When I was three years old, I ripped off my mom’s freshly pasted wallpaper. She spent hours carefully pressing on the flowery paper and meticulously rubbing the bubbles out. I bounced around and watched, doing my best to avoid the pail of glue while running back and forth between my Barbies and my dad’s office. My mom started a shower, and I took advantage of my time alone. I ripped off a sizable chunk and wisely hid underneath a bathroom towel right outside my mom’s bathroom. “Anna Elizabeth! Oh my—what did you do? Did you do this?” I quivered under my tower and croaked “no.”
This childish story provides a good analogy for our human propensity to lie. I did not want to admit my mistake. I hid, and when I was found, I lied.
Most Christians would agree at first that lying is always wrong. I should not have lied to my mom about the wallpaper. I should have admitted my action and apologized. Surprisingly, the Bible does not always condemn lying. There are several stories when someone who believes in God lies, and God either rewards them, or at the very least, ignores the lie.
One of these stories about lying takes place at the beginning of Exodus, the book right after Genesis. Genesis ends with a story about a man named Joseph who is sold into slavery and eventually becomes a government official Egypt. After a famine, Joseph’s large family, the “Israelites” or “Hebrews,” move to Egypt. Joseph dies and Israel grows so large that the Egyptian government starts to see Israel as a threat. To prevent the Hebrews from becoming powerful, Egypt decides to force them into hard labor making bricks and farming land.
As if it couldn’t get any worse, the Egyptian Pharaoh instructs two Hebrew midwives named Shiphrah and Puah to kill all male babies born to Israelite women. Shiphrah and Puah face a decision—save their own lives and follow the Pharaoh, or follow God and save the Hebrew babies. Exodus 1:17 tells us, “The midwives feared God and did not do as the king of Egypt commanded them, but let the male children live (ESV).”
The surprise comes when Pharaoh confronts the midwives. He asks them “Why have you done this, and let the male children live?” The midwives could respond “because you’re an evil man and we choose to follow our God,” but they do not. Instead they tell Pharaoh, “The Hebrew women are not like the Egyptian women, for they are vigorous and give birth before we come to them” (ESV Exodus 1: 19). In other words, Shiphrah and Puah tell the Pharaoh a white lie. They claim Hebrew women have their babies so quickly, that they give birth before the midwives arrive to help. In reality the midwives conspire with Hebrew women to keep their babies alive.
God honors these women by blessing them with families. In Hebrew society, if a woman was not able to have children it was a great shame. These midwives may have been unable to have children before, which explains why they had to work to take care of themselves. God blesses their brave action–their white lie–by giving them a husband and children.
Is lying okay sometimes?
There is another story in the Bible where a woman is honored for lying. Her name is Rahab. Rahab lies to a town official to save the lives of two of God’s people. God not only protects Rahab, she also ends up being in Jesus’ genealogy (Joshua 2). The Bible also relates other stories of deception, like when King David pretends to be insane to escape an evil king (1 Samuel 21:10-15) and when God puts a lying spirit in the mouth of false prophets (1 Kings 22:21-23).
Surprisingly, the Bible does not always condemn lying. There are several stories when someone who believes in God lies, and God either rewards them, or at the very least, ignores the lie.
In fact, the Bible talks about lying a lot—from the Serpent’s lie to Eve in the Garden of Eden, to the Apostle Peter’s denial of Jesus. The Bible calls Satan “the father of lies” (John 8:44) and calls the Holy Spirit a “Spirit of truth” (John 14:17). Furthermore, Paul exhorts Christians, “Do not lie to one another, seeing that you have put off the old self with its practices and have put on the new self, which is being renewed in knowledge after the image of its creator” (Col. 3:9). If Satan is the father of lies, and Paul commands us not to lie, why would Shiphrah, Puah, and Rahab receive God’s honor?
Some staunchly argue that it is never permissible to lie. They say Shiphrah and Puah should have confronted Pharaoh’s wickedness and told him they would not murder babies. Rahab should have admitted she was hiding spies in her house even though they would probably be killed. Instead, she offered protection. People who think that lying is always sinful argue that the Ten Commandments teach us not to lie. One of the Ten Commandments does say, “You shall not bear false witness against your neighbor”—but this is actually different from “do not lie” (Exodus 20: 16). Bearing false witness against another refers specifically to lying in court in a way that ends up hurting a neighbor.
The Greater Good
Although some are satisfied to say that Shiphrah, Puah, and Rahab did wrong, others are convinced they made the right decision to lie and save another’s life. The “greater good” suggests that some “goods” are more important than other goods. For example, perhaps while you’re on your way to church, a friend texts you and says they really need your help. Although getting to church on time is good and respectful, it’s the greater good to be late to church and love your neighbor than to ignore your friend and get to church on time. Along this same line, it is greater for Shiphrah and Puah to lie in order to save another person’s life. God commands us to “do justice, and to love kindness” (Micah 6:8) to “bind up the brokenhearted” (Is. 1:1) and “not murder.” (Ex. 20:13) Saving someone’s life fulfills the greater commandment to do justice, even if it forsakes the call to tell the truth.
This idea of “the greater good” occurs in the story of John the Baptist’s beheading. John the Baptist, the last prophet before Jesus, is beheaded because a young girl obeys her mother’s request. The young girl dances before Herod, and Herod is so pleased he tells her, “Whatever you ask me I will give you.” The young girl does not know what to ask for, so she asks her mom, and her mom tells her to ask for John the Baptist’s head (John 6:23-24). The king follows her request, beheads John the Baptist, and brings his head to the young girl. It’s easy to see that this girl should not have asked for John the Baptist’s head. Even though the Bible commands, “Children, obey your parents,” there is a time when obeying your parents dishonors God. The greater good here would have been for the young daughter to save John the Baptist’s life, and instead she chooses to obey her mother.
Another way to explain Shiphrah and Puah’s actions is to define “lie” differently. Perhaps there is a certain category of falsehoods that are not biblical lies. For example, maybe deceiving one person to save another’s life would not be considered a lie in God’s eyes. If our definition of lie means ‘telling a falsehood that dishonors God,’ then Shiphrah and Puah are off the hook because their lie honored God and God honored them. Therefore, they cannot be accused of committing a biblical lie, because their falsehood did not dishonor God. When Paul says, “do not lie” he is speaking of falsehoods that grieve God. Since Shiphrah and Puah did not grieve God with their falsehood, it must not constitute as a biblical lie.
How should we then live?
Identifying loopholes may make some people think God does not care if you lie. In an online blog, Marcandangel.com, Marc posts on white lies and says, “Stretching the truth is a natural component of human instinct because it’s the easy way out. We all do it, so there is no reason to deny it. Honestly, I think the world is probably a better place because of our white lies.”
Lying for your own comfort is not a good reason to lie. Sure, calling in pretending to be sick is easier than confessing you’re ditching work. Telling white lies sometimes seem to make a situation better. In actuality, the lie breeds more harm than the truth. Lies feed our pride and make us think we don’t need to take responsibility. White lies also may cultivate a habit of lying. Corporate officers accused of embezzling money are just people—people that justified lying to the point of serious harm.
Perhaps there is a certain category of falsehoods that are not biblical lies. For example, maybe deceiving one person to save another’s life would not be considered a lie in God’s eyes.
The Bible gives examples of people speaking truth, even at the cost of their lives. In Acts, the apostles Peter and John are “charged not to speak or teach at all in the name of Jesus.” They do not try to save their lives by falsely telling the officials they will stop teaching about Jesus. Instead, Peter and John tell the authorities “Whether it is right in the sight of God to listen to you rather than to God, you must judge, for we cannot but speak of what we have seen and heard” (Acts 4:19-20). God’s followers spoke the truth about Jesus’ death and resurrection with boldness, even if they could die for it. Clearly some situations exist when truth telling trumps your very life. Representing Jesus is one of those situations.
Finally, what does all this have to say about us? Most of us are not in situations where we have the choice of saving someone’s life with a lie. However, we do live in a culture that tells us lying is okay and that white lies don’t hurt anyone. From lying about speeding on the freeway to pretending we didn’t receive an email, we use lies as shortcuts all the time. Maybe lying to the police officer doesn’t hurt you, but maybe the person in your passenger seat—whether its your child, friend or sibling—sees you lie, and thinks lying is fine in all situations. As Christians, it’s important to prioritize living with integrity, not taking the easy way out.
Elizabeth Kobayashi, a senior film student from Biola University says, “The reason most people tell white lies is because of irresponsibility or flattery.” She certainly has a point—the lies we most often tell like, “I didn’t mean to do that” or, “Sorry I’m late; traffic was bad” stem from irresponsibility and a failure to own up to our mistakes. Other times we lie to make people feel good about themselves. For example, if your friend asks you how you like her new haircut, and you don’t like it, what are you supposed to say? If her hair cut truly is an embarrassment to society and will harm the way people perceive her, then as a good friend you have to tell the truth. But if it’s just your opinion, and you don’t like it, telling her that it’s ugly will probably harm her more than saying, “It looks great!” Christ tells us to love one another, and to only speak words that will build each other up.
To be honest, a question like “Do you like my haircut?” is sometimes just fishing for a compliment. As Christians, we should know better than to expect people to flatter us. Our worth and self confidence does not stem from how fashionable we are, but from holding onto the promise that we know God, and that he calls us his daughter or son. Therefore, one way to avoid awkward answers all together is to create a culture where we don’t ask questions seeking flattery.
From what I’ve said, it might sound like it’s okay to lie, as long as you are lying out of love. Jesus expects us to love, right? However, this answer is too simplistic. Many parents lie to their children because they want to protect them, or they think it is best for them. Perhaps a child hears her mom arguing with her dad and asks “is everything okay?” The mom may respond “yes, everything is fine” to try and keep her daughter from worrying. However, if the mom later tells her daughter that she is divorcing her dad, the daughter will feel betrayed. Lying just because it seems loving is often not loving.
So, should we tell lies? I know I’ve given many caveats to lying, but I think it’s safest to say, “No” first. Do there seem to be exceptions to what we generally believe is a lie in the Bible? “Yes.” I think based on the lives of the Shiphrah, Puah, and Rahab, we can confidently tell a falsehood to save someone’s life. We want to live a life of integrity, and sometimes this may conflict with reporting things accurately. When it comes to knowing how to tell the truth, we need to fall back on Jesus’ greatest commandment: are our actions loving God and loving people? That is what God wants from us—no more, no less.