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12/6/17: Christian living (9): when is it right to lie?

There's a jolly interesting story to be found in the Bible at the end of 1 Samuel.  Saul is King, David is the anointed successor, Saul is not too happy about this.  After a whole number of altercations David takes refuge in the land of the Philistines and makes friends with King Achish - who, presumably, has either forgotten about the incident with Goliath or does not realise that this is the same person who killed him.

David tells Achish that he (David) and his warriors were fighting various small battles on behalf of the Philistines, whereas in fact he stayed loyal to Israel during this time and fought battles on Israel's behalf.  There's a rather uncomfortable detail here - in order to maintain this deception he killed all men and women (and, presumably, children) during these raids so that there was nobody left to tell Achish what he was really up to (27:11).

Thiings then come to a head in chapter 29 when Achish and the Philistine troops go into batlle against Israel.  Coming outside of what the Bible actually says, David must have been seriously worried at this stage, mustn't he?  What was he supposed to do?  Break his alliance with Achish which would leave him and his troops in considerable danger?  Or go into battle with his own people, when he had been told by Samuel that he was to be the next king?

How long David wrestled with this dilemma is not clear, but we are told how it is unexpectedly resolved - the Philistine commanders suspect (rightly, of course) that David is still loyal to Israel and, if allowed to fight with the Philstines, will turn on them in the middle of the battle.  So the commanders refuse to go into battle with David and his troops, and Achish reluctantly agrees.  David (29:11) goes through the motions of being very disappointed when actually he must have been extremely relieved that this problem has been solved for him.  The rest, as they say, is history - the battle goes ahead, Saul is killed, David in due course becomes king.

It is in the nature of Biblical narrative that we are simply told what happened, not whether David was right or not in what he did.  So it is a possible interpretation to say that David was wrong to deceive Achish, had he been scrupulously honest to everyone God's plan that he should become king would have been fulfilled in some other way.

But I do not agree with this view.  The development of the story of Saul and David from the middle of 1 Samuel until Saul's death at the end of the book portrays David growing in stature and godliness - it is noticeable that on the second occasion he has the opportunity to kill Saul he deals with it with less hesitation and more integrity than the first.  Meanwhile, Saul degenerates further and further, the incident with the Witch of Endor occurs in the middle of the narrative under consideration here.

So, what I am saying is, David was right to deceive Achish while he was staying with him.  It therefore follows that it can be right to lie.  Which seems a rather odd thing to say, as Ananias and Sapphira (Acts 5) discovered to their mortal cost when they claimed, very early in the life of the church, to have given the entire proceedings from the sale of their land to the church when in fact they had kept some of the money back.

Before considering the question as to when it is right to lie, let's consider another example, this time from the second world war when the Ten Boom family living in Haarlem in the Netherlands joined the resistance and hid Jews in their home.  In her book, "The hiding place" Corrie Ten Boom (pronounced 'Bomb', ie the device which explodes) describes how a secret room was constructed, and how they devised routines if disturbed while eating to remove evidence that all but 3 people were there at the meal within seconds.  She also describes how they woke each up in the middle of the night and started to shout questions, "Where are they Jews?  How many are there today?" while they were still groggy from sleep as training exercises against the eventuality that they actually be raided during the night.

So, again, there is deception going on here.  When German soldiers, or Dutch soldiers working on their behalf, asked if there were Jews in the house, they lied.  And as with the story of David told above, it is possible to take the view that they should not have done that, ultimately the Jews needing help were God's responsibility, not theirs, if Corrie and her family had been scrupulously honest about the Jews staying with them God would have found another way to protect them (although we know, of course, that a large number of Jews did indeed go to their deaths at that time).

But again, I do not agree with this view.  I would say that, if we take the view that they should not have lied in word, logically we should also take the view that they should not have lied in deed, ie they should not have constructed the hiding place.  I am clear, both having read Corrie's book and also my engagement with the Bible, not least this passage at the end of 1 Samuel, that what they did was right before God, selfless, sacrificial, loving and courageous.  In fact, the hiding place was eventually discovered, Corrie and her sister and father were sent to prison, an experience from which only Corrie emerged alive.


So, when is it right as Christians to lie?  Certainly the circumstances would need to be highly unusual, in general of course we expect to be honest in our details with all people, whether they would wish us good or ill.  We would need to be very clear that our motivation was not for our own protection or loss of face - reasons, I suggest, which are all too often the reason for lying.  We would need to be honest before God as to what we were doing and why, looking to glorify His kingdom and act for the good of others.  Two passages which may or may not help here:

Since, then, you have been raised with Christ, set your hearts on things above,
where Christ is, seated at the right hand of God.
Set your minds on things above, not on earthly things.
Colossians 3:1,2

I have become all things to all people so that by all possible means I might save some.
1 Corinthians 9:22b

Crumbs, this is hard, isn't it?  So much easier if we had a manual telling us exactly what to do.  What we actually have are a set of principles from which we need to make our own decisions before God.  It is in this spirit that I come to the conclusions above.

But I could be wrong, I often am.  As always, very interested to hear alternative views or further examples of dilemmas in the Bible or from other sources.  Thank you for reading, I'll be back again soon!

1 Comment to 12/6/17: Christian living (9): when is it right to lie?:

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John Robert Akwang on 13 June 2017 15:56
That's a difficult one. In my vague opinion, I would suggest that a Christian would lie if the lie will save others, when it's inevitable and is for a greater good and would agree with you that lying should not be for selfish reasons
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