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Is It Ever Right to Lie?

A God-Centered Approach

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Professor, Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary

ABSTRACT: The two major positions on lying (lying as communicating contrary to neighbor love and lying as communicating contrary to what one thinks or knows), while offering helpful insights, do not fully account for the biblical data. A Christian ethic of truth-telling begins by defining truthfulness and lying in conformity with God’s character as the primary principle, allowing the previous emphases on love for neighbor and conformity to thought to function as regulating principles.

Augustine once said, “Whether we should ever tell a lie if it be for someone’s welfare is a question that has vexed even the most learned.”1 And that is because, while the Bible shows that God demands truthfulness (Exodus 20:16; Zechariah 8:16; Ephesians 4:25), it also shows that God expects less than complete candor in some circumstances (1 Samuel 16:1–5; 2 Kings 6:14–20), that he uses lies for divine purposes (1 Kings 22:19–23; 2 Thessalonians 2:11), and that he commends people who demonstrate faithfulness to God by misleading enemies of God (Joshua 2:4–6; Hebrews 11:31; James 2:25).

These anomalies have led Christians to formulate two quite contrary positions on how best to interpret what the Bible says on the ethics of truth-telling: the first, formulated by the early church, views lying as communicating contrary to neighbor love; the second, first formulated by Augustine, views lying as communicating contrary to what one thinks or knows.2

The first position holds that communicating contrary to what one thinks or knows is sometimes right and true, because what makes communicating wrong and untrue is betraying a relational trust. According to this tradition, communicating in ways driven by neighbor love is right and true even if one’s words do not always align with what one thinks or knows is true.

The second position holds that communicating contrary to what one thinks or knows is necessarily wrong because inconsistency between what is communicated and what one believes to be true is always wrong. According to this tradition, speaking in line with what one thinks or knows is always right, even at the cost of betraying good people and allowing bad people to do wicked things.

I believe both traditionally held positions are partially right but also fall short of what the whole word of God says about communicating faithfully. In this essay, I aim first to review what the Bible says on this important subject and then argue for a position that helps resolve some of the tension between the traditionally held views.

Six Observations from Scripture

We can make at least six important observations concerning what the Bible says about communicating truthfully and being true.

1. God is the standard of truth.

First, the word of God identifies speaking truthfully with God and speaking untruthfully with opposition to him. God declares, “I the Lord speak the truth; I declare what is right” (Isaiah 45:19). God not only speaks truthfully but is the source and measure of truth. God is essentially “righteous and true” (Deuteronomy 32:3–4 CSB). He does not measure up to truth but rather is Truth Itself. When the Bible says God is “the God of truth” (Isaiah 65:16), it means not just that he is truthful, but that he is the standard to which everything true aligns.

Thus, everything God says is necessarily true (2 Samuel 22:31; Psalm 119:160), everything he reveals is necessarily true (Proverbs 30:5), everything he does accords with truth (Deuteronomy 32:4; Psalm 25:10; 145:17), and he can never be untrue (Numbers 23:19; Titus 1:2). When God says he delights in truth (Psalm 51:6) and commands us to speak truthfully (Zechariah 8:16; Ephesians 4:25), he calls us to be like him (Leviticus 19:2; 1 Peter 1:16).

2. The Bible sometimes commends misleading speech.

Second, while the Bible stresses the sanctity of truth and condemns what is untrue, it also includes passages in which communicating contrary to what is known so as to mislead bad people is treated either without disapproval or with commendation.

  • The Hebrew midwives deceive Pharaoh to save babies (Exodus 1:15–21).
  • Rahab deceives a king to save spies (Joshua 2:1–7; 6:17, 25; Hebrews 11:31; James 2:25).
  • God orders Israel to ambush the men of Ai (Joshua 8:3–8).
  • Jael deceives the Canaanite general Sisera (Judges 4:18–21; 5:24–27).
  • God develops a cover story to deceive Saul (1 Samuel 16:1–5).
  • Michal deceives Saul to protect David (1 Samuel 19:12–17).
  • David tells Jonathan to cover his absence by deceiving Saul (1 Samuel 20:6); Jonathan then deceives Saul to protect David (1 Samuel 20:28–29).
  • David deceives Ahimelech the priest about the mission he is on (1 Samuel 21:2).
  • David deceives the people of Gath by feigning madness (1 Samuel 21:13).
  • David deceives Achish about where he was raiding (1 Samuel 27:10).
  • David deceives Achish about his real allegiance (1 Samuel 29:8–9).
  • David tells Hushai to deceive Absalom by giving bad advice (2 Samuel 15:34); Hushai then deceives Absalom this way (2 Samuel 17:5–13), and God ensures Absalom is ruined by Hushai’s deceitful advice (2 Samuel 17:14).
  • A woman deceives Absalom’s men to save David’s men (2 Samuel 17:19–20).
  • Elisha deceives Syrians sent to arrest him (2 Kings 6:14–20).
  • Jeremiah deceives people to keep secret God’s message to Zedekiah (Jeremiah 38:24–27).
  • God says he will himself deceive false prophets (Ezekiel 14:9).

In these passages, bad people are misled, and Scripture treats these episodes either as if nothing wrong happened or as if the deceptions were good. While God never is false and never wants us to be, the Bible shows that God sometimes wants good people to mislead bad people.

3. God’s speech fits the worthiness of the recipient.

Third, God himself is not always straightforward. In several places, the Bible refers to God sending “a lying spirit” or “strong delusion” by which bad people are led to think and believe something untrue (1 Kings 22:19–23; 2 Chronicles 18:20–22; 2 Thessalonians 2:11). In such scenarios, theologians debate whether God uses the sinfulness of bad people against them or whether he deceives them himself. However these passages are interpreted, Psalm 18:25–26 indicates that God adjusts how he communicates to fit the worthiness of those addressed.

There David says, “With the merciful you show yourself merciful; with the blameless man you show yourself blameless; with the purified you show yourself pure; and with the crooked you make yourself seem [something else].”3 Translators struggle with that last word. The Christian Standard Bible and the New International Version use “shrewd,” the English Standard Version uses “tortuous,” the New American Standard Bible uses “astute,” the King James Version uses “unsavory,” and the New Revised Standard Version uses “perverse.” No English word easily captures what it means.

“The Bible never separates communicating truly with being true.”

But the core idea is plain: God communicates clearly with people who want to hear and accept what is true, and he communicates in ways hard to grasp when speaking with people who do not want to hear and accept what is true. Some people, it would seem, are not worthy of receiving clear communication. Nothing God says is untrue (Psalm 25:10), but he adjusts how he communicates to fit the worthiness of those to whom he speaks.

4. God’s ways transcend our comprehension.

Fourth, the Bible insists God’s ways are beyond human ability to fully comprehend. God is infinite. Everything he does or says has dimensions transcending human comprehension. For God, communicating truly is not the same as communicating exhaustively (and that is true for us as well). So, when interpreting what the Bible says about the ethics of faithful communication, we accept what we read, even if it does not fit what we expect or what we think it should say.

So, if someone explains the biblical truth ethic in a manner that makes perfect sense to us, we do well to suspect either that the explanation is wrong or that it distorts how God defines truth-telling in some way. When Scripture says, “God is not man, that he should lie” (Numbers 23:19), it suggests that God’s definition of truth and the truth ethic is not affected by human conventions and that none of the ways humans define or interpret truth-telling on their own are entirely correct.

5. Truth is practiced, not just spoken.

Fifth, the Bible never separates communicating truly from being true. God not only communicates truly but is Truth Itself. He is the essence, measure, origin, and definer of truth. He is the one without which nothing is true. As we communicate truly, we become more godly; as we become more godly, we communicate more truly.

First John 1:6 expresses this reality: “If we say we have fellowship with him while we walk in darkness, we lie and do not practice the truth.” John later adds that “when [Jesus] appears we shall be like him,” and “everyone who thus hopes in him purifies himself as he is pure” (1 John 3:2–3). In other words, the truth ethic is something practiced, not just verbalized.

6. Communicating accurately is sometimes wrong.

Sixth, in two places the Bible treats communicating accurately as morally wrong. The first is where Doeg the Edomite betrays David (1 Samuel 22:9–10), and the second is where Judas Iscariot betrays Jesus (Matthew 26:21–25). Each speaks in line with what he has in mind and states facts accurately, and yet the way each speaks is viewed as untrue in the sense of being morally wrong.

As James explains, communicating truthfully the way God defines it depends more on a speaker’s heart condition than on mere self-consistency or neighborliness. “If you have bitter jealousy and selfish ambition in your hearts, do not boast and be false to the truth. . . . For where jealousy and selfish ambition exist, there will be disorder and every vile practice” (James 3:14, 16). A bad heart can make what one says ethically false even if it is factually correct, aligns with what one thinks, and is considered neighborly in some way.

Anthropocentric Divide

Although both traditional explanations are able to account for some of the above observations, neither has been able to draw all of them into a coherent ethic of truth-telling. The reason seems to be that both approach the matter from an anthropocentric posture. One measures truth by consistency with human neighbors and the other by consistency with what a person has in his own mind.

By contrast, the Bible treats truthful communication in a theocentric manner and assumes that anything else distorts the biblical norm. Thus, in order to account for all six observations, we could describe lying not as communicating contrary to neighbor love or communicating contrary to what one thinks or knows, but as communicating contrary to God. This third position understands that what biblically true communication requires cannot be grasped apart from God. In this view, truth is not something by which we measure God, but something by which God measures us.

Division between the inherited traditions reduces to different ways of conceiving the wrong that occurs in untrue communication. If truthfulness means preserving relational trust (position one), the wrong of untruth occurs in betraying a trust relationship, as measured by others trusting us. If truthfulness means accurate alignment of words with thoughts (position two), the wrong of untruth arises in discord between them. If truthfulness means fulfilling a mission assigned by God (position three), however, the wrong of untruth occurs in hindering a divine mission or purpose, however words align with thoughts and however they affect those trusting us for their own reasons.

The main difference between the first and second positions has to do with how communicating truly and lying are defined. What Christians held before Augustine was not precise, but they generally aligned communicating truly with neighbor love, thus making it relational. During the early years of persecution before Constantine (AD 35–313), they justified communicating contrary to thought in order to save innocent people. The weakness of this approach is that neighbor love can be interpreted in subjectively sentimental terms.4

Augustine meant to purge the church from ethical relativity and generally did so by applying Scripture. But when it came to interpreting the sanctity of truth, he started with definitions of truthfulness and lying that came from Greek philosophy and not actually from the Bible itself. Thus, neither of the traditions dividing Christian ethics on this point actually defines truthful communication in biblically grounded, God-centered terms.

Theocentric Solution

Although Christianity has historically been divided on the ethics of truth-telling, God’s ethical reality is not. The coherence of God demands a single, coherent answer, and there are just three possibilities: (1) lying as communicating contrary to neighbor love; (2) lying as communicating contrary to what one thinks or knows; or (3) a category that transcends both — one that defines truthfulness and lying in ways that are neither neighbor-focused nor self-focused, but rather God-focused.

Ultimate Truth is a person (John 14:6); therefore, the sanctity of truth is ultimately personal and relational, not abstract and impersonal — not a concept, principle, or rule standing off by itself over and against God. All truly true truth comes from, relates to, and serves God (Romans 11:36); therefore, the obligation to communicate truly and to be true reduces to fidelity to God. In other words, moral communication primarily concerns fidelity to the One who is Truth Itself.

How this communication relates to neighbors, thoughts, or facts is secondary. While fidelity to our neighbors, our own thoughts, and to facts makes good sense, this fidelity is not an absolute in its own right. What it means and requires in any given situation depends on what the word of God says. After all, God is he who “[declares] what is right” (Isaiah 45:19), and fearing God is the only way to avoid “perverse speech” (Proverbs 8:13 CSB).

Jesus declares that he is himself “the truth” (John 14:6), and John says he is “full of . . . truth” (John 1:14). Jesus did not measure up to any humanly conceived notion of truth. Rather, being God, he was and is the source, measure, and end of everything true, including truthful speaking. He is not an instance of truth conceived in terms other than himself, but rather is Truth Itself.

When Jesus said, “Everyone who is of the truth listens to my voice,” Pilate asked, “What is truth?” (John 18:37–38). Pilate understood Jesus to be saying something momentous. Jesus was claiming that all true communication and being true, all accuracy and meaning, all genuinely reliable existence, behavior, understanding, and conveying of information one to another is of and through himself — and that conceiving otherwise is false.

The lying as communicating contrary to God position subordinates, but does not discard, the traditional positions. It allows the other positions to serve subordinate roles. That is, loving neighbors and self-consistency can be viewed as regulating principles pointing toward what faithful communication most often requires. Pleasing Christ is the only absolute governing the biblical truth ethic. The regulating principles tell us what that ethic usually requires. But where the word of God says otherwise, we must follow. The primary principle of cohering to God himself supersedes the regulating principles of loving neighbors and self-consistency.

In the Bible, obligation to communicate truly and be true has two dimensions: one vertical in relation to God and one horizontal in relation to others. Communicating truly and being true involves both God and others. They are unconditional in relation to God, but they are conditional in relation to others, always depending on how they affect fidelity to God. The Bible refers to this condition as “the fear of God.”

Scripture tells us that “to fear the Lord is to hate . . . perverse speech” (Proverbs 8:13 CSB), and then it also tells us the Hebrew midwives and Rahab communicated as they did because they “feared” God (Exodus 1:17–21; Joshua 2:9–11). Because of this, and because Scripture regards the act by which Rahab protected the spies as a good example of faith pleasing to God (Hebrews 11:31), we should stop treating these accounts as “difficult” and should instead accept them as places where God explains how the way he defines communicating truly and being true differs from what we expect.

God uses these accounts to show that communication must be unconditionally true and faithful to himself and conditionally true and faithful to anyone or anything else. The midwives and Rahab demonstrated truthful communication the way God defines it.

The God Who Is Truth

Ethics is, at heart, a matter of worship that leaves two options. We can worship God or some guise of the devil; there is no middle ground. “Whoever wishes to be a friend of the world makes himself an enemy of God” (James 4:4). We communicate either in step with God or in step with the devil. Conceiving of truth any other way skews or ignores the essential ethical questions at the heart of all truly true truth: “True by what measure?” or “True to whom?”

You cannot be true to the devil and to Christ at the same time, and you cannot communicate truly with both, in reference to both, or with the emissaries of both at the same time. Fidelity to ultimate truth requires infidelity to ultimate falsehood. Which is to say, communicating truly comes from Christ (1 Peter 3:15–16), and communicating untruly comes from hell (James 3:6).

This third position resolving the divide between self-consistency and neighbor love agrees with Allen Verhey’s caution: “God is Truth, but truth is not a second god.”5 There is a connection between God and truth, but it is not reciprocal. What we know of truth says something of God. But what we think of truth does not define God. Our understanding of truth does not limit God; at best, it only reflects God. To know truth truly, one must focus on God as he has revealed himself. Faithful communication depends on him and centers on him, not on us.

This study of the truth ethic reveals how God’s ordering of ethical reality is at once highly complex and united by a deep simplicity centered on God himself. It also demonstrates the paradoxical nature of revealed ethics. The biblically revealed ethic of communicating truly and being true, while consistent, absolute, universal, and unvarying, also runs contrary to human expectations. It is not self-contradictory but has marks of a mind transcending our own. It is not what most people think because it is more complex, deeper, and measured by a higher standard than most expect.

Yet at the same time, it is easy enough for anyone believing in the One who transcends human understanding to grasp, plain enough to convict sinners of deserved judgment, and sufficient to guide what we say and do in all situations arising in this fallen, fallible world.

  1. Augustine, Contra mendacium [Against Lying], 33. 

  2. Boniface Ramsey, “Two Traditions on Lying and Deception in the Ancient Church,” Thomist 49, no. 4 (October 1985): 504–33. 

  3. This prayer of David appears twice in Scripture, once in Psalm 18 and once in 2 Samuel 22. The word in question differs slightly between these two places, but scholars agree that Psalm 18 provides the earlier record of what David initially penned. 

  4. I am not saying this always happens, but rather am saying it is a vulnerability that haunts Christians taking this approach. For example, Hilary of Poitier in the fourth century held that lying is wrong only if someone gets hurt (Homilies on the Psalms, ca. AD 361, 14.2–3). Which is to say, he applied neighbor love expansively out of sentiment rather than limiting the principle to justifying exceptions to being as candid as possible. 

  5. Allen Verhey, “Is Lying Always Wrong?” Christianity Today 43, no. 6 (May 24, 1999): 68. 

is the author of Fundamental Christian Ethics and serves as senior research professor of Christian ethics at Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary. He has written or contributed to 23 books and over 92 articles and reviews, and resides with his wife in Wake Forest, North Carolina.