Should Christians sometimes lie to one another for the sake of love?
Posted by Matthew Tuininga
I recently came across an argument in a book by Jerram Barrs, Through His Eyes, in which Barrs explains the conduct of Rahab, who lied to the men of Jericho in order to protect the Hebrew spies, as evidence that Christians may lie when it serves the good of their neighbor. Barrs argues that this is true not only of times of urgent necessity (i.e., to save a life) but in the routine affairs of daily life. And he argues not simply that we ought not judge people who lie in such conditions, or that lying may be a necessary evil at times, but that in these cases lying is a “righteous act,” demanded by God.
[E]ven at the level of family life there are many occasions when we all conceal truth and tell half-truths out of love for our children and out of love for one another. A child wakes up, feeling sick, at 3 AM and comes crying to get you out of bed. Do you tell him exactly how you feel? I hope not. You conceal what you feel because you love him. This is true in our marriages as well. We must not always say what we feel. If we do, we will destroy a marriage very rapidly. We are required to be faithful to our commitment to love our husband or wife rather than to the feelings and words that may be in our heads or in our hearts at a particular moment. (96-97)
But may a person lie to his or her spouse or children? The above paragraph is, after all, in the context of a discussion of lying. In the discussion questions at the end of the chapter Barrs asks,
What everyday situations do you find yourself in that bring you to concealment or telling half-truths and even falsehoods to protect the feelings of other people, or in order that you might be true to the love you have in your heart for them rather than to the sinful feelings that are also in your heart? (100)
It’s an interesting approach to ethics. My wife, who drew my attention to Barrs’s argument, grew up in an unbelieving family in which certain members routinely concealed the truth or spoke half-truths in order to protect one another’s feelings. The effect, needless to say, was not conducive of relationships built on truth or trust. In contrast, my wife and I are committed never, ever to lie to one another. To be sure, Barrs is right that we should not simply say whatever evil thought or opinion pops into our minds. But if we are called to conform to the image of Christ rather than of the Devil, the father of lies, the key to building relationships with one another is to speak the truth in love rather than to distort the truth in love.
But what about times of war? Barrs maintains,
In wartime there has to be constant concealing of the truth and outright lying and falsehood… Consider the present struggle against terrorism connected with Islamic radicals and in particular Al Qaeda and its leader Osama bin Laden. Reflect on how necessary it is for our governments to have agents who infiltrate groups that plan bombings and other terrorist acts. We should pray for such men and women, and we should regard their work as not only dangerous but also righteous, though it will certainly involve lying and deceit. (96)
Again, it’s an interesting claim. When I was in training to be an intelligence analyst for the FBI one of the portions of that training involved a presentation on the possible demands placed on covert agents, including those in the CIA working overseas. One of the things that became quickly obvious to me was that as a Christian I could never serve in such a role. Why? To be an effective agent one is not simply required to commit occasional acts of lying or violence. One is required, in obedience to an oath to a secular power, to put on an entirely false identity, an identity that shapes everything one does, from cultural activities to moral behavior to worship. In short, to fulfill such a task it is impossible for one to conform to the image of Christ by taking up the cross and following him.
To be sure, I will not stand in judgment over Christians who find it necessary to lie in order to save a life, nor am I saying that I would not necessarily do the same thing. But what I find troubling about Barrs’s approach is his very confidence that lying can be such a routinely righteous act. In contrast, compare the attitude of Dietrich Bonhoeffer when he was writing his Ethics whilein prison under the Nazis for his complicity in the plot against Hitler. Bonhoeffer insisted that acts of lying and violence (by one who is not a magistrate) violate God’s moral law. Yet he found that loving his neighbors in a manner responsible to Christ demanded that he lend his support to the plot against Hitler, support that involved lying and complicity in violence.
Sorting through the problem, Bonhoeffer refused to offer a final justification for his actions. Instead, he argued that the primary concern of a Christian should not be to be innocent and pure with reference to the law. Obsession with conformity to the law could quickly become quite Pharisaical when isolated from love for one’s neighbor, or from the virtues of mercy and justice. In contrast, freed from the law in Christ and transformed by the mind of Christ a believer’s driving concern will be to act responsibly in Christ towards his or her neighbor. In that sense there will be moments when the call to serve one’s neighbor will trump the call to obey a particular precept of the law. In Bonhoeffer’s case that meant that helping to stop Hitler trumped the commandment not to lie.
Does Bonhoeffer’s argument ultimately make sense? Honestly, I’m not sure he entirely pulls it off. But what impressed me about Bonhoeffer was his refusal to justify himself or his actions. He never said, “it was righteous for me to lie.” Instead, he did what he felt he had to do to follow Christ, though disobeying the law, and he took refuge in the grace of the gospel. He even analogized his willingness to take on genuine guilt for others to Christ’s willingness to take on imputed guilt for sinners. The result was that although Bonhoeffer acted in good conscience, he did not trivialize or explain away his violations of the law. He took that violation absolutely seriously and was willing to suffer the consequences for his actions.
What makes Bonhoeffer’s approach convincing to me is that he maintains his focus on following Christ and on living in the grace of the gospel rather than establishing a set of (inherently dubious) principles or examples in which it is righteous to disobey God’s commandments. There are some difficult situations in life, moments in which we are called to make terrible decisions, decisions that are incredibly morally difficult. But if we are going to lie or break God’s law we need, like Bonhoeffer, to be willing to come to grips with what we are doing, to be willing to take the full consequences without insisting on self-justification, and to rest in the grace of the gospel. Anything else, Bonhoeffer would say, is cheap grace.