You are a liar. I am one too. But what exactly does it mean to lie? Throughout the ages philosophers have debated on what exactly constitutes a lie. Some have said a lie is any statement that is factually false, regardless of intent or prior knowledge. Others have said lying is saying anything one knows to be true but asserting it as false. Still others have said a lie is a statement that is either true or false, but it is a matter of intent, a matter of the heart. Did you mean to deceive this person, even if it was a “true” statement? Some, like Thomas Carson, say lying is at times acceptable, while others, like Augustine and Kant, say it’s never acceptable.
But it’s more complicated than that. There are four facets that are interwoven in a lie.
The first is the philosophical dilemma of what constitutes a lie, like I said. The second is the linguistic element, more specifically, a branch of linguistics known as pragmatics. This is the interface between what is said and what is meant, and how our brains recall huge amounts of information to determine meaning in conversation.
It’s like when I asked my dental hygienist if she dates her patients, and she responded with, “I’m seeing someone.” She inferred from what I asked—using a tremendous store of information regarding societal norms, linguistic inferences, and her own personal convictions—that I was asking her out, but it wasn’t grammatically what I said. This is what is known as a conversational implicature. It has all sorts of implications for deception and social situations, which is my third point, the sociological element.
Perhaps by answering me in that way, my dental hygienist was preserving my honor by not flat out rejecting me. Just about any relationship that ventures beyond the platonic level eventually gets swallowed up in this messy sociological phenomenon. Was she lying by saying what she said, or was she being kind? Is a husband lying when he says, “Of course I liked your asparagus, dear”? Perhaps he is only acknowledging and preserving the delicate balance of his most important social relationship. Like they say, “Happy wife, happy life.”
The last piece is the theological one. What does the Bible say about lying, what theological conclusions can we draw, and how ought Christians live in such a complex communicative world such as this one? How does a Christian navigate relationships or a career in a society so flooded with lies in advertising, ghostwriting, and politics? Christians are supposed to be people of the truth—for their God is a God of truth—but the Bible, relationships, and language itself are often unclear on the matter.
Yes, the Bible is a bit unclear. God hates liars and lying, of course, yet he sets ambushes for his enemies. Abraham and Isaac lied about their wives and remain unscathed. He blessed Jacob for lying to Esau. Joshua secretly sent two spies—a spy’s sole purpose, by the way, is to deceive others—to Jericho, and Rahab lied about their whereabouts, each of whom was blessed by God. Additionally, several theologians throughout church history, like Ambrose, Augustine, Gregory of Nyssa, and Thomas Aquinas, have argued that the incarnation was God’s way of fooling the devil into killing God’s Son, thus rescuing Christians from death. It was God’s divine mouse trap. One might even call it the immaculate deception.
Yet in the Bible we also read that Gehazi or Ananias and Sapphira were immediately punished for their deception. Did Peter lie when he said he did not know Jesus in the courtyard? Why was he not punished? The question, then, is what is the standard God uses to punish or not punish particular liars? Is it motive or does it depend on the content of the lie? Or perhaps it’s the object of the lie, the person to whom one is addressing?
How do we make sense of this hermeneutical issue, and how do we navigate this world? Perhaps politeness, like what my hygienist said, is only preserving particular relationships. Most Christians—most humans—would not associate politeness with lying, though they might call it a “white lie.” What should a faithful Christian say in such circumstances? We encounter dozens of these situations every day. (This is also not including literary devices like hyperbole, irony, sarcasm, personification, metaphor, or idiom, nor does it include humor or innuendo.)
We all learn about ourselves and about reality through our rejections and failures. We come into contact with The Truth, with The World As It Is, when we speak plainly. The thing about honesty in the context of politeness is that, while it may damage the relationship at the very beginning, the acquaintance will learn that honesty is a priority to this friend. Through trusting in each other’s words there can be happier, healthier relationships.
photo by Meg Lauber