Truthtelling in the Bible
As is apparent by simply listing key biblical passages that speak to this subject, honesty and telling the truth are highly valued by God and are considered an integral part of a life of integrity and faithfulness to him. The Mosaic law commands that God’s people do not lie or deceive each other (Leviticus 19:11) or give false testimony about another (Exodus 20:16). The Psalmist describes the person whose walk is blameless and righteous as speaking the truth from the heart (Psalm 15:2). The New Testament echoes this when it connects honesty and truthfulness with the believer’s new life in Christ (Colossians 3:9). One of the first manifestations of the believer putting off the old self and putting on the new self in Christ is a commitment to honesty (Ephesians 4:24-25).
The virtue of honesty is grounded ultimately in the character of God—that is, we are to be truthful because God is truthful. God never lies the Bible informs us (Titus 1:2), and both Jesus and the Holy Spirit are referred to as the truth (John 14:6, 16:13; 1 John 5:6). Similarly, God’s word is called the truth (Psalm 119:142, John 17:17). Theologically, honesty is a virtue because, like all the virtues, it is rooted in God’s nature. Truthtelling is a moral principle to be followed because God is truthful, and we are called to emulate his character.
God also commands people to tell the truth, most notably in the Ten Commandments, given in Exodus as “You shall not bear false witness against your neighbor” (Exodus 20:16) and restated in Leviticus 19:11 as “You shall not lie to one another.” Proverbs informs us that telling the truth leads to the best long-term outcomes for us: “Truthful lips endure forever, but a lying tongue lasts only a moment” (Proverbs 12:19). In other words, truthtelling is the biblical norm under all three approaches to ethics, virtues, commands and consequences. (See the article Ethics at Work at www.theologyofwork.org for more on biblical approaches to ethics in the context of work.)
No matter how we look at it, then, the biblical expectation is that we tell the truth. Above all, honesty is a virtue because, like all virtues, it is rooted in God’s nature. Truthtelling is a moral principle to be followed because God is truth, and we want to be in a close relationship with God. The only way to draw close to the truth is to be truthful. In other words, God’s Law is not only prescriptive—God tells us to tell the truth— it is also descriptive—God describes himself as truth. If God’s laws for us are considered descriptive of how we were created to be in relationship with him and with one another, then deception denies our very humanity, reduces us to less than who God created us to be, and damages ourselves and others. In short, the basic attitude of the human faith is “speaking the truth in love, we must grow up in every way into him who is the head, into Christ” (Ephesians 4:15). “For we cannot do anything against the truth, but only for the truth” (2 Corinthians 13:8).
God holds truth and love together in a perfect marriage. When they are married, there is no conflict. When they are sundered, we face dilemmas; for example, when love requires deception (e.g., Corrie Ten Boom lying to the Nazis about hiding Jews in her house) or when truth causes harm (e.g., telling a child a truth he or she is not prepared to understand). This is not because there is something wrong with God, but because of the fallen nature of our world. Until God’s kingdom is fulfilled, those who would follow God will experience periodic conflicts as they try to love in truth and tell the truth in love.
In other words, the fact that truthtelling is a biblical principle does not necessarily mean that it is an absolute to be always followed in every circumstance. There are at least two occasions in the bible in which deception seems to be allowed, if not praised. For example, the midwives who were charged with caring for the infant Moses carried out an elaborate deception in order to safeguard the life and well-being of Moses, hiding his Hebrew origins and leading the Pharaoh to believe that he was actually one of his own sons (Exodus 2:1-10). In addition, Rahab deceived the soldiers of Jericho in order to safeguard the lives of the Israelite spies who came to serve as advance scouts of the promised land (Joshua 2:1-24). She actually ends up in God’s Hall of Faith in Hebrews 11 on account of her faith, exercised in protecting the lives of the spies (of which the deception was an integral part).
One classic example of this kind of exception to the general principle of truthtelling occurred during World War II in the well-publicized story of Corrie Ten Boom, later written in The Hiding Place. For some time, she and her sister hid Jews and enabled them to escape from the Nazis and certain trips to concentration camps. Repeatedly she was asked point-blank by the Gestapo if she was hiding Jews, and she routinely lied to the authorities in order to protect their lives.
This was a genuine moral conflict, one in which two or more moral values and virtues come into conflict, and the Ten Booms were in the difficult position of having to weight competing values. They correctly weighted the obligation to protect the lives of Jews more heavily than the obligation to tell the truth, especially to those who had no right to it.
These conflicts are not common, nor do they suggest that God’s commands are intrinsically contradictory. Rather they reflect our fallen world in which these demands of morality work themselves out, sometimes in conflicting ways. In addition, God’s commands are given through human concepts and language, and thus the way we comprehend God’s commands is subject to the limitations of human conception. Human language is not capable of covering all situations without mutual contradiction, so even things expressed as absolutes have exceptions. We should expect that at times we should have to weigh competing values and we should also expect that God would direct us in doing so. Thus, rather than saying that truthtelling is inviolable, it is more accurate to suggest that it is a general rule that admits periodic exceptions when in conflict with other important moral values.
In fact, even God is described as working in ways that border on deception in the fallen world. There are some examples, particularly in the Old Testament, where God uses deception, and they seem to be a puzzling contradiction to the notion that God does not lie (see for example, 1 Kings 22:23; Jeremiah 4:10, 20:7). But in all these cases, the people of Israel are firmly entrenched in idolatry and awaiting God’s judgment in the coming exile. God has already made the truth clear to the people and they have rejected it and their judgment is forthcoming. It is clear that God is not deceiving the people as a means of instruction but as a means of judgment. When people reject truth, even God’s character becomes a deception to them. However, in deceiving the self-deceived, God’s actions do not contradict his character of truth.
A New Testament parallel occurs in Paul’s teaching in 2 Thessalonians 2:11-12: “For this reason God sends them a powerful delusion so that they will believe the lie and so that all will be condemned who have not believed the truth but delighted in wickedness.” Here, Paul describes how at the end times the “man of lawlessness” sets himself up to be God. To counter this self-deception, God uses deception not to mislead the people, but to judge those who have abandoned the truth. Thus, when Paul speaks of the “God, who never lies” (Titus 1:2), he is stating the character of God, yet recognizing that in a fallen world, the deepest truth at times must be cloaked in deception for the sake of love. Corrie ten Boom is not a justifiable exception to the truthful character of God’s image in humanity, but a fulfillment of a deeper truth in love.
Viewing truthtelling as a prima facie moral principle also appeals to our common sense intuitions about certain professions that make regular use of deception. Take for example, intelligence gathering. There is little doubt that the intelligence apparatus of most countries uses deceit in order to gain critical intelligence information about one’s enemies. In addition, undercover police work requires that officers disguise their identity and create entirely new personas in order to infiltrate organizations effectively. Few questions are raised about the necessary use of deception in these occupations. And, of course, virtually no one questions the validity of bluffing in poker games or the use of elaborate faking in sports, because they are considered part of the game—acceptable within the rules of the game.
However, none of the above scenarios are entirely analogous to business and other arenas in which most work occurs. We will discuss later whether ends-justifies-the-means exceptions exist beyond national security and public safety. And situations in which truth is not expected, such as in poker, are very rare and can hardly serve as the norm for conduct in work. This raises important questions about what criteria should guide us when it comes to truthtelling in our work.
The famous Incompleteness Theorem of Kurt Godel (“Über formal unentscheidbare Sätze der Principia Mathematica und verwandter Systeme I,” Monatshefte für Mathematik und Physik 38: 173-98, 1931) strictly speaking applies only to the impossibility of devising a language of mathematics that is capable of proving all true mathematical statements without also “proving” some false statements. The language of mathematics is specifically developed to be more consistent than ordinary language. If all mathematical systems must lead to inconsistencies it is widely accepted that all systems of rules and logic described in human languages must also include inconsistencies. This is a fundamental limitation imposed by trying to describe reality in symbolic terms, or in other words, in human language.
For further discussion of these exceptions and the justification for them, see Sissela Bok, Lying: Moral Choice in Public and Private Life (New York: Vintage, 1989), 90-106. See also Norman L. Geisler, Christian Ethics: Options and Alternatives (Grand Rapids: Baker Book House, 2001), 113-32, summarized also in Scott B. Rae, Moral Choices: An Introduction to Ethics, 3rd edition, (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2009), 49-51.
One exception to this is the work of Carr, “Is Business Bluffing Ethical?” His views will be discussed later in this paper.