Lying to save life and biblical morality (Part III)

Magnanimous Motives And Moral Action

To review, the second point in the article “In Defense of Rahab” was that, “Motives are vital for determining an action’s moral validity. In other words, misleading a potential murderer is in ‘perfect conformity’ to the ‘spirit’ of God’s law.” To analyze this statement two questions will be considered: What does the law of God really say? And, what part do motives play in obedience?

A new trend seems to be emerging in the interpretation of Scripture stories, and that is, the construction of novel meanings for well-known terms.69 Consider, for a few moments the following rationalistic reasoning in response to the question, “What should the Christian do, when telling the naked truth can result in the direct loss of innocent human life?”70 First, the following subtly sarcastic statement is made: “If a lie is the simple utterance of an untruth, then the student who writes on a test paper that London is the capital of Japan is lying.”71 Quickly crushing this creative caricature, the writer then alternatively proposes that, “Common sense would dictate that intent and motive must come into the equation.”72 Finally, in place of the fraudulent formulation of a “lie” given above, he then asserts: “To lie, as I see it, is to make a false statement, with wicked or malicious or selfish intent to [impress,] deceive or mislead.”73

On the surface, this description might appear appropriate and even accurate. But, careful consideration reveals at least the following three serious problems:

1. Contrary To The Biblical Definition To begin with, let’s consider the Bible’s own definition of deception. There has been some debate as to the actual meaning of the ninth commandment: “You shall not bear false witness against your neighbor” (Exod 20:16). It has been stated that the language of this law “is clearly legal, forbidding malicious perjury.”74 Consequently, it is concluded that “this commandment by itself, strictly interpreted, hardly constitutes a prohibition of any and every kind of deception.”75 Accordingly, at times any type of deception has been promoted in order to preserve human life.76 While some modern linguists may endorse and promote this restricted view of the so-called literal meaning of the ninth commandment,77 it is profoundly more significant to determine how the divinely inspired Bible writers themselves understood and interpreted this moral requirement.

While a superficial reading of Exodus 20:16 may admittedly appear to prohibit only lying in court, Leviticus 19 paints a much broader picture. Even a casual look at this levitical legislation reveals that virtually every one of the Ten Commandments is reiterated here, though in a different format.78 Verse 11, which contains both the eighth and the ninth commandments, states: “You shall not steal, nor deal falsely, nor lie to one another.” The Hebrew term used here, kāaš, is an expression found throughout Old Testament writings that encompasses and prohibits different types of deception, and is not simply restricted to legal issues.79 Indeed, it has been recognized that “this text in Leviticus does prohibit ‘any form of lying or deception.’”80 This is the identical word found in the charges of law-breaking brought against the people of Israel by Hosea, the mid-eighth century BC prophet. Hosea 4:2 notes that the Israelites were “lying (kāaš), killing and stealing and committing adultery.” The Hebrew terms employed here for “killing,” “stealing,” and “committing adultery,” are identical to the ones in the Ten Commandments. However, in connection with the ninth commandment, instead of using the supposedly limited expression found in the Decalogue, Hosea selected the word kāaš, which includes deception in general.81 Thus, it becomes evident that the divinely-inspired Old Testament writers understood the ninth commandment as prohibiting perjury as well as all other kinds of deceit.

An analogous situation emerges from an overview of the manner in which New Testament writers perceived the meaning of this law. Perhaps best known of these references to the Decalogue are the statements made by Jesus. In His response to the rich young ruler’s question as to which commandments he needed to observe, Jesus said in part: “‘You shall not murder,’ ‘You shall not commit adultery,’ ‘You shall not steal,’ ‘You shall not bear false witness’” (Matt 19:18; cf. Mark 10:17-31; Luke 18:18-30). The Greek expression, pseudomartureō, which the lexicon defines as to “bear false witness,” or to “give false testimony,”82 is the term used for the ninth commandment, and it appears to approximate the same sense of the original Hebrew expression. This is the identical word used in Matthew 15:19, where Jesus comments: “For out of the heart proceed evil thoughts, murders, adulteries, fornications, thefts, false witness, blasphemies.” Interestingly, when Mark records the same story in his gospel account, he utilizes a different Greek expression, dolos, one which includes deception of every shape and form.83 A comparable example of the interchangeability of these two terms is seen in Paul’s writings. While he uses pseudomartureō in Romans 13:9, where he enumerates several of the commandments, in Romans 1:28-32 he uses dolos, in a long catalog of vices. And, it is this expression which is employed in 1 Peter 2:22 to describe an evil trait of which our “example,” Jesus Christ, was exempt: “Nor was deceit (dolos) found in His mouth.”84 Thus, similar to their Old Testament counterparts, New Testament writers viewed the ninth commandment as including more than merely a prohibition against perjury in a legal setting.

Furthermore, examination of the ninth commandment, in its original setting in Exodus as well as in its multiple occurrences throughout Scripture,85 reveals that this ethical obligation is always stated in a categorical manner, without any exceptions, exemptions, or reservations: “You shall not bear false witness against your neighbor” (Exod 20:16); “And do not lie to each other” (Col 3:9 NJB). None of the texts forbidding falsehood suggests that lying is justifiable or at least excusable depending on the predicament one might be in, or the motive, intention or purpose for which the lie is told. All of these passages simply prohibit deception without any qualification whatsoever! As succinctly summarized in a doctoral dissertation on deceivers in Scripture: “The motivation of the liar, positive or negative, is not relevant.”86

What then, is the role of motives, especially when Scripture pronounces a divine blessing on “the pure in heart” (Matt 5:8), and states that “the Lord looks at the heart” (1 Sam 16:7; cf. Ps 139:23)? A study of the Decalogue shows that, while commandments one and ten address essentially internal matters, numbers two through nine deal directly with clearly quantifiable action; for example, idolatry, adultery, stealing, etc. However, evidence from both Old and New Testaments indicates that these laws were never limited to merely external actions. Consider, for instance, Exodus 20:14: “You shall not commit adultery.” When Jesus explained that to lust after someone was to commit adultery in the “heart” (Matt 5:28), He was merely reminding the people of a moral concept already recognized and recorded in the oldest book of the Bible (see Job 31:1, 9). In other words, true obedience includes both an appropriate attitude as well as correct action; a “pure heart” (Matt 5:8 NLV) that produces “good works” (Matt 5:16); a transformed mind with a godly lifestyle (Rom 12:1, 2); a faith that works (Jas 2:14-26); for this is what it means to truly worship God “in spirit and in truth” (John 4:24 NLV). In other words, “Those who have the mind of Christ will keep all of God’s commandments, irrespective of circumstances.”87 Just as “breath” plus “body” are the basic elements of a “living being” (Gen 2:7), so these two factors are absolutely essential, and form the indispensable parts of genuine biblical morality. For, right action with wrong motive can result in anything from a grudging submission to legalistic conformity.88 While, a so-called “right” motive with wrong action leads to things such as rationalism, relativism, humanism, situationism, and eventually blatant antinomianism – an overt rejection of God’s eternal and immutable moral standards.89

By way of recapitulation, it seems quite significant then, that under divine inspiration, Bible writers of both Testaments understood the ninth commandment as forbidding all forms of falsehood, under all possible conditions, irrespective of projected consequences, and regardless of purportedly pure motives. Ellen White’s extensive explication of this ethical norm comports favorably with the scriptural definition delineated above. She comments:

False speaking in any matter, every attempt or purpose to deceive our neighbor, is here included. An intention to deceive is what constitutes falsehood. 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. All intentional overstatement, every hint or insinuation, even the statement of facts in such a manner so as to mislead, is falsehood.90 This precept forbids every effort to injure our neighbor’s reputation by misrepresentation or evil surmising, by slander or tale-bearing. Even the intentional suppression of truth, by which injury may result to others, is a violation of the ninth commandment.91

As already noted above, Ellen White astutely declares that, while “Truth is of God; deception in every one of its myriad forms, is of Satan.”92 And, according to Ellen White, this includes lying to save life: “Even life itself should not be purchased with the price of falsehood.”93 Hence, instead of adopting a fallacious, humanly formulated view of falsehood,94 it would be prudent and the only safe course for the committed Christian to embrace the divinely designed definition of deception, for only in so doing will there be opportunity for an accurate understanding and an appropriate application of God’s royal law of liberty (Jas 2:8-12).

2. Conflict With The Dictionary Definition The novel concept that a “lie” is “a false statement, with wicked or malicious or selfish intent to [impress,] deceive or mislead,”95 does not correspond with the conventional, standard understanding of the word. A painstaking investigation of three major English dictionaries covering the last century, from 1897 through 2003,96 reveals an amazing unanimity regarding the essence of words which address the issue of misleading someone. Whether it be “deceit,” “deceive,” “falsehood,” “lie,” or “prevaricate,” the same basic idea emerges: It is a deliberate distortion of the truth, by word or deed, with the objective of misleading. Thus, there are two, only two, essential elements in this dictionary definition relating to any kind of deception: (1) an action, perverting the truth; and (2) an aim, to purposely misinform. Significantly, for more than the past one hundred years, there has never been even the remotest hint that the only time that intentionally misleading someone is a “lie” or a “deception” is if it is done “with wicked or malicious or selfish intent.” Concurring, it has quite correctly been recognized that, from a human perspective, Christian behavior cannot really be judged “by motive (which is truly known only to God) or by end result (which can humanly never be foreseen with complete accuracy and completeness), but [only] by conformity to precepts that Christians believe came from God.”97

Thus, rather than accepting the above convoluted description of a “lie,” which was apparently devised to justify some form of deception, it is best and most honest to utilize the conventional definition, which accords well with the true biblical meaning of these terms.

3. Confusion Of Other Moral Regulations The above phrase “with wicked or malicious or selfish intent” implies, by contrast, that a false statement, told with benevolent, altruistic, or compassionate motives, is not a lie, even though its purpose is to deceive or mislead. If any of the other Ten Commandments are modified in this manner, the results would be ludicrous and morally catastrophic. For example, the eighth commandment would then read: “Stealing is to take another person’s possessions, with wicked or malicious or selfish intent, without their permission;” meaning, by contrast, that you may swipe someone’s goods, as long as it is done with noble motives! Or consider a similarly revised seventh commandment: “Adultery is when one is motivated by wicked or malicious or selfish desires to have sex outside of marriage;” meaning that extra-marital sex is justifiable, if done “lovingly,” “kindly,” or “magnanimously.” Obviously, since the Decalogue simply calls for loving, loyal obedience to its absolute imperatives, irrespective of so-called virtuous motives, we need to observe them faithfully “even unto death” (Rev 2:10b KJV).

There are several other illustrations of convoluted descriptions being used to dazzle and disorient people. For instance, apparently uncomfortable with using straightforward language to describe deception, various individuals have begun to employ subtly ambiguous, so-called “user-friendly” phrases such as “a diversionary tactic,”98 an “imaginative strategy,”99 a “playful trick,”100 or “a very practical solution.”101 Whatever happened to the challenge to “call a spade a spade”? Ellen White charges us: “Call sin by its right name. Declare what God has said in regard to lying, Sabbathbreaking, stealing, idolatry, and every other evil.”102 Indeed, while there might be a tendency by some to euphemize expressions as a way of excusing actions, “this is a time for Christians to stand tall for truth – in the midst of a forest of lies.”103

In Colossians 2:8 (NIV) Paul cautions: “See to it that no one takes you captive through hollow and deceptive philosophy, which depends on human tradition and the basic principles of this world rather than on Christ.”104 That’s the choice: “Human tradition” or “Christ.” In fact, in this same book, Paul stresses the vital necessity of a dynamic relationship with our Creator, Jesus Christ, as the key to the issue of truthtelling in any Christian’s life (see Col 3:9, 10).105 Similarly, recognizing that “it is not a light or an easy thing to speak the exact truth,” Ellen White says that “we cannot speak the truth unless our minds are continually guided by Him who is truth.”106 All of us must make a definitive decision: Either we will select to follow Satan, “the father of lies” (John 8:44 ICB), or we will elect to emulate Jesus Christ who declares of Himself: “I am the truth” (John 14:6 ICB)!

Exerpt from Ron du Preez’s book Morals for Mortals. See book for end notes.