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Is it ever permissible to lie?

When Reformed Perspective first started, we had regular contributions from Dutch politician and journalist Piet Jongeling.  In this article, from the October 1985 issue, he writes of his experiences during World War Two, when the Nazis arrested him and sent him  to the Amersfoort concentration camp.

*****

People who are in the public eye must be prepared to face the criticism of onlookers and bystanders if they want to stay in business. I have experienced that quite often in my life as journalist, politician, and author. One of those experiences was a letter I received recently and which I would like to share with you. The letter read as follows:

Dear Mr. Jongeling:

Some time ago I had to do an essay on the topic of “the white lie” for a Reformed young peoples group. I would like to share part of my introduction with you. I wrote:

 In a book about Dr. R.J. Dam I read that the question of the “white lie” became a vital issue during the German occupation of the Netherlands, and that Dr. Dam discussed this issue several times, and in great depth. On the one hand, he rejected the easy acceptance of lying that was so often the case during the war. On the other hand he showed a real understanding of the Biblical dilemma Christians faced here: to speak or not to speak lies, and to do so in love for God and for their neighbor. He understood how difficult it would be always to witness to the truth if he were to fall into the hands of the enemy. So as much as he hated the necessity of lying, he maintained that if he were forced to speak, he would never want to put other people’s lives in jeopardy.

Clear enough.

How different is Jongeling! In the booklet “Called and Gone,” an interview with Peter Bergwerff and Tjerk de Vries, Jongeling says: “I have lied faster than a horse can trot.” Such a statement forces me to classify Jongeling with the many people who during the war stole like the gypsies.

Thus far a part of my introduction. As could be expected, your quote about “lying faster…” was brought up in the question period. I promised the young people at the meeting that I would get in touch with you to ask you to please elaborate further on that statement, preferably in the light of Dr. Dam’s position. I will soon be speaking on the same topic at a men’s society meeting. I could then include your explanation in my paper. Hoping you will comply with my request, etc…

Discussing it in our cell

Thus far the letter. Didn’t someone once say: “Give me just a single line of your writing, and I’ll hang you by it?” Somehow this brother letter-writer manages to use my words “lied faster…” to put me in the lineup with those who, according to him, “stole like the gypsies” during the war. Now, the issue of whether it is ever permissible to lie has been the subject of much public discussion in the past, and it is most certainly a relevant question. So let us consider what was and what was not allowed under God’s law during the German occupation.

First of all, it is necessary to read my “quote” in the context of the interview in which it was given. In Called and Gone I related the events surrounding my arrest in March 1942 and the interrogations that followed. A member of our resistance group had been arrested and an anti-Nazi pamphlet had been found on him. Under heavy pressure and torture the man finally admitted that he had received the document from me. That was the truth – I worked in the distribution center from which our group spread its literature. After his confession I was promptly picked up. But the search of my house yielded no evidence: everything had been quickly gathered up and hidden somewhere else. In this excerpt from the Called and Gone interview I continue recounting my experience in German custody.

We were both questioned for days on end, first in the police office and later in the remand center in Groningen. It still amazes me how wonderfully well it all ended up. We were locked up in separate cells, although in the same block. Between us there was an empty cell. But we soon discovered that with a bit of effort we could talk via the large heating system pipe that ran through the back of all the cells. We were dragged out for questioning one at a time. When he returned – often after being tortured – I asked him what questions they had asked him, and what answers he had given. And later, when I faced the same questions, I made sure that my answers corresponded with his…

…for some time I shared a cell with Rev. J.W. Tunderman. He was minister in Helpman and on January 6, 1942, the Gestapo dragged him out of his home. In December of that same year he died in Dachau. Together with him I have prepared my case as well as possible in the circumstances … I lied faster than a horse can trot.

As was to be expected, the interviewers zeroed in on that last statement. They asked me: “Lied faster than a horse can trot? Did you give that any thought at that moment?” I replied:

Yes, I did. But in a way one also acts intuitively in such a situation. Sitting in the cell together, Rev. Tunderman and I, we discussed the issue for hours on end. Tunderman was very straightforward. He said simply: “You must not tell them the truth. If you do, many others will perish.” Of course, one could say, as later Prof. Greijdanus did, that in such a case you should remain silent. But that doesn’t work. Those hoodlums use the most inhumane methods to make you talk. Besides, there are situations when silence does not help either. Take as an example, a farmer who is hiding fugitives, as so many did in those days.

“Are you hiding anyone?”

“I won’t tell … I won’t tell…”

No, refusing to answer is not a practical solution. That’s why I believed it was my duty to lie. To this day I still believe that. They hit me, they hurt me, but I had built up a watertight story and that is why I could stick to it. There are situations like that in the Bible. Think of Rahab and her lie; think of Gideon with his torches in the empty jars. Those were well-designed ruses with only one intent: to mislead the enemy.

Thus far the quotes from the interview.

I maintain to this day that I acted, though spontaneously, yet not rashly, when I did not share the truth with those torturers in the Scholtenhuis prison. Had I remained silent, assuming for a moment that I could have kept that up even to death, the result would have been heavier pressure on my fellow inmate. And he had already succumbed once. He would most likely have been forced to mention more names. But now it became possible to communicate via the heating pipe, so that we could make up a story that steered their whole investigation to a dead end, so that further arrests were prevented.

On the Ninth Commandment

During the war hundreds, perhaps thousands, of people pondered how best to deal with such cloudy ethical dilemmas.

Some preachers tried to provide Scriptural leadership on these matters. Rev. Tunderman did that for me in our cell. Rev. B. Holwerda did it in his preaching. In his collection, The Gifts bestowed on us by God, Part IV, we find a sermon on Lord’s Day 43 (the Ninth Commandment), held on Sunday, January 24, 1943. That was in the middle of the war, when the matter of “white lies” was extremely relevant. And it was at a time when many ministers of the Gospel had already been dragged away into concentration camps because they had said things on the pulpit which were not to the liking of the occupying forces.

This did not deter Rev. Holwerda. He let the light of God’s Word shine on those points that, especially amidst the terror of war and the confusion of the occupation, most had to be clarified. Holwerda explains that the commandment “You shall not bear false witness against your neighbor” brings us into the realm of the courts. These courts are in place so that the government may avenge unrighteousness in a righteous manner. To that end, proper order is to be maintained, and everyone is called upon to give his full cooperation with these courts. Therefore, when so requested, one must speak the truth. But it would be another thing altogether if telling the truth would become instrumental in the abuse of justice. Then, according to Holwerda, witnessing to that truth has become senseless. As he puts it:

When the Lord asks His children to walk in the truth and to act in truth, there is something more and different at stake than simply providing factually accurate information. Communion with God and our neighbor comes first. Therefore, in the life of obedience to this Ninth Commandment the key question we need to ask is not whether we are at odds with the facts, but rather whether we are shortchanging our neighbor… If I am put under pressure to make a statement which clearly would deliver my neighbor (or myself) up to unrighteousness and render him defenseless against the brutal force of the father of lies, woe then to me if I dare speak the truth! For then I sacrifice my neighbor on the altar of the facts. But the Ninth commandment forbids me to sabotage justice. Therefore, it commands me to sabotage unrighteousness — if need be, through an incorrect declaration. If need be, I must be willing to sacrifice the facts for the sake of the urgent needs of my neighbor…

Holwerda continues with examples from the Bible. And he warns against abuse.

Let no one say: We may do as we please; the minister has said so… No, you shall love your neighbor, honor his rights, defend his good name and reputation, and so ensure that there is room for him within society. And you shall love him “as yourself.” You shall also protect your own rights. All this is necessary, otherwise society will collapse and sink in the mire of lawlessness.

A Reformed thesis

In 1979 the Korean minister Bo Min Lee was promoted to doctor of theology at the Kampen seminary. His thesis was entitled: Mendacium officiosum, with this explanation as a subtitle: “A discussion of the so-called white lie, with special emphasis on Augustine’s views.” Although there is quite a bit of Latin in this dissertation, it is written in a clear and readable manner. A comprehensive critique is not in place here, but a few lines and conclusions may suffice to illustrate the point I am trying to make.

The concept mendacium officiosum is usually represented by the English expression “a white lie,” but that does not properly express what is contained in the Latin phrase. “Officiosum” means something like: “in the service of…”

According to the author, the phrase expresses the service we are sometimes called to deliver to our neighbor or to ourselves through the means of speaking an untruth. But “white lie” also indicates the critical situation in which we find ourselves and which makes the speaking of such an untruth a means of protecting ourselves and our neighbor.

Augustine and many theologians after him reject any speaking of untruth, even if it results from the desire to prevent a terrible evil from befalling a neighbor; for instance, murder or rape.

Bo Min Lee claims that such a radical rejection by Augustine and his followers results from an erroneous separation of the body as the lower part of man and the soul as the higher part, an idea that has its roots in the Greek world of thought. He also demonstrates that the church father could only maintain that outright rejection by following an incorrect exegesis of all kinds of Scripture passages.

The Scriptures

The dissertation’s third chapter, entitled “Scriptural givens,” begins as follows:

It is as clear that Holy Writ forbids us to lie. Texts such as “You shall not bear false witness against your neighbor” (Exodus 20:16) and “Do not lie to one another, seeing that you have put off the old self with its practices” (Colossians 3:9) leave no doubt. And Augustine did not leave any of this open for discussion.

But some passages of Scripture create problems and leave us with the question: is every form of lying at all times forbidden?

The author then introduces a long list of texts of which the first is Rahab’s misleading answer when Jericho’s king demanded that she hand over Israel’s spies (Joshua 2). The Bible praises Rahab because of her attitude towards the spies and the people of Israel, as we can read in these four passages:

Joshua 6:17: And the city and all that is within it shall be devoted to the Lord for destruction. Only Rahab the prostitute and all who are with her in her house shall live, because she hid the messengers whom we sent (Joshua 6:17).

Joshua 6:25: But Rahab the prostitute and her father’s household and all who belonged to her, Joshua saved alive. And she has lived in Israel to this day, because she hid the messengers whom Joshua sent to spy out Jericho (J

Hebrews 11:31: By faith Rahab the prostitute did not perish with those who were disobedient, because she had given a friendly welcome to the spies.

James 2:25: And in the same way was not also Rahab the prostitute justified by works when she received the messengers and sent them out by another way?

It’s clear that nowhere in the Bible is Rahab’s lying denounced. However, many exegetes hold that Rahab also wasn’t praised for her lying, and that it was Rahab’s faith that was praised. They insist that it was still wrong of her to utter lies to save those spies.

Bo Min Lee rejects this form of reasoning. In an extensive discussion of the relevant passages he shows that such conclusions are based on a twisted exegesis. Rahab is being praised in the Bible for her “faithful works,” and the misleading message she gave is a vital part of those “faithful works.” The same holds true for many other cases where the Bible describes how misleading statements were made with a virtuous purpose and were clearly crowned with a blessing. Think of the God-fearing midwives in Egypt (Exodus 1), of Jael and Sisera (Judges 4:18-22), of the woman of the house of Bahurim (2 Samuel 17:17-20), and also of several stratagems which have only one purpose: to impart to the enemy an erroneous image of reality. The author of the dissertation then comes to this conclusion:

The Bible does not prohibit what Rahab and others have done, and therefore we have no right to introduce such a prohibition now. We realize that the mendacium officiosum may never become a matter of routine. Such “lies” may only be used in borderline situations.

He continues to explain then that such borderline situations are governed not only by the Ninth Commandment, but that the other commandments are often relevant as well. That, too, he illustrates with a number of Scriptural examples.

Again, it is impossible in the short space of this article to relate the many arguments Bo Min Lee produces in his thesis. He also gives ample coverage to opposing views, but refutes their ideas in a most convincing manner.

A forced choice

During those critical days of war and occupation, many Christians were confronted with the problem of what to do if one fell into the hands of the enemy. I was one of them. What do I do if a factually correct answer can cost others their freedom or even their lives? We had no time then to have an interesting theoretical discussion on that matter. It was literally a matter of life and death. Many, and I was one of them, concluded:

I must not reveal the facts. And silence, even if I could keep that up, will not help. And just as a ruse aimed at spreading disinformation by fake actions is acceptable during times of war, so misleading the enemy with words is also acceptable — even mandatory.

That, in the jail cell, facing death during the torturous interrogations, was not a choice one made rashly. But it was a choice that was suddenly forced upon people, and their correct decision has saved the lives of others. It was a choice for which I in my circumstances have prayed and for the outcome of which I have given thanks to God, the Father of truth.

And if someone, like my letter-writer, equates that with the activities of those who in wartime “stole like the gypsies,” he should really reflect a bit more deeply on the meaning of the ninth commandment, also as it affects his own speech. 

Some readers might know Piet Jongeling better by his pen name, Piet Prins, under which he wrote the children’s series “Scout,” “Wambu,” and “The Four Friends.”


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Assorted

Little white lies and why we tell them

Your wife discovers some flowers in the kitchen and thanks you with a hug and a big kiss for “such a thoughtful surprise!” You bought the flowers for your secretary in honor of “Secretaries Day” at the office. You can either take the credit for thoughtfully buying your wife flowers or you can tell your wife that they weren't intended for her. Do you tell her the truth, yes or no? *** This question was part of very odd but interesting game. To win it you had to successfully predict what your friends would do in different moral dilemmas. Almost everyone in the room (both the men and women) thought that in this case a little white lie would be the best idea. But the question was directed at Glenn and he thought differently. Lying to his wife wasn't an option to him; this was his most important earthly relationship so marring it with dishonesty seemed silly to him. Yes, when he told her the truth his wife wouldn't be as happy with him at that moment. However, if she knew she could count on him to always be honest, even in the small things, then she would know she could count on him in the big things too. And wouldn't that benefit his marriage far more than a little extra undeserved credit he might get from saying the flowers were for her? A more realistic test  When Christians debate the issue of lying it’s most often in the context of whether we should always tell the truth – should we, for example, tell the truth if Nazis come to the door and ask us if we are hiding Jews? But in her book Anatomy of a Lie, Diane Komp notes that very few Christians are confronted with this sort of extreme situations – few of us are ever faced with a circumstance in which telling the truth might put someone else’s life in jeopardy. Instead, she notes, we lie for a far more trivial reason: because it just seems easier. Telephone solicitors get the “we can’t talk right now” response whether we can or not; the waitress asking “How are you?” is given a “good” whether we are or not; children who want to play with Mom or Dad are told “later” whether there will be time then or not. We lie because it seems the quicker thing to do, because the “half-truths” we’re telling seem harmless enough, and because we doubt the sincerity of the people around us (“He can’t really want to know how I'm doing, can he?”). Eventually, we’re lying simply because we've gotten into the habit. Then we do it so often we don't even notice ourselves at it anymore. The scariest part of Komp’s book was the chapter in which she suggested the reader, over the space of a few days or weeks, record “every time you lie, or are tempted to, and ask yourself the question ‘why?’” Try this and I think you’ll be startled by how often you “stretch” the truth for no reason at all, without even thinking. Of course, not all lies are motivated simply by habit. We also lie to protect ourselves, to either cover up something we've done or failed to do. Would the husband at the beginning of this article feel any temptation to lie if he regularly remembered to get his wife flowers? Of course not; then it would be only a minor thing to tell his spouse that this time these flowers were for someone else. But because he’s neglected his wife for so long there is now a temptation in these circumstances to take credit for thoughtfulness the husband hasn't had for his wife for quite some time. Harmless? So the more important issue is not whether it is right to lie to Nazis at the door – that’s not the issue for us – but rather whether it’s right to “stretch the truth” again and again. The Bible is, of course, quite clear about the need for honesty and the value of truth in our day-to-day lives (Col 3:9, Lev. 19:11-12). We find that the very character of God prevents Him from lying (Num 23:19) and indeed Christ is so inseparable from honesty He is called “the truth” (John 14:6). So if we want to imitate Him then we too should be concerned about honesty. Still, there is a temptation to dismiss the “little lies” we tell as harmless. So let’s consider some everyday examples: how many parents make a habit out of lying to their kids, making promises they can’t keep and making threats they don't carry out? When a parent’s “no” doesn't really mean “no” how can they be surprised when their children don't accept that as the final word? Experience has taught these kids that Mom and Dad’s “no’s” are at best half-truths, because half the time a bit more badgering will result in a favorable “yes.” And how many wives can expect an honest answer from their husband when they want his opinion on a new dress. It’s become almost a game for some, ferreting out the truth. In some cases, experience has taught the wife that when she wants an honest answer from her husband it’s best to look at his eyes rather than rely on the words that come from his mouth. She has to look to his body language for an honest reaction because she can’t count on it verbally. So when he tells her she looks beautiful she’s never quite sure if that’s what he really thinks because that’s what he says all the time. This husband will find it hard to offer his wife any encouragement because even his genuine efforts will be met with skepticism. These are just the effects that are most evident. In some circumstances we may not be able to deduce the harm caused by a bit of deception – who gets hurt when we lie to a telephone solicitor? – but perhaps the harm comes simply from the fact that if we are not habitually honest we all too easily become habitually deceptive. And sin, even small sins, separate us from God (and would do so permanently but for the grace of God) so we should never dismiss any sin as inconsequential. The first step to a more honest life is to start off by keeping track of your deceptive impulses. Give it a try and do as Komp suggests, even if only for a day: record every time you lie, or are tempted to lie, and ask yourself “why?” Then, when you become more aware of your sin, and the misery you may be causing, you can go to God in prayer and ask him for forgiveness, more aware than before about your desperate need for it. And then, after that, maybe you can think of your wife and go buy her some flowers! A version of this article appeared in the May 2015 issue....


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