Back to the subject at hand. Naturally we’re to be people of truth. But when Paul talks about rejoicing with the truth or speaking the truth in love (1 Cor 13:6; Eph 4:15); and when John writes about walking in the truth (2 John 1:4); they’re talking about the truth, “the truth that is in Jesus” (Eph 4:21). Who is the liar? Answer: “It is the man who denies that Jesus is the Christ” (1 John 2:22).
John recognizes another kind of liar: “If anyone says, ‘I love God,’ yet hates his brother, he is a liar” (1 John 4:20). The liar is not one who deceives his brother for just cause (Bonhoeffer); rather, he is one who despises his brother for no cause, as when he bears false witness against him (Ex 20:16; cf. Psa 109:2). We lie when we compromise truth for self-gain.
The biblical wisdom literature supports this more limited understanding of lying. The “lying tongue” makes the list of seven things which God hates (Prov 6:17; 12:19) and, to be sure, it appears that the writer had in mind to condemn lying in the abstract. However, in two places where a “lying tongue” occurs, the phrase is used in relation to hurting (and hating) someone, and to amassing wealth by fraudulent means (26:28; 21:6). The prohibition against lying presumes that one is animated by selfish or malicious motives.
Is it ever right to lie? Can it be said at particular moments that we must? I have come to believe that love, rightly understood, may compel us to be less than truthful. If there is a right time to kill, then there is a right time to lie. Experience tells us that love is most often served by forthrightness, so that truth-telling remains the norm (Col 3:9). At certain times, however, love is best served by tactful nondisclosure and, in extraordinary circumstances, by deliberate deception. It really is okay to lie, so long as we’re lying in love.
Charles J. Colton lectures in Systematic Theology at Davis College in Johnson City, New York, where he also chairs the Organizational Leadership Program. He is a member of the Main Street Baptist Church in Binghamton, New York, and is the author of Core Christianity: The Tie That Binds.