Have you ever been in a place where you found yourself torn between conflicting obligations? How did you handle it? How would you think about that situation if you knew God had placed those upon you … deliberately?
Let’s take a simple thing like lying, for example. It is a sin [Leviticus 19.11; Psalm 59.12; Proverbs 12.22; literally dozens more]; God hates it [Proverbs 6.16; etc.], because his very nature is truth [John 14.6; etc.]. In light of this, it might surprise you that lying may be ethical, under certain circumstances. For example:
- The Hebrew midwives, ordered by Pharaoh to kill newborn male babies, refused to obey and lied to him about it.
- The prostitute Rahab hid spies who stayed in her home, telling the authorities they’d left.
- The Prophet Samuel, en route to anoint the next king of Israel, blatantly misled the military police as to his motives for travel.
- The Prophet Jeremiah, following a secret meeting with his king, did as the latter instructed, deceiving his countrymen as to the true nature of their conversation.
In all four cases these people lied (and three of the four involved treason, to boot). An absolutely inflexible, unthinking, interpretation of the biblical prohibition against lying would mean that all four of these people sinned – yet the texts state they all were not punished but blessed for having done it! In fact, in Samuel’s case God explicitly told him to lie!
How is this possible?
One answer to that question is to say the Bible is not inspired by God at all; it is just a collection of flawed, contradictory human writings. If you, as I, reject that explanation, is there a way to deal with integrity this apparent inconsistency? Yes, there is.
Most of us are aware of the dietary laws found in the Hebrew Scriptures which forbid Jews to eat pork. You might be interested to learn, then, of a rabbinical teaching: If you’re starving, and a pig runs in front of you, kill and eat it. Why? Judaism has always taught that the Divine Law in its entirety is important, but that there is hierarchy within the Law itself; some laws are more important than others. When faced with two seemingly contradictory Divine commands, where to obey one perforce means you disobey the other, you are obligated to discern and do the greater of the two. This principle is found both explicitly and implicitly in the Bible.
The Old Testament book of Ruth brings light to this issue. Boaz, the wealthy farmer, had to choose: he had the command to never help a Moabite; at the same time he had the command to perform the duty of kinsman-redeemer for the widow Ruth … who happened to be a Moabite. What to do? Obviously he couldn’t do both. He chose the latter, because it was the more important command.
Another example: Orthodox Jews, based on their understanding of Exodus 20.9-11, refuse to do any kind of work on the Sabbath day – not even flipping a light switch. Nevertheless, even the Orthodox believe a surgeon or paramedic fighting to save someone’s life, or a soldier fighting to save his own life, on the Sabbath day is not merely acceptable but absolutely mandatory, even though doing so is clearly “work.” The command not to violate the Sabbath is trumped by the command to preserve life (something Christ himself endorsed).
So the “little white lie?” There is no such thing. There’s no biblical precedent to tell a falsehood simply to keep someone’s feelings from being hurt, or to save yourself an embarrassment, or to advance your career, or to protect your church or your ministry. But it is biblical to lie, or commit other lesser sins, in order to rescue someone from an unjust and untimely end. Thus the Ten Boom family – who, in defiance of the law, hid Jews in their home and forged ration cards to feed them during the Third Reich’s occupation of Holland – were obeying God, even though doing so entailed doing things the Bible prohibits, including falsehood, theft, and disobedience to the civil government.
Don’t misunderstand; necessity does not turn vice into virtue. But neither is it virtuous to abstain from a lesser evil if doing so permits a greater evil to occur.
Even – perhaps especially – in a situation where we don’t clearly know what’s right, the Lord will still hold us accountable for our decisions; we can’t blame him if we choose unwisely, claiming we were just obeying his Scriptures. Had Boaz had spurned Ruth, leaving her to rot in squalor and famine, had Rahab denounced the spies, abandoning them to torture and execution, they would have been wrong. If Samuel and Jeremiah had been completely honest they would have foolishly forfeited their lives.
We are obligated to discern what the Lord wants us to do in any and every situation. Thankfully, he grants wisdom generously to all who ask, without finding fault – i.e. he doesn’t hold our ignorance against us. He will help us to understand and obey if we are diligently trying to please him.
Here’s the crux of the issue: morality is not necessarily as black or white as we might wish. Sometimes there really is no clear right or wrong. There is a danger in admitting this: some, concluding all choices are relativistic, might claim there is never any absolute right or wrong. This position is commonly called “situational ethics,” which at its heart is nihilistic. What people ultimately do in that worldview is to develop an ethic that is completely selfish: that which is good and right is whatever personally benefits me or my cause or my ideology. Either extreme – rigid religious moralism or flexible self-centered ethics – is false, for both depend upon human reasoning to make the determination of what constitutes right and wrong. That is something we are simply incapable do doing so on our own.
We live in a sin-saturated culture; our heritage, nurture, training and even our thought processes (yes, even after receiving forgiveness and adoption into God’s family) are all infected by sin. So we dare not think we can make God happy by following a simple list of “do’s” and “don’ts.” We can’t even be absolutely confident that we are reading and applying the Scriptures properly. We have to rely on the Spirit of God to lead us into all wisdom and understanding. And he will! As the Psalmist wrote,
In all your ways acknowledge him, and he will direct your paths.
Live as if you are utterly dependent upon him … because you are, whether you realize it or not.