Could a Lie Be Righteous?

A couple of weeks ago, a woman from our congregation sent me this question, “I am reading the Bible and noticing that sometimes lying is counted as righteousness (e.g. Rahab lying about the Israelites spies being in her home)…. What do you think…? It seems like sometimes [this is] ok in the Old Testament?

It is a very good question. I’m fairly confident that we all learned (to some degree) that telling the truth is what is expected of us, not only by God, but also by society and the authorities over us (parents or other governing authorities).

As followers of Jesus, who still draw from the words of the Old Testament law, we recall God’s mandate in the “ten commandments” that God’s people are not to bear false witness against their neighbor — meaning, tell the truth. And, as followers of Jesus, we know that this mandate to tell the truth goes far beyond our physical next-door neighbors, but to all people (referencing Jesus’ story about the Good Samaritan in Luke 10).

The woman who asked me this question, did some of her own research and came across this article: . I encourage you to read the article on your own, but for the sake of space, I’ll give it’s conclusion. It’s author concluded that even though there are, what seem to be, examples of lying in the Bible that are regarded as righteous, it is not a principle we should derive from the overall content and teaching of Scripture. Rather, God calls us to obedience, and ultimately he rules and reigns, and who are we to think our "white" lies are God's will (trumping his previously revealed will of being truthful).

This conclusion also resinates with what theologian D. Stephen Long writes, regarding Jesus’ death on the cross (in his comments on Hebrews 9). Although Long does not specifically mention the particular issue of telling the truth, he does reference the pursuit of God’s justice (what God has set as right/moral/good). Long comments, “Christ himself freely underwent death… by yielding up his life… on account of his obedience in maintaining justice…’ …It is not the mere ‘yielding up his life’ that is his ‘act of obedience,’ but his ‘maintaining justice.’ In other words, Jesus performs the complete human actof faithfulness to what God intended for humanity, even though he knew it would cost him his life. He did not let the fear of death deter him from being obedient to God’s moral wisdom and justice. (D. Stephen Long, Hebrews, Kindle 3135-3140).

What I understand Long to be saying is that Jesus was so committed and so convinced of God’s moral code that he was more willing to give his life than to violate that moral code. Or, in relation to our question about lying, Jesus was so committed to the truth that he was willing to give his life in order to not violate or — lie — about that truth. What we can pull from Long’s comment is that he also agrees with the conclusion of the earlier mentioned article that said that obedience to God’s desire to tell the truth is always what is expected of followers of Jesus. We have the example of Jesus that sets this standard for us, especially for us as his followers.

My immediate thoughts on these two sets of comments regarding the Biblical standard to tell the truth, are as follows. The time in which we live is often controlled by a spirit of immediate pragmatism (gratification). Meaning, our culture encourages taking paths that have the most immediate "success" (often whatever those in power/popular think is successful). And, for many, lying is the easiest and most immediate path to success. Yet, pragmatism and immediacy are seldom the principles by which God operates. God reveals himself as patient and wise (or thought-through, not rash). Not to mention, the entire Biblical story is a narrative of rescue that takes thousands of years to bring-about. Hardly a depiction of immediate success. Telling the truth, which is a strenuous exercise, is still the principle that emerges over the course of God’s acts throughout the Bible.

But, even with these conclusions, this sub-question still looms: why are examples in the Bible, like Rahab hiding and lying about the location of the Israelite spies, still considered righteous? Why does God have a standard of telling the truth, but people like Rahab are allowed to lie and not even be reprimanded for it? How are we to understand the Bible when we have contradictory examples: characters, like Rahab, on one hand and Jesus on the other?

This question does not have a simple answer. Rather, a thorough answer requires far more characters than you prefer to read in this one sitting. So, I will spare you that lengthy read today. However, if you would like to read more concerning this question. I refer you to the article linked here. It offers some thoughts that I think are compelling for how we can wade-through these deeper questions about morality, the character of God, the integrity of the Bible, and how all of these fit together.

My bottom line answer concerning our initial question is this. if we follow Jesus, if we have committed ourselves to him, then he is first and foremost the standard by which we understand God, his moral code, and justice. If Jesus was willing to give his life for the truth, rather than lie and not speak and act on the truth, then so should we speak and act. Speaking and acting on the truth is what we see Jesus doing.