When is it okay to not tell the truth? — (Is it always sinful to tell an untruth?, Part 2)
It is our duty to obey God’s laws, but each specific duty is not to be done on every occasion.
It is our duty to obey the ninth commandment — You shall not bear false witness against your neighbor. …You shall not lie to one another. You shall not swear by my name falsely, and so profane the name of your God (Ex. 20:16; Lev. 19:11-12). But the duty of truth-telling does not have to be done on every occasion.
This is not something I’ve cooked up just to suit myself. It is the considered and sober view of the theologians who gathered at the Westminster Assembly and deliberated together (1643-47) to arrive at a common statement of doctrine. One of the documents the Assembly produced is the Westminster Larger Catechism.¹ Question 99 of the catechism, subsection 5, says:
What God forbids is at no time to be done, and what He commands is always our duty, yet each specific duty is not to be done on every occasion.
The text which the Westminster Assembly cited in support of the precept that “each specific duty is not to be done on every occasion,” is Matthew 12:7. Let us look at that verse in context.
1 At that time Jesus went through the grainfields on the Sabbath. His disciples were hungry, and they began to pluck heads of grain and to eat. 2 But when the Pharisees saw it, they said to him, “Look, your disciples are doing what is not lawful to do on the Sabbath.” 3 He said to them, “Have you not read what David did when he was hungry, and those who were with him: 4 how he entered the house of God and ate the bread of the Presence, which it was not lawful for him to eat nor for those who were with him, but only for the priests? 5 Or have you not read in the Law how on the Sabbath the priests in the temple profane the Sabbath and are guiltless? 6 I tell you, something greater than the temple is here. 7 And if you had known what this means, ‘I desire mercy, and not sacrifice,’ you would not have condemned the guiltless. 8 For the Son of Man is lord of the Sabbath.” (Matthew 12:1-8)
Note: Hosea 6:6 says For I desire steadfast love and not sacrifice. In verse 7 above, Jesus quotes the Septuagint version of Hosea 6:6 which rendered ‘steadfast love’ (hesed) as mercy.
It is our duty to obey God’s laws, but each specific duty is not to be done on every occasion. It was the duty of Jews to not work on the Sabbath, and it was the duty of Jews to refrain from eating the temple show-bread unless they were priests, but Jesus’ teaching proves that such duties did not have to be done on every occasion. Jesus made it clear that to assuage hunger, it was not sinful to hand-pick grain on the Sabbath. Nor was it sinful for a non-priest to assuage hunger by eating the show-bread.
When can a duty be left undone?
The occasions when a duty can be left done (omitted, passed over) may be discerned by asking oneself these questions:
- Would doing that duty result in mercilessness?
- Would doing that duty result in harm or hurt to the afflicted, the oppressed, the vulnerable?
- Would doing that duty unjustly endanger or condemn the innocent?
If it would, the duty can be left undone — omitted on that occasion — because to do it would violate the over-arching principle of God’s justice, mercy and steadfast love.
He has told you, O man, what is good; and what does the Lord require of you but to do justice, and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God. (Micah 6:8 ESV)
He has shown you, O man, what is good;
And what does the LORD require of you
But to do justly,
To love mercy,
And to walk humbly with your God? (NKJ)
God’s steadfast love means that justice, mercy and kindness must come first.
Let me say that again, so it sinks in:
God’s steadfast love means that justice, mercy and kindness must come first.
When justice, mercy and kindness override the duty to be truthful — biblical examples
First, a little note about interpreting the Bible. When we read biblical narratives — the stories of what happened to various bible characters — we cannot automatically infer ethical rules from how the characters behaved. For example, Noah believed God and obeyed him in building the ark, and he managed superbly under God’s guidance thoughout the great flood. We may take Noah’s example as a good one in his belief, obedience and leadership. But we wouldn’t say that Noah’s becoming drunk after the flood is something we should emulate!
That being said, we can use spirit-led discernment to infer ethical norms and precepts from the actions of many Bible characters. This is especially so when Scripture itself seems to commend (and certainly does not criticise) the character for his or her actions.
Legitimate reconnaisance and espionage
It is not wrong for a nation to have a secret intelligence service whereby it spies on its enemies in order to protect its citizens and safeguard its national integrity. Nor is it wrong for police services to use under-cover cops to surveil and rout out criminal gangs or networks of pedophiles. In fact, when trying to protect the vulnerable from evildoers, it is not only legitimate to use some of the evildoers’ covert and devious tactics, it is often the only way to gather enough information about them to stop them from further harming innocent people.²
- God told Moses to send twelve men to spy out the land of Canaan. (Num. 13:1)
- Joshua sent two spies to do reconaissance of the promised land and the city of Jericho. (Joshua 2)
- When Absalom had committed treason and illegitimately taken the throne from his father, David sent Hushai to spy in Absalom’s court, instructing him to use the priests Zadok and Abiathar and their two sons to secretly relay the information back to David. (2 Sam 15:32-37) And when Hushia got to Absalom’s court, he dishonestly and obsequiously flattered Absalom in order to win his trust. (2 Sam 16:15-19)
Using camouflage and decoys to distract the enemy and protect the righteous
- Rahab hid the Israelite spies under a pile of flax. (Josh. 2:4,6)
- Michal put a bolster in the bed to make King Saul’s soldiers think David was sleeping there, when in fact he had fled to escape Saul’s murderous rage. (1 Sam. 19:12-17)
- Joshua created a false impression when he laid an ambush in the battle of Ai. (Josh 8:1-21)
Giving a pretext to conceal the real reason for one’s actions, when, if the real reason were known, it would put one in danger
- God told Samuel to use a superficial pretext to disguise why he was really being sent to Bethlehem, which was to annoint the next king while King Saul was still alive. (1 Sam. 16:1-13) To keep Samuel safe from King Saul’s potential fury, God instructed Samuel to say that he was going to Bethlehem to hold a sacrifice.
- The story I discussed in Part One of this series, where God told Moses to tell Pharaoh that the Hebrews wanted to go on a three days’ journey into the wilderness to worship their God, when in fact God was going to remove the Hebrews from Pharoah’s control altogether.
Falsehoods that were not sinful but sensible, because they followed the principles of justice and kindness
Several commenters mentioned in Part One of this series the example of Christians hiding Jews from the Nazis. If the Gestapo have knocked on the door of Corrie Ten Boom, asking “Where are the Jews?” Corrie would have sinned if she had answered truthfully, “Upstairs, hidden in the attic.” In fact, Corrie and her family rightly drilled themselves that if they got that dreaded knock, they would feign atonished innocence by saying “What Jews?” The greater good of protecting the Jews from persecution meant it was right in that instance to lie to the Gestapo.
- When Pharaoh asked the Hebrew midwives, “Why are you letting the male children live?” they answered him with what was quite likely a falsehood; and they certainly didn’t give him the real answer to his question. If they had answered with the whole truth and nothing but the truth, they would have said something like, “We are letting the male children live because we fear God and we refuse to be party to the annihilation of our people!” But in fact, they told him, “Because the Hebrew women are not like the Egyptian women, for they are vigorous and give birth before the midwife comes to them.” (Ex. 1:19) ³ Whether or not that was a technical falsehood (and it’s most unlikely to have been the truth in every case — just think of breech births; or when the midwife lived next door to the pregnant woman) the fact was, the midwives were not complying with Pharaoh’s order by putting the male children to death. They protected the innocent.
And if they spoke a falsehood to Pharaoh, it was legitimate under the rules of war. Pharaoh had to all intents and purposes declared war on the Hebrews, and the midwives were right to disobey the tyrant’s orders in a way they deemed safe for them and their people. And just like the Resistance in World War 2, the safest and most effective form of non-compliance was by covert disobedience and misrepresentation.
- Rahab told the Jericho soldiers that she didn’t know where the men (the spies) had come from, and that they had left Jericho by the city gate. If Rahab’s lie was sinful, it begs two questions: Why is she honored in the hall of faith in Hebrews 11? And why does James use her as an example of works evidencing faith? (Was not also Rahab the prostitute justified by works when she received the messengers and sent them out by another way? James 2:24-25)
- Jael gave Sisera the impression that he would be safe in her tent. (Judg. 4:18)
- David told the priest Ahimelech that he was on a secret mission at the order of King Saul, when in fact David was fleeing from Saul’s murderous hatred. (1 Sam. 21:2) It would seem that David didn’t want to put Ahimelech in a position where he would to keep a dangerous secret from Saul and Saul’s soldiers. Also, David probably knew that Doeg the Edomite was listening and might betray him to Saul.
- Absalom’s servants demanded the woman at the house to tell them the whereabouts of Ahimaaz and Jonathan, two of David’s spies. The woman, who had just hidden the Ahimaaz and Jonathan in a well, gave a barefaced lie to Absalom’s servants: “They have gone over the brook of water.” (2 Sam. 17:20)
- King Zedekiah instructed Zedekiah to tell a falsehood if anyone asked him to reveal the substance of their secret conversation, and Jeremiah spoke the falsehood just as the king had told him to. (Jer. 38) Jeremiah said “I made a humble plea to the king that he would not send me back to the house of Jonathan to die there.” — This was a falsehood becuase it was what Jeremiah had said to the King on a previous occasion (ch 37), not what they had discussed in chapter 38.
- David feigned madness before Achish the Philistine King of Gath. (1 Sam. 21:10-15)
Note that the divinely inspired preface to Psalm 34 says “Of David, when he changed his behavior before Abimelech [i.e. Achish; Abimelech means king], so that he drove him out, and he went away.” — The psalm praises God for protecting and delivering David from Achish.
- The King of Syria sent his army to seize Elisha, to stop Elisha from stymieing Syria’s plans for battle by prophetically giving advance warning to the King of Israel regarding where the Syrian army were going to make camp.
The army got intelligence that Elisha was at the city of Dothan, so they went to Dothan and would have seized Elisha, except that when Elisha saw the army he prayed that God would strike them blind — which He did.
Then Elisha misled the blinded army by telling them this lie: “This is not the way, and this is not the city. Follow me, and I will bring you to the man whom you seek.” This was a falsehood because the army had come to the city they were aiming for and had found the man that they sought (Elisha). But because they were blinded, they did not realise they had found their quarry, and they believed and followed Elisha’s misdirection. (Read the whole thrilling story here: 2 Kings 6:8-23)
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¹ Westminster Confession and Catechisms in Modern English (edited by Roland S Ward; Wantirna, Victoria: New Melbourne Press, 2000). The Westminster Larger Catechism included scripture proofs but I (Barb) have omitted them for ease of reading. To view all the scripture proofs, go to this online version of the Larger Catechism, but please note, that online version is in seventeenth century English, not the modernised version by Roland Ward which I have quoted in this post.
² A good example of this was a police sting that netted one of the world’s largest paedophile rings. The Australian head of an online paedophile ring was caught by a police operation that ventured on to the dark web and covertly infiltrated a global crime network involved in the abuse of hundreds, possibly thousands, of children around the world.
³ Commenting on the Hebrew midwives in his Harmony of the Law, vol. 1, John Calvin says (trigger warning):
though these women were too pusillanimous and timid in their answers, yet because they had acted in reality with heartiness and courage, God endured in them the sin which he would have deservedly condemned. This doctrine gives us alacrity in our desire to do rightly, since God so graciously pardons our infirmities; and, at the same time, it warns us most carefully to be on our guard, lest, when we are desirous of doing well, some sin should creep in to obscure, and thus to contaminate our good work; since it not unfrequently happens that those whose aim is right, halt or stumble or wander in the way to it. In fine, whosoever honestly examines himself, will find some defect even in his best endeavours.
Calvin described the Hebrew midwives as “too pusillanimous and timid in their answers” (pusillanimous means showing a lack of courage or determination; timidity). But then he said they acted with heartiness and courage!
Calvin’s double-speak is typical of legalists who criticise but then praise; the criticism undermines the praise, the praise sounds patronising, and if recipient has a tender conscience she is thrust into uncertainty and self-doubt. Calvin’s criticism of the midwives recalls to mind his cold and critical response to the French noblewoman who had asked Calvin’s church in Geneva to give her a safe haven from her extremely abusive husband. See appendix 11 (pp 144-151) in my book Not Under Bondage.