Part of a series on the Ten Commandments.
By Stewart Clem
The Bible does not condone lying.
Or does it?
On the one hand, when lying is considered in the abstract, the biblical authors are unequivocal: “Lying lips are an abomination to the Lord” (Prov. 12:22a), “You destroy those who tell lies” (Ps. 5:6), “Do not lie to one another, seeing that you have stripped off the old self with its practices,” (Col. 3:9). But there are plenty of stories in the Bible in which characters tell lies, and not only do they get away with it — they’re often praised for their actions. The Hebrew midwives lied to the Egyptians, who were carrying out the king’s edict to murder every newborn Hebrew boy. The narrator tells us, “And because the midwives feared God, he gave them families” (Ex. 1:21). Rahab lied to the Canaanite soldiers in order to protect Joshua’s spies (Josh. 2:4-6) and was later eulogized in the New Testament (Heb.11:31; Jas. 2:25). How can we reconcile these passages of Scripture? Are the lies of Rahab and the midwives praiseworthy because they were told for a good end? Or are they somehow not lies at all? Or are the biblical authors simply inconsistent on this point?
The early Christians wrestled with these very questions. They were well aware of Scripture’s ambiguity on the subject of lying, and their own answers were often creative (sometimes fanciful) even as they sought to remain faithful to biblical teaching. Among the early Christian writers, St. Augustine of Hippo exercised the greatest influence on the Church’s reflections on the subject. He recognized that a clear definition of the lie was necessary before any moral analysis could proceed. His own definition was quite simple: “A person lies who has one thing in mind yet expresses something else with words” (On Lying, 3). Moreover, he drew upon biblical texts and reasoned arguments to conclude that every lie is a sin, without exception. Some lies are worse than others, of course, but there cannot be a sinless lie, even if told for a good cause.
The most frequently cited biblical text related to lying is found in the Decalogue: “You shall not bear false witness against your neighbor” (Ex. 20:16). Many Christian traditions teach that the Ninth Commandment (or Eighth Commandment, in Lutheran and Roman Catholic traditions) prohibits all forms of lying. The Catechism of the Episcopal Church, for example, teaches that this commandment requires us to “speak the truth, and not to mislead others by our silence” (BCP, 848). The Catholic Church teaches that this commandment “forbids misrepresenting the truth in our relations with others” (Catechism of the Catholic Church, 2464). This is not a novel interpretation of the commandment. It finds support in Augustine, who writes, “Under this general term, ‘you shall not bear false witness,’ all lying is included; for whoever declares anything bears witness to one’s own mind” (On Lying, 6). In other words, bearing false witness against one’s neighbor is a rather broad category of sinful action, and the commandment is broken every time a lie is uttered.
But there is another, more literal way to read the commandment. The language of “bearing false witness” suggests a concern with the judicial and litigious; the clause “against your neighbor” evokes instances of slander and intentionally harmful speech. Surely a little white lie (“that outfit looks great on you”), or a lie told to save a life (“there are no fugitives in my house”) doesn’t meet these criteria. Some biblical scholars and moral theologians have called for greater attention to the precise wording and historical context of the commandments. In most Jewish rabbinic traditions, the commandment is interpreted in the narrower, legal sense. Wouldn’t it be better to emphasize this legal aspect of the Ninth Commandment, precisely so we don’t become so legalistic that we find ourselves condemning even harmless lies as grave sins?
Yes and no.
It’s true that the Ninth Commandment specifically condemns false, harmful speech. The second table of the Decalogue is concerned with acts of injustice against one’s neighbor. It’s not difficult to imagine lies that might help (or at least flatter) one’s neighbor. But the Ten Commandments are not meant to address every possible sin of the human heart. They are concerned with grave acts against God and neighbor — acts the Church came to describe as “mortal” sins, insofar as they are fatal to our spiritual lives. But just because an act is not directly opposed to one of the Commandments does not mean that it is a good thing to do.
St. Thomas Aquinas, writing in the thirteenth century, was the first major theologian to acknowledge that the simple act of lying does not violate the Ninth Commandment. To have one thing in mind and yet say another (to recall Augustine’s definition of the lie) is not itself an act of injustice. But it is never a good thing to do. Why? The short answer is simply that we are linguistic creatures, and God created the faculty of speech in us for the purpose of communicating truth. While it may be prudent to withhold the truth at times, telling lies — no matter how small or convenient — can never contribute to our flourishing in a positive way.
Little lies, like those told by Rahab and the midwives, are “venial” sins, because they are forgivable (from the Latin venia, “forgiveness”). As St. Thomas explains, these biblical heroes were not acting in direct opposition to God’s law. It would have been better if they had found a way to avoid lying, but this action can be isolated from the broader context of their attempt to save others. As the biblical texts affirm, these women were motivated by their love for God, and for this they should be praised.
We must be careful here. Rahab’s and the midwives’ lies are not reclassified as good actions because they resulted in a good outcome or because their hearts were in right place. As St. Paul reminds us, we cannot do evil that good may come (Rom. 3:8). The lies remain sins. What St. Thomas teaches us is that these lies are not the kind of action that severs one’s relationship with God. If Rahab had told a lie or performed any other action that brought harm upon someone else, then the sin would have been much more serious.
We might be tempted to say that lying is not so bad, after all. As long as we’re not hurting anyone, why not tell a lie when it’s more convenient? But this is the question of the sophist, not the would-be saint. St. Thomas reminds us that truthfulness is a virtue. We only need to look around to see the manifold ways in which disregard for the truth has dehumanized our social interactions. Becoming a truthful person is not easy, and it belongs to the (sometimes painful) process of sanctification. Most of us will never face the question of whether we ought to tell a lie in a life-or-death situation. Exercising the virtue of truth takes places in the quotidian and the mundane. We’ll know we’re on the right path when, instead of asking, “when is it okay to lie?”, we find ourselves asking God to show us how we can become more truthful.
The Rev. Dr. Stewart Clem is assistant professor of moral theology and director of the Ashley-O’Rourke Center for Health Ministry Leadership at Aquinas Institute of Theology and priest associate at the Church of St. Michael & St. George (St. Louis, Missouri).