Is it always sinful to tell an untruth? (Part 1)
Legalists and Pharisees reason from the ninth commandment that it is always a sin to utter a lie. And because Pharisaic types do not interpret God’s Word with the Spirit, they end up with gnat-straining rules which they impose on others, resulting in ludicrous strictures and condemnations.
For example, some of them make an inordinate distinction between uttering a lie and misrepresenting a situation without actually uttering a verbal falsehood. They say that it is always sinful to lie, but it’s not necessarily sinful to misrepresent a situation so long as one actually does not utter an untruth. The spoken lie is the big no-no. And they polish up the brass buttons of their supposed righteousness by guilefully misrepresenting situations without actually uttering lies. When I read their arguments, I am reminded of the scholastics who in pre-Reformation days would argue how many angels could occupy the space on the head of a pin.
But God’s law is always good, and if it leads to ludicrous results, then it is being interpreted wrongly.
1 Timothy 1:8-10
Now we know that the law is good, if one uses it lawfully, understanding this, that the law is not laid down for the just but for the lawless and disobedient, for the ungodly and sinners, for the unholy and profane, for those who strike their fathers and mothers, for murderers, the sexually immoral, men who practice homosexuality, enslavers, liars, perjurers, and whatever else is contrary to sound doctrine.
Three days’ leave — Really?
If it were always sinful to tell an untruth or mislead someone, one would have to argue that God was sinning when he instructed Moses to tell Pharaoh something that would create a false impression in Pharaoh’s mind:
God also said to Moses, … “Go and gather the elders of Israel together and say to them, ‘The LORD, the God of your fathers, the God of Abraham, of Isaac, and of Jacob, has appeared to me, saying, “I have observed you and what has been done to you in Egypt, and I promise that I will bring you up out of the affliction of Egypt to the land of the Canaanites, the Hittites, the Amorites, the Perizzites, the Hivites, and the Jebusites, a land flowing with milk and honey.”’ And they will listen to your voice, and you and the elders of Israel shall go to the king of Egypt and say to him, ‘The LORD, the God of the Hebrews, has met with us; and now, please let us go a three days’ journey into the wilderness, that we may sacrifice to the LORD our God.’
God told Moses to say to Pharaoh that the Israelites wanted three days’ leave to go out and worship in the desert, when in fact God’s plan wasn’t for the Israelites to take three days’ leave to engage in worship. God’s plan was to rescue them altogether from the tyrant’s slavery and to take them to the Promised Land.
Hebrews 6:18 says it is impossible for God to lie. The impossiblity of God sinfully dissimulating is confirmed in the Epistle to Titus —
… in hope of eternal life, which God, who never lies [the Greek literally translates as un-lying God], promised before the ages began (Titus 2:1)
God is immutable; in Him there is no shadow of turning, no shadow due to change (Js 1:17). Yet, the un-lying, immutable God told Moses to tell a falsehood to Pharoah, a falsehood that misrepresented God’s true intention and plan for the Hebrew people. How are we to reconcile these things?
Humbly, I propose that the only way to reconcile them is to say that Yes, God instructed Moses to lie to Pharoah, and therefore there are some situations where lying is not wrong, not a sin that needs to be forgiven, but a righteous and good strategy to use when helping the oppressed escape from tyrants — when helping the innocent and endangered to obtain safety.
And Ephesians 5:1 tells Christians to be imitators of God, as beloved children.
So when the Christian is being persecuted by an abusive spouse (one who seeks to control and systematically disassemble her on the altar of his self-idolatry) she may immitate God by
- witholding the truth from her husband when she anticipates he will only use the truth against her to intensify her affliction;
- dissumulating or saying things to her husband which will give him a misunderstanding of her true intentions.
In saying things that will disguise or misrepresent her true intentions, she will of course do so humbly before God, not presumptuously like her abuser does. But she may rest assured that in interacting with her abuser, disguise or misrepresentation of her true intentions or actions will not be sinful, because God does not exact rigid aherance to duties when that adherance would sacrifice the innocent.
A victim of domestic abuse is not duty bound to tell the truth when telling the truth would result in the innocent and vulnerable (herself and her children) being treated mercilessly, or being unjustly condemned, or being kept in bondage and enslavement to tyranny.
Of course, if she has taken an oath in a court of law to tell the truth the whole truth and nothing but the truth, that is a different matter. But I’m not talking about that here, I’m talking about how the victim of abuse may speak to her abuser (and his allies) in day to day interactions.
Let the groans of the prisoners come before you; according to your great power, preserve those doomed to die! Return sevenfold into the lap of our neighbors the taunts with which they have taunted you, O Lord! But we your people, the sheep of your pasture, will give thanks to you forever; from generation to generation we will recount your praise.
Part 2 of this series: When is it okay to not tell the truth?
Part 3 of this series: Contriving a test to probe whether a hardened heart has repented