua 2:4-7)? What about white lies that harm no one? Can a girl make a false excuse if she doesn't want to date a boy? Can we give false compliments or express false gratitude for a gift we don't really like? Can we lie to children about Santa Claus or the stork or the quality of their art work? Can an employee lie to protect his company from embarrassment if the lie does no harm to the customer?

Most Americans never encounter a crisis where lying is necessary to personal survival or to the survival of friends and family. Yet throughout the world, civil wars, invasions, political persecution, and other terrible events put moral considerations to the supreme test. Are there limits to Christian heroism or should a Christian always be ready to die rather than to lie?

In her excellent book entitled Lying, Sissela Bok notes that people who rationalize their own lies as justifiable usually don't like to be lied to themselves by their doctors, lawyers, stockbrokers, or political leaders. We perceive the full impact of a lie only when we view lying from the perspective of the person being lied to.

Lying is dangerous because it eats away at a person's dignity and integrity. One lie usually leads to another, and people delude themselves as they make excuses for their lies. Habitual liars often become skeptical that real truth or really truthful people actually exist. Lying and the cynicism it produces eventually undermine one's faith and Christian influence.


1.Are evasion and suppression of information forms of lying? For example, a preacher is told in confidence that a teenager is pregnant out of wedlock. A few days later, a member asks him, "Have you heard that Julie is pregnant?" What should he answer?

2.Is lying necessary to success or even survival in certain jobs or professions? May we lie to enhance our company's image or to avoid embarrassment to our employer? What about lying to enhance our own personal image or our own personal advantage? Do you remember any "spur of the moment" lies you have told that you wish you had somehow avoided?

3.When professors write inflated recommendations or assign grades of good or excellent to students who in reality are more average than outstanding, are they liars or are they simply compassionate, generous, and altruistic? Where does one draw the line on lying for the benefit of others?

4.In Exodus 1:15-21, the Hebrew midwives lied to Pharaoh and were blessed. Who were some other famous biblical liars? Were any of them (other than the midwives and Rahab) praised for lying?

5.Is it a sin to lie if the lie is part of a practical joke? Is it permissible to lie in order to spare another person's feelings? Give some examples.

6.In order to save valuable time, business people sometimes try to end long phone calls by telling "white lies" like "I have someone in my office" or "I have someone on another line" or "I have to leave for a meeting." Is lying justified in these cases? At what point does a "white lie" cease to be harmless or trivial? What are some alternatives to telling "white lies"?

7.In John 7:8-10, did Jesus lie about going to the feast? Why or why not?

Comments (1)

I really liked your article.Thanks Again. Awesome.

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This page contains a single entry from the blog posted on April 27, 2007 8:51 AM.

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