“Mommy, are you mad?”
It was 3:33 am when my precious four-year-old daughter, Charity woke me. I know this because I squinted to focus on those dreaded red digital numbers glowing from my nightstand.Our entire family had been sick with the flu. So yeah, I was mad to be awakened. Did I tell her that? Of course not.
I pulled her into bed with me. “No, baby. I know you’re sick.”
Did I tell a lie to my daughter? Well, technically I did. She asked if I was mad because, in our home, everyone knows they’ll face my wrath if they dare awaken me in the middle of the night. Even though I’m a morning person, they also know not to talk to me until after my first cup of coffee as well (smile). My initial reaction to Charity was that of anger, but it was instantly obliterated by love and compassion.
I wholeheartedly believe in the 9th commandment. I believe that God wants us to be people of truth. However, I have come to the conclusion that telling the truth is more than just not telling lies. What I mean is, there’s a difference between lying and not telling the truth.
In my research on this subject, I have learned that theologians are divided on this issue. Some—like Saint Augustine—believed that it is never permissible to lie. But others—like The German theologian Dietrich Bonhoeffer disagrees. Bonhoeffer proposed that God’s standard of truth entails more than merely “not lying.” Rather, to be true to God in the deepest way means being obedient to God, not merely conforming to “rules”—a kind of blind legalism. He believed there are situations where it is not only morally permissible to lie, but obedience to God requires it. And so he lied when he involved himself in deception after deception as he conspired against Hitler and the Nazi regime in WWII. On April 9, 1945, he was seen kneeling on the floor praying fervently to God just before his execution.
I realize the example I gave about my daughter is small compared to Bonhoeffer’s. It’s minuscule actually. But I believe the ethics behind the action are the same, and that is why I agree with Bonhoeffer. I also agree with Rehab, the prostitute in Joshua chapter six who lied in order to preserve a higher moral imperative—preserving the lives of two Jewish spies.
Please understand that I am not saying that all moral judgements are relative. Rather, I think there is a hierarchy of values that should be relevant when making moral decisions. Truth telling holds a high value unless something greater trumps it.
I’m not suggesting that lying is ever right. What I’m proposing is, lying is indeed justified for a greater good. Knowing the greater good requires wisdom. True wisdom comes from God, the source of all truth (Proverbs 2:6, James 3:17, Isaiah 65:16, Psalm 33:4). Deception is always wrong, but in some cases, it can be less wrong. As the saying goes, we may need to choose between the lesser of two evils.