Sunday, April 14, 2013

Tactful lies

After Sir Denis died from cancer in 2003, her mother continually had to be reminded that her husband had gone.

"I had to keep giving the bad news over and over again," said Carol Thatcher. "Every time it finally sank in that she had lost her husband of more than 50 years, she'd look at me sadly and say 'oh', as I struggled to compose myself."

This raises an ethical question. If you have a relative who’s going senile, if she (or he) can’t remember that her spouse predeceased her, so that every time you tell her, it’s like the first time she heard it, why would you even tell her? Why put her through all that? Why make her constantly relive the shock and pain of hearing that? Why not tell a tactful lie, and thereby spare her the gratuitous grief of repeated tellings and repeated forgettings?

In Roman Catholic theology, lying is intrinsically evil. There are no circumstances under which a lie is morally permissible. But Evangelicals aren’t bound by Catholic dogmas.


  1. I'm not persuaded we shouldn't lie about being a Christian under certain circumstances. If being killed would not advance the cause of Christ because nobody would know you died a martyr's death, then why not lie to someone who threatened death if you confessed Christ? Why not protect your own innocent life in order to serve Christ (if not also serve family, church and neighbor)? I'm not talking about denying Christ out of fear of man, but rather deceiving an enemy of Christ in order to glorify the Lord. I think the motive behind one's choice is germane. Peter denied Christ for the wrong reasons, but one I would think could have a motive that is theoretically pure.


  2. 18 In this matter may the Lord pardon your servant: when my master goes into the house of Rimmon to worship there, leaning on my arm, and I bow myself in the house of Rimmon, when I bow myself in the house of Rimmon, the Lord pardon your servant in this matter.” 19 He said to him, “Go in peace” (2 Kings 5:18).

  3. In Roman Catholic theology, lying is intrinsically evil. There are no circumstances under which a lie is morally permissible. But Evangelicals aren’t bound by Catholic dogmas.

    I don't know if it's true but Chris Hallquist wrote:

    So for example, there was a time when Catholic priests were prohibited from entering England on pain of death. So what’s a Catholic priest trying to get into England to do, when the English authorities ask if he’s a priest? The Jesuits decided it was not, in fact, technically lying for a priest to say, “I am not a priest.” As Wikipedia explains:

    A Jesuit priest would equivocate in order to protect himself from the secular authorities without (in his eyes) committing the sin of lying. For example, he could use the ambiguity of the word “a” (meaning “any” or “one”) to say “I swear I am not a priest”, because he could have a particular priest in mind who he was not. That is, in his mind, he was saying “I swear I am not one priest” (e.g. “I am not Father Brown”.) This was theorized by casuists as the doctrine of mental reservation.

    1. I wrote what I did to show a possible inconsistency on the part of Catholic theology. I'm not denying that Protestants have sometimes lied. For example, it's not uncommon for Protestant missionaries lying about their intentions and whether they have Bibles with them when entering Communist countries.

  4. Here's a list of 16 Biblical passages that according to Wayne Grudem, John Frame cites "in which someone misleads an enemy,
    without incurring any condemnation, and sometimes even being commended."

    The passages are (1) Exod. 1:15-21; (2) Josh. 2:4-6; 6:17, 25; Heb. 11:31; James 2:25; (3) Josh. 8:3-8; (4) Judges 4:18-21; 5:24-27; (5) 1 Sam. 16:1-5; (6) 1 Sam. 19:12-17; (7) 1 Sam. 20:6; (8) 1 Sam. 21:13; (9) 1 Sam. 27:10; (10) 2 Sam. 5:22-25; (11) 2 Sam. 15:34; (12) 2 Sam. 17:19-20; (13) 1 Kings 22:19-23; (14) 2 Kings 6:14-20; (15) Jer. 38:24-28; (16) 2 Thess. 2:11.

    The list is taken from Grudem's article "Why It Is Never Right To Lie: An Example of John Frame’s Influence on My Approach to Ethics"

    Grudem respectfully disagrees with Frame.

  5. I know missionaries who need to cloak their purposes. They come up with technical truths that they can tell while intentionally not telling the whole truth. I've otherwise been taught that that's as good as a lie. Whatever helps one sleep at night...

    In the case of the Barroness, often it is prescribed to rehearse reality in order to help people suffering from senility or Alzheimer's to stay grounded as much as possible. I would imagine that appropriate sadness at re-learning of the death of a loved one would be a good sign that some modicum of reality remains in the mind.