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The Truth About Telling the Truth

by Ron du Preez

Is it ever acceptable for a Christian to lie, even under extreme circumstances?

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It happened toward the end of the Second World War. Hitler's troops had invaded Austria, and the German army was out to annihilate all Jews. Out of compassion, a Seventh-day Adventist woman began looking after a 12-year-old Jewish boy, named Fritz. All too soon that fateful day arrived when the Gestapo showed up. As she opened the front door, a direct question was fired at her. Calling her by name, a soldier asked: "Mrs. Hasel, do you have Fritz in your house?"1 What should she say? Should she tell the truth, or mislead these murderers? The life of an innocent boy was at stake! What would you say? What should your answer be if you were in that situation?

While that predicament may admittedly seem remote, it is a fact that each of us is frequently confronted with the temptation to be less than honest: the inflated income tax figures, the innuendos intended to impugn another's character, the padded report or the doctoring of numbers meant to enhance one's status or career.

For some employers, this question of truth-telling has become quite an issue recently. What are you to do when a former employee, who was not a very reliable worker, requests a letter of recommendation? To avoid being sued by either side, author Robert Thornton suggests you give a totally ambiguous response. For example, to portray someone who is constantly negative, you could say, "Her input was always critical;" to characterize a lazy person, you might suggest, "You will be very fortunate to get him to work for you;" to depict a person best suited for janitorial type work, you could state, "If I were you, I wouldn't hesitate to give her sweeping responsibilities;" and to describe a candidate who is certain to foul up any project, you could advise, "I am sure that whatever he undertakes--no matter how small--he will be fired with enthusiasm."2

Now, I am not suggesting that this is the way a Christian ought to respond to difficult questions. I'm sharing this only to illustrate that at times the "truth" is told in such a way as to deceive. You might have heard the story of the automobile race held in the former Soviet Union. Only two cars participated: an American car and a Russian one. The American car won. However, the following day the official newspaper report briefly stated: "Yesterday there was a car race, in which the Russian car came in second, and the American car second to last!" Now technically the "truth" had been told; but it had been reported in such a way as to deceive. As Ellen White has noted, "Even the statement of facts in such a manner so as to mislead, is falsehood" (Patriarchs and Prophets, p. 309).

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Literal "Truth"?

What does "telling the truth" really mean? As a student in high school, I understood this phrase in a rather narrow and strictly "literal" sense. Thus, while I was scrupulously careful to never utter an untruth with my lips (for "lying lips are an abomination to the Lord," Prov 12:223), I had no qualms about misleading someone by means of a well-timed shrug of the shoulders or the carefully choreographed question, "How should I know?" It was only later that I learned that the same book that condemned oral dishonesty also castigated those who used non-verbal deception. Solomon describes the wicked person as one "who goes about with a corrupt mouth, who winks with his eye, signals with his feet and motions with his fingers, who plots evil with deceit in his heart" (Prov 6:12b-14a NIV). Or as the Contemporary English Version succinctly puts it: "Worthless liars go around winking and giving signals to deceive others" (vss. 12, 13).

Ellen White concurred: "By a glance of the eye, a motion of the hand, an expression of the countenance, a falsehood may be told as effectually as by words" (Patriarchs and Prophets, p. 309). Indeed, "a word, even an intonation of the voice, may be vital with falsehood" (Thoughts From the Mount of Blessing, p. 68). Thus, the challenge to all believers is to "never prevaricate, never tell an untruth, in precept or in example" (Child Guidance, p. 151).

Now it is true, as some scholars have pointed out, that the ninth commandment, "You shall not give false testimony against your neighbor" (Ex 20:16 NIV), is written in clearly legal language, specifically forbidding malicious perjury. However, throughout both the Old and New Testaments a variety of terms repeatedly condemns the practice of deception in a broad sense, thus indicating that we should not limit this prohibition merely to judicial cases. For example, Leviticus 19:11 says: "You shall not steal, nor deal falsely, nor lie to one another." Speaking of the remnant of Israel, Zephaniah 3:13 reports that they will "speak no lies, nor shall a deceitful tongue be found in their mouths." While Paul admonishes that believers should be "putting away lying" (Eph 4:25) and ought to be found "speaking the truth in love" (Eph 4:15), John the Revelator emphasizes that there will be no liars in heaven (Rev 21:8, 27; 22:15).

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Absolute Honesty

In fact, as one reads through the entire Bible, especially the books of Psalms and Proverbs, it becomes abundantly evident that the Scriptures make a clarion call to total truthfulness and absolute honesty under all circumstances. Notice how Ellen White expressed this: "The Bible condemns in the strongest terms all falsehood, false dealing, and dishonesty" (Testimonies for the Church, 4:311). "Falsehood and deception of every cast is sin against the God of truth and verity" (ibid., p. 336).

Furthermore, this matter of truth-telling is not merely an external issue. Talking about those who have diabolic designs, the Bible says: "Deceit is in the[ir] heart" (Prov 12:20; cf. 6:14 NIV; 23:7; Jer 17:9). As Jesus pointed out in the Sermon on the Mount, all sin really begins in the mind, before it finds expression in the life (see Matt 5:21, 22, 27, 28). Therefore, it is correct that "an intention to deceive is what constitutes falsehood" (Patriarchs and Prophets, p. 309), which "is a transgression of the law of God" (Testimonies for the Church, 4:312).

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