Tuesday, March 31, 2015


One asect of Scripture that can sometimes cause a bit of confusion for believers involves deception. Part of this is because we're often reminded of the Ten Commandments, specifically Exodus 20:16, which in the ESV says: "You shall not bear false witness against your neighbor." It seems pretty straightforward that we are not to lie, but then as we read more of Scripture we discover many passages that seem to run contradictory to that axiom that we ought not to deceive. Even more critical is when we find passages like the following (all are in ESV):
"And the Lord said to him, ‘By what means?’ And he said, ‘I will go out, and will be a lying spirit in the mouth of all his prophets.’ And he said, ‘You are to entice him, and you shall succeed; go out and do so’" (1 Kings 22:22).

"O Lord, you have deceived me, and I was deceived" (Jeremiah 20:7a).

"And if the prophet is deceived and speaks a word, I, the Lord, have deceived that prophet, and I will stretch out my hand against him and will destroy him from the midst of my people Israel" (Ezekiel 14:9).

"Therefore God sends them a strong delusion, so that they may believe what is false" (2 Thessalonians 2:11).

"And in the same way was not also Rahab the prostitute justified by works when she received the messengers and sent them out by another way?" (James 2:25). [And to understand the context of this passage: "Then the king of Jericho sent to Rahab, saying, 'Bring out the men who have come to you, who entered your house, for they have come to search out all the land.' But the woman had taken the two men and hidden them. And she said, 'True, the men came to me, but I did not know where they were from. And when the gate was about to be closed at dark, the men went out. I do not know where the men went. Pursue them quickly, for you will overtake them.' But she had brought them up to the roof and hid them with the stalks of flax that she had laid in order on the roof" (Joshua 2:3-6).]
In addition to the Scriptural texts, there is the commonly used hypothetical of a family in occupied France who is hiding Jews from the Nazis. When the Nazis come and ask, "Are you hiding Jews?" is it permissible to lie?

Now it is certainly understandable why someone seeking to live Biblically would have a bit of a struggle with this, but I think there is a way to resolve the tension. First, let us examine what Jesus Himself said is the greatest commandment:
But when the Pharisees heard that he had silenced the Sadducees, they gathered together. And one of them, a lawyer, asked him a question to test him. “Teacher, which is the great commandment in the Law?” And he said to him, “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind. This is the great and first commandment. And a second is like it: You shall love your neighbor as yourself. On these two commandments depend all the Law and the Prophets.” (Matthew 22:34-40)
The key aspect I think is found in the fact that "On these two commandments depend all the Law and the Prophets." Thus, the purpose of the law to not bear false witness is so that A) we can love God with all our heart, soul, and mind; and B) we can love our neighbor as ourselves.

Now in a perfect world, all laws would be in balance in every single situation. But we live in a fallen world with very clever, evil people. Since the rest of the law hinges upon these two greatest commands, then logically if there is a conflict between a law and the greatest law, we must obey the greatest law.

So given this principle, we can think once again of the Nazi test. Is it loving our neighbor as ourselves if we tell the Nazis where the Jews are hiding? Clearly, it is not loving the Jews we are hiding if we do that. But it is not loving the Nazis either, for if we tell them the truth we are in fact giving them the means by which they will commit a great evil by their sinning against the Jews. So clearly, lying to the Nazis, while breaking the command not to lie, is actually obeying the command to love our neighbor as ourselves, which means we would be obeying the greater commandment. I think this helps us understand the situation with Rahab as well, since Rahab's position is virtually identical to the Nazi hypothetical.

Now as I mentioned earlier, men are evil and like nothing more than to find loopholes for everything, so we have to be clear here: the situations where one of God's "lesser" commands will come into conflict with the great commandment are going to be few and far between. In fact, I daresay the majority of us will probably never find ourselves in a position where they will be in conflict. So this is not a license to pretend that we can sin as much as we want "to love our neighbor" because for this to be valid it really has to be in obedience to the great commandment (which begins with loving God with all our heart, soul, and mind).

Of course, we are still left with the question of God deceiving people by either putting the lying spirit in the mouths of the prophets or in sending a delusion. Each of these instances appear to be aspects of divine judgment upon wicked and evil people, and I think that perhaps Romans 1 helps us resolve this a little:
For the wrath of God is revealed from heaven against all ungodliness and unrighteousness of men, who by their unrighteousness suppress the truth. ...And since they did not see fit to acknowledge God, God gave them up to a debased mind to do what ought not to be done (Romans 1:18, 28).
If men suppress the truth, God's punishment is to give them over to their delusions. This certainly seems to be an aspect of "the punishment fitting the crime."

With this, I find all the tension in Scripture resolved...except for the verse in Jeremiah. Jeremiah, after all, was a good prophet who obeyed God. He was not one of the evil prophets in the land. He was a righteous, godly man and believed God deceived him.

It could be that Jeremiah's complaint was completely unjust, that God didn't really deceive him at all. More likely I think that Jeremiah assumed something and that assumption was wrong and God did not correct the assumption and Jeremiah felt that was deception. (Still, this aspect is admittedly speculation and I don't think the Bible is clear enough to make a firm statement as regards Jeremiah's complaint.)

But while the issue of Jeremiah's complaint is interesting, ultimately I can live with that curiosity not being answered :-)


  1. How do you reconcile that with Titus 1:2? How can it be acceptable for us to lie in a situation when Jesus would not have been able to lie in that same situation?

    I've heard others explain it by saying the coercive nature of the situation made it not truly a lie. But you did call it a lie.

    1. Speaking for myself, I've discussed this issue in detail:




    2. A quick answer:

      i) If I were Jesus, I wouldn't box myself into that predicament in the first place. If I can predestine history, I won't put myself in a bind.

      But since I'm not God or God Incarnate, I must play the hand I was dealt. I'm not the dealer. I didn't shuffle the deck.

      ii) Likewise, if I had the miraculous powers of Jesus, there'd always be alternatives to lying since I'd be able to supernaturally override the circumstances.

    3. Ben said:
      But you did call it a lie.

      Can you clarify what "it" refers to in your sentence, Ben? Because I don't recall anything God doing being called a lie, and having just re-read my post, confirmed my recollection. So I have no idea what you're addressing.

      For the record, with my assumptions of what you probably meant, I would have answered just about the same way Steve did, but with fewer Roman numerals and more awesomeness. :-D

    4. Peter habitually out-awesomes me.

    5. In fact, Peter has a special dial on his watch to adjust the output of awesomeness in case it becomes overwhelming to bystanders.

    6. The "it" was referring to what you'd say to the nazi.

      > So clearly, lying to the Nazis, while breaking the command not to lie, is actually obeying the command to love our neighbor as ourselves

      You didn't call anything God did a lie. You said you thought lying would be the moral thing to do in that situation. I'm trying to understand how lying can be moral and yet something God is unable to do.

    7. There are many things that God is unable to do that humans can do–or experience. I can be afraid–God can't. I can enjoy chocolate ice cream–God can't. What God can or can't do is not ipso facto the standard of what humans can or can't do (or should do). In some important respects, God and human creatures are radically different.

    8. > There are many things that God is unable to do that humans can do–or experience.

      I recognize that.

      In Titus 1:2 Paul's using the fact that God never lies to show his trustworthiness. He promised it and he never lies so we know it will come true. I've gotten from that that if you want to be completely trustworthy you can't ever lie. If you lie under any circumstance you introduce some doubt. I know I'm never going to meet that standard, but I had that as the goal to strive for.

    9. If Jews thought I'd rat them out to the Nazis, they wouldn't trust me. Can I be trusted to do the right thing in that situation? That's part of trustworthiness.

    10. Leveling with the wrong people can be a betrayal of trust if we have a duty to protect some people from other people who would do them harm.

    11. You're making me think.

      If I ever encounter a situation like that I hope I have time to think it through. I'd have a hard time figuring it out on the spot. My natural inclination would be to do whatever was easier for me. And my habit it to avoid ever lying.

    12. Hello Ben,
      Thank you for the clarification! Again, Steve said much of what I would have said already. I will add based on your last comment two things. 1) In the heat of the moment is not when you should be figuring out what your response should be, which is why thinking about these scenarios is a good thing to do (i.e., you figure out what your default mode would be so that it becomes your immediate reaction in a crisis). 2) It's good to have a habit of avoiding lying in general. As I said in the original post, I don't think that these types of scenarios come up very frequently at all. The vast majority of the time there is no moral reason to lie in a situation. I'm referring to special circumstance that I pray neither you nor I will ever have to face.

    13. In large part, God can be trusted to keep his promises because God has the unilateral ability to ensure their realization. Nothing and no one has the power to prevent him from doing what he said he'd do.

      In addition, God is never in a position where he must choose between protecting the innocent and telling the truth.

      The same, however, can't be said for feeble creatures in a fallen world.

  2. I usually think T-blog is spot on, but cast a dissenting vote here. I side with the Cripplegate boys on this one.

    1. You're permitted to be mistaken now and then, so long as you don't exceed your quota. But if you disagree with Tblog too often, brace yourself for freak accidents. A preview of eschatological judgment! :-)

    2. Thanks for sending that on, CR! The main problem I have with the post you linked is that I do not think it adequately addresses the issue of Rahab. James specifically says she was justified "when she received the messengers and sent them out by another way". BTW, given the story in Joshua, the "them" seems to me to be referring to the pursuers rather than the spies from Israel, but regardless the key word is the verb "sent." And how did Rahab send them "out by another way"? By lying: "True, the men came to me, but I did not know where they were from. And when the gate was about to be closed at dark, the men went out. I do not know where the men went. Pursue them quickly, for you will overtake them."

      The *lie* is what sent them a different way than where the spies were, and it is *that lie* that James says indicates Rahab's justification, and I don't think that was adequately dealt with by the Cripplegate site.

    3. Hi Peter, thanks for the interaction. I don't think it's at all clear from the text of Jas. 2:25 that Rahab's *lie* is being commended, condoned, or even or cited as the reason for her "justification", rather the text reports the bare fact that "she received the messengers and sent them out by another way" without comment on the method. As you well know, the Bible often reports facts and events without speaking to the morality or immorality surrounding the facts or events.

      Personally in context I think James is probably referring to the Jewish spies, because by identifying herself with God's covenant people, and putting her own life at risk on their behalf, she was "justified" (in the sense James uses the term) by this outworking of her newborn faith in the God of Israel.