The Truth About Telling the Truth

by Ron du Preez

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


t-indent:0px;text-transform:none;white-space:normal;widows:2;word-spacing:0px;-webkit-text-stroke-width:0px;text-decoration-style:initial;">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).


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).


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).


Bible Stories

Naturally, the question arises, But what about all those Bible stories of people who used deception for so-called "worthy causes"? For example, Rahab lied to save the lives of two Israelite spies (Josh 2). And Shiphrah and Puah, the two Hebrew midwives, misled the Pharaoh concerning the baby boys they had been commanded to exterminate (Ex 1). What lessons concerning truth and deception emerge from narratives such as these?

Speaking about the experiences of the people in the Old Testament, the apostle Paul says, "Now all these things happened to them as examples, and they were written for our admonition" (1 Cor 10:11a; cf. Rom 15:4). Based on this passage, some have claimed that "it seems difficult to avoid the conclusion that these were God-approved examples of how He wants us to behave in similar moral conflicts."4 Thus, some conclude that stories such as those of Rahab and of Shiphrah and Puah have been included in the Bible so that believers will know what to do under similar circumstances. In other words, these stories allegedly demonstrate that lying to save life is perfectly legitimate, and actually is the morally right thing to do, without any need for repentance or forgiveness, since this kind of lying is supposedly not considered a sin by God.5

But is this what the Bible is actually saying in 1 Corinthians 10:11? This verse is really the summary of the preceding passage, in which Paul reminds the Corinthian Christians, "Now these things became our examples, to the intent that we should not lust after evil things as they also lusted" (1 Cor 10:6). Then Paul enumerates some of these evils, such as idolatry and sexual immorality (see vss. 7, 8), together with some of the judgments meted out by God (see vss. 8-10). Clearly then, far from suggesting that Christians should emulate the actions of Bible characters uncritically, 1 Corinthians 10:11 is calling on believers to avoid the transgression of God's moral requirements, which includes the command to refrain from all deception.

Incidentally, some have noted that the Bible nowhere directly condemns Rahab or the Hebrew midwives for their falsehoods. However, it is equally true that throughout the Word of God these lies are not commended either. Careful study of the Scriptures reveals that a lack of any direct commendation or condemnation of actions is no indication of the rightness of wrongness of the deeds performed. For example, nowhere is there any condemnation of the incest of the daughters of Lot with their father, as recorded in Genesis 19. Since the oldest daughter had a son named Moab, who became the ancestor of Ruth, and ultimately of Jesus,6 should one conclude that this incestuous act was actually a good thing? Obviously, just as in this case, so the deception of Rahab as well as that of the Hebrew midwives "violates a clear commandment of God,"7 and needs to be judged on this basis.


God Is Faithful

It is vital to note that, shortly after 1 Corinthians 10:11, Paul reminds us that "God is faithful," and He "will not allow you to be tempted beyond what you are able, but with the temptation will also make a way of escape, that you may be able to bear it" (vs. 13). In other words, God will never permit anyone to be in a situation where that person is forced to practice deception; there will always be a morally correct way out of the problem. Ellen White reminded us that, though each person is a free moral agent whose loyalty must be tested, "he is never brought into such a position that yielding to evil becomes a matter of necessity. No temptation or trial is permitted to come to him which he is unable to resist" (Patriarchs and Prophets, pp. 331, 332, emphasis mine). Indeed, "God requires of all His subjects obedience, entire obedience to all His commandments" (Ellen G. White comments, Seventh-day Adventist Bible Commentary, 6:1072), "and His commandments are not burdensome" (1 Jn 5:3), for the Christian "can do all things through Christ" (Phil 4:13).

So, what is the faithful Christian to do when faced with a life or death emergency? What did Mrs. Hasel, in our initial story, say when asked whether she had Fritz in her house? Trusting in God to bring about the best results, she looked the soldier straight in the eye and said: "As an officer of the German army you know what your responsibility is, and you are welcome to carry it out." With the culpability of the evil of his action now fully on his shoulders (where it rightfully belonged), the Nazi turned on his heel and left that home undisturbed.



Incidentally, accounts of this kind of uncompromising faith linked with radical obedience can be multiplied. Allow me briefly to share just two more. First, a story from Poland, which also occurred during World War II. Mrs. Knapiuk and her daughter were living in a room in a two-story apartment, when a Jewish girl being chased by German soldiers ran into their room and hid under the bed. Now they were well aware of how dangerous this could be, for in the adjacent house a bakery owner and his daughter had been arrested and taken to a concentration camp because he had sold bread to a Jew. Mrs. Knapiuk was a woman of great faith, but since things had happened so fast, she had had no time to think about what to do. So she sat down at the table, opened her Bible, and started to pray and read. When a German soldier entered their room, he immediately recognized what she was reading. He uttered only two words--"good woman"--and promptly left the room.

A more recent incident, which occurred in the mid-1990s, came to me indirectly from a former classmate of mine, Dr. Robert Wong. With some editorial adjustments, let me share the e-mailed story: "In China, the people work under the watchful eye of the government. On one occasion quite a large number of people were to be baptized, so they hired two trucks as transportation. Since they had never been to the lake before, they stopped at an intersection to ask for directions. Too late they realized that they had actually asked for information from the state security forces. Before they could leave, the officer in charge asked, `What are you going to do at the lake?' Now, what should they say, since conducting a baptismal service was strictly illegal? Since they trusted in God and did not want to lie, they honestly replied that they were on their way to have a baptism. As soon as they left, three police motorcycles swung in after them to make arrests when the time came. But just then, a sudden rainstorm erupted; miraculously the rain fell only behind the trucks, soaking the motorcyclists, and making the road muddy and impassable. The result? The people got to the lake unmolested, were baptized without further incident, and all went home safely." Yes, indeed, we still serve a miracle-working God!



Twentieth-century stories such as these remind one of Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego and their uncompromising loyalty. While these three Hebrews knew that God had the power to deliver them from the fiery furnace, they informed King Nebuchadnezzar that even if God chose not to rescue them, they would still remain faithful to Him (see Dan 3:16-18). Commenting on such unswerving allegiance, Ellen White observed, "True Christian principle will not stop to weigh consequences" (The Sanctified Life, p. 39).

That seems to be the problem with so many of us when confronted with life-or-death dilemmas--we attempt to project what would happen if . . . ; and then we make decisions based on these speculations. However, "Christ's ambassadors have nothing to do with consequences. They must perform their duty and leave results with God" (The Great Controversy, pp. 609, 610). How then should we make moral decisions? Ellen White wrote, "In deciding upon any course of action we are not to ask whether we can see that harm will result from it, but whether it is in keeping with the will of God" (Patriarchs and Prophets, p. 634). This identical principle underlies the admonition given by Jesus Christ: "Do not be afraid of what will happen to you. . . . But be faithful, even if you have to die. If you are faithful, I will give you the crown of life" (Rev 2:10 ICB).

Even though in the Bible we do find some worthy illustrations to emulate, such as that of the three Hebrews, we must realize that our ultimate model of morality is Jesus Christ. Peter not only points out that we are "to follow in His steps," but he specifically notes, "nor was any deceit found in His mouth" (see 1 Pet 2:21, 22 NASB). To put it more directly: rather than relying on Rahab, a pagan prostitute, to be our pattern, our ethical example must be our sinless Savior, Jesus Christ.



Jesus Christ--He is really the "secret" to this entire issue of truth-telling! For "those who have the mind of Christ will keep all of God's commandments, irrespective of circumstances" (The Sanctified Life, p. 67). In fact, the apostle Paul stresses the vital necessity of a dynamic relationship with our Creator, Jesus Christ, as the key to the issue of truth-telling in any Christian's life (see Col 3:9, 10). Similarly, Ellen White, noting that "it is not a light or an easy thing to speak the exact truth," affirmed that "we cannot speak the truth unless our minds are continually guided by Him who is truth" (Thoughts From the Mount of Blessing, p. 68).

In brief then, what is the "truth about telling the truth"? Ellen White put it in unmistakable terms: "Everything that Christians do should be as transparent as the sunlight. Truth is of God; deception, in every one of its myriad forms, is of Satan; and who ever in any way departs from the straight line of truth is betraying himself into the power of the wicked one" (ibid., emphasis mine). Indeed, "even life itself should not be purchased with the price of falsehood" (Testimonies for the Church,4:336).

All of us must make a pivotal decision: Either we will choose to follow Satan, "the father of lies" (John 8:44 ICB), or we will elect to imitate Jesus Christ, who declares of Himself, "I am the truth" (John 14:6 ICB)!



1. This story was told at an Adventist Theological Society meeting in 1994, by the late Dr. Gerhard F. Hasel, shortly before his untimely death in an automobile collision.

2. See Robert Thornton, Lexicon of Intentionally Ambiguous Recommendations (New York, N.Y.: Simon & Schuster, 1988). Fortunately, this book, whose acronym spells "L.I.A.R.," is no longer in print.

3. Unless otherwise indicated, all Scripture passages are taken from the New King James Version.

4. Norman L. Geisler and Paul D. Feinberg, Introduction to Philosophy: A Christian Perspective (Grand Rapids, Mich.: Baker Book House, 1980), p. 417.

5. See Geisler and Feinberg, p. 425; Norman L. Geisler, The Christian Ethic of Love (Grand Rapids, Mich.: Zondervan Publishing House, 1973), p. 75; idem, Ethics: Alternatives and Issues (Grand Rapids, Mich.: Zondervan Publishing House, 1971), p. 136; idem, "In Defense of Hierarchical Ethics," Trinity Journal 4 (September 1975): 87. For a comprehensive response to these theories see Ronald A. G. du Preez, "A Critical Study of Norman L. Geisler's Ethical Hierarchicalism" (Th.D. dissertation, University of South Africa, 1997), available at the James White Library, Andrews University, Berrien Springs, Michigan.

6. Compare Gen 19:37, Ruth 1:4, 4:13-22, and Matt 1:5, 16.

7. Walter C. Kaiser, Jr., Hard Sayings of the Old Testament (Downers Grove, Ill.: InterVarsity Press, 1988), p. 97.