Posted By MSH on March 26, 2010
As a follow-up to the “God and deception” post, let me sketch out my position on the issues I raised.
I define a lie as the deliberate utterance of a falsehood — something contrary to reality — with specific intent to deceive or conceal the truth. The focus is what is uttered. I think deception is different when what is done is withholding information. Nothing need be said or, what is said may be the truth — but it would be the partial truth. So I distinguish between lying and withholding information.
I see no reason why withholding information is a violation of the ninth command. That command has a context — the old “by two or three witnesses the truth shall be established” idea. “Thou shalt not bear false witness against thy neighbor” refers immediately to a “legal” situation in Israel, and more broadly to any intent to harm one’s neighbor by uttering a falsehood.
Let’s think about some real life situations. I do not believe the ninth commandment was given to force full, exhaustively detailed “truth telling” to questions like the following:
1. Do I look fat in this dress?
2. Doctor, did my little boy suffer before he died?
3. How do I look?
4. Are you planning a surprise birthday party for me?
5. Are you hiding Jews in your attic?
6. (The drunken Dad asks the little boy whoe mom is hiding) Where’s your mom? I want to kick her a**!
7. Where do babies come from?
8. Isn’t my toupee awesome?
9. Did you like supper, honey?
10. (Your eight year old, who isn’t very athletic, asks): Dad, I’m really a good basketball player, aren’t I?
To be blunt, the ninth commandment was not given in order to make tact a sin or to allow evil to proliferate. When people use the ninth command to force full, exhaustive answers to the sorts of questions above, especially when the asker wants the information to do violence and evil, THAT is a distortion and a violation of divine principles. The ninth command was not given so evil could progress; it was given to STOP evil. It was not given to force us to hurt people’s feelings or crush their spirit, either. Withholding information is virtuous in these instances for reasons that should be obvious in context.
I would also say that lying in some of these contexts may also be justified. We like to bring up Rahab and say things like “she’s in Hebrews 11 for her faith, not for her lie” and “James commends her only for her faith, not the lie.” This is hollow. Look at James 2:25. James is looking for biblical illustrations of genuine faith and the works that show faith is genuine. Of all the people in the Old Testament he could have chosen, he picks Abraham and RAHAB! Not Moses, Joshua, Samuel, Hannah, etc., etc. (see Hebrews 11). He uses RAHAB. James specifically commends her (James 2:25) for TWO things: (1) receiving the spies; and (2) sending them out “by another way.” The second item is directly contingent upon her act of deception and her outright lie. James knew the story, too. Rahab believed, and refused to allow evil a victory. Besides, those who want to argue against Rahab’s lie being justified fail to discern (somehow) that the context was war — HOLY war (Yahweh and his people vs. their enemies). It was life for life.
In regard to the 1 Samuel 16 incident and the “does God lie?” question, I do not think God lied. He did, however, certainly deceive. It was his idea to have Samuel take a heifer along in case he was asked questions. This allowed Samuel to effectively deceive Saul’s men when they did ask why he was there. Samuel also did not lie, since he actually *did* offer the heifer as a sacrifice. But, again, he plainly withheld information and deceived Saul’s men. Both God and Samuel were deceivers in this passage, but neither were liars. God may use deception to punish evil, but he does not lie.
Here are some other examples I like since they help us keep things in context and avoid being sanctimonious (and inconsistent):
1. The no-look pass in basketball is not a sin. No repentance necessary.
2. The Christian quarterback who looks left and throws right need not repent later.
3. A Christian really could be in the witness protection program.
4. A Christian really could be an undercover cop.
5. A Christian really could be a disinformation agent or spy in the military / civil service (this one is harder since one would need to know — as best as possible — who the enemy really was)
6. Attending a costume party isn’t a sin.
7. Pretending to be something or someone you’re not to pull a harmless prank didn’t send Jesus to the cross.
8. Acting isn’t a sin (unless the performance is dreadful).
So where does this end? How do we acknowledge the above and yet have scriptural parameters?
My view is that we owe the truth, and the full truth, to those institutions established by God and which God sets over us in providence: the family, the government, church leadership, and our employer. The only time to not give the full truth in these contexts is when we are sure, to the best of our non-omniscient sentient reality, that the asker seeks the information to do evil — and I do not define “evil” as “something I don’t like” or “something I disagree with.” I define evil in terms of scriptural descriptions of it.