Are All Lies Sinful?


Have you ever told a lie?

If you say no, you’re lying. We all lie – sometimes intentionally, sometimes unknowingly. Christians in particular believe in not telling lies. Why? The Bible is full of references to how bad lying is. Why? Satan is the father of lies, the first teller of lies, the adversary of God (even though he’s not on equal ground). Our tendency toward lies and deceit tie us to Satan, which isn’t a positive thing in God’s eyes.

Because I’m someone who likes to challenge everything from a logical perspective, often to point out its flaws, lately I’ve pondered something – we know that lies are a sin, but is a lie always wrong?

Many of the verses in scripture that reference lies talk about bearing false witness against other people, or not keeping your promises to others. They are both selfish lies (as are most lies) but also destructive, since one is intentionally motivated to cause harm to another person, and the other shows you to be false in your promises. (God also takes promises seriously!)

But what about lies that aren’t selfish? They’re still a sin, sure, but are they wrong? Was it morally wrong for German Christians to hide Jews from the Nazis and lie about their whereabouts? If you argue yes, then you’re faced with the alternative: those that knew what the Germans intended to do with the Nazis and told the truth about their whereabouts didn’t sin by lying, but sinned in their motivation to cause harm to another person. That’s the same result as bearing false witness against another person. No lie, but an evil result.

The truth can be as evil as a lie, and just as sinful. What matters most is the intention behind our truth or lies. Selfish lies and selfish truths are just as destructive; do we lie to protect ourselves, or tell the truth to punish someone else? If you take even the smallest amount of self-satisfaction in telling a truth that is going to harm another person, you’re sinning. But if you tell a lie, you’re also sinning.

Sin is inevitable. We can’t escape it, justify it, or run away from it, which is why God gives us an out in Jesus to be forgiven for it. We’re still supposed to guard our words and not tell selfish lies or selfish truths, but in those impossible situations where the truth would do more harm than a lie, or a lie would protect lives, we’re covered because under Christ’s blood, all sins, even well-intentioned ones, are forgiven. As Gandalf would say, “that’s a comforting thought.”

22 thoughts on “Are All Lies Sinful?

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  1. Very good post and thought provoking. How many times do we deceive ourselves too? Should we lie when it encourages someone? All interesting posts and comments. Here’s a big one. Remember in Scripture when God sends a lying spirit upon one of the prophets in book of Kings? God sent the spirit or maybe the context says allowed but most translations say sent but still that is an interesting story to ponder and reflect on.

    1. That is an interesting point. Offhand, I’m not immediately familiar with the story (I haven’t studied Kings in awhile) so I’ll have to look it up. The Bible does make some interesting statements about God. Allowing Satan to trouble Job, for example…

      1. Very true! Job is a great example of how much we will never understand God and that being a godly person does not promise a life of wealth and health. I love the ending of Job and the conversation with God Job has with God.

        1. Of course, there’s also the possibility that Job is a parable underlining the fact that God is in control at all times, even when evil is allowed to taint our lives. (I find it hard to reconcile Satan’s ability to walk into heaven and speak to God with reality! Seems like he would implode in a burning mass of fire or something. Heh.)

  2. I don’t think that lying is always wrong or even a sin (such as spying or hiding Jews from Nazis or such). Neither is killing someone in defense of yourself or others, or sleeping with someone to save someone’s life (I once had a debate with someone over whether Fantine was in sin to become a prostitute, even though it was to save her daughter’s life). Do I have Scripture for it, no. But I don’t know…I kind of see it as obeying the command to love others more than yourself. And the idea that a lot of life is gray, even though we’d like for it to be all black and white.

    1. Now, I’d probably better clarify that I mean killing someone in the sense of, like, if your life or a loved one’s life is being imminently threatened, not a premeditated act of murder. 🙂

      1. (Aw shucks, we can’t plan the murder? 😉 )

        That’s an interesting discussion point — Fantine. Was it more of a sin to fall in love and share a man’s bed without marriage than to prostitute herself? One was driven through love… but so was the other — a love for her daughter. I almost think the society that forced her to prostitution is more sinful than she was — a society that shunned rather than forgave, condemned rather than showed mercy. Such sad times in history.

  3. Have you talked about the lies the hiders of the Jews had to tell? I know that I’ve definitely talked it over with Jon before. I think in that case, it’s really a question of which sin is worse–the lie or the lives you’d be handing over to die? Obviously, in that case you have to lie.

    So, to answer your question, no a lie is not always wrong, though obviously it’s sin. Life’s seldom black and white, though, and I think that sometimes we have to pick the lesser of two evils. I really hate saying that, though.

    1. I think the fact that we DO sometimes have to choose between the lesser of two evils can remind us that this IS a fallen world — and make us long for a place where evil no longer exists. But until that day arrives… we do the best we can and trust God with the rest.

  4. Awesome past as usual! 😉 Hmm…I remember hearing about a woman during WWII who hid a Jewish family (parents, small children etc;) in her home. When her boss found out, he demanded she start sleeping with him, or he would report them. So she did, until the end of the war.

    Lying–or rather–whether lying is always a sin has a lot of implications. For instance, if a spy prays that her cover isn’t blown, isn’t she praying for God to SUPPORT her in carrying out a sin? Actually—I think I remember reading a Christian advice column that discussed this, it said there was Biblical precedent for spying, when men were sent out to scout out the land of Canaan, and when Rahab lied to protect them. That one could view a spy as being almost like a soldier, seeking to do what they do to defend their nation.

    Nobody views a soldier killing the enemy as murder, but I think this is because a lot of people look to Old Testament verses about warriors, and God slaying one’s enemies. In the case of Hitler, I’d say he could be viewed as an enemy in time of war, so no, killing him would not be equivalent to murder. Of course there are still other “gray areas”—what if your family has received death threats from a local criminal leader? The police can’t or won’t do anything until he’s killed actually killed someone—and by then of course it will be too late. Should you take matters into your own hands and kill them, thus eliminating the threat? Most of us I’m guessing would have no problem LYING to protect our family—but how far would we go, would you kill for them? What about something in between on the moral scale, like sleeping with the enemy or helping them carry out a crime?

    As you say, it’s also interesting that the language used in the Bible is “bearing false witness” since it seems to imply that the worst thing about a lie is saying it ABOUT or AGAINST another person. It’s a bit like “taking the Lord’s name in vain, which I once read doesn’t apply so much to blasphemy (though it’s bad obviously) but to cases where you make a promise to God, or an important promise to another person with God as your “witness” and then fail to keep to it. ( Please God, help me out here, and I’ll clean up my act and quit the booze”, or “I swear to God, if anything happens to you, I’ll look out for your kids”)

    Lying is one of the most slippery sins I think, because we’ve all done it. It’s a sin that even children commit almost as soon as they learn to talk. It can happen in the blink of an eye, and be about one word long, so it’s a LOT harder to steer clear of than the sins involving say lust, idolatry, or murder.

    The thing is—not quite sure how to put this—I don’t believe God “contradicts” Himself. I do believe He might change certain decrees, as in the Old vs New Testament, but I don’t think various moral laws are really meant to simultaneously conflict with each other. Or maybe that’s because it reminds me too much of those “Why can’t God make a boulder so big He can’t move it” type of questions.

    Have you ever read “Ruth” by Elizabeth Gaskell? It’s one of her less popular novels, but it concerns a young woman who becomes pregnant out of wedlock, and is taken in by a minister and his sister. To protect her, they lie and tell the community that she is a widow.

    The other comments here make me think I ought to make “Les Miserables” the first French classic I tackle…

    1. … wow. Nice boss.

      Bringing up spying raises interesting points – like should a Christian ever be a spy? Spying has the potential to require many morally reprehensible actions – such as sleeping with the enemy. But if someone forces you to sleep with them, to save someone else, is that still a sin? No, because it’s rape – they’re not physically holding you down, but they’re still forcing you to do something immoral.

      The Hitler assassination issue I discussed at length with a young man who couldn’t understand my position on that – it was unfathomable to me that I could defend assassination attempts against Hitler without violating my religious beliefs. He didn’t understand that the two are compatible in circumstances of war. Would I put a bullet, personally, in Hitler’s head to save millions of people? Yes. Would I put a bullet, literally, in someone’s head to save someone I love? If I had no other option, yes, and I wouldn’t consider that a sin.

      Take “The Godfather.” Everyone is horrified at Michael taking out the heads of the five families – but what it actually is, is a preemptive strike; he hits them before they can hit him, to protect his family and everyone under their protection. Is it immoral? Absolutely. But it is completely necessary for the survival of the Corleones.

      I also agree that it’s likely “taking the Lord’s name in vain” is more about swearing BY or ON him, more than using His name in vain (I often wonder if that’s why we only know Him by certain names – does He have another name, a name the angels use, a name that we don’t know in our sinful, fallen state, so we can’t abuse it?).

      Everyone always looks to the big sins – but it’s the small ones that are the deal-clincher. If you pride yourself on being moral, never having stolen anything, or hurt anyone, you may think you’re a good person – but the last time you lied to protect yourself, you sinned. No matter how good we think we are, we’re never better than we, as feeble humans, can actually be.

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      No, I haven’t read “Ruth” but I hear it’s good. Maybe someday I’ll get around to reading it.

      Ahh, “Les Misérables.” Read the book not long ago. Wanted to kill myself. Too much description, too many side trails – many people love it, but I love the plot and not the execution of the plot.

  5. This is really interesting because I was just reading commentary on this very issue by Lois Tverberg, a Christian author who has done a lot of scholarship on the Jewish identity of Christ. She noted that ancient Jewish rabbis believed that when a lie could save someone from danger, it was a sin NOT to lie, and that when the truth was painful, it was often best to remain silent. Apparently in ancient Israel they prioritized the laws of God, so that if trying to obeying two commands that contradicted each other, people would know which law had more weight.

    1. That’s really fascinating! Thank you for sharing that!

      It makes logical sense, as well as puts an extra sense of responsibility on the person who holds the truth in their hand.

  6. Definite food for thought. I imagine that every lie is a sin, though when it came to something like rescuing Jews in the Holocaust, I think God understood. Saving a human life seems more important to me. As for attempting to assassinate Hitler… I know that was a sin, but with such an evil being in power and the rest of the country turning a blind eye, what else could be done? It too was done to prevent further evil. All we can do is hope and pray that we never have to be in that position. I have to say though, I think I’d rather face God as a liar than someone who did nothing.

    1. That is extremely true — it’s better to sin for a greater cause, and own up to it before God, than to stand there and say, “I stood by and let innocent people die.” And yes, I pray that none of us ever have to make that choice.

  7. No, I don’t believe all lies are sinful. The Pharisees would say that all lies are sinful because they were legalistic and saw everything in black and white. But I don’t believe it’s a sin to lie if, for example, I’m trying not to hurt someone or if I’m trying to throw them a surprise party or even – to be quite dramatic! – if I’m trying to save someone’s life. As you say it’s all about your intention. There’s that verse in the Bible (Matthew 6:1) that says we shouldn’t mention our good deeds publicly but of course God wouldn’t mind if we mention our good deeds as long as our only wish is in trying to glorify Him and not ourselves like the Pharisees would have done. And I absolutely love the fact that the Bishop lied to save Jean Valjean in Les Mis 🙂

    1. Thought-provoking response, thanks! 🙂

      I guess that makes us ask, if lying isn’t always a sin, are all other sins always sins too? Would it have been a sin to murder Hitler? Many godly men tried, in spite of the “do not murder” commandment. It was the right thing to try and do, but still a sin… or was it? (Take the movie Casablanca — would a woman consenting to sleep with an enemy soldier to save her husband’s life be a sin? And yes, it’s these questions I ponder on a daily basis.)

      Ahh, moral complexities. Gray areas. Questions without answers. My favorite kind.

      You’re brilliant to bring that up — the Bishop’s lie changed Valjean’s life. It was the turning point in his miserable existence from a cruel and heartless man to a redeemed and compassionate soul.

      The most profound realizations come from the most flawed writers’ fingertips. Victor Hugo understood the power of salvation and redemption, even though he lived a life of sin. He heard the message, but it made no difference in his life.

      1. You’re welcome! 🙂 And thanks for writing the post.

        I don’t believe it would have been a sin to have murdered Hitler either. Dietrich Bonhoeffer tried after all and he was a wonderful godly man. I’ve never actually seen Casablanca (I know, I know, shocking) but I’d be inclined to say, after some thought, “No”. Moral complexities are so difficult though. Sometimes they interest me and at other times I have nothing but hatred for them. The topic of euthanasia has been in the UK headlines recently because of a soap opera storyline and my mom asked me if I’d take her life if she asked me to and I said “No”. It would cause me immense pain to see her suffer and I’d probably be quite tempted to do it but the whole thing just seems so morally wrong to me and it goes against what the Bible says about the immense value of life. My, what a cheerful topic. I hope I haven’t depressed you too much.

        I completely get what you mean about Victor Hugo. I was really shocked when I read about his numerous infidelities because he sounds so incredibly admiring of Marius and Enjolras’s chastity in the book. But I guess that makes sense really. A man who’s always falling into the temptation of that sin is always going to admire people who don’t succumb to it.

        1. I don’t think it would be a sin to murder Hitler – but then, I’m not God, and His views on sin are sometimes different than mine! (Thankfully, I don’t have to sort it all out, much less understand it!)

          Euthanasia is a hard topic. I think humans have the right to take their own life (even though I think they shouldn’t!), but wouldn’t feel comfortable taking it FOR them. Then, too, the topic raises all kinds of unpleasant questions about whether or not patients are in their right mind, if their relatives are seeking to benefit from the death, and if doctors’ motivations are always pure – there again, sin intruding and complicating what is already a complicated moral issue. I can see both sides of the argument, and both make good points, but in the end, God values life and so should we.

          Frankly, I was disappointed to learn how many classic novelists were completely immoral, in spite of the virtue of their heroes or heroines. Hugo’s Marius is so dead-set-against making Cosette his mistress, yet Hugo had mistresses. Charles Dickens, who wrote the morally redemptive story of Scrooge, thus expressing his awareness of good, evil, sin, virtue, and redemption, praised his heroines for being virginal, sweet, and innocent — and took a young woman as his mistress. Yet, you do make a good point – we tend to admire things in others that we lack in ourselves. Unfortunately, when you tout a belief but don’t live it, it makes you look like a hypocrite, which is why so many people will have nothing to do with “the church.” Too many hypocrites.

  8. As always, well thought out post, Charity.

    I have conflicting thoughts about a similar topic and wrote a post months ago. Guess I never did get around to using it though.

    Thanks for sharing.

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