1. Deception: we’re against it
There’s a famous old Bob Newhart sketch in which Newhart plays a grumpy psychiatrist with very simple and efficient advice. When his patients come to him with all their fears and anxieties, his clinical treatment consists of just two words: “Stop it!”
“Is that all?” they ask.
“That’s it,” he says. “What do you want to be: terrified all your life? Just stop it. Stop. It.”
At one level, that’s the simple and obvious truth about our subject: what should be our attitude to lies, deception, falsehood, broken promises and duplicity? Stop it! Don’t do that sort of thing.
But that’s about as satisfying as Newhart’s psychiatrist. The problem is more complicated than that. After all, what exactly is a lie? A simple and obvious definition would be “Not telling the truth”. However, is it a lie if I intend to mislead you but, through my ignorance, I tell you the truth? Or what if I tell you something true, but I actually deceive you, because I haven’t told you the whole truth? Truth and lies are complicated because we are complicated, and our circumstances and our interactions with each other are tricky and messy.
Of course, when you discuss deception and the ethics of lies and falsehood, it’s not long before the Nazis come knocking. When the Nazis are at the door and you’re hiding Jews, is it morally permissible to lie, cheat, dissemble, misdirect and otherwise deceive those Nazis? If so, is it permissible sometimes to lie in other circumstances for a righteous or greater good?
And if so, where does one stop with that line of reasoning? Is it okay to tell my wife that her haircut is fantastic when I really think, “Mm, maybe it’s not the best one she’s ever had”?1 Is it okay to just lie a little bit to spare someone’s feelings?
In order to attempt to answer these questions (and even be challenged on them!), let’s start with what Jesus says on this subject.
2. What Jesus is for and against
“Again you have heard that it was said to those of old, ‘You shall not swear falsely, but shall perform to the Lord what you have sworn.’ But I say to you, Do not take an oath at all, either by heaven, for it is the throne of God, or by the earth, for it is his footstool, or by Jerusalem, for it is the city of the great King. And do not take an oath by your head, for you cannot make one hair white or black. Let what you say be simply ‘Yes’ or ‘No’; anything more than this comes from the evil one.” (Matt 5:33-37; my translation)
It’s interesting that this part of Matthew 5 is not about lying in general or deception theoretically; it’s about a particular kind of false speaking: oath-taking. It’s about making some kind of promise or vow and then swearing by some higher power that “I will perform what I have promised”.
Jesus says, “It was said to those of old” and then gives this quote, which seems like a combination of a number of Old Testament teachings. It’s very similar to Numbers 30:2, for example: “If a man vows a vow to the Lord, or swears an oath to bind himself by a pledge, he shall not break his word. He shall do according to all that proceeds out of his mouth.”
As he often does, Jesus twists our perceptions a little: when we normally think about lies and deception, we often think immediately of false or misleading statements about what has happened, or the current state of affairs. We say, “It wasn’t me; it was him”, or we say, “No, I’m not late. I’m sure we said three o’clock” when we know very well that wasn’t the case. Or we might say, “Your haircut looks fabulous”. These would be transgressions of the ninth commandment: not to bear false witness—that is, not to say something that’s untrue about what has happened.
But what Jesus is talking about is more in the realm of the third commandment: not to take the Lord’s name in vain or for nothing—that is, to call upon God as a guarantor that you will do something, and then fail to perform what you promised.
So in Matthew 5, Jesus is not so much talking about lying with regard to a current or past state of affairs. He is talking about a future state of affairs: whether what I say and intend will match what I actually end up doing.
The two are obviously related: both involve deception, whether we’re talking about the past or the future. What’s interesting is that Jesus is particularly talking about faithfulness in performing what we have spoken. What he commends is clear enough: he wants his people to seek a simple integrity between the words and the intentions of their minds, and their future actions.
a) Jesus is for integrity
In the original Greek of Matthew 5, after Jesus says, “Don’t bother with all these sneaky oaths”, he says, “Just for you, it shall be ‘Yes, yes’, ‘No, no’.” That’s all there is in the Greek: “Yes, yes” and “No, no”.
Whether the doubling of “Yes” and “No” is meant to intensify it—as if to say, “It should just be ‘Absolutely yes’ or ‘Absolutely no’”—or whether it’s like James 5:12, which appears to quote this passage (“let your “yes” be yes and your “no” be no”)—either way, the idea is very clear: there is to be no duplicity or doubleness. There is to be no discrepancy between saying “Yes” and performing “Yes” and between saying “No” and doing “No”. Jesus is commanding a simple, straightforward, unvarnished integrity between our words, our intentions and our actions.
Jesus is for integrity. But what is he against?
b) Jesus is against Pharisaical “righteousness”
This simple, unvarnished integrity of speech is contrasted with an alternative approach that is captured in the attitude and approach of Pharisaic righteousness, like all the examples in Matthew 5. The whole passage is about how the righteousness of the kingdom that Jesus is bringing must exceed the righteousness of the Pharisees. In fact, he says, you won’t enter the kingdom unless your righteousness is of a different order to that which the Pharisees practised.
The word “again” in Matthew 5:33 indicates that Jesus is drawing out another example of the same thing: “you have heard that it was said to those of old, ‘You shall not swear falsely’” (Matt 5:33). This was the ancient command of the law. But how is it being played out in Pharisaic righteousness? That’s what verses 34-36 are about:
“Do not take an oath at all, either by heaven, for it is the throne of God, or by the earth, for it is his footstool, or by Jerusalem, for it is the city of the great King. And do not take an oath by your head, for you cannot make one hair white or black.” (Matt 5:34-36)
What is Jesus referring to here? Why would people swear by these different entities when they make their oaths—by heaven and earth and Jerusalem and heads?
The answer seems to be: so as not to have an excuse not to fulfill your oath. We’re given a window into the cultural practice of oath-taking later in Matthew 23, where Jesus gets stuck into the Pharisaic approach to oath-taking in more detail:
“Woe to you, blind guides, who say, ‘If anyone swears by the temple, it is nothing, but if anyone swears by the gold of the temple, he is bound by his oath.’ You blind fools! For which is greater, the gold or the temple that has made the gold sacred? And you say, ‘If anyone swears by the altar, it is nothing, but if anyone swears by the gift that is on the altar, he is bound by his oath.’ You blind men! For which is greater, the gift or the altar that makes the gift sacred? So whoever swears by the altar swears by it and by everything on it. And whoever swears by the temple swears by it and by him who dwells in it. And whoever swears by heaven swears by the throne of God and by him who sits upon it. (Matt 23:16-22)
In other words, the Pharisees had gotten into the habit of covering over the deception they wished to practise with a legal patina of righteousness. The oaths they provided—the oaths they made to heaven, to Jerusalem and to other things—were a means by which the demands of the law might be kept. It was also a means by which they could swear an oath and say that they’ve kept a certain legal requirement to that oath while, at the same time, wishing to practise falsehood and duplicity. It was a means by which they were able to say, “I haven’t actually sworn falsely, although I didn’t follow through on my promise, because the particular kind of oath I swore isn’t always and necessarily binding”. In other words, as in much of the Pharisaic righteousness, it was an attempt to have a form and an appearance of righteousness and of law-keeping while denying its substance.
This approach is familiar to us—so much so that we even call it “Pharisaical” when we think about this kind of thing. But Jesus is clearly against this sort of fake, skin-deep righteousness; he critiques it and says that the righteousness he brings is far different and superior.
c) Against the law?
So Jesus is against the Pharisaic approach to righteousness. But is he also against the law? The law says here that you should swear truly and perform that which you have sworn. But Jesus is essentially saying, “Don’t bother swearing oaths at all; just keep your word”.
Jesus has already said that he’s not abolishing the law; instead, he has come to fulfill the law (Matt 5:17ff). However, he seems to be saying something in Matthew 5:33-37 that is above or beyond the law—something different from what the law says. The law says, “Perform your oaths”; Jesus says, “Don’t bother with oaths at all”.
What’s going on? What is Jesus’ attitude to the law, and how does his apparent critique of the law relate to what he’s saying about deception?
To answer that and to understand the substructure of what Jesus is saying about truth and deception, we need to go back and look at what was said to “those of old” (Matt 5:33). We need to go back to the Old Testament law.
3. What was said to those of old
a) God, truth and the world
Let me reassure you: we’re not going to look at the whole Bible, starting with Genesis. But unless we understand how and why God created the world in truth, we won’t really understand what Jesus is driving at in Matthew 5, because, as Psalm 33 puts it so beautifully,
the word of the Lord is upright,
and all his work is done in faithfulness.
He loves righteousness and justice;
the earth is full of the steadfast love of the Lord.
By the word of the Lord the heavens were made,
and by the breath of his mouth all their host.
God is the creator of a real and good world, a world full of his steadfast love. What God loves, the Psalm tells us, is righteousness and justice. So the faithfulness, uprightness and goodness of the Lord creator is woven into everything he has made. As Proverbs 8 says, the world was crafted with Wisdom acting as God’s “master workman” (Prov 8:30). The creation was shaped and ordered according to the infinite wisdom, goodness and knowledge of God’s mind.
God expresses his infinitely good and wise mind in words—with language. He’s the first speaker, and all his speech is true, good and righteous. He thinks and speaks into existence a world—a world that is ordered, shaped and directed towards purposes that express his mind through the language he speaks. The world perfectly corresponds to the speech of God, by which he created it. His speech is always upright, righteous and good. So the world, in its design and its order, is constructed according to the righteousness and goodness of God.
Perhaps this is not news to you. But have you ever considered that this is what makes true speech and communication possible within our world? The very possibility of language corresponding truly to reality is based on the fact that God created an intelligible, understandable, righteous, good, ordered world, and on the fact that he created us with the ability to understand and speak like him about this world, to communicate with him and with one another, and to understand the world through language. The world was made through language, and we were made to participate in this world through language.
In fact, the responsibility Adam and Eve were given and the responsibility we have as humans to live in, fulfill, multiply, be fruitful in, rule over, care for, develop and work the world that God has put us in is all only possible through language. The human project—what God has given us to do in his creation—is a linguistic project: it’s about naming, understanding and participating in a world that is shot through with words and ideas—with intelligibility—with something that can be understood.
So when our speech matches and accords with what is real in the world—with its order and with the action that we’re performing within it—we call that speech “true”. It matches with something beyond ourselves and our minds, such that we see it as ‘fitting’ or ‘right’ or ‘true’. It represents what is there—or, at least, what we think and perceive to be there.
When we say something is true—when we say, “Yes, actually, it was me. I did do it” or “It’s my fault that I was late” or “I think you need a new hairdresser”—we’re depending on the fact that it’s possible for our words to represent something accurately. We’re implicitly operating on the assumption that our words can reflect a reality beyond our minds—a reality that’s knowable and communicable, a reality that you can say something true about or lie about.
All of this may seem blindingly obvious. In a sense, it is. But it’s not blindingly obvious in our present culture and society. In fact, Western society has been rebelling against this idea for most of the last 150 years. When we deny God as creator (which the world has been doing for quite a while) and we deny that the world is a good, created reality that has an intelligibility, order and goodness bound into its very existence, what are we left with? What are words? They’re just words. If nothing is objectively real, true or good beyond my perception of them and my chatter about them, therefore truth is really just an personal construct of my mental processes. You can have your truth and I can have mine.
Furthermore, language becomes a self-referential game that we play with each other with conventions and rules like the rules of Monopoly, which we make up and might stick to, but which don’t refer to anything beyond the game. There’s nothing real out there that our speech might actually correspond to.
Such is the direction of modern philosophy—Enlightenment philosophy in its late corrupt form, which we call postmodernism. There’s nothing that my words correspond to; they’re just words. Therefore, truth is subjective and personal, not objective and real.
Of course, this doesn’t work as a philosophy, because the world isn’t like that. Our experience confirms it every day. We constantly rely on the possibility of truthful communication. We depend on the possibility that I can tell you something that accords with reality beyond the fact of my speaking about it—something we can both understand and act upon. To deny this and suppress this truth about how things are is to deny the truth of reality, the truth of God. Of course, that’s what we do as rebellious humans: we deny that truth and suppress it, and as a result, are given over to a debased and foolish mind (Rom 1:18-22)—in this case, a mind that refuses to accept the possibility, even in theory, of truth.
The world was made with language—God’s language. It has the intelligibility of God’s mind and language built into it. Thus the world invites us to use language within it truthfully and truly. We do at least three different things in our language.
Firstly, we represent the world to each other, and we describe and articulate the nature of the world to one another. Language points to something beyond itself, and represents it in our minds and to each other: a current thing or object, a state of affairs, a future state of affairs we imagine and plan together, and so on.
Secondly, language allows us to act. In fact, language is an action. Language is how we do things in the world—how we develop, promise, explain and plan; how we command, plead and tell; how we ask, answer and rejoice. Language is the chief form (or one of the chief forms) of our action in the world that is before us.
Thirdly, all of it is social: language is how we commune with each other in the world and with God. Language is the currency of relationship and community. It’s the means by which we reveal ourselves to each other, know and trust each other, and make promises to each other.
In all of this, we act like God, the one who acts and relates to us by speaking; who describes and represents what is real in the world through true language; who creates through language; and who promises and acts through his speech and word as well. His speech is always true:
God is not man, that he should lie,
or a son of man, that he should change his mind.
Has he said, and will he not do it?
Or has he spoken, and will he not fulfil it?
Of course, this passage from Numbers raises the possibility of not speaking truly—of doing what man habitually does: lying, dissembling and failing to fulfill our promise. Our rebellion or rejection of God’s purposes is a rebellion against the right use of language. And in our rejection of God, we wrong each other in and through language. 2
Human sin, in other words, is profoundly linguistic. Instead of using language to serve God, to serve each other, and to participate in the world rightly through speech and language, we use language as a weapon in our rebellion against God and in our mistreatment of each other. This means our communities and relationships break down.
b) Lies and law
When God redeems his people and saves them—when he brings them out of Egypt, saves them and draws them to himself, and gives them a law to guide their renewed, redeemed life as his people—God wants their holiness to include a holiness of speech. We have already noted commandment #3: don’t take my name in vain; don’t swear falsely.; and commandment #9: don’t bear false witness against each other; and the instruction of Numbers 30:
If a man vows a vow to the Lord, or swears an oath to bind himself by a pledge, he shall not break his word. He shall do according to all that proceeds out of his mouth. (Num 30:2)
The laws express what God wants for his people and what it looks like to return to him and live the way we were created to live. The laws explain what it means to use our speech to speak truth and to do good as opposed to the alternative—to lie, to bear false witness, to deceive, to fail to follow through, and all the other different types of evil speech.
In many ways, however, the laws also assume and regulate the sinful dishonesty that exists in the world. The laws seek to identify it, correct it and hem it in. After all, why do we even need oaths? Why do we need to invoke a higher power—even the Lord himself—to guarantee that, at least in this instance and at least on this occasion, I’m actually telling you the truth and that I will actually follow through? Why do we swear on the souls of our grandchildren, as The Godfather did, that this will happen or not happen? It’s because the expectation is that the rest of the time, we lie and hardly ever follow through on our promises.
Oaths are a way of differentiating our supposedly really truthful speech on this occasion from what you know to be the unreliable waffle that we normally come out with. That’s what an oath is. “If you do take an oath in the Lord’s name,” says the law, “you’d better fulfill it, because you’re taking it in the name of the Lord.” You’re calling upon him to be the avenger if you tell a lie, because lies and dishonesty are abhorrent to the Lord. He’s the God of truth, who loves truth and righteousness. This comes out in multiple ways through the wisdom literature and the rest of the Old Testament—for example:
Lying lips are an abomination to the Lord,
but those who act faithfully are his delight.
It’s interesting in this verse how, once again, lying and faithlessness are paralleled: to tell a lie about what has happened, or to lie about what you plan to do, or to fail to act faithfully in line with the words we have spoken—all these actions are abominable to God. They’re all the same kind of thing and therefore should also be abhorrent to us. These practices destroy the possibility of what we were put on the earth to do—that is, to love, use, enjoy, develop and participate in the good reality of the world in loving communion and relationship with each other and with God. Deception and false speech destroy all of this.
Of course, although the law did stipulate the standard of truthfulness and sought to regulate the true speech of Israel and stem the lying lips of Israel, it never worked, because it was powerless to change anything. The ongoing, intractable problem was the lying, faithless heart of humanity—of which Israel was representative.
c) The ongoing problem
The story of the rest of the Old Testament is the story of the lies, deceit and faithlessness of God’s people in their speech. Look, for example, at Jeremiah 9:4-6, which, like everything in Jeremiah, is pretty cheery stuff:
Let everyone beware of his neighbour,
and put no trust in any brother,
for every brother is a deceiver,
and every neighbour goes about as a slanderer.
Everyone deceives his neighbour,
and no one speaks the truth;
they have taught their tongue to speak lies;
they weary themselves committing iniquity.
Heaping oppression upon oppression, and deceit upon deceit,
they refuse to know me, declares the Lord.
There’s a kind of habitual, learned, implacable commitment to falsehood for which Jeremiah is indicting his people. The result of it is a lack of relationship not only with each other (in that they couldn’t trust each other), but also with God, who speaks and requires the truth.
Psalm 12 says much the same:
Save, O Lord, for the godly one is gone;
for the faithful have vanished from among the children of man.
Everyone utters lies to his neighbour;
with flattering lips and a double heart they speak.
May the Lord cut off all flattering lips,
the tongue that makes great boasts,
those who say, “With our tongue we will prevail,
our lips are with us; who is master over us?”
Notice verse 2 and the expression “a double heart”: Augustine, who wrote some very interesting treatises on lies and deception, built his understanding of falsehood and lies on this idea of the “doubleness” of heart—on an inner duplicity. To lie, said Augustine, was to have two things in your heart: what you believe or know to be true (or what you believe or know you intend to do), and then the other thing that you decide to tell your neighbour instead. For Augustine, the essence of lying was this doubleness: I’m aware of a truth. I understand fully what I plan to do or what the current state of affairs is, but what I tell you is different from what I know. I’m going to deceive you, because I think doing so will be to my advantage.
This seems true to our experience of lying—even the small ones we tell day by day that just make life easier. We know in our hearts what the truth is, and we kind of want to say it. But we know in another part of our hearts that if we speak that truth, it will get us into trouble—either trouble with the other person or trouble with the future. So we dissemble. We evade. We lie.
I think Augustine and Psalm 12 are onto something: the problem of lying and false speech goes very, very deep within us. It goes to the fundamental problem with the human heart. It reveals a problem the law is powerless to fix.
4. But Jesus
a) The truth of the world has come into the world
That, of course, brings us to Jesus, the truth of the world who has come into the world:
The true light, which gives light to everyone, was coming into the world. He was in the world, and the world was made through him, yet the world did not know him … And the Word became flesh and dwelt among us, and we have seen his glory, glory as of the only Son from the Father, full of grace and truth. (John 1:9-10, 14)
God’s language became flesh and dwelled among us. God sent his Son into the world to be a fully and completely true human, and a truthful human. Jesus is in no sense a rebel against God, the truth of God and the truth of the world. In fact, he is God himself—God’s own speech made flesh to reveal the truth about God to us, to reveal the truth about the world to us, and to redeem us from falsehood and lies. In doing this, God fulfils his promise—the promise to which the Law and the Prophets pointed forward—of redeeming for himself a people who speak the truth and who live in the truth.
This is why Jesus says, “Do not think that I have come to abolish the Law or the Prophets; I have not come to abolish them but to fulfil them” (Matt 5:17). In other words, “I’ve come to do what they were always intended to do. I’ve come to fulfil what their purpose was—to bring a kingdom in which people speak the truth to one another from the heart.” That’s how God created us to be. That’s what we fell from. That’s what the law pointed to, regulated and promised. “Now,” says Jesus, “This is what is happening in me and my arrival.” We no longer speak from a double heart, but instead, we tell the plain and honest truth to one another, including the truth about what we are going to do.
b) Judging and saving from deceit
We now find ourselves back in Matthew 5 and the Sermon on the Mount—back to the Pharisees and their legalistic trickiness, by which they sought to cover over their corruption, which was a corruption of their heart. Out of the heart of man, all these evils come, Jesus said elsewhere:
“For from within, out of the heart of man, come evil thoughts, sexual immorality, theft, murder, adultery, coveting, wickedness, deceit, sensuality, envy, slander, pride, foolishness. All these evil things come from within, and they defile a person.” (Mark 7:21-23)
The problem is within. Augustine was perfectly correct. Jesus comes both to judge and condemn this Pharisaic foolishness of seeking to cover over the corruption of the heart with a veneer of righteousness. He comes to condemn the lying and deceptive heart.
But he also comes to do and bring something radically new: to redeem for himself a people who would be his subjects in a new kingdom in which integrity of speech from the heart will be the norm, and where there will be no need for oaths to guarantee that we aren’t lying. Instead, the members of this kingdom will seek a whole different level of righteousness in which there is no doubleness of heart, but just “Yes, yes” or “No, no”. Jesus comes to do that which the Law and the Prophets pointed to, but didn’t achieve in themselves.
All of this is embryonic here in the Sermon on the Mount. There’s so much more that will happen in the rest of Matthew’s Gospel and the New Testament: Jesus dies on the cross to redeem us from our unrighteousness. He rises from the dead as the king of this kingdom. He pours out his Spirit on his people to recreate them and regenerate them as his people, and he gives them a new heart. He creates a new community of his people who, by the power of his Spirit, speak the truth to one another in love.
c) A new community of truth
We see this new community of truth unfold in the rest of the New Testament:
Therefore, having put away falsehood, let each one of you speak the truth with his neighbour, for we are members one of another. (Eph 4:25)
Do not lie to one another, seeing that you have put off the old self with its practices and have put on the new self, which is being renewed in knowledge after the image of its creator. (Col 3:9-10)
Falsehood and lies belong to the old self—the old way, the old man, the old dominion. They do not belong in the new way of the kingdom we’ve been granted entry to. So cast away and put off falsehood, lies and deception, like old, dirty, filthy clothes. Our redemption and renewal in Christ is a renewal of our speech. It’s the sanctification and redemption of our language. Christians learn a whole new way of speaking—a whole new language—as members of God’s kingdom. It’s a language of truth and righteousness, as opposed to falsehood and lies.
It’s interesting that the two verses I quoted contain two slightly different, but related motivations. In Ephesians 4, we’re to speak the truth because we belong to one another: we’re members of a new body. So to lie to a brother is to lie to and cheat ourselves, because we’re all connected. We’re part of a new body, a new community into which God has grafted us in Christ.
In Colossians, the motivation is that we’re part of a whole new person: we’re not an old self and an old man; we’re a new man and a new person, a new creation that is being “renewed in knowledge after the image of its creator” (Col 3:10). In other words, it’s what we’ve seen in this big sweep from God’s purposes in creation through to what he’s doing in Jesus. We’re becoming what our creator always intended us to be: people who live in, speak in and participate in the truth—people for whom truth is the beating heart of their language and interaction with each other, just like it was for his Son, in whose perfect image we’re being renewed.
This is the kingdom to which Jesus ascended as king. This is the kingdom he calls us to and gives us entry into through his death and resurrection. This kingdom is a kingdom of righteousness, a kingdom of truth.
5. Seeking the righteousness of integrity today
In the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus has redirected our focus, as he always does. We might have come to this topic thinking, “What constitutes a lie? Are lies always wrong? Is my speech really lying, or is it okay if I do that?” Indeed, we often come to these questions with a sense of negotiation: what is possible or allowable to do? When would I be in the wrong? When I would be in the right?
However, it would be the ultimate irony if we spent our time trying to come up with a classification of what might be acceptable forms of speech for Christians that passed the test of truth, and what might just fall on the wrong side of the line and be constituted as lies. That, after all, is is exactly the approach Jesus is critiquing in Matthew 5. It is an approach that looks for loopholes or bypasses so that we can shape the world around ourselves and our convenience.
Instead, the Sermon on the Mount and Jesus’ teaching points us to a radical new approach to truth-telling and language—a seeking of righteousness and integrity in our speech that belongs to the new and different kingdom. Jesus came to bring about that sort of righteousness. This is the kind of kingdom he invites us into—one that seeks that level of truth from the heart, one that longs and loves truth, and one that casts off falsehood. It casts it away from us with the same kind of abhorrence as God, who hates lying lips.
To this you might say: “What are you expecting? Do you want me to be perfect?”
Well, yes—that’s exactly the standard. We aspire to nothing less than perfection because it’s what Jesus calls us to on the Sermon on the Mount: “Be perfect,” he says, “as your heavenly Father is perfect” (Matt 5:48). And one day in God’s time when the kingdom finally dawns in all its fullness, we will be.
a) Cast off falsehood
In the meantime, as we wait, we seek a perfect righteousness—a perfect righteousness of that kingdom—with all our hearts. We are dissatisfied with mealy-mouthed, deceptive speech that tries to get away with what it can. We abhor tricky attempts to craft a surface honesty that hides a dissembling or selfish heart. Because we look to that perfect righteousness and seek it, because that is our kingdom and future, we have nothing to do with lies and deceit. We cast them off.
All of us will find different forms of deceit and falsehood that we need to cast off.
Some of us like to spin slightly exaggerated or false narratives about ourselves to make ourselves look good, to excuse ourselves, or to win the favour of our boss or those around us. Some of us throw out promises and intentions like confetti, with no intention of keeping them and no real concern about whether we’re held accountable to our words or not.
“Must have you over for dinner sometime”, we say; or “Call you next week”; or perhaps the worst one of all, “I’ll pray for you.” It’s better not to speak than to speak falsely. It’s better to say, “No” and mean “No” than to say “Yes” and mean “Kind of”—particularly in a culture that doesn’t think words matter very much. Ask yourself what particular manifestations of that deceptive heart you find most difficult and most besetting, and pray about these things.
b) Swearing off lying lips
Language is so integral to our everyday lives that lying is one of our most common sins. We do it casually—sometimes even inadvertently. Words leap out of our mouths before we even have had a chance to think about them. Lying is not the same as other sins, like adultery or stealing; we don’t inadvertently, casually or almost accidentally cheat on our spouses or rob banks.
But as we’ve already seen, lying is always wrong. The Lord hates lying lips, because lying is always a rebellion against the truth of the world, of God and of our obligation to love others in the truth.
However, as I said in my introduction, truth and lies are complicated because we are complicated, and our interactions with one another are tricky and messy. What, then, are we to do when the way forward isn’t clear?
It seems to me that when faced with a situation where we are tempted to lie, instead of giving into that temptation, we should consider the multiple paths before us. If I don’t want to hurt my wife’s feelings regarding her new haircut, I could make a joke, or change the subject, ask her first what she thinks of it. Or I could just tell the truth: she asked for my opinion; I gave it, (in a gentle way!); and if she reacts with annoyance, is that my fault? There are ways of acting in accordance with the truth that don’t involve lies, even white ones.
c) Don’t be a Nazi
That said, I hear the Nazis knocking at the door once more. What should a follower of Jesus say to them when questioned about whether or not they are hiding Jews?
This issue is part of a larger discussion about the exigencies of war. In times of war, we kill and lie. We practise subterfuge and camouflage, and attempt to deceive the enemy in various ways. War is one of those situations where a retrieval ethic pertains, recovering as much good as possible from an otherwise evil situation.
Certainly in extreme circumstances, we may have to choose between unacceptable options. If I say to the Nazis, “Whether there are Jews here or not, I will never tell you because you’re wicked men in pursuit of a wicked purpose,” they will probably kill me. If I lie, I may temporarily save some Jews, but my lie may have repercussions for my whole family. It is always wrong to lie; God hates it, as we have already seen. But in extreme circumstances, it may be preferable to commit a lesser wrong.
In some extreme circumstances where there is no good path before us because of the evil of others and of the world, we retrieve the best we can. We may have done wrong, but not all wrongs are of equal seriousness or intensity. It’s wrong to lie to the Nazis, but not as wrong as being a Nazi.
Even so, it is not wise to start exercising your mind too far down that track, for that way lies Pharisaism. As Augustine points out, if we say that it is okay to lie for some good purpose, is it also okay to steal, commit murder or commit adultery if we think that it might serve some good purpose? Why not say “Let us do evil that good may come” (cf. Rom 3:8)
As Christians, we live a new life in a new kingdom, one that repudiates radically the common human standards of lies, deceit and faithlessness by which we used to live and by which the world around us continues to live, and in fact, regards as normal and even approves of. We seek a new and radical righteousness, a righteousness that Jesus himself embodied, that God created us for in the first place, and that the Spirit prompts and enables us to adopt. It’s the righteousness of integrity. So let us live as people of truth.
Unless otherwise indicated, all Scripture quotations are from The ESV® Bible (The Holy Bible, English Standard Version®), copyright © 2001 by Crossway, a publishing ministry of Good News Publishers. Used by permission. All rights reserved.
1 I’ve learned by bitter experience that in the evaluation of haircuts, there should only be three grades, starting with “Great!” and moving upwards to “Fabulous!” and “Gorgeous!”
2 See Genesis 3, which is full of lies, half-truths, evasions, blame-shifting and all the usual ways we misuse speech for our own purposes.