Is Lying Ever Acceptable?
Updated: Aug 21, 2018
Is it ever acceptable to tell a lie? Is there a circumstance or situation where being dishonest is necessary? Does God ever approve of dishonesty? Before you reject this as foolishness or damnable heresy, let's consider the actions of the Hebrew midwives.
"Then the king of Egypt said to the Hebrew midwives, one of whom was named Shiphrah and the other Puah, (16) “When you serve as midwife to the Hebrew women and see them on the birthstool, if it is a son, you shall kill him, but if it is a daughter, she shall live.” (17) But the midwives feared God and did not do as the king of Egypt commanded them, but let the male children live. (18) So the king of Egypt called the midwives and said to them, “Why have you done this, and let the male children live?” (19) The midwives said to Pharaoh, “Because the Hebrew women are not like the Egyptian women, for they are vigorous and give birth before the midwife comes to them.” (20) So God dealt well with the midwives. And the people multiplied and grew very strong. (21) And because the midwives feared God, he gave them families. (22) Then Pharaoh commanded all his people, “Every son that is born to the Hebrews you shall cast into the Nile, but you shall let every daughter live.”
It sure seems as if the Hebrew midwives told a lie. And not only that, it seems as if God blesses them after they had done so. It's not hard to understand why they would do such a thing. There were newborn children's lives at stake; precious little beings who were born in the image of God. But we also know God commands us to tell the truth. After all, Jesus calls Satan the "father of lies." All this leads us to this question--is it ever acceptable to tell a lie? Is it always sinful?
Historically, there have been four primary and possible interpretations of the above text. Not saying there aren't more, but these four make the most sense, handle the Bible with the most respect, and have been held to by Christians throughout varying time periods.
The heart behind the lie. The first interpretation deals with the midwives' motivation for lying. They were preserving life and found it necessary to tell a lie. Furthermore, their desire to preserve life originated from hearts that revered and feared God. God is not really rewarding them for telling a lie, but for hearts that feared God and respected his view concerning the value of all human life. God still viewed the lie as wrong, but not necessarily as sinful on behalf of the midwives. Because of the outcome and what was at stake, he had no problem 'overlooking' this transgression.
They weren't lying. This interpretation claims that they were not telling a lie to Pharaoh. Maybe they were being clever and instructed those giving birth and those who would be present during that time to refrain from telling them until after the child was delivered and taken to safety. This way they could truthfully say they didn't get there in time. I find this interpretation the least likely. At the very least, they were still being utterly and completely deceptive.
The lesser of two evils. This interpretation would still call what the midwives did sinful and evil but, when compared to what was going to happen, could be considered an appropriate course of action. Both options--lying and allowing children to be murdered--are evil so God blessed them because they recognized which one was less evil. Many who hold to this view state that the reward the midwives received could be considered a 'lesser' reward. Rather than getting eternal rewards (the greater) they only received earthly rewards (the lesser).
God approves of the lie. This interpretation states that God did not view the lie as sinful. Because of the evil they were resisting, the lie was not only okay, but approved of by God. The midwives were deterring evil from taking place. Pharaoh was using his power for evil and the midwives resisted and confronted that evil.
Personally, I like interpretation number one. I think God views all lying as wrong, but I'm not sure he would consider what the midwives did as sinful. In a broken world, lying was their best option. It doesn't make the lie right or God's best, but it simply means that telling a lie was the best course of action in a broken and fallen world. To say that God would rather have had them tell the truth does not logically work. The truth meant babies would have died--something we know God wouldn't want. Furthermore, God would have not blessed them if he wanted them to behave differently than they did.
This does not mean you have to agree. You may know of an entirely different interpretation that you think deals with this dilemma better than the four listed above. Honestly, I'm not even trying to figure out which interpretation is the most Biblically-faithful and accurate.
But there is a distinct reason we are addressing this text.
We live in a time where lies are justified by Christians for a variety of reasons. It's common for believers to lie about various parts of life. Honestly, sometimes it's a real struggle not to--especially if you gave yourself over to telling lies when you were apart from Christ and salvation. But the fact that lying has almost been accepted as common practice among Christians should alarm us. We use other people's paid accounts and passwords so we don't have to pay, steal minor things (in our eyes) from major corporations that won't care/notice, and do hundreds of other things that could be considered lying/stealing. So, does God care? Even if we don't feel 'bad' about it?
Yes, he does care. And it doesn't matter how we feel. Lying is a big deal for believers. We have been saved by the truth, called to the truth, and are commanded to share the truth. If you think what the midwives did creates some 'loophole' that opens the door for lies to be told, you are majorly misunderstanding the text and their situation. The outcome surrounding most of our lies does not have life and death at stake. They usually revolve around making ourselves look better/more successful, making our lives easier, or saving ourselves some money. Not quite the same situation.
The Distinct Reason
So, why ponder this text? I wanted to bring our attention to this text so we would think about lying and the truth. Most believers would agree that lying is sinful, but may not have thought deeply about the issue and where dishonesty may have crept into their own lives. And it is an issue that we should think deeply about.