Have you read what the Bible says about lies, lying, and liars lately? Pretty strong words! “The Lord detests lying lips, but he delights in people who are trustworthy” (Proverbs 12:12). Jesus spoke of the devil as “a liar and the father of lies” (Jo 8:44), an obvious reference to the lie the serpent told to Adam and Eve. Paul lists lying among some outrageous sins, saying that the law was not made for good people but “for slave traders and liars and perjurers” (1 Timothy 1:10). As a child who more than a few times lied to get out of trouble, the verse that really scared me is found in the scariest book in the Bible, Revelation:
But the cowardly, the unbelieving, the vile, the murderers, the sexually immoral, those who practice magic arts, the idolaters and all liars—they will be consigned to the fiery lake of burning sulfur (Revelation 21:8).
And there are so many more condemnations of lying. But as the essay progresses, you will see why the Bible presents the Ninth Commandment as the paradigm case of lying:
You shall not give false testimony against your neighbor (Ex 20:16).
Falsehood and Lies
Why is the Bible so hard on liars? Let’s think for a while about the nature of the lie and the act of lying. A lie is a falsehood asserted knowingly and with the intention of deceit. But not all falsehoods are lies. Some are simply mistakes. A simple falsehood is a statement that does not correspond to the facts it mentions. The statement, “Highfield’s car is worth over $100,000.00,” is a falsehood. A falsehood, whether intentionally or unintentionally told, misstates what is real and unreal. In many cases, the practical consequences of believing a falsehood are insignificant. It makes little day-to-day difference whether I believe our solar system contains seven or nine or ten planets. However, believing and acting on a falsehood can have grave consequences. If I belief falsely that my car’s brakes are in working order, I may find myself in danger on a mountain road.
Knowledge is Power
Francis Bacon famously said, “Knowledge in itself is power.” If you have knowledge you have power, and in so far as you are ignorant or misinformed you are vulnerable. If you have a certain skill or have access to the latest technology, you have more economic and physical power than those who do not. If you are able to persuade millions of people that you know how to cure all social ills, you will command the power of millions of bodies and minds. If you know someone’s dark secrets, you have them at your mercy. If you have secrets, you will do your best to hide them. Knowledge is power! Ignorance is weakness! And falsehood is ruin!
Lies, Lies, and More Lies
People don’t lie gratuitously. Lying is always a means to an end; it is an act designed to gain power. Under the impression of imparting knowledge (power) to someone else, it offers falsehood (weakness) instead. In doing this, the liar exercises power over others or keeps others from exerting power over them. We do, feel, and think many things that we would be ashamed for others to know. When someone asks us about one of our secrets or is in a position to discover them, we feel the impulse to lie to cover ourselves. In this case, our aim in lying is to protect ourselves from others. We tend to judge this type of lie less harshly that the next one. Let’s call it “defensive lying”. Nevertheless, even this type of lie does harm to us and others. Instead of avoiding our shameful acts or confessing them we compound them by lying. Perhaps if we practiced the discipline of confession we would develop greater self-control and find ourselves less self-deceived in moments of temptation. Confession is the practice of telling the truth to God.
Some lies are designed, not to protect ourselves from others, but to gain power over them. These liars are on offense. They intend to seduce, manipulate, and deceive others into acting in a way that benefits the liar and harms the victim. A dishonest car dealer, a seducer, and a swindler intend to cheat us through deceit. A false witness intends to bring us to ruin through abuse of the legal system. Crooked politicians hope to gain political power by making false promises, lying about their opponents, and covering up the ugly truth about themselves. Quite reasonably, we tend to judge these liars more harshly than the previous class. They lie for the purpose of inflicting harm—to reputation, to liberty, property, and even life. And the Bible is even harder on false prophets who lie in God’s name to the spiritual detriment of others!
A More Excellent Way
I am not going to enter into the tortured case logic of lying: Can you lie to an intruder to protect life and property? Is refusing to answer a question a kind of lie? Is allowing someone to remain ignorant when we could enlighten them a lie? Is it okay to lie to spare someone’s feelings? May you lie when it “harms no one”? Clearly, from a certain point of view the seriousness of a lie can be determined by the seriousness of the harm it causes. But human judgments about the seriousness of the harm a lie causes to others are fallible and limited in scope. We often fail to take into account spiritual harm or the lost opportunity for love and unity.
In the Bible, there are two sides to the issue of lying, a negative one and a positive one. The negative one is obvious but the positive one is subtle. Of course, Christians should not be liars. But more than that, we should love truth and be willing to confess our weakness, sins, and faults. We should try to live our lives so that we have nothing to hide. If we trust in God’s power, we will be less concerned about gaining advantage over others and we will feel less vulnerable to others. If we love God, we will love others and will want to do them good. Speaking truth is an act of love. Lying always offends against love.