Category: What does the Bible say about lying?


We know lying is a sin (Leviticus 19:11; Proverbs 12:22). But what about those “little white lies” that involve an ever-so-slight stretching of the truth? Do the small lies matter, or are they harmless? What if telling the truth might hurt someone?

Lying is defined as “making an untrue statement with the intent to deceive.” A white lie is an untrue statement, but it is usually considered unimportant because it does not cover up a serious wrongdoing. A white lie is deceptive, but it may also be polite or diplomatic at the same time. It could be a “tactful” lie told to keep the peace in a relationship; it could be a “helpful” lie to ostensibly benefit someone else; it could be a “minor” lie to make oneself look better in some area.

Some white lies are common: lying about one’s age, for example, or the size of the fish that got away. We live in a society that conditions us to lie by telling us that, in many situations, lies are justified. The secretary “covers” for the boss who doesn’t want to be disturbed; the salesman exaggerates the qualities of his product; the job applicant pads his résumé. The reasoning is, as long as no one is hurt or the result is good, little lies are fine.

It is true that some sins bring about worse consequences than others. And it is true that telling a white lie will not have the same serious effect as, say, murdering someone. But all sins are equally offensive to God (Romans 6:23a), and there are good reasons to avoid telling white lies.

First, the belief that a white lie is “helpful” is rooted in the idea that the end justifies the means. If the lie results in a perceived “good,” then the lie was justified. However, God’s condemnation of lying in Proverbs 6:16–19 contains no exception clause. Also, who defines the “good” that results from the lie? A salesman telling white lies may sell his product—a “good” thing for him—but what about the customer who was taken advantage of?

Telling a white lie to be “tactful” or to spare someone’s feelings is also a foolish thing to do. A person who consistently lies to make people feel good will eventually be seen for what he is: a liar. Those who traffic in white lies will damage their credibility.

White lies have a way of propagating themselves. Telling more lies to cover up the original lie is standard procedure, and the lies get progressively less “white.” Trying to remember what lies were told to what person also complicates relationships and makes further lying even more likely.

Telling a white lie to benefit oneself is nothing but selfishness. When our words are motivated by the pride of life, we are falling into temptation (1 John 2:16).

Little white lies are often told to preserve the peace, as if telling the truth would in some way destroy peace. Yet the Bible presents truth and peace as existing together: “Love truth and peace” (Zechariah 8:19). Tellers of white lies believe they are speaking lies out of “love”; however, the Bible tells us to speak “the truth in love” (Ephesians 4:15).

Sometimes telling the truth is not easy; in fact, it can be downright unpleasant. But we are called to be truth-tellers. Being truthful is precious to God (Proverbs 12:22); it demonstrates the fear of Lord. Furthermore, to tell the truth is not a suggestion, it is a command (Psalm 15:2; Zechariah 8:16; Ephesians 4:25). Being truthful flies in the face of Satan, the “father of lies” (John 8:44). Being truthful honors the Lord, who is the “God of truth” (Psalm 31:5, ISV).

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The Bible nowhere presents an instance where lying is considered to be the right thing to do. The ninth commandment prohibits bearing false witness (Exodus 20:16). Proverbs 6:16-19 lists “a lying tongue” and “a false witness who pours out lies” as two of the seven abominations to the Lord. Love “rejoices with the truth” (1 Corinthians 13:6). For other Scriptures that speak negatively of lying, see Psalm 119:29, 163; 120:2; Proverbs 12:22; 13:5; Ephesians 4:25; Colossians 3:9; and Revelation 21:8. There are many examples of liars in Scripture, from Jacob’s deceit in Genesis 27 to the pretense of Ananias and Sapphira in Acts 5. Time after time, we see that falsehood leads to misery, loss, and judgment.

There are at least two instances in the Bible where lying produced a favorable result. For example, the lie the Hebrew midwives tell Pharaoh seems to result in the Lord’s blessing on them (Exodus 1:15-21), and it probably saved the lives of many Hebrew babies. Another example is Rahab’s lie to protect the Israelite spies in Joshua 2:5. It is important to note, however, that God never condones these lies. Despite the “positive” outcome of these lies, the Bible nowhere praises the lies themselves. The Bible nowhere states that there are instances where lying is the right thing to do. At the same time, the Bible does not declare that there is no possible instance in which lying is an acceptable option.

The question then remains: is there ever a time when lying is the right thing to do? The most common illustration of this dilemma comes from the life of Corrie ten Boom in Nazi-occupied Holland. Essentially, the story is this: Corrie ten Boom is hiding Jews in her home to protect them from the Nazis. Nazi soldiers come to her home and ask her if she knows where any Jews are hiding. What is she to do? Should she tell the truth and allow the Nazis to capture the Jews she was trying to protect? Or, should she lie and deny that she knows anything about them?

In an instance such as this, where lying may be the only possible way to prevent a horrible evil, perhaps lying would be an acceptable thing to do. Such an instance would be somewhat similar to the lies of the Hebrew midwives and Rahab. In an evil world, and in a desperate situation, it may be the right thing to commit a lesser evil, lying, in order to prevent a much greater evil. However, it must be noted that such instances are extremely rare. It is highly likely that the vast majority of people in human history have never faced a situation in which lying was the right thing to do.

 

The Bible is clear that lying is a sin and is displeasing to God. The first sin in this world involved a lie told to Eve. The Ten Commandments given to Moses includes “You shall not bear false witness against your neighbor” (Exodus 20:16).

In the early church, Ananias and Sapphira lied regarding a donation in order to make themselves look more generous than they really were. Peter’s rebuke is stern: “Ananias, why has Satan filled your heart to lie to the Holy Spirit?” God’s judgment was sterner: the couple died as a result of their sin of lying.

Colossians 3:9 says, “Do not lie to each other, since you have taken off your old self with its practices.” Lying is listed in 1 Timothy 1:9-11 as something practiced by the lawless. Furthermore, liars will be among those judged in the end (Revelation 21:8). In contrast, God never lies (Titus 1:2). He is the source of truth. “It is impossible for God to lie” (Hebrews 6:18).

Jesus called Himself the way, the truth, and the life (John 14:6), and He expects those who follow Him to be people of truth. The truth is to be expressed in love (Ephesians 4:15), offering hope to those seeking redemption from the lies of the world.

For an explanation of the instances in the Bible in which lying appears to be acceptable, please see my post on: “Is it ever right to lie?”.