Is It Okay to Lie Sometimes?

By Wayne Jackson

Bertrand Conway was a Catholic priest affiliated with the Paulist Fathers. In 1903 he wrote a book titled The Question Box (revised 1929), published by the Catholic Truth Society of San Francisco. It received the Imprimatur (official seal of endorsement) of Patrick Cardinal Hayes, Archbishop of New York.

The book became a very popular volume, selling in the millions. I have owned a copy of this work for many years, and have used it profitably to demonstrate that Roman Catholic doctrine stands in opposition to scripture in many particulars.

Near the end of the book, this question is raised: “Is it lawful in some cases to lie?” The Catholic scholar writes: “No, it is never lawful to lie under any circumstances, for a lie is intrinsically bad and unnatural” (430).

Most of us would agree readily with this answer. Two pages later, however, Conway discusses the concept of “mental reservation.” This is the idea that one may “restrict the natural meaning that the spoken words appear to bear.” It suggests that one may use words that to someone else have one meaning, but which, from his own perspective, have a different meaning.

Here is an illustration the Paulist priest used. If an obnoxious visitor comes calling, let’s say one who repeatedly borrows money and never repays it, a man may instruct his housekeeper to answer the door and say to the deadbeat, “Mr. Jones is not at home.” The truth is, Mr. Jones is twenty feet away in another room. Have Jones and his housekeeper lied? Why no, says Conway; in his “mind” Jones meant, “I am not at home to you.”

Here is another example. A minister may be in court and on the witness stand. He is asked a question about a member of his congregation who is being tried for a crime. He has knowledge of the accused person’s culpability, but he may say (with no guilt), “I don’t know.” He actually does know, but in his mind he means, “I don’t have ‘communicable’ knowledge,” i.e., knowledge he is comfortable revealing.

The Pharisees, in all their gnat-straining, camel-swallowing glory, could not eclipse such subterfuge.

One wonders how many Christians practice various forms of “mental reservation” with no pangs of conscience at all. A couple (both 60 years of age) enters a fine restaurant that allows senior discounts (65 or older). The man lays his credit card on the counter, and says, “Two seniors.” Has he lied? Some might argue, “Perhaps not.” He saw two elderly people sitting nearby, and he simply referred to them — “Two seniors.”

A Christian brother places a sign in his yard: “Bad dog bites.” A friend from the congregation says to him, “I didn’t know you have a dog.” “Oh, I don’t. The sign doesn’t say I own a dog. It just says, ‘Bad dog bites.’ They do, don’t they?”

The inquiring brother protests, “Isn’t that deceitful?” “Why no,” the dogless brother replies, “all my friends know I don’t have a dog.” “But what about those who are not your friends?” “They stay away from my yard!”

Some Christians do not worry about pure truth when such gets in the way of something they want to do. They become adept at obfuscations, i.e., clouding the situation so that the lie is easier to justify.

It is much like the case of king Saul who was instructed to utterly destroy the Amalekites — which he did with the exception of Agag, the king, and the best of the confiscated livestock. When Samuel arrived on the scene, Saul said: “I have performed the commandment of Jehovah” (1 Samuel 15:13). He had — in part. But as a result of his half truth (which equals a whole lie), he would be divested of his crown (v. 23).

The child of God must “speak the truth,” and “lie not” (1 Timothy 2:7). Christian growth is characterized by “speaking the truth in love” — not by “sleight” nor “craftiness” (Ephesians 4:14-15). This is one of the ABC’s of Christian ethics. Some folks need to return to spiritual kindergarten!

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About the Author

Wayne Jackson has written for and edited the Christian Courier since its inception in 1965. He has also written several books on a variety of biblical topics including The Bible and Science, Creation, Evolution, and the Age of the Earth, The Bible on Trial, and a number of commentaries. He lives in Stockton, California with his dear wife, and life-long partner, Betty.