Google “when lying is good” and you can easily assemble a long list of suggested situations. They boil down to four basic categories.
- Lying works. From a pragmatic standpoint, lying helps us get what we want. It can help us get the attention we crave, a better negotiation result, or keep us out of trouble.
- Lying alleviates unnecessary suffering. Neither children nor dementia patients are best served with hard truths. Those who can’t handle the truth shouldn’t be told the truth.
- Lying preserves relationships and life. Lying is a kindness we offer when the risk of offense is great. And in life-threatening situations, you should lie up a storm to protect life and national interests.
- Lying is primal. It’s a natural, protective instinct to acknowledge and embrace. Everyone does it.
All of those categories make sense to us. Each one contains an element of truth that would seem to justify lying on a fairly frequent basis.
But, A Few Things To Consider.Lying works as a pragmatic strategy only until the moment you’re found out. Click To TweetLying works as a pragmatic strategy until the moment you’re found out. When your lie is discovered, it destroys your credibility and reputation. Others may forgive you, but lies are not easily forgotten. You’ll never fully regain the trust you trampled.
It’s not necessary to lie to children or the emotionally delicate. Your choices aren’t limited to either telling the whole story (beyond what they are capable of understanding or processing) or lying outright. You can maintain integrity by giving them a stage-appropriate explanation. This can be followed up with a statement like: “We’ll go into more detail about that when you’re [fill in the blank].” It’s ok to tell them you’re withholding information until a later date.
Lying preserves relationships in proportion to the superficiality of those relationships. The people close to you expect honesty. Flattery or withholding honest evaluations is not helpful to them. The fact is, sometimes it hurts to hear the truth about ourselves or others. But thoughtfully processing painful facts is part of maturing. Truth-telling respects and encourages maturity in others.
Remember, too, truth doesn’t have to be brutal. Truth delivered with gentleness and sincere regard for another’s benefit is ultimately kinder than a lie. In this statement, I’ve found an unlikely ally. Atheist author, Sam Harris, has written a book called Lying in which he argues people should never lie because it undermines individuals specifically and society generally. About this, he’s right.
The Bigger Problem
Lying truly is instinctive to human nature. We can hate lying and still do it without thinking. Rather than crediting this to an evolutionary adaptation and embracing it, we should recognize it as the result of our sinful spiritual nature – to be abhorred and continuously repented of. Because the best argument against lying is God hates it. He said so. Furthermore, He never lies and commands us to be like Him.
Might a commitment to speaking truthfully cost us something in terms of consequences? Absolutely. Jesus spoke nothing but the truth and people hated and crucified him for it. The Bible is very forthright that His followers should expect no better treatment. But we forget that, and we do expect better. And we lie to get better.
The truth is, lying is never good. There are incidents of lying descriptively recounted in the Bible, but it’s not prescriptively sanctioned. So whatever the cost, ask God to help you speak truthfully – with wisdom and kindness. In this, you show obedient love to Him and brotherly love your neighbor.