“Is it OK to lie for a good cause?” was the question asked in a recent TED conversation. The answers that came in were interesting.
One replied, “In my opinion the basis for moral action is loosely speaking to ‘maximize others’ well-being/minimize the harm you do to others.’ A rule such as ‘never lie’ is thus in my opinion not in itself the basis for moral action, but rather almost always a direct consequence of trying to be moral in the first sense. Lying can in my view therefore sometimes be moral.”
But can it really?
Another person quoted a religious figure who provided a more traditionalist conclusion: “It is a sin for someone to lie. When he lies for a good cause, i.e. to save someone else, this is half a sin, because the lie is for the benefit of his fellow man and not for himself. However it is also considered a sin; therefore, we should keep it in mind, and not fall into the habit of telling lies for insignificant things.”
So, is it okay to lie for a good cause? What does God say about lying and truth and our motives?
The underlying motivation that God has and that He wants us to have is love (Matthew 22:37-40). Based on this, the apostle Paul provided an important standard for Christian communication.
Speaking to the Church in Ephesus, he warned the Christians against being tossed about with winds of false teaching. Instead, by “speaking the truth in love,” they would “grow up in all things into Him who is the head—Christ”—who “causes growth of the body for the edifying of itself in love” (Ephesians 4:14-16).
Speaking the truth in love, according to the teaching of the Bible, helps combat false doctrine, promotes growth among Christians, and brings us closer to the perfect image of Christ.
Many realize it’s possible to speak lies in hatred, but can one speak lies in love? Or, alternatively, can one speak truth without loving? Surprising as it might be to some, it’s possible to do all of these things—and to fall short of the standard God requires. Let’s see why.
Examples of this abound. Maybe the most infamous example is the untruthful response of the serpent Satan in the Garden of Eden. God Himself had told Adam and Eve that if they ate of the forbidden tree, they would “surely die” (Genesis 2:17).
Satan contradicted God with the first lie recorded in the pages of Scripture. He told our progenitors, “You will not surely die. For God knows that in the day you eat of it your eyes will be opened, and you will be like God, knowing good and evil” (Genesis 3:4-5).
It was, in fact, a twisted untruth. They did take of the forbidden fruit, and their eyes were opened (verse 7). But the prerogative of deciding good and evil remained with the Creator, and death and disaster flowed from that decision. The Savior Jesus Christ would later say that the devil “does not stand in the truth, because there is no truth in him. When he speaks a lie, he speaks from his own resources, for he is a liar and the father of it” (John 8:44).
Long after the lie in the Garden of Eden, a true prophet had to stand up to a very large number of liars, who, like the devil, really didn’t care for those they claimed to love. The message of the false prophets of the time of Jeremiah was: “‘Peace, peace!’ when there is no peace” (Jeremiah 6:14; 8:11).
The false prophets claimed to love the people of Judah; but had their love been real, they would have told them to change their ways and repent before God. It was left to the prophet Jeremiah, one who really loved God and the people, to give the tough message. He passionately preached that they needed to change their way of life.
When we are motivated by love—genuine, godly concern for others—we choose our words carefully, thoughtfully.
Is it possible to claim we love someone and lie to them? Can falsity be sugar-coated and peddled as if it were truth?
Consider for a moment a famous letter written by an 8-year-old girl to a newspaper back in 1897. The letter has become legendary. Virginia O’Hanlon had become troubled by what some of her young school friends were telling her. So she sat down and wrote a letter to the New York Sun newspaper, which prompted an editorial dated Sept. 21, 1897.
The purpose of the editorial was to reassure a little girl concerning the existence of Santa Claus. Part of the editor’s response read as follows: “Yes, Virginia, there is a Santa Claus. He exists as certainly as love and generosity and devotion exist, and you know that they abound and give to your life its highest beauty and joy. Alas! How dreary would be the world if there were no Santa Claus. … There would be no childlike faith then, no poetry, no romance to make tolerable this existence. We should have no enjoyment, except in sense and sight. The eternal light with which childhood fills the world would be extinguished.”
Lovely words, designed, no doubt, to make children happy! But true? Of course not.
No doubt the author of this famous editorial would have claimed he acted in love. Yet is it really love if the claim is false? Not according to the Word of God.
If we don’t tell children the truth about Santa Claus, will they believe what we say about Jesus Christ?
Is it possible to tell the truth out of a wrong motivation? Yes, but such wrong motives lead to negative consequences—sometimes to the target of the message, and always to the malevolent speaker.
In the New Testament the apostle Paul wrote from his miserable prison experience of those who preached at least part of the message of the true gospel, but out of the wrong motive. “Some indeed preach Christ even from envy and strife. … The former preach Christ from selfish ambition, not sincerely, supposing to add affliction to my chains” (Philippians 1:15-16). Truth preached out of a wrong motive? It happened—and can happen.
But don’t think those who preached for the wrong reason gained any favor from God for it! God judges the hearts.
More often people justify their gossip and slander as truth—but it is truth used as a weapon and out of a wrong motive. The Bible strongly warns against gossip and revealing confidential information (Proverbs 11:13; 16:27).
This remains the “gold standard.” It’s what the Word of God requires, and nothing less will do. Truth given in a selfish spirit isn’t sufficient. Neither is falsity proclaimed out of a mistaken notion of love.
Telling the truth in love can hurt. Sometimes we, like the true prophets, must say things that can be hard to take. But usually speaking the truth with love—with tact, with grace, with a humble attitude of esteeming the hearers better than ourselves (Colossians 4:6; Philippians 2:3)—will produce peace and stronger relationships.
When we are motivated by love—genuine, godly concern for others—we choose our words carefully, thoughtfully. As Paul wrote, “Let no corrupt word proceed out of your mouth, but what is good for necessary edification, that it may impart grace to the hearers” (Ephesians 4:29). We must choose words that edify—that build up, encourage and strengthen. “Speaking the truth” doesn’t include making blunt, uninvited, tactless, critical comments just because they are true.
Lies ultimately lead to betrayal; and truth ultimately leads to well-being, trust and cooperation. From God’s perspective, it is everything. “Therefore, putting away lying, ‘Let each one of you speak truth with his neighbor,’ for we are members of one another” (Ephesians 4:25).
Speak the truth in love! Anything short of that is damaging to relationships and is unacceptable to God.
For more about speaking the truth, see “Ninth Commandment: You Shall Not Bear False Witness.”
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