A second undercover video of a Planned Parenthood doctor was released yesterday. This one cleverly sprung the trap set by the first video. PP President Cecile Richards responded to the first video by categorically denying that PP sells baby parts, and this one shows one of her abortionists, who could pass as the German villain in an action movie, negotiating prices. If abortion doctors are not paid for each liver and heart, then what is there to negotiate?
The deceitful way the Center for Medical Progress shot the video, setting up a fake company and secretly taping PP leaders over lunch, has raised questions about whether the end justifies the means. Sure, it may help to end abortion when the world hears what a baby killing industry is really like (as if that isn’t already apparent in the description), but is it morally permissible to lie? Should Christians praise the work of those who participated in this sting operation, or should we denounce them for being spies?
First, we must define what we’re talking about. A lie is a deception, and this can happen either by word or action. Christians who smuggle Bibles into closed countries or meet furtively for worship are deceiving others. When I met my friend for Bible study in a country where this is illegal, I waited until after dark and put up my hood so others wouldn’t recognize I was American. When a neighbor knocked on his door, we put our Bible away and pretended I was teaching him English. We never deceived with our words, but we did deceive by our actions. Was this wrong?
Second, we can deceive by our words, even when we state the literal truth. Many debates about lying raise the example of Corrie ten Boom, who hid Jews under a trap door beneath her kitchen table. When Nazis asked if she was hiding Jews, she said, “Sure, they’re right here, under the table!” The Nazis laughed and left.
Some people say this is an example of telling the truth and trusting God for the consequences. Not so fast. Corrie ten Boom lied the moment she hid the Jews. She meant to deceive everyone into believing she was not hiding Jews, which was kind of the point. If she was really committed to telling the whole truth, she would have told the Nazis that No, she was serious, and pulled away the rug to show them the trap door.
It’s a naïve view of language to think that as long as I state the literal truth I’m not committing an act of deception. It’s not the words themselves, but the meaning of the words that counts. If you mean your words to be taken as a joke, then you’re still deceiving, even if you state the bald truth.
I’m glad that Corrie deceived the Nazis, though she did state more of the truth than she needed to. She should have realized she had already crossed the bridge of deception the moment she took in Jews, and worried less about her precise words. As I told a preacher after he used Corrie as an example to always tell the truth, “I hope I’m never hiding in your house. I want you to lie like the rug that’s hiding me.”
Third, God himself tells us there are times when it is morally acceptable to lie. He “was kind to the midwives” who “feared God” and lied to Pharaoh in order to save the lives of infant boys (Exodus 1:15-21). He put Rahab in Hebrews Hall of Fame, not despite her lie but because of it. Her hiding of spies was a deception that demonstrated her faith, and God praised her for it (Hebrews 11:31).
God never lies, but sometimes he tells others to. He told Moses to send spies to explore the land of Canaan (Numbers 13:1). A spy by definition is a lie. A good spy pretends he is just a traveler, entrepreneur, or something else. If he tells everyone his real business, he won’t be a spy for long.
When God told Samuel to anoint one of Jesse’s sons to be the next king, Samuel replied that if Saul found out he would be killed. So God told Samuel to lie. Say you’ve come to offer a sacrifice, invite Jesse to the sacrifice, and then anoint the one I indicate (1 Samuel 16:1-3). This surprisingly utilitarian use of worship (score one for the evangelicals!) was a clear intent to deceive. It doesn’t matter that Samuel did offer a sacrifice to the Lord. The whole point was to use that as cover for what God wanted Samuel to do. The sacrifice deceived Saul about Samuel’s intentions.
Fourth, none of us would want to live in a world without any deception. We couldn’t play sports. Imagine a quarterback who couldn’t fake a handoff to a running back and throw long to a wide receiver. You can stop imagining. I’ve just described the Cleveland Browns.
In a world without deception, you could never plan a surprise party for a friend, smile gamely when you’re feeling blue, or even tell a joke that involved misdirection and an element of surprise. Do you really want to live in a world in which every question receives the whole and unvarnished truth? We may say we want more transparency, but it’s kind of nice to say “Fine” when someone asks “How are you?” and go about your day. Do you really want to stop each time and say, “Well, since you asked, my hemorrhoids are itchy.”
Here is the question: What makes a deception culpable? Clearly most lies are wrong. It’s important to tell the truth. But some lies are morally permissible, even praiseworthy. What makes the difference? What are the criteria for judging when a deception has crossed the line into sin? Tell me what you think, then I’ll share my heuristic conclusion.
Update: I forgot to include an instance of Jesus deceiving his brothers. He told them he was not going to the Festival of Tabernacles, and then went secretly (John 7:8-10).
Update 2: Or Luke 24:28, where Jesus “continued on as if he was going farther.” I would argue that wasn’t really his intention, as he wanted the two men on the road to invite him for dinner. Which they did.
And a Correction: A commenter noted that it wasn’t Corrie ten Boom who refused to lie, but one of her family members.