Is Circumstantial Lying Following Scripture?


Lying clearly falls under the 9th Commandment, which says, “You shall not bear false witness against your neighbor” (Exod 20:16) and there are other supporting portions of Scripture like, "God never lies” (Titus 1:2 paraphrase which references OT Numbers 23:19) and Ephesians 5:1 “Therefore be imitators of God, as beloved children.” where we are commanded not to lie. There is also the wrathful admonition of Prov 12:22, "Lying lips are an abomination to the Lord, but those who act faithfully are his delight.

Knowing this, yet still there are times when we purposefully do not tell the truth (think Tooth Fairy, Easter Bunny, “No, Barney isn’t on now.” :smiley: etc.) and tense dilemmas where the situation seemingly demands we lie (Nazis interrogating a family hiding a Jewish family, visting China and telling the government offical who wants to kill Christians that we don’t know where the church is located). Is lying situationally dependent? If so, why? Is lying in any circumstance disobeying God’s Word? How do we whow confess a walk with Christ obey the Lord when we are in these situations?


I am unaware of Scripture ever commending a lie (Rahab was not commended for her lie; presumably she was commended for her faith in God).

This is a topic just a few days ago on the subject, if you are searching for the Catholic doctrine on it.


Hi 4most4christ,

This is a big one that comes up every now and again on these forums. If you do a search you’ll find a lot of threads on this topic.

The basic answer is that lying is wrong, but simply withholding the truth is not. So in cases where you are tempted to lie FOR A GOOD REASON, simply withhold the truth instead.

A popular technique that is often suggested is something called Mental Reservation. Basically, you withhold the truth such that what you say could have many interpretations. Taking the Nazis looking for Jews example, if they asked “Are there Jews in this house?” you could reply “There are none here.” Because here is a subjective term that could refer to just the area you’re standing in rather than the house, you’re not technically lying if you had Jews in the house.

Please note: This technique only works if your intentions are good. If you are attempting to hide a truth for a bad reason, what you’re doing is already wrong.

I hope that helps!


Ex. 1:15-20


There appear to be two main theories at the moment:

  1. Saying things that are not true with the understanding that the person you are speaking is likely to think (that you think that) what you’re saying is true is always bad.

  2. Speaking in such a way is an act of violence, and is acceptable only in circumstances analogous to when violence is appropriate.

Theory 1) says that such speaking is directly opposed to truth and thus intrinsically evil. People who hold this often say that deception by withholding is permissible. (“I don’t know where any Jews are” by which you mean that while you know there are Jews in your house, you aren’t certain exactly where in your house they are - they may be huddled in the back left corner of your secret room instead of the back right corner).

Occasionally people defend theory 1) by saying that lying is always sinful, but that in some cases (Nazis) it is ok-ish, or not that bad. This doesn’t work - sin is never ok, ish or otherwise. If it is in the least sinful, then doing so to save lives is absolutely prohibited, whether we would go to hell for doing so or not. One cannot do evil, however minor, so that good may come of it, however major. For the most part, this is recognized by proponents of 1), though there are those who admit that under the pressure that they might end up lying anyway, but also admit that such would be a worse choice than an attempt at deception - even if from the tone of the interrogation it is clear that the attempt at deception will fail, whereas the lie may not.

Theory 2) is defended in various ways, but mostly by making a distinction between sinful lying and telling an untruth along the lines of the murder/killing distinction. Usually this distinction has something to do with the idea of whether the person you are talking to a) has a right to the truth you wish to conceal, and (I think, though I haven’t heard it explicitly stated as offten as a) ) b) has a right to have what they are told be true. (Analogously, a) does a person have a right to the un-poisoned food that you have, and b) does he have the right to have any food that you do give him (whether he has a right to it or not) be unpoisoned.)

Sometimes methods of defending theory 2 appear to leave open the morality of lying in cases where it shouldn’t be. To me, these mostly appear to be the arguments that ignore b).

Santa Claus etc is sometimes classified as myth - a less than entirely direct way of bringing people to a greater truth that they might otherwise miss. I’m pretty sure there are people in both groups who think that it is both ok and not ok.

I personally hold theory 2 (as was probably obvious - hopefully those who favor 1 will chime in, I’m sure my disbelief of their arguments taints my presentation of them). I tend to think Santa is fine, but that “Barney isn’t on” probably isn’t. (“No those pants don’t make your butt look big,” is, I think, both acceptable and indeed the only correct response.)


Yup, you hit it on the nose. That’s a great summary of the debate. This article does a great job demonstrating the basic problem and mentions the two theories:

I found the most interesting thing is that there isn’t a universally agreed upon definition of lying. Aquinas and August described lying as “speaking against one’s own mind”, whereas the definition in the ccc is “speaking falsehood with the intent to deceive”.

Most tricky cases that involve lying can be explained away with the ccc definition. Talking about Santa Clause or saying someone looks nice in an outfit doesn’t really constitute deliberate intent to deceive.

But the case of the Nazis is the deal breaker for me. That’s a case where I think the ccc definition would still classify that as lying. You are still speaking a falsehood to deceive. That’s why I adopt theory 1 which simply states don’t speak a falsehood and avoid the problem altogether.


A case you could try to make defensible, but it’s not a cut and dry commendation, Dave. Haydock, for example, which I provide below, does not agree with your interpretation.

To render the passages easier to view for other readers (bold emphasis mine):

15 And the king of Egypt spoke to the midwives of the Hebrews: of whom one was called Sephora, the other Phua,
16 Commanding them: When you shall do the office of midwives to the Hebrew women, and the time of delivery is come: if it be a man child, kill it: if a woman, keep it alive.
17 But the midwives** feared God**, and did not do as the king of Egypt had commanded, but saved the men children.
18 And the king called for them and said: What is that you meant to do, that you would save the men children?
19 They answered: The Hebrew women are not as the Egyptian women: for they themselves are skilful in the office of a midwife; and they are delivered before we come to them.
20 Therefore God dealt well with the midwives: and the people multiplied and grew exceedingly strong.
21 And because the midwives feared God, he built them houses.

The Haydock commentary:
Ver. 21. Because the midwives feared God, &c. The midwives were rewarded, not for their lie, which was a venial sin; but for their fear of God, and their humanity; but this reward was only temporal, in building them houses, that is, in establishing and enriching their families. (Challoner) — This alone the Scripture specifies, though they might also be filled with heavenly graces. (Worthington) — Some conclude from this verse, that the midwives embraced the true religion. The Hebrew refers built them to the Hebrews, as if they multiplied in consequence of the humanity of these women; (Calmet) and the Vulgate may be explained in the same sense. (Haydock) De Muis supposes, that Pharao ordered houses to be built for the midwives, where the Hebrew women were forced to appear when they were to be delivered, in the presence of commissaries.


I have not read enough from explanations from the Church, but here is my take. If someones life is at risk, and all you have to do is lie to save their life, then it would be a much greater sin to tell the truth and have a person killed rather than a compassionate act of deception. I also think in much smaller cases when we are put on the spot and run a risk of breaking someones heart or crushing their spirits over not expressing our personal opinion about something that involves them, a dishonest remark from us that avoids heartbreak can be better than telling a person exactly what we think. I’m not the kind of personal who always says what they think before weighing out the possible damage that can be done. If you ask me my opinion I always try to determine whether my words or reaction is going to help them or harm them. I prefer to second guess my own opinions rather than blurt out my opinions with no holds barred. I’ve seen brutally honest people rip the hearts out of people who just needed a passive stretch of the truth.


I’m not gonna directly answer the question, but I would like to ask something. Why is it that in Western cultures, lying as an act is seen as a total no-no? Of course lying isn’t good, but I do notice that it has a very great stigma attached to even white lies. Could it be due to the emphasis on being encouraged to say your thoughts freely and frankly?

In Eastern cultures (say like here in Japan) - usually those high-context cultures which hold shame and honor in high regard - etiquette demands that one not shame others in public, so you really have to control and think out what you have to say. You can’t be brutally honest all the time; depending on the situation, one may purposely give an indirect or incomplete answer or even indulge in a little white lie, if it means trying to avoid conflict and offending (= shaming) the other party. If speaking openly betrayed the interest of another to whom one was loyal and indebted, properly etiquette is that one should say one thing publicly and do another thing privately, or else not follow up on what was publicly stated. Westerners might complain of duplicity or hypocrisy at this point, but for people in such cultures, this doesn’t count as “lying.” (I’m not saying that Westerners do not have a similar concept - I’m just saying that in cultures like the one I’m in right now, there is a more lax definition of what “lying” is, tied with the emphasis on keeping public harmony.)

Jesus Himself - who lived in such a culture - even did this once:

After this Jesus went about in Galilee. He would not go about in Judea, because the Jews were seeking to kill him. Now the Jews’ Feast of Booths was at hand. So his brothers said to him, “Leave here and go to Judea, that your disciples also may see the works you are doing. For no one works in secret if he seeks to be known openly. If you do these things, show yourself to the world.” For not even his brothers believed in him. Jesus said to them, “My time has not yet come, but your time is always here. The world cannot hate you, but it hates me because I testify about it that its works are evil. You go up to the feast.** I am not going up to this feast, for my time has not yet fully come.**” After saying this, he remained in Galilee. But after his brothers had gone up to the feast, then he also went up, not publicly but in private.

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