Tag Archives: lie

the lie of Jesus?

image courtesy of toptenz

Did Jesus ever tell a lie?

Not too long ago I did a series on Rahab*, which focused on ethics, lying, and possible conflict within the laws of God.  Shawn Smucker (of blogging fame) remembered that series when reading through the Gospel of John, and gave me a heads up on this apparent lie of Jesus from chapter 7.  Below is my own modern-day interpretation of John 7:1-10:

Festival of Shelters was playing Friday night in Judea, so Jesus’ brothers invited him, “Come on, let’s get out of Galilee.  All your followers will be there, and they can see your miracles.  Stop hiding the magic, man.  Let the world see.  Jesus, you’ll be famous!”  [This was said with a lot of sarcasm because at this point not even Jesus’ brothers believed he was the Son of God.]

But Jesus said he couldn’t make it.  “Nah, the timing’s not right.  You guys can go to any concert you want; no one’s trying to kill you.  But everyone hates me because I keep telling them what they’re doing is wrong.  You guys hit this shindig without me.  I’m not going, cats — the timing is off.”  So Jesus stayed in Galilee.

But after his brothers went to the party, Jesus followed… in disguise — because the Jewish leaders were looking to kill him at the concert.

What do you think?  Did Jesus lie?  Or did he just change his mind?  Did he know ahead of time he was going to change his mind?  If he knew ahead of time, is that really changing his mind?  If he lied, we have to assume it was okay, right?  What makes it so?  Ah, the questions are countless….

* You can find the full series on Rahab here:  
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rahab’s exchange: a cultural argument for lying?

image courtesy of reverendmom

[This post is the fifth in a series.  Others are: “rahab’s exchange: the lie,” “rahab’s exchange: ethical theories,” “rahab’s exchange: moral absolutism,” and “rahab’s exchange: an interview with myself.”  Rahab lied in order to save the lives of two Israelite spies.  Was she right to do so?  Is it ever right to lie?]


In the culture in which you grew up, there were likely many lies which were always allowed — and even preferred and encouraged.  Lies like:

How are you?
Fine, thank you.

Are you thirsty?  Can I get you a drink?
No, thank you.  I’m fine.
[But the drink would be served anyway — or the question would be asked again, at which time it was appropriate to say that, indeed, you would like a drink.  In China it is necessary that you refuse the drink three times; the fourth time, though, you are allowed to accept.]

What do you think of my new haircut?
Oh, it looks great. Where did you get it done?
[Note the quick change of subject after the lie.]

Honey, do these jeans make me look fat?
It’s not the jeans, dear.  Denim doesn’t create muffin-tops; it just highlights them.
[Just kidding.  That’s not our preferred answer.]

I think the general reasoning for our acceptance of such lies is that we’re trying to be polite or spare the feelings of another individual.  American culture has determined that, in such cases, being courteous is more important than objective truth. And many a Christian, when forced to think through this, is left only to assume that we are all sinning in doing so.

We lack a methodology for understanding why something we feel to be true (we should spare a friend hurt feelings even though her hair is hideous) might indeed be true.  We want the simplicity of a system in which there is no conflict between our various moral dealings.  We want right and wrong to be clear and unambiguous. But this approach doesn’t mesh with our conviction that it’s just wrong to tell a spouse he/she looks fat.

So, when pushed, many believers will offer up, “Yeah, it probably is wrong to be dishonest in those situations.  I shouldn’t lie no matter the reason.”  Then an individuals’ blatant disregard for others’ feelings can be credited to him as honesty righteousness.  Bad manners and a lack of compassion become the ideal for followers of Jesus?

  • Some will say, “Exactly.  We shouldn’t lie no matter what our culture tells us.  Culture shouldn’t interpret morality.”
  • Others will say, “Well, I just feel like we should look at the intent with which we lie in those situations.”

**********

Here in Tanzania, it’s incredibly rude to answer a friend with, “No.”  There is instead always a polite excuse offered.

Let’s say you have a practice of not allowing others to use your vehicle.  No matter how logical your reasoning, if I ask to borrow your car, you should offer a polite excuse.  It won’t do to say, “I’m sorry.  You can’t borrow my car because my wife and I don’t loan it out to anyone.”  Instead you should offer, “Oh, but I think I might be using my car on that day.”  Even if you have every intention of staying at home with your car parked in the garage.*

Or say you’ve had a really long day of work and just need to read a book or sit in silence, and have some “you time” — but someone wants to visit with you — do you say no and try to explain your reasoning?  Of course not; you simply answer, “You know, I’m really busy with some work issues this evening.”**

But here’s the catch:  When you offer one of these excuses, your friend knows this is not a real reason, but rather a polite device employed to spare his feelings and safeguard your relationship.

If you were to simply say “no,” he would be left to wonder why you no longer want a relationship with him.  Why would you be so incredibly rude to say no, when you easily could have made up any number of small lies to spare his feelings and keep your relationship intact?

Truth and accuracy are not held in nearly as high regard as relationship and civility.

I am becoming more comfortable with this system of choosing relationship over accuracy.  I’m not saying it’s right.  But that’s much of the reason I’ve lately been studying ethics and the Rahab story.

I mentioned earlier the two most likely responses:

  1. We should not lie no matter what culture tells us.  Culture can’t interpret morality.
  2. We should take into account the intent of a given lie.  Was it to be polite?  Then we’ll let it go.

I don’t necessarily buy either of these arguments.  Human morality can’t exist outside of culture, and determining morality by intent alone is suspect in my opinion.  [Of course I’ve made it clear in past posts that I believe there to be a graded hierarchy of moral laws, which should be utilized in these situations.  But…]  I wonder if my own argument in these situations might be much simpler.  It probably looks something like this:

  • A lie which everyone knows to be a lie, is not a lie.

Perhaps it’s not a question of whether or not it’s right to lie in these situations.  It might be that these words are indeed not lies.  What do you guys think?  Farewell, Brett Harrison?

[Next post — rahab’s exchange: a story of true faith]

* Obviously we can use our creativity to think through ways of dealing with these situations without lying.  I often try to employ humor in these situations.  Though, clearly I am still not telling the truth, which is that I simply will not allow you to borrow my car… whether it be for reasons of insurance, legal issues, or a general lack of safety.
** We won’t get into the many problems with viewing any time as being your own private and personal time — valuing self over community.

P.S. — If you’re interested further in the topics of “dishonesty” in African culture, see of marathons and misinformation: a lesson in tanzanian communication and missionary predicaments: hospitality and rest.

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Filed under culture, exchanges, living in africa

rahab’s exchange: an interview with myself

image courtesy of reverendmom

[This post is the fourth in a series.  Others are: “rahab’s exchange: the lie,” “rahab’s exchange: ethical theories,” and “rahab’s exchange: moral absolutism”  Rahab lied in order to save the lives of two Israelite spies.  Was she right to do so?  Is it ever right to lie?]


I’ve argued that the most sensible system of ethics is deontological ethics, in which there exist moral laws to which all humanity are obligated to obey.  I believe those moral laws originate in the person and nature of God. I’ve also offered graded absolutism as the most logical (and useful) subset within the deontological framework.  The graded absolutist (that’s me) holds that God’s laws do, at times, conflict with one another.  The duty of the believer, then, is to be obedient to the weightier of those two laws.  In doing so, the Christian does not sin.

But there are some obvious questions to be asked.  And because I’m not popular enough to be interviewed by anyone else, I’ve volunteered myself to do the job:


Brett, are there any actual scripture references that support your arguments for graded absolutism?  Or is this all just an exercise in logic and imagination?

There are several verses, I believe, that attest to the existence of weightier commands.  Here are a few:

  • Matthew 22:36 – Jesus demonstrates that there is a “greatest commandment,” and even a “second” that is like it.  So there certainly is present some hierarchy of moral commands — of which the chiefest is to love God with all of our being.
  • Matthew 10:37 – Loving Jesus is more important than loving our fathers, mothers, and family.
  • Matthew 23:23 – The scribes and Pharisees tithe even their spices, but they’ve neglected “the weightier matters of the law:  justice and mercy and faith.”
  • Matthew 5:19 – Jesus states that there do exist lesser commandments.
  • 1 Corinthians 6:18 – Sexual sins (committed inside the body) are somehow worse than other sins.
  • 2 Corinthians 5:21 – God punished and killed an innocent human being in order to save us.  This was an injustice — as we ourselves are incredibly deserving of punishment and death, and Jesus was not.  God’s plan of salvation itself is immoral if there is no graded absolutism.

You made the outrageous claim yesterday that graded absolutism is “demonstrated in scripture a number of times.”  Can you cite a few of those instances for us?  And don’t use the Apocrypha — very few of us are Catholics.

Sure.  I’d be happy to:

  • Acts 5:29 – Peter and the apostles have broken the commands of the authorities in order to teach the gospel.  There was a clear conflict between obedience to God (proclaiming the gospel) and obedience to civil authorities.  Their answer: “We must obey God rather than any human authority.” [The commands to obey civil authorities can be found in Romans 13 and 1 Peter 2.]
  • Acts 4:18-19 – Peter and John in nearly the exact same scenario.
  • Daniel 3 – Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego refuse to worship the golden statue even though they were commanded to do so by the king himself.
  • Daniel 6 – Daniel continues to pray to God three times a day, despite the fact that this was illegal.
  • Luke 2:41-52 – Boy Jesus chooses submission to God over submission to his parents.
  • Matthew 12:1-8 – Jesus and the disciples pick and eat grain on the sabbath.  He then relates the story of David having eaten the bread of the Presence (1 Samuel 21) when to do so was unlawful.
  • Matthew 12:9-14 – Jesus heals on the sabbath.

And these are more circumstantial — and may not fit our context exactly, but they’re at least worth looking at:

  • Joshua 2, 6; Hebrews 11:31; James 2:24-25 – This is where the series all began.  Rahab lies to save the lives of two Israelite spies.  Her faith is commended in the Hebrews text, and her actions (of receiving the spies) are endorsed in James.  Nowhere is it stated explicitly that Rahab’s lie was approved by God or good.
  • Exodus 1:15-22 – The king of Egypt commanded the Hebrew midwives to immediately kill every Hebrew-born male.  The midwives, though, “feared God and did not do as the king of Egypt commanded them.”  Instead they lied and said that the Hebrew women were strong and healthy and always deliver before the midwife can even arrive.  “So God dealt well with the midwives… and because [they] feared God, he gave them families.”  This story doesn’t come out and say, “God approved of these lies.”  But it very nearly does.
  • 1 Samuel 16 – Samuel was commanded to go and anoint one of Jesse’s sons to be the next king.  In order to be allowed to enter without being killed by Saul, though, he is told by God to tell what we might consider a “little white lie” — that he has come peacably, to sacrifice to the Lord.  This isn’t a straight out-and-out lie, but surely we’d agree there is some dishonesty and deceit present.
  • Let’s don’t even start the conversation about all the instances in which killing another human being was approved of — or even commanded — by God.  [No, seriously, let’s don’t start that conversation…]

Aren’t you afraid that, if we adopt graded absolutism as our theory of ethics, people will only use it to justify sin?  A fellow could argue that he lied to his wife, because he didn’t want to hurt her.  Or that he only stole food in order to feed his hungry family.

I suppose I’m not very afraid of that.  Any system of ethics is going to be abused; that’s what people do. They sin, they break rules, and they act selfishly (and foolishly).  Are we seriously considering throwing out a valid understanding of scripture and morality because we’re afraid people will abuse it?  Why not throw out mercy and grace while we’re at it — people abuse those?!  [Actually, some of us have attempted to throw these out…]

So you’re telling us you believe God is so imperfect that he was forced to create laws that would conflict with one another?  If God’s perfect laws are in conflict with one another, then his nature itself is necessarily in conflict.

This argument doesn’t make any sense.  If conflict within laws created by God necessitates conflict in the nature of God, then sin in a world created by God necessitates sin in the nature of God. We live in a fallen world; things happen.  In a perfect world, these laws wouldn’t be in conflict.  If my parents didn’t sin in commanding me not to worship God, I wouldn’t be forced to choose between obedience to God or my parents.  But sin breeds conflict.  And Christians are not exempt from conflict.  We are not immune to hard choices.

Are there any examples of Jesus having faced any of these moral dilemmas in his life?

Honestly, I’m not sure; but I think so.  I mentioned above the story of boy Jesus remaining in the temple when he was supposed to be with his parents in the caravan to Nazareth.  He caused them great concern and anxiety, and his only answer was, “Didn’t you know I had to be about my Father’s business.”  I’m not sure that story is itself a great argument.  But it leans that direction.

It would probably be more productive to look at any of the number of times Jesus argued for mercy in the place of justice.  We know that mercy and justice were both considered by Christ to be “weightier matters of the law.”  But when the two conflicted with one another (the woman caught in adultery or Jesus’ own crucifixion despite his innocence), Jesus forewent justice in favor of mercy.  He spared the adulterous woman, and he chose to die to save the world.  Mercy over justice.

Do you really believe dinosaurs roamed the face of the earth in Old Testament times?

Uhm… yes?  But I don’t see how this is pertinent to our discussion.

Yeah, I was just wondering…

Next post: a cultural argument for lying.

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