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Is it Ever Justifiable to Tell a Lie?

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Question:   Hi Bob,  I have an unusual question, is it permissible to lie to your enemy? Case in point 1st Samuel 27:8-12 where David lies to his Philistine patron Achish about who he was really raiding. During the tribulation I can see Christians doing this to preserve others.  Thank you

Response:  It's actually a very good question, and I would agree that it's also one whose answer needs to be considered in light of the Tribulation. Part #7 of the series I'm presently working on will deal in part with a "Tribulational Code of Conduct" to address issues of this sort.

As to 1st Samuel 27:8-12, that is as good a place to begin as any since it brings up most of the issues involved. Generally speaking, of course, lying is sinful (Ex.20:16) - and a bad idea in any case (it's the devil's modus operandi, for example: Jn.8:44), for it is completely antithetical to truth, the central issue of the Christian way of life. Now it is true that there are times when what is generally a complete violation of God's will under normal circumstances is in fact justified under others. There is, for instance, "a time to kill" (in war, or capital punishment, or self-defense, for instance: Eccl.3:3). And in these terms, I would certainly not wish to suggest that CIA operatives ought to be telling our enemies "the truth"; it seems clear to me that deception is an integral part of warfare (surprise, for instance, is one of the most important principles of war, and is often achieved only through elaborate scheming: cf. 2Sam.16:15 - 17:22). That said, it is also important to note that both killing and lying (and other normally sinful or criminal behaviors) are justified only as part of personal or national self-defense (from lethal foreign or domestic enemies). This is a very specific and well-defined area of exception.

To take your example, I am not convinced that David's position in this instance was one of strength. David was not a part of the Philistine army. Far from it - the Philistines were some of Israel's deadliest enemies and would soon wreak a terrible slaughter on the army of Israel, killing king Saul and David's best friend, his son Jonathan. So the question may fairly be asked, "what was David doing in semi-alliance with them"? God had protected him in his tribulations throughout the wilderness of Judea for many years. Yet in 1st Samuel 27:1, David's reasoning seems entirely secular: "one of these days I will be destroyed" - could anything be further from the truth for the man to whom God had promised so much, even that the Messiah would come from his (as yet unborn) seed? This verse seems to me to make it abundantly clear that David had allowed himself to become "tired out", spiritually speaking, and had made a bad decision as a result, a decision that not only put him in a position where he would have to lead a life of deception in the short run, but one which very nearly put him with the Philistines at the battle of Mt. Gilboa. Had not God "bailed him out" (1Sam.29:1-10), he might very well have participated in the slaughter of his own people and, in addition to his dearest friend, the killing of "the Lord's anointed", the very thing which he had so far scrupulously avoided ... that is, until he decided to find "a better way" than continuing to endure in the wilderness God had led him to just a bit longer. 

The point is this: whenever lying seems like a good idea, it is usually because we are afraid of the consequences of telling the truth. Now there may very well be reason to fear the truth, especially if, like David in this case, we have put ourselves in a weak position by one or by a string of bad decisions: if George hadn't chopped down the cherry tree, he wouldn't have had to wrestle with telling that painful truth. The converse should be considered as well: once we accept the principle of being truthful regardless of cost, we become much more careful about the other decisions we make, with a view to avoiding potentially difficult situations like the one David found himself in, where telling the truth about what he was really doing was no longer a viable option. But had he stayed out in the wilderness (as I believe it was clear that he should have), he wouldn't have had to tell the Philistines anything, wouldn't have had such a close call in almost participating in the destruction of Saul and Jonathan, wouldn't have been away and suffered the terrible raid of the Amalekites on his camp at Ziklag, etc. Once we compromise the truth with our behavior, compromising the truth with our mouths is very likely to follow. We would do well to remember the account we will have to give to self and others (and most importantly, of course, to God) before we do things that will make telling the truth difficult.

To return to the Tribulation, I am inclined at this point to see things the same way. Many of us will in fact face death if called upon to endure that darkest period of the Church. The prophecies of scripture are clear: the Great Tribulation will see more martyrdom than all of human history put together heretofore. And "if anyone is destined for the sword", then he/she will be martyred (Rev.13:10). This is a promise, and one that we are to prepare to accept and even take some comfort in ("this is the endurance and the faith of the saints"). This doesn't mean we are to betray our fellow believers - God forbid. We owe the evil one nothing (the military "code of conduct" is, of course, name, rank and serial number only: cf. Is.53:7). And beyond this, it is probably a really bad idea for amateurs like myself (and you too I assume) to contemplate a campaign of creative deception against antichrist, even if such a thing were legitimate. Lies have a tendency to break down in unforeseen circumstances, as can be seen from David's behavior following the example you quote, as we watch the embarrassing spectacle of him reacting in false self-righteousness to the news that he would not be allowed to participate in the battle that was to claim Jonathan's life:

"But what have I done?" asked David. "What have you found against your servant from the day I came to you until now? Why can't I go and fight against the enemies of my lord the king?"
1st Samuel 29:8 NIV

It's not a Bible verse, but there is an old saying that "honesty is the best policy". I am inclined to agree (Prov.12:19). We are all sinners, and this is a standard which for most of us will take some hard work to achieve, but it is one which I believe we are meant to strive for:

Therefore each of you must put off falsehood and speak truthfully to his neighbor, for we are all members of one body.
Ephesians 4:25 NIV

Like many other things we are called by God to do, faith must grow to accept not only the rightness of the goodness of such "risky" behavior, but also come to see that it really is the better course to follow God's advice in such matters, even though from the world's viewpoint, it may be foolish and fraught with disaster. In my observation, experience, and, more importantly, reading of the Bible, trusting Him in such things is a policy which is never disappointed and never regretted after the fact, no matter how much we may dread the consequences of honesty ahead of time. To do this, of course, to effectively practice honesty, realistically requires that we take pains to stay out of situations the like of which David put himself in. After all, if one of the greatest men of faith of all time could place himself in a position where trusting God enough to be honest was impossible, it certainly behooves the rest of us to make every effort to stay out of such predicaments in the first place (cf. also 1Sam.20:1-8; Jas.2:25). 

Please also see:

Is it ever justifiable to lie (part 2)?

Bible Basics 3B:  Hamartiology: the Biblical Study of Sin

Yours in Christ,

Bob Luginbill


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