The Truth about Lying


     All with the exception of those who are afraid to face reality are aware of how common lying is becoming, especially in America. However, lying is not novel, for sure. David of old wrote, "The wicked are estranged from the womb: they go from the womb: they go astray as soon as they are born, speaking lies" (Ps. 58: 3). While it is granted that there is the element of hyperbole, the commonplaceness of lying is certainly being set forth in the verse. According to one study, ninety-one percent confess to regularly lying. This same study revealed that forty-five percent see nothing necessarily wrong with lying.

     Lying is just about as old as man himself, biblically speaking, having started with the devil (Gen. 3: 4, cp. John 8: 44). The original language for the New Testament is of little help in arriving at a complete definition. There are two nouns, two adjectives, and one verb from which liar, lie, etc. are derived in our English translations. These Greek words have pseudo making up the main part of the word (one noun is pseudos). Pseudo just means false. In most of the biblical references to lying or falsehood, there are many associated truths to be observed. For instance, in the Genesis three allusion you will notice that in the lie told by the devil, the first recorded lie, he made a play on words in such a way as to not only materially distort the actual resident truth, but to also detrimentally deceive the hearer. God had earlier told the first couple that they would die the day they partook of the forbidden fruit (Gen. 2: 17). The devil told them: "…ye shall not surely die" (Gen. 3: 4). The play on words involved physical and spiritual death. They did, in fact, die the same day, spiritually. Later, they would physically die as a result of their sin (Gen. 3; 5). Not a few lies today are concealed under ambiguous terms and equivocation, set forth in an effort to deceive and distort.

     There can be complicated and technical aspects involved in an attempted full definition of lying. For instance, does one necessarily lie when one inaccurately states a matter that one truly believes is accurate, without deceit or evil intent? While incorrect information is faulty, could it be perhaps harsh to term it a lie and the teller a liar? (See addendum 1.) For sure, a simple definition and one without any need of detailed dialectic treatment would be, "A lie is a falsehood that is designed to deceive and distort the relevant truth and perhaps inflict harm."

     The Bible requires honesty and the avoidance of deceit. The last days are described as: "But evil men and seducers shall wax worse and worse, deceiving, and being deceived" (2 Tim. 3: 13). Moreover, in matters religious, the Bible absolutely required accuracy and the absence of deceit. James enjoined, "…lie not against the truth" (Jas. 3: 14). Paul frequently affirmed the veracity with which he taught. Hear him:

     "1: I say the truth in Christ, I lie not, my conscience also bearing me witness in the Holy Ghost" (Rom. 9); "20: Now the things which I write unto you, behold, before God, I lie not" (Gal. 1); and, "7: Whereunto I am ordained a preacher, and an apostle, (I speak the truth in Christ, and lie not;) a teacher of the Gentiles in faith and verity" (I Tim. 2).

     Paul knew that deceit is often behind corrupting the word of God. He wrote, "2: But have renounced the hidden things of dishonesty, not walking in craftiness, nor handling the word of God deceitfully; but by manifestation of the truth commending ourselves to every man's conscience in the sight of God" (2 Cor. 4). Indeed, Paul dealt with many false teachers in his time. Of some with whom he dealt at Corinth, Paul said:

     "13: For such are false apostles, deceitful workers, transforming themselves into the apostles of Christ. 14: And no marvel; for Satan himself is transformed into an angel of light. 15: Therefore it is no great thing if his ministers also be transformed as the ministers of righteousness; whose end shall be according to their works" (2 Cor. 11).

     While this study shall attempt to avoid tedious detail, we do experience the responsibility to expand a little on our definitional comments in order to identify and obviate extremes. Is a fictitious play or book, for instance, necessarily a lie? I think not, if it is presented as fiction. Hence, the distinguishing Latin expression mendaicum iocosum or presentation of fiction. A fictitious production, however, while billed fictitious could be considered a lie if it has an agenda that is false. If, case in point, the play depicts happiness as a life of gambling, carousing, and drugs, such could essentially be lying deceit and distortion. Is an exaggeration that does not seriously deceive, harm, and/or injuriously distort the facts necessarily a lie? The figure hyperbole is common in almost every language, even in the Bible (cp. Phili. 2: 19-30). Some in their efforts to separate inaccurate information from lying (what is termed mendacium perniciosum) have unfortunately introduced what is called in Catholic thinking and terminology, mendacium officiosum ("a lie of duty," some word it). It is contended that Rahab’s distortion of the facts was mendacium officiosum in that while deceit was intended in saying, "I wist not whence they were," when she had hidden the spies, her deceit was not harmful and actually preserved two lives (Josh. 2: 1-7). After all, Rahab’s faith is mentioned as exemplary (cp. Jas. 2: 25).

     The matter commended on the part of Rahab, it must be understood, was not her distortion of the facts, but the faith that moved her to believe in the people of God and her great faith (Josh. 2, see addendum 2). I recall one well known religious teacher saying, "It is not only not wrong to lie on certain occasions that do not involve harm, only protection, but it would be wrong not to lie." Some believe in the doctrine of "mental reservation" to the point that distortion and deceit are justified in certain circumstances. In actuality, the Bible knows nothing of such justifying doctrines and provisions. Does not a failure to disclose all one knows constitute a lie, one might ask? I do not think so, providing the withheld information does not involve deceit, distortion, and injury to others.

     Lying is associated in the Bible with all manner of heinous sin. In fact, sin itself is lying personified, if you will. I say this due to, "the deceitfulness of sin" (Heb. (Heb. 3: 13). Before we accept the too often thinking of society; namely, that a lie that does not seriously hurt another is not really bad, we need to appreciate that in the Bible, lying keeps bad company. Lying is placed in the context of adultery, encouraging evil doers, and homosexuality (cp. Jere. 23: 14). Not only does John say that liars will have their part in the lake which burneth with fire and brimstone, but he also includes spiritual cowardness, infidelity, murder, sorcery, idolatry, the most reprehensible of sins (Rev. 21: 8). It is interesting to note that while we see in the Bible how some sins are more deceptive and have comparatively more injurious consequences, the Bible knows nothing of big and little sins or "white lies." Another matter of great interest, especially in this day of "there is no wrong and right, only shades of gray," how those who present false doctrine in religion are termed as liars. Consider:

     "14: Then the LORD said unto me, The prophets prophesy lies in my name: I sent them not, neither have I commanded them, neither spake unto them: they prophesy unto you a false vision and divination, and a thing of nought, and the deceit of their heart" (Jere. 14).

     Just so there is no misunderstanding, the Bible contains examples of condemned lying. Just to notice a couple, we have recorded the lies of Joseph’s brothers and Potiphar’s wife.

     Jacob’s sons lied to him in an effort to hurt their brother, Joseph (Gen. 37: 31-36). Their lie as to how Joseph had been killed by a beast and their total lack of knowledge as to what had really happened to Joseph not only was injurious to their brother, but the hurt also extended to their father, causing him extreme grief. The affects of lying often go beyond the intended target.

     Subsequent to the lies told against Joseph, we find still another lie being fabricated against Joseph. The case of Joseph and the wife of Potiphar is recorded in a few, straightforward words. Consider the truth and facts of the case:

     "11: And it came to pass about this time, that Joseph went into the house to do his business; and there was none of the men of the house there within. 12: And she caught him by his garment, saying, Lie with me: and he left his garment in her hand, and fled, and got him out" (Gen. 39).

     Now compare how she related the event and notice not only the distortion of the pertinent facts, but also the intended hurt (once again, there is an element of truth in the lie):

     "13: And it came to pass, when she saw that he had left his garment in her hand, and was fled forth, 14: That she called unto the men of her house, and spake unto them, saying, See, he hath brought in an Hebrew unto us to mock us; he came in unto me to lie with me, and I cried with a loud voice: 15: And it came to pass, when he heard that I lifted up my voice and cried, that he left his garment with me, and fled, and got him out. 16: And she laid up his garment by her, until his lord came home. 17: And she spake unto him according to these words, saying, The Hebrew servant, which thou hast brought unto us, came in unto me to mock me: 18: And it came to pass, as I lifted up my voice and cried, that he left his garment with me, and fled out. 19: And it came to pass, when his master heard the words of his wife, which she spake unto him, saying, After this manner did thy servant to me; that his wrath was kindled" (Ibid.).

     Perhaps you believe that the quoted statistic that "…ninety-one percent regularly lie" is too great. It is high, but when you really examine the act of lying, you find that it is very common. The child answers the telephone and the parent who does not want to talk says, "Tell them I am not at home." If this is not a lie, what is it? Adultery, another increasingly common sin, always involves lies. As a rule, the impenitent act of adultery requires lies to cover and conceal it. However, the act itself essentially is a lie in view of the vow to faithfulness. One has said that, "An excuse is nothing but a dressed-up lie." Is it not a lie when one says, "I cannot go because I have a headache," when one does not have a headache?

     Lying has always been a sign of cultural and moral deterioration. Lying is as a rule deep-rooted and indicative of lack of character. One lies due to being afraid of the truth; one lies to protect one’s interests; and lies are told to destroy others, others of whom we are envious. One can live a lie by being a hypocrite. Fake miracles are calling "lying wonders" (2 Thes. 2: 9). A liar is unreliable and one would be wise to take everything subsequently said with a "grain of salt." Lying precludes real rehabilitation due to, "I really do not have a problem." Lying can prevent salvation in that the act of lying not only condemns, but lying convinces the liar that they are already saved when they are not.  The Christian serves the God who not only does not lie, but who is incapable of lying (Heb. 6: 18). 

     Addendum 1: Incorrect information is always just that; incorrect information. The person thus communicating such flawed information is wrong, even though they do not intend to misled, deceive, or distort. One does not have to establish motive in the case of the dissemination of religious error in order to prove inaccurate teaching. The motives of Apollos were never called in question, but his teaching was lacking sufficient truth to be efficacious (Acts 18: 24ff.). Apollos had to be taught the whole truth and then he was of actual service to others in his teaching efforts. Most, I am afraid, who are teachers of religious error and are religious liars are improperly motivated (cp. 2 Pet. 2). Again, though, we do not have to establish motive to prove one’s teaching is faulty and not acceptable.

     Addendum 2: Any detailed study of lying and obfuscation deals with deceit and it is the height of deceit to contend that the Bible justifies lying in certain cases (Rahab) and on the other hand, blanketly condemns lying (cf. Col. 3: 9, notice that lying is associated with the "old man," see also Romans 6). I contend, therefore, that Hebrews 11: 31 and James 2: 25 are general statements of the faith of Rahab and are not dealing with the particular of her lying. I could just as easily justify prostitution, using the logic of the "Rahab lied, therefore, lying is not always wrong," because the same verses also mention that Rahab was a harlot. Thus, forcing the justification of Rahab to include the particular of lying being acceptable is forcing on the writers more than they meant to be included.