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Is it Ever Okay to Lie?

pinocchio lying

I grew up in a religious culture where lying (bearing false witness) was always considered sin. It was never, ever right to tell a lie, even if the ends justified the means. This was more of an ideal than anything else. Pastors and congregants alike lied. I quickly learned that despite all their talk about moral/ethical absolutes, my pastors and other church leaders would lie if the situation demanded it. Despite frequent condemnations of situational morality/ethics, the Christians I looked up to would, on occasion, lie. One example that vividly comes to mind happened when I was fifteen and attended Trinity Baptist Church in Findlay, Ohio. As many Independent Fundamentalist Baptist (IFB) churches of the 1970s did, Trinity Baptist had a large bus ministry. Each week the church’s buses brought hundreds of people to church. Many of these buses were rambling wrecks, yet parents rarely gave a second thought to letting their children ride the buses. Most parents, I suspect, saw the three or so hours their children were at church as a respite from caring for them.

Church buses had to be annually inspected by the Ohio State Highway Patrol. Each bus had to pass a mechanical and safety inspection. One item of importance was the tires. Trinity Baptist was a fast-growing church that always seemed to be short of money. Properly outfitting each bus with safe tires would require a lot of money, so the church decided, instead, to lie about the tires. In the spring of 1972, it was once again time to have the buses inspected. Several of them needed to have their tires replaced. Instead of replacing the tires, the church outfitted one bus with new tires and took it to the Patrol Post for inspection. After passing inspection, the bus was driven to a garage owned by a church member so the new tires could be removed and put on the next bus needing inspection. This was done for every bus that had tires that would not pass inspection. What church leaders were doing, of course, was a lie. This particular lie was justified by arguing that running the buses and winning souls for Jesus were more important than following Caesar’s law. Over the next thirty-five years, I would see similar lies told time and again, with the justification always being that God’s work must go on and souls needed saving. But, what about not bearing false witness? I learned that for all their preaching on situational morality/ethics, Evangelical pastors and church leaders were willing to tell a fib it advanced their cause. In their minds, the end indeed justified the means.

Years ago, I pastored one man who believed it was ALWAYS wrong to lie. One time, a woman asked him if he liked her new hat. Wanting to always tell the truth, the man told her that he didn’t like the hat and thought it was ugly. Needless to say, he hurt his friend’s feelings. When asked by his wife whether an outfit looked nice on her or made her look fat, he would never consider what his wife was actually asking. Fundamentalist to the core, all that mattered to him was telling the truth. However, all his wife wanted to know is whether he accepted and loved her, as-is. Instead of understanding this, he dished out what he called “brutal honesty.” Needless to say, this man routinely offended his family and friends.

One time, after a blow-up over his truth-telling, I asked him, “Suppose you lived in Germany in World War II and harbored Jews in your home. One day, the Nazis come to your door and ask if you are harboring any Jews. Knowing that answering YES would lead to their deaths, what would you say? Would you lie to protect them?” Astoundingly, he told me that he would either tell the truth (yes) or say nothing at all. In his mind, always telling the truth was paramount even if it meant the death of others. I knew, then, that I had no hope of getting him to see that there might be circumstances where telling a lie was acceptable; that sometimes a lie serves the greater good.

Bruce, did you ever lie as a pastor? Of course, I did. Let me give you one example. The churches I pastored dedicated babies — the Baptist version of baptizing infants. Couples would stand before the congregation and promise before the church and God that they would raise their newborn up in the fear and admonition of God. Most of these parents lied, but then so did I. I would hold their babies in my arms and present them to the church, saying, isn’t he or she beautiful? when I believed then, and still do, that most newborns are ugly. Our firstborn came forth with wrinkly, scaly skin and a cone-shaped head — thanks to the doctor’s use of forceps. “Beautiful,” he was not!  I lied to the parents about their babies because I knew no parent wanted to hear the “truth.” The parents lied about their commitment to church and God because that’s what everyone in attendance wanted to hear — especially grandparents.

While I generally believe that telling the truth is a good idea, I don’t think this is an absolute. There are times when telling a lie is preferable to telling the truth. Let me share an example of when I should have lied and didn’t. The church I co-pastored in Texas held an annual preaching conference. I preached at this conference the year before the church hired me as their co-pastor. When discussing who we were going to have preach at the upcoming conference, I suggested a preacher friend of mine from Ohio. I thought it would be a great opportunity for him. He gladly accepted our invitation. One night after he preached, my friend asked me to critique his preaching. I thought, oh don’t ask me to do this. My friend had several annoying habits, one of which was failing to make eye contact with those to whom he was preaching. He insisted on me telling him what I thought of his preaching, so with great hesitation, I did. After I was done, I could tell that I had deeply wounded my friend, so much so that he talked very little to me the rest of the conference. Sadly, our friendship did not survive my honesty. Yes, he asked for it, but I really should have pondered whether he would benefit from me telling the truth. I should have, instead, recommended several books on preaching or encouraged him to use the gifts God had given him. Instead, I psychologically wounded him by being “brutally honest.”  Fifteen or so years ago, I tried to reestablish a connection with him. I sent him and email, asking him how he was doing.  He replied with a one word, FINE.

As a photographer, I am often asked for photography advice. I have learned that people don’t really want my opinion about their latest, greatest photographs. Instead of telling them how bad their photos are, I choose, instead, to encourage them to practice and learn the various functions of their cameras. (Most people never take their cameras off AUTO.) I told one person recently that I don’t critique the work of others. There’s no such thing as a perfect photograph, and taking photographs is all about capturing moments in time. As a professional, how my photos look matters to me, but I know that most people will never invest time and money into becoming a skilled photographer. Often, they don’t have the same passion about photography as I do. They wrongly thought that buying an expensive camera would automatically make their photos look good. It’s the photographer’s skill, not his equipment, that makes the difference. I try to encourage others, even if it means, at times, I stretch the truth a bit. I suspect all of us look for affirmation and encouragement instead of “brutal honesty.” If by withholding the unvarnished truth, someone is encouraged to keep taking photographs, then I have done a good deed. I certainly will do what I can to help them improve their skills, but I never want to drive them away from the craft.

Are you an “absolute” truth-teller? Do you believe it is ALWAYS wrong to lie, or do you believe there are circumstances when lying serves the greater good or causes the least harm? If you are a pastor/former clergy person, did you ever lie? Don’t lie!  Please share your thoughts in the comment section.

About Bruce Gerencser

Bruce Gerencser, 61, lives in rural Northwest Ohio with his wife of 40 years. He and his wife have six grown children and twelve grandchildren. Bruce pastored Evangelical churches for twenty-five years in Ohio, Texas, and Michigan. Bruce left the ministry in 2005, and in 2008 he left Christianity. Bruce is now a humanist and an atheist. For more information about Bruce, please read the About page.

Bruce is a local photography business owner, operating Defiance County Photo out of his home. If you live in Northwest Ohio and would like to hire Bruce, please email him.

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    My husband is an absolute truth teller, not because of religion but because he thinks it’s the right thing to do. He didn’t understand social norms that require a good measure of lying, withholding the truth, or saying less. He used to rail against social norms and br upset that they existed, and he offended no small number of people. His parents even told me, we didn’t raise him this way and don’t know why he took truth telling so far. I have been able to help him correct his behavior so that now he can function in normal society without offending people, but it’s been a long and arduous road.

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    I wonder if that guy would have lied to save his own family?

    I hated teaching about lying in youth ministry. The lesson where you try to discern whether white lies are really lies. The object of the lesson was to teach the youth that a lie is a lie is a lie. There are no white lies. I hated that lesson. Looking out over impressionable minds, I felt my own anxiety and theirs.

    Here I was basically telling children under no circumstance does the Triune God accept lying. All lying is sin. I’d picture those kids at home. The phone rings and they answer it, while at the same time, a mom, or dad yells out, ‘If that’s for me, tell them I’m not home.” There’s the child on the phone left with no other recourse than to lie. ‘Umm, my dad is not home now.’

    The child hangs up the phone. Teacher Zoe told me that God does not approve of lying. I broke one of the Commandments. Will God forgive me? Or say the child refuses to lie and hands the phone over to mom anyway. Then the child has to deal with possible discipline of some sort, whether physical, verbal &/or emotional. Then the child stops and remembers teacher Zoe and the lesson on obeying your parents. 🙁

    Damned if you do, damned if you don’t.

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    It’s insane even to try and pretend that lying is always wrong. In fact, I’d say the opposite, that in most cases it’s the right thing to lie if the circumstances are appropriate.

    Of course, there are many occasions when lying is bad. In courts of law it goes further, in becoming a criminal offence, and there are many similar situations in which lying would be wrong. However, on most occasions in day to day life lying need not even be contemplated, yet can happen inadvertently. I might take the car out and my wife asks ‘where are you going?’, and I reply ‘to the shops’. Now I may very well be going to the shops, but I may also be popping to the bank and the barber to get my hair cut. Is that a lie because I didn’t give a full reply? Or how about when I get home my wife asks ‘what was that parcel?’, to which I say ‘oh, just something for the car’, when in fact it was a birthday present for her.

    More serious lying is especially vexing. I have friends who split up a couple of years ago. They’d been seemingly happily married for several years, but he entered into an affair with a much younger woman. It lasted about a year, then ended when the woman married her boyfriend, of whom my friend had been unaware. My friend’s wife was blissfully unaware of these shenanigans and everything could have returned to the way things had been for the couple, had it not been for my friend’s misplaced sense of honour. In short, he confessed the affair to his wife, who decided she couldn’t then trust him so stormed off, understandably I thought. If he’d just kept his mouth shut, lived with the guilt which was his, and his burden, they’d still be happily married. Now he blames his wife for having been unreasonable. I don’t think so.

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    Damned if you do and damned if you don’t…
    This tells it all. The sick, black and white squawking about never telling a lie is simply another poison pill that must be swallowed on the long road to heaven. Like so much else in Christianity, the anti-human goal is to produce ‘truth-tellers’, people entirely out of touch with the world and its real problems while entirely focussed on needless excess. Forcing oneself to tell the utter and complete truth at all times is not only lacking in decency: It is stupidity. What child with any right mind left in its head would want to admit to taking candy without permission when that child knows about hellfire, how long and hurtful it will be and how nobody will help! Only an idiot tells the truth when set up so perfectly to lie. Listen: Abandon your children by giving them over to church buses and damaged men who have lost their lives in Christianity. Just give your kids to them; you never really wanted them with you all the time anyway and everybody else is doing it, right? Let them hear the stories in church basements, the cost of white lies in eternity, the vengeance of almighty God. Aferwards, if your child has been fool enough to be a natural truth-teller, she will have learned the lie and will use it, necessarily, use it to survive your world, your absence.
    Blessed be the name of the Lord. (There, I feel better ending with a lie.)

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    About absolute truth telling: I agree that most babies don’t look very attractive to me. At least two things can alter one’s perception: 1) You are attached to the object (or you know the baby’s parents). 2) Or you use this phrase from nursing: within normal limits (WNL). IMHO, WNL covers any newborn that is still breathing, no matter how many tubes are attached, the huge purple birthmark on the face, the cleft palate and nose, the forked tail… So, yes, that baby is beautiful and that’s the truth. Apply these solutions to all appropriate situations.

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    Melissa Montana

    This reminds me of a story in “Uncle Arthur’s Bedtime Stories” It was called “Better to Die Than Tell a Lie.” The point was, it is never okay to lie, no matter who got hurt. The irony is, how many lies has the church told to cover up sexual abuse scandals? Apparently, lying is fine if you are protecting corrupt and abusive priests and elders.

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    mary g

    the bus story brought back memories. our busses were death traps I am sure. we were just lucky we never had a wreck. breaking down constantly was a part of the bus experience. then dad spent hours working on them because church could not afford mechanics. all because jesus. scary.

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    Reminds me of a movie a saw a few years ago called “The Invention of Lying”. The premise is that they exist in a civilization where everyone always tells the truth and as such when the protagonist invents lying, everything, including absurdities, is taken as truth. The clincher is where he invents heaven and an afterlife to make people feel better about death.

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    A lot of my upbringing was focused on being prepared to pay the ultimate price for telling the Truth (die rather than deny God, get a failing grade in homework for disagreeing with evolution, etc.). I heard innumerable times where liars go!

    Once I left home and got a secular job, I woke up to reality. A grey reality. Life is full of nuance. A black and white mindset can’t grasp nuance, and the blundering/unwillingness to learn can cause great harm.

    It’s really no wonder that fundies tend to have little emotional intelligence. I’ve heard many loaded “fines” in my day!

    Oh and by the way, the same ones screaming about liars and hell both embellished and completely twisted their testimonies to make them sound better…

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    According to the NT, Jesus lied, too:

    John 7:8-10 New Revised Standard Version (NRSV)
    8 Go to the festival yourselves. I am not[a] going to this festival, for my time has not yet fully come.” 9 After saying this, he remained in Galilee.
    10 But after his brothers had gone to the festival, then he also went, not publicly but as it were[b] in secret.

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    August Rode

    Morality involves making choices and sometimes, none of the options that one has available are good ones. The moral choice in such circumstances means making the choice that causes the least amount of harm. When everything is factored in, if lying causes less harm than telling the truth in some circumstance, then one actually has a moral obligation to lie.

    Harboring someone whose life is unjustly threatened is a perfect example of when lying is the correct and preferred moral action.

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      I’ve read the Daniel Wilcox article and it’s terrible. He seems to be standing on a metaphorical soapbox, shouting out assertions, to which few will be listening, but he makes no real arguments to support his view. I thought at one point when he started referring to lying to Nazis (I refer to it as the Anne Frank argument, and any person who doesn’t think that lying to protect the poor kid was the right thing is sick) that he was actually going to say something substantive, but he didn’t, he just waffled. Nothing to see here folks, as the cops say!

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    With all due respect to Mr. Bruce Gerencser, I think he oversimplifies this matter, and shows a bias against his former brothers and sisters in the Christian church.

    Christians (and some non-religious) promote an absolutist rule against deception because they are worried about the possible emergence of a society in which practically everyone lies about nearly everything.

    They worry about the disintegration of the institution of marriage because spouses will freely deceive each other.

    They worry about rebellious children who constantly mislead their parents.

    They worry about a government in which the leaders constantly mislead the citizens.

    Many people say that this corrupted, deception-soaked society has in fact already come about in the USA.

    They point to evidence such as:
    –Trump constantly promoting as real things he surely knows are not real
    –Teenagers lying to teachers, parents
    –Obama telling the nations that under Obamacare they would be able to keep their pre-Obamacare insurance plan.
    –George W. Bush telling the nation that Iraq had WMDs in 2003.
    –Evangelicals promoting the extremely deceptive Trump
    –The many church pastors who use pornography regularly also preaching against the use of pornography

    Those few people who follow the absolutist rule against deception will have a hard time in life, and will create a lot of suffering for others that could have been avoided, if they’d lied, without causing any significant harm by lying.

    But let’s be honest: Many of those who grant to themselves the right to life whenever it seems right to themselves also create a lot of suffering for others that could have been avoided, by just telling the truth, without causing any significant harm by telling the truth.

    Every time some husband makes a plan to kill his wife, he always develops a plan about how he will lie to the police and the public.

    It’s easy to mock preachers and church-attending Christians for being hypocrites for promoting a moral standard that they sometimes or often choose not to follow themselves.

    But are they really worse than non-church people who lie whenever they feel like it?

    Alas, I don’t have the answer to all of this.

    As bad as Christians are and may be, I can’t see them as worse than atheists/humanists/anyone else who simply lie whenever they feel or reason that it’s okay to do so.

    I don’t favor, promote, or practice the absolutist rule against deception.

    But I am VERY worried and concerned about how many people in the present-day mainstream society of the USA feel that is okay to lie and break the law so long as they calculate that they can get away with it.

    Trump is one example of this. Many of Trump’s followers provide more examples.

    And there’s just the seemingly vast amount of everyday lying, cheating, and stealing that goes on in workplaces, Congress, courts, homes, schools, churches, etc.

    The whole world of recreational drug using and drug selling produces a whole gigantic system of lies and criminality. Many of our police officers are corrupted by payoffs by drug cartels, just as back in the days of Prohibition (1920-1933) nearly all police officers and sheriffs took bribes from moonshiners or booze runners and gangsters like Al Capone.

    Every workplace I’ve ever worked in has had lots of lying, cheating, and stealing going on. In such a situation, one is constantly faced with this choice: Shall I join in with this, shall I resist it, shall I fight and oppose it, shall I try to hide from it? I’ve never seen or found any really good solution.

    Well, I guess the most successful people that I’ve seen are those who strive to “go with the flow” of the workplace culture, while not going too far.

    Someone above wrote “Damned if you do and damned if you don’t.”

    That seems like a pretty good description of the situation that WE ALL are in, both those who are church-going Christians and those who put no stock in gods or heaven or hell.

    There’s a scene in the movie “Road to Perdition” in which the old Irish mafia character played by Paul Newman says to the young Irish mafia character played by Tom Hanks the following: “We are all damned for what we’ve done.” (that’s my paraphrase)

    I’ve be very interested in your comments on my comment.

    Thank you.

    • Avatar
      Bruce Gerencser

      Christians first and foremost promote — but don’t practice — absolute truth telling because they believe God commands them to and failing to always tell the truth might land them in Hell or facing punishment/judgment/chastisement from God. I never had a congregant that always told the truth, and they most certain never had a pastor who did. Factor in the fact that our memory is not reliable and we often “lie” about the past, it is safe to say that we are all liars. It is the reasons for and the degrees of lying that matter to me.

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    I found real value in this post by Mr. Bruce Gerencser.

    I especially liked his recounting of how a church tricked the State Patrol into giving their dangerous buses an approval during a safety inspection.

    But I’m left wondering: How can we criticize Trump for lying/deceiving the nation, if we ourselves don’t have, or at least try to practice, a strong rule against lying/deceiving?

    Shall we just condemn the lies of our enemies, but approve of the lies of ourselves and our family, friends, and allies?

    Is that what we’ve come to? Is that all there is?

    • Avatar
      Bruce Gerencser

      I do have a strong and general rule against lying, but I am also realistic: all of us at one time or another lie, withhold true, color the truth — sinning by (to use a religious word) omission and commission. Trump’s problem is that he is a narcissist, a pathological liar who even lies when there’s absolutely no reason to do so. All presidents lie, but no president has lied to the level and to the degree as this one. No president told thousands of lies in his first two years in office.

      If you and I were friends, you could expect me to almost always tell you the truth; and in those moments I don’t, I am trying to protect you or our relationship or you have asked me something that is either embarrassing to me or none of your business.

      • Avatar

        I imagine in your business you’ve had customers, or employees, or business partners, who’ve flat-out lied to you about an important matter that you had a clear right to know the truth about. And then when you pointed out their lie to them, they flat-out lied to you again, in an attempt to deny that they ever lied to you in the first place. Of course, it’s impossible or highly undesirable to keep doing business with someone like that.

        I think it’s clear that the typical Evangelical church attender or pastor speaks factual lies and speaks factual truth just as much as the typical non-religious person.

        I guess we must just accept that people, being mere human beings and not angels or gods, will sometimes lie to us about important matters that we had a clear right to know the truth about.

        I guess we must also just accept that we ourselves, being mere human beings and not angels or gods, will sometimes lie to others about important matters that they had a clear right to know the truth about.

        I guess life is just messy, always has been and always will be. We are not in Heaven or in Hell. We are just on the earth, living out our human lives as best we can, enjoying some of it, not enjoying some of it, being good sometimes, being bad sometimes.

        Thank you for your original blog post. It gave me a lot to think about.

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