Lying for God

A preying mantis offers directions.

The Bible presents some interesting dilemmas, like the mystery of how Noah and his family managed to stay sane and uneaten while spending over a year cooped up on a boat with their floating zoo.

The book of Joshua, specifically, invites some difficult questions.  Why did God tell Israel to kill all the inhabitants of the land of Canaan, even the children?  Why did he tell them to inhabit the land west of the Jordan, but then allowed the tribes of Reuben, Gad, and half of the tribe of Manasseh to settle on the eastern bank?  If the sun stood still for a whole day, then did the earth stop rotating?

But, the nagging question I have from Joshua that burrowed itself into my mind quite some time ago has to do with Rahab hiding the spies.  Perhaps you have the same question, too.  Was Rahab’s lie right or wrong?

Rahab was a prostitute who lived in the city of Jericho.  These two facts (her profession and her nationality) make her an interesting choice of subject as a Biblical example of faith (see also Hebrews 11:31).  But, what she did makes her characterization as a woman of faith even more interesting:

She lied.

The spies of Israel were checking out the defenses of Jericho, but their cover was blown, and the king of Jericho was after them.  So, Rahab hid them on her roof under some stalks of flax.  When the police came knocking, she told a flat-out lie: she told the authorities that the spies had left the city.

Now, keeping in mind that the Bible clearly denounces lying (and disobeying authority), here is my question: was Rahab’s lie the right thing to do in her situation; or, was it wrong, but God recognized her faith as she did the only thing she could think of to save the spies in a difficult situation?

And what about present-day application: are there situations in which lying is the right choice?  Or, is lying always wrong, but God appreciates our attempts to do the right thing, even if we don’t always do the best thing?

Either position opens up a huge, wriggly can of worms.


14 thoughts on “Lying for God

  1. I don’t think Rahab plays out well in this argument at all since what Hebrews 11 praises her for is her act of welcoming the spies, not lying for them. Her faith in their God is rewarded, not her lying.

    But it’s an interesting topic nonetheless. Is there ever a time for Christians to lie? Sometimes I want to say yes (like in situations such as hiding Jews during WWII), but at the same time someone proclaiming truth may have quite a difficult time convincing others if they only tell the truth when it’s easy. If lying was okay to protect someone, then lying about your own faith in God seems just as innocent as lying about whether or not there’s someone hiding in the closet. But we know what denying Christ before men leads to, and we know that the martyrs of the first centuries could have easily protected themselves simply by lying and proclaiming Caesar as Lord. But they didn’t. And because of that they not only lost their own lives, but their family’s as well.

    Unforgivable sin? I don’t think so. But is there ever an appropriate time for a Christian to lie? I’m leaning toward not thinking so either.

    (And here in our American culture where we do not deal with these extreme circumstances whatsoever, I absolutely do not believe there is ever time for a Christian to lie in our normal, day-to-day lives.)

    • My question would be: “How did Rahab welcome the spies?” To use the language of the Hebrew writer: How did she give the spies a “friendly welcome?” Milk and cookies? Or hiding them and lying about where they were?

  2. Thanks for the article Clint.

    I think ethics shouldn’t be reduced to black and white rules, i.e. is it or is it not o.k. to lie, etc.

    1 Samuel 16 claims that God told Samuel to go and anoint a new guy (David) as king. Samuel says, ‘excuse me, but there’s not a vacancy in that office. Saul will kill me.’ Basically God says, for goodness sake, this is a holy mission, lie about it. . .take a ram with you and tell him you’ve come to offer a sacrifice.

    The classic dilemma is ‘would you lie and say that you were not hiding Jews from Nazis if you were hiding them the Nazis asked you’. To me this is a ridiculous question especially with Rahab, Samuel, etc. in mind. Of course you should lie in some cases.

    The problem becomes that we can use extreme circumstances to justify ourselves in not practicing extreme truth telling that is representative of the kingdom i.e. let your Yes be Yes and your No, No. (we do this same type of justifying with just war theory I think) Like anything else, great spiritual insight, maturity, and discernment is required. There is no black and white rule that I can follow.

    Hope everything’s going well.

    • Good comments Brandon, I think that is an interesting discussion (the difference between Rahab’s lie and lying about your faith in the face of persecution). I don’t have time to give any thought on it right now though.

      I do think that it is a stretch to separate Rahab’s actions i.e. welcoming, hiding, lying. It seems to me that she is praised for helping the spies escape, especially in James. There is certainly never any negative connotation to her lying.

    • The 1Samuel example is particularly interesting since it is God telling Samuel to be deceptive…or at least not totally honest. And that’s the same issue we get onto Abraham for when we read the stories of him claiming his wife was his sister……it was a half-truth. Samuel’s instruction from God to say, “I have come to offer sacrifices,” was a half-truth.

  3. Clint,
    Timely post. I’m teaching from Proverbs this quarter in the adult auditorium class Sunday AM and while coving “Things God Hates” lying came up (6.17). Long story short, someone asked about their relative who hid Jews from the Nazis during WW2…Rahab came up…it was an interesting (heated?) discussion. Rahab is an interesting case because the very thing she is commended for in Hebrews 11 is, basically, lying.

  4. I see there’s been some good discussion while I was away.

    So, here’s the conundrum we find ourselves in either way we go in answering this:

    1) If Rahab’s lie was right in the circumstance, then lying is not always wrong, and, indeed, there may be some situations where it is the right thing to do.

    2) If Rahab’s lie was wrong, we still have God saving her, and commending her for her actions (I’m with Nick and Mark on this…that when Hebrews and James speak of her welcoming the spies it implies all that she did to help them, including helping them escape). She is still considered an example of faith despite her sin of lying…even because of her sin of lying.

    As of right now, I am leaning toward this:

    It is always wrong to lie. However, some situations are extremely difficult, and we do the best we know how to do in the situation. If in those circumstances we lie trying to do the right thing then God appreciates our attempts to serve Him more than He judges our failure in lying.

    I’m also with Brandon in tentatively concluding that there are no common, everyday, “American” scenarios that I can think of when lying would possibly be right. This is primarily applicable in extreme circumstances.

    • Thanks Clint. I would state that last part a little differently though

      ‘If in those circumstances we lie trying to do the right thing then God appreciates our attempts to serve Him more than He judges our failure in lying.’

      To me if there are those circumstances and our best discerment tells us that we should lie, then we have not ‘failed’ in doing so (lying). Also, I wouldn’t say Rahab’s lying was ‘sin’.

      I don’t think we can’t generalize here as to which types of scenarios are o.k. and which are not in order to have a rule of thumb and make it easier on ourselves. Discernment has to occur each time.

      Thanks for the discussion guys!

      • I agree that the key is discernment. I think that is one of the big issues here.

        What I am saying, though, is that if Rahab was wrong in her discernment then her desire to do the right thing out-weighed her poor decision.

        I guess I’m saying that with God there is always another option, even if we don’t see it. And, if we don’t see it, but we, doing the best we know how, lie in a difficult situation because we think that is the best option, we may very well be wrong to lie, but right in seeking to do our best in the situation. And God is pleased by that (not the lie, but our faith in trying to serve Him the best we know how).

        It’s like watching a child try to clean up a mess. They might do a horrible job, but a parent really appreciates the effort and heart of the child. I imagine God looking down on us making messes, but doing the best we know (sometimes), and He appreciates our hearts.

  5. I agree with you, even if we are wrong, God looks at our hearts.

    I just don’t think the writers thought she (Rahab) was wrong or that she sinned or whatever. I think they think she was right as they think Samuel was right in what he did, etc.

    The point of the commentary on Rahab in Hebrews and James seems to be precisely that she didn’t make a mess but that she trusted and did the right thing.

  6. If you follow the path of reasoning that some currently are… you may have much more severe problems very soon. For example, by this same reasoning you could say something like, “I don’t believe in the resurrection, because how can I trust that the apostles were telling the truth and not just lying about it while TRYING to please God” etc.

    Consider that, perhaps, something different is going on with Rahab than has yet been suggested.

    • Hey Brian,
      I am certainly open to some other explanation of what is going on with Rahab. Whatever we decide it must be consistent with the basic facts: Rahab lied; God praised her faith.

      I agree, though, that this line of reasoning can be taken too far. Certainly there must be some things, Gospel things, that are concrete and necessary, no matter the intentions. Faith in Christ would certainly be one. Faith in any other, no matter how good the intentions, will not avail anyone.

      However, this line of reasoning is valid in many areas. Let’s say I go to Revelation with a pure conscience and sincere intentions to interpret and understand is correctly. But, let’s say I get it wrong, unknowingly, of course, and I go out teaching my wrong interpretations to all who will listen. Will God accept my desire to learn and sincerity in teaching though my interpretation is wrong? We better say yes, or none of us is saved. All of us are wrong about something.

      So, even if something else is going on with Rahab, the principle is still largely valid that God accepts us for our hearts even when our actions are wrong…or sinful. That’s the Gospel message.

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