White Lies and Other Deceptions

Author Greg Koukl Published on 03/31/2013

I think lying is wrong. However, we have to be clear on what constitutes lying, that is, immoral deception.

It seems that not all deceptions are immoral. Did you ever make a fake while playing basketball? Isn’t such a feint a deception? It is, but I don’t think most people would consider it immoral, even though it was, in fact, deceptive.

There are other examples. We dress to flatter our figures instead of being entirely truthful about our physical shape. We wear hairpieces if our hair is thinner than we’d like to show. There are times we’re not forthcoming with all the truth. More could be said, but we withhold information.

So it seems reasonable to say there are “deceptions” we wouldn’t really consider immoral—faking in basketball, trying to dress in a flattering way, or not being forthcoming with all the information we might have.

Incidentally, I don’t think Jesus was always forthright. Take, for example, the woman at the well (John 4). Jesus had a goal He was not immediately forthright about. I don’t see this as manipulation, though, but as sensitivity to the moment. If Jesus wasn’t always entirely forthright in some cases, yet we know He never committed any sin, then that means it isn’t necessarily a sin if you’re not forthright about everything.

Take this example. You come into a store and want to get the best price for something you intend to buy. You’ve done some research, but you don’t let on up front. Instead, as a tactical move you play stupid. There is a kind of deception here, one could argue, but I think you’d be hard pressed to call it sinful. It seems we’re not obliged tell everything we know.

On the one hand, there are blatant deceptions that are clearly sinful. Then there also seems to be a category of deceptions that don’t rise to the category of sin. Then you have, in the middle, situations I would call moral dilemmas. These are more difficult judgment calls.

A moral dilemma is when you must choose one of two things, but either thing would be wrong to do when taking on its own. Do you endanger a human life, or do you tell a lie? If you choose to tell the truth, and may you do right by telling the truth, but it seems you do wrong by exposing a human being to serious harm. If you protect the human being by lying, well, you’ve saved a life, but told a lie. That is a moral or ethical dilemma.

There are a couple of different ways Christians have approached this historically. One is to claim there really is no such thing as an ethical dilemma. Some will say you should never lie, you should always tell the truth, and let God worry about the consequences.

What if you see a woman run into an alley to escape someone who’s trying to kill her, and they ask you, “Where is she?” What do you do? Do you send them on a wild goose chase to protect the woman’s life? Or do you lead them to their victim?

Some would say you are morally obliged to tell exactly where she’s hiding and let God take care of it. But that option can cut in both directions. Why not protect her by lying and let God take care of it by forgiving the lie? Which do you choose? This question is at the heart of all ethical dilemmas.

The Bible gives us some guidance on this. It teaches that not all sins are the same. Some are more egregious than others. This is very clear in the Scriptures. Jesus said to Pilate, “He who delivered Me up to you has the greater sin” (John 19:11). According to Jesus, some sins are greater than others.

Common sense alone tells us that stealing a pencil is not as serious a crime as taking someone’s life. Make no mistake, it’s still a sin, and even a small sin is enough to make us guilty before God. But all sin is not the same to God. He certainly does make distinctions. And because God makes distinctions, it’s possible for us to solve ethical dilemmas. When stuck between two options, we choose the greater good.

What about so-called “white lies.” Are they okay since they’re only small deceptions? My rule is this: I think people should tell the truth unless they have a more weighty moral reason not to be straightforward.

If my wife asked me if I thought she was overweight and she was, I wouldn’t say, “No, honey, you’re perfect.” First, she probably knows better. Second, I think she’d actually be looking for affirmation from me, not really an assessment of her weight. I’d tell her what I thought, but would be careful to do it in a way that protected her as an individual. I’d let her know that being overweight wouldn’t change my love for her.

Here is another example, a classic for single guys. A guy goes out on a date and doesn’t enjoy himself, so he wouldn’t be inclined to ask the young lady out again, though he suspects she enjoyed herself and would like to get together again. What does he say when he drops her off? He isn’t going to say, “I’m never going to call you again,” yet he doesn’t want to just walk away and say nothing. Because of the awkwardness he says, “I’ll call you,” but he doesn’t intend to and never does.

I think that’s wrong. There is no moral reason to lie to her. He’s just saving himself from a little awkwardness, but he’s telling an untruth.

I also think it’s wrong to tell children that Santa Claus is real. It accomplishes no superior moral purpose. It’s only deception. Children might eventually believe you’ve deceived them about God, too. They can’t see Santa and they can’t see God, either. There’s no good reason to create a problem by starting with a deception.

It takes some moral development to be able to solve ethical dilemmas. People who aren’t working at it will not be capable of making good ethical decisions because they are not alert to ethical distinctions.

J. P. Moreland once asked why he should trust the moral judgment of a professor, or Hollywood star, etc., if they have not given any effort to developing their moral sensibilities. You might ask the opinion of somebody like Mother Teresa who has given her life to doing good and developing virtuous behavior. Through practice, she has developed her sense of ethical judgment. But why go to anybody who hasn’t done anything to develop their ethical sensibilities and who basically is committed to ethical egoism? Why should we accept their instruction?

Why should we accept Hollywood’s ethical assessment on anything? Why should we care what a movie star thinks about homosexuality, or abortion, or any other ethical issue? I’m not trying to commit genetic fallacy here and say that movie stars know nothing. What I’m saying is that what we see in most of those people, once we’ve been exposed to their private lives, are people who are deeply consumed with self. Their lives are about themselves, not about living morally. Why should we care what their ethical assessment is on anything? They are not qualified.

We can only be adept at solving ethical problems if we give some effort to thinking about it and to living the ethical life.

I think lying is right sometimes. I think Rahab did right when she lied about the spies. I think the Hebrew midwives did right when they lied to Pharaoh to protect the lives of the Hebrew children.

I think trespassing is right sometimes. I think violence is right sometimes. I think there are many things that, in isolation, would be wrong, but when a higher moral good is served, they not only become not wrong, they become obligatory. That’s hard for some to accept.

Rahab was obliged to lie to protect the lives of those spies. Both James and the writer of Hebrews applaud her for her action. They didn’t say, “Shame, shame, but I guess you chose the lesser of two evils.” Instead, they acted like she chose the greater of two goods. She did what was right.

I think that’s the Biblical view. In Acts 4, the apostles were told to disobey the government and preach the gospel. Paul says that we are obliged to obey the government. Yet when the government tells us to disobey a higher command of God, then we are morally obliged to disobey the government. We have to choose the greater good, as the disciples did.