I was blessed to spend a weekend with some young people some months ago talking about Freedom in Christ, based on John 8:32, where Christ says, "The Truth shall set you free". Someone asked that, although Christ was talking about "The Truth" in this instance, was there a sense in which just telling the truth, in general, could also set us free?
My off-the-cuff response at the time was that there was a sense in which this was the case. On the occasions when we might fail to tell the truth, we can end up becoming prisoners of our lies. One lie can lead to another, and suddenly, we are ensnared. But it got me thinking about telling the truth or lies and what the Scriptures say.
What the Scriptures say about lying
"Honesty is the best policy", even when it might hurt us, is something that used to be acknowledged even by those in the world. But society has forgotten this policy in our modern humanistic age. US President Thomas Jefferson said in a previous era, "Honesty is the first chapter in the book of wisdom." Our concern, however, is not with the world’s thoughts on this subject, as we see just how fickle the world can be on even a topic such as this. So, let’s come to Scripture and see what God thinks about it.
If I was to ask you, "Where is the first reference to lying in the Bible?" I am sure it wouldn’t take you long to think of Genesis 3:4. Interestingly, Christ alludes to this in the same chapter in John, where he talks about ‘the Truth’ setting you free. He alludes to the serpent’s words in this way:
“Ye are of your father the devil, and the lusts of your father ye will do. He was a murderer from the beginning, and abode not in the truth, because there is no truth in him. When he speaketh a lie, he speaketh of his own: for he is a liar, and the father of it.”
Pretty harsh words here from Christ about the serpent’s words in Genesis 3, but let’s take a quick look at Scripture. First, we see it isn’t just the lying words of the serpent that God judges harshly.
Thou shalt not bear false witness against thy neighbour.
If a soul sin, and commit a trespass against the Lord, and lie unto his neighbour in that which was delivered him to keep, or in fellowship, or in a thing taken away by violence, or hath deceived his neighbour; Or have found that which was lost, and lieth concerning it, and sweareth falsely; in any of all these that a man doeth, sinning therein: Then it shall be, because he hath sinned, and is guilty, that he shall restore that which he took violently away, or the thing which he hath deceitfully gotten, or that which was delivered him to keep, or the lost thing which he found, Or all that about which he hath sworn falsely; he shall even restore it in the principal, and shall add the fifth part more thereto, and give it unto him to whom it appertaineth, in the day of his trespass offering.
Leviticus 6: 1-5
Ye shall not steal, neither deal falsely, neither lie one to another. And ye shall not swear by my name falsely, neither shalt thou profane the name of thy God: I am the Lord.
These six things doth the Lord hate: yea, seven are an abomination unto him: A proud look, a lying tongue, and hands that shed innocent blood, An heart that deviseth wicked imaginations, feet that be swift in running to mischief, A false witness that speaketh lies, and he that soweth discord among brethren.
A righteous man hateth lying.
A lying tongue hateth those that are afflicted by it.
Wherefore putting away lying, speak every man truth with his neighbour.
Lie not one to another, seeing that ye have put off the old man with his deeds.
For without are dogs, and sorcerers, and whoremongers, and murderers, and idolaters, and whosoever loveth and maketh a lie.
It is pretty straightforward, isn’t it, that lying is not something we should be doing as disciples of Christ. Moreover, the above list doesn’t include all the passages on this subject. We also haven’t looked at other examples that don’t outrightly mention lies but highlight the issues of dishonest behaviour, like Jacob’s deception of his father.
How easy it is to lie
Having read through all those passages, I imagine we would agree that we shouldn’t lie. It is easy to imagine that we would never tell an out-and-out lie. But how sure are we that we can claim to always do our best to be 100% honest?
It is so easy to deceive ourselves and think that deliberately failing to mention something, or maybe glossing over some facts, isn’t a lie as such, particularly if declaring the truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth might cost us dearly. How often do we get ourselves into trouble thinking that a half-truth isn’t so bad, especially if it gets us out of a bind? That is our serpent nature at work. There is a Yiddish Proverb that says, "A half-truth is a whole lie". It isn’t scriptural, but still worth remembering, I think.
Let me put this into a concrete example to show how easy it can be to deceive ourselves. Every year, the government asks us to put in a tax return. We must declare that what we have submitted is our total earnings for the year. When you hit the submit button, it is essentially the same as saying, "I solemnly swear that this is all the money I have been paid for services rendered in the past year". But it is so easy for us to overlook the little we were paid for that small job we did for a friend, and the extra amount that so and so paid me on the side while I was between jobs, and to justify the reason for doing so. "I pay my fair share of taxes", "It was just a little bit; not worth worrying about", or "I can’t really afford to declare it because then I won’t get the full refund on my donations that I have already spent".
Aiming to be 100% honest in this small matter can be costly, particularly if you are in business. I know one brother who regularly loses work as a contractor because he won’t do cash jobs for people. He will give a quote, and the person will ask for a discount for cash, expecting to at least have the Goods and Services Tax removed. When he explains that he can’t give that sort of discount because he pays his tax on every job, they will often move on to a different contractor who doesn’t mind dodging tax payments. But, no matter how difficult it might make things financially or how we twist the half-truths around in our heads, is there any way that we can honestly say that not declaring all of our income to the Inland Revenue Department (IRD) is anything other than a lie and a false declaration? And we are not just making that declaration to the government; we are making it before God. The IRD may not catch up with us, but our Heavenly Father will hold us to account.
Here are a couple of relevant passages:
“The getting of treasures by a lying tongue is a vanity tossed to and fro of them that seek death.”
“But Peter said, Ananias, why hath Satan filled thine heart to lie to the Holy Ghost, and to keep back part of the price of the land?”
I am sure we can all think of circumstances in our own life where we might find it easy to justify bending the truth a little to make our life easier. Scripture is quite clear, though, God hates a lying tongue. Of course, none of us will be 100% truthful 100% of the time, but we need to make it our aim. The key is to recognise when we have been dishonest and seek our Father’s forgiveness instead of trying to justify our transgressions in our own eyes.
Is it that black and white, though?
Wouldn’t it be wonderful if it was all just black and white? But there are some shades of grey between that black and white. For instance, husbands, when your wife comes out of the bedroom in a dress she hasn’t worn for a while and asks, "Darling, do you think I look overweight in this now?" How do you reply if you feel it isn’t entirely flattering? Sometimes discretion, empathy, and loving understanding must temper how we deal with each other and what we might say. Wisdom knows the difference between an objective truth and a subjective opinion. Wisdom knows when we must speak absolute honesty and when those brutally honest thoughts may be just our opinion, which could be hurtful and upsetting. I am sure you have all encountered brethren that still need to learn this.
And this is fantastic because it highlights the depth of the Scriptures and the wisdom of God in how He has revealed His Truth to us. When we first come to the Scriptures, we expect to find a simple list of things we can and can’t do. We think everything will be fine if we work out that list and stick closely to it. When we come to lying and honesty, that certainly seems to be the case, doesn’t it? But look at this little gem over in Joshua:
“And Joshua the son of Nun sent out of Shittim two men to spy secretly, saying, Go view the land, even Jericho. And they went, and came into an harlot’s house, named Rahab, and lodged there. And it was told the king of Jericho, saying, Behold, there came men in hither to night of the children of Israel to search out the country. And the king of Jericho sent unto Rahab, saying, Bring forth the men that are come to thee, which are entered into thine house: for they be come to search out all the country. And the woman took the two men, and hid them, and said thus, There came men unto me, but I wist not whence they were: And it came to pass about the time of shutting of the gate, when it was dark, that the men went out: whither the men went I wot not: pursue after them quickly; for ye shall overtake them.”
Joshua 2: 1-5
We cannot deny that what Rahab did was lie to the soldiers. Isn’t that wonderful? God hates a lie, but Rahab, a faithful woman in the line of Christ, tells an out-and-out lie. God has given us lists of commandments that He wants us to know and do our best to keep. Yet He wants us to go deeper than that and come to know and understand His character so that we can reason for ourselves about what we might do when two principles appear to collide.
This story is the subject of much debate. Some think such a lie is still a sin, but it is the lesser of two evils. They would say if faced with a choice of someone being murdered or telling a lie, it is okay to tell a lie to preserve life. Others think a lie is unacceptable under any circumstances, given how clearly Scripture speaks out against it. So you should tell the truth at all costs, even if it means loss of life now, as God will give you eternal life in the future, anyway. Theorists often use the hiding of Jews from the Nazis by Christian families in debates about this subject. They ask whether it was a sin against God for them to lie to the soldiers, demanding if they were hiding any Jews.
I think they are both wrong. God did not see Rahab’s words as a sin. I think motives and circumstances are critical here. James 2:25 commends Rahab’s actions in deceiving the soldiers and sending the men out a different as an act of faith. Just as Christ intimated that saving your donkey out of a pit on the Sabbath is not a sin—even though it breaks the law of the Sabbath to do no work—so Rahab’s action was not a sin. Wisdom is in weighing up our motives in any circumstance against scriptural principles. For example, I think we could all easily see the difference in God’s eyes between a believer lying to a Nazi soldier to preserve the life of a helpless Jewish family and a saint lying to the inquisitor at the door and saying they were not an Anabaptist to save their own life—the motive of one being the love of their neighbour, and the motive of the other, self-preservation.
How can we live the Truth truthfully? Look at God and His Son
I just want to finish with some thoughts about how we might make it easier for ourselves to pursue the path of honesty.
No matter how simple and obvious a matter may appear, it can still be hard to put it into practice. A brother said in a recent Bible class talk that the motives in our hearts are the critical thing. He pointed out that all Christ asks us to do in the Discourse on the Mount is that we might "therefore be perfect, even as your Father which is in heaven is perfect". So often, we can have the mindset, "I can’t do that because it is against my religion", or "I have to pay all my taxes because it is the law, and I am not allowed to break the law". But Christ exhorts us to do things, not because we are compelled to by law, but instead, to do them because we want to be like our heavenly Father because we are inspired by His love. Look at the following verses:
In hope of eternal life, which God, that cannot lie, promised before the world began.
That by two immutable things, in which it was impossible for God to lie, we might have a strong consolation.
Wanting to be like our Father was really the point that Christ was trying to make in John chapter 8:
Why do ye not understand my speech? even because ye cannot hear my word. Ye are of your father the devil, and the lusts of your father ye will do. He was a murderer from the beginning, and abode not in the truth, because there is no truth in him. When he speaketh a lie, he speaketh of his own: for he is a liar, and the father of it. And because I tell you the truth, ye believe me not. Which of you convinceth me of sin? And if I say the truth, why do ye not believe me? He that is of God heareth God’s words: ye therefore hear them not, because ye are not of God.
The Jews could not hear the truth that Jesus spoke because they were carnally minded, just like the serpent. The carnal mind is not subject to the law of God, and neither can it be, as it says in Romans 8. If we want to hear the truth that Christ and his Father have to speak, then we need to be spiritually minded like them, and part of that is being truthful at all times. Next time we are faced with the opportunity to lie and get away with something or be honest and take the consequences, let’s ask ourselves, "I really want to manifest the character of my heavenly Father; what would He do in this situation?"
We partake of the emblems each week in order to examine ourselves (1 Cor. 11:28). What better time to be completely and openly honest and truthful than as we examine ourselves before our God? And yet, how often is this the time when we are most prone to only telling half-truths? God knows the unsaid things anyway, so let’s be honest and confess the whole truth.
We see in Christ a man who had done no violence; neither was any deceit in his mouth. When we see the wonder of what God has done for us through him each day when we are faced with the opportunity to either lie or to be truthful, let us choose to be truthful because our Father, who is in heaven, is truthful.