spies and lies

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.







20 responses to “spies and lies”

  1. mdshoun

    Is this what Luther meant by sinning boldly?

  2. Chris

    I’ve struggled with this. Made it really hard when I was playing the game “Diplomacy” with some friends. I either told them what I was going to do, or told them I couldn’t guarantee them anything that turn.

  3. Isn’t this the discussion of tragic moral choice? Frame discusses this in his book “The Doctrine of the Christian Life”. Either the midwives could obey and murder Hebrew boys or they could lie and save lives.

  4. So here is a question: was Jesus ever faced with tragic moral choices?

  5. mikewittmer

    Craig: I don’t get the impression from Exodus that God thought the midwives had made a tragic moral choice. As for Jesus, read his deception in John 7:8-10.

  6. Point taken Mike.

  7. jackmorris

    I am eager to see some of your conclusions in following post(s). I would think that motive is at the bottom of all this (love of God and neighbor) as well as what or who we’re placing our trust in, when we deceive. I’ve wondered about this issue in the past while reading John 7 specifically and in light of these recent videos. I do agree with you that the morality of deception has complexities. Have you seen the movie “The Invention of Lying” (2009, starring Ricky Gervais and Jennifer Garner)? Due to some content and conclusions, I couldn’t recommend this movie to just anyone, but it brilliantly makes much the same point that you’re making about the complexity and necessity for some deception.

  8. It seems you have described three different categories.

    First, the morally neutral deception (fake plays in football, surprise birthday parties, poker). In this category, while there is a deception, it is an open and honest one. An actor is deceiving his audience because she really isn’t the character she is playing, but everyone understands that is what she is doing.

    The second is the morally righteous deception. This occurs when inaction or blatant truth would lead to a far worse moral outcome. To admit (in a serious, revealing, and non-deceptive way) that I had Jews hiding under my table would be to cause the murder of human beings. There is a moral obligation to prevent that from happening. This kind of deception has as its goal the honoring of God.

    The third is the immoral deception. This does not seek to honor God, but rather to honor self (to gain advantage, paint oneself in a better light, attempt to hide an unflattering truth, etc) or to dishonor someone else (slander). It is not motivated by obedience to the Lord. Scripture tells us whatever does not come from faith is sin.

    That’s my initial stab at it.

  9. Elden Stielstra

    I think we might be too ready/eager to think we know God’s mind or intent. What if Rahab had told the truth. Would God now be stopped even for a heat beat from fulfilling his plan for Israel? I still believe, along with Augustine and Kant, that in ethics being an absolutist and not having to live in the utilitarian world of gray (I think-you think) is a better way to approach the Ten Commandments. The end does not justify the means if the end. itself. is flawed.

  10. First: If I ever ask you “How are you doing?”, please just say “Fine.” I do not want to hear about your hemorrhoids.

    Second: Here is what I wrote on this topic back in 2009.


  11. Mike Gray

    Great post as usual. Thanks Mike. I wrestled with this ethical issue for a long time until I realized, as you point out, that there is a difference between a lie and deception. Another example of deception from WW2 is whole battalions were deployed to deceive the Nazis. Military officials brought in Hollywood set designers, sound engineers, and other artists to achieve this deception. It worked, and it saved lives. Thanks again for your cogent thoughts. My only hope is that Joshua will read your post : )

  12. Andy McClurg

    John 7:1-10 is a difficult passage with a lot of detail left out, and it is not at all clear that Jesus deceived his brothers. Later, Jesus said, “I am the way, the truth, and the life” (John 14:6), and John wrote later that “No lie is of the truth” (1 John 2:21). John 7:1-10 is simply not enough evidence by itself to conclude that Jesus was involved in deception.

  13. Danielle

    Helpful perspective. Just wanted to comment briefly to mention to you that In her autobiography Corrie Ten Boom stated that she was very willing to lie to hide Jews. She helped hide them in her home behind a wall. She does however speak of her family member, who lived in a different home, who hid Jews under her dining room table and couldn’t lie about it. Corrie goes on to explain how this unwillingness to lie actually ended up in someone getting caught. If you’d like to fact check before amending your article, this can be found in The Hiding Place.

  14. Elden,
    I agree with your dislike for utilitarian ethics and your opposition to ends-justify-the-means. However, absolutist arguments only work when the act is wrong by definition. If lying is wrong by definition – always wrong – then no matter the outcome it would always be wrong to lie. If an act isn’t wrong by definition then the outcome does matter from an ethical perspective. I think Wittmer is arguing that lying isn’t always wrong and since that’s the case, I don’t think his argument is really utilitarian.

    I remember this discussion in theology class, agreeing with your conclusion (that lying is not always wrong), and disagreeing with how you got there. But it’s been a while and I don’t remember exactly how your argument was framed, so I’m looking forward to your next post!

  15. Someone above already noted the correction about Corrie ten Boom. As I recall from the book, it was her sister who was the inveterate truth-teller, and the telling of that story elicited the same sort of discussion in the book as this post is generating here. Corrie ten Boom’s conclusion, heavily paraphrased after decades have altered my memories, was that God was faithful to keep them safe even though her sister could not help telling the truth all the time!

  16. mikewittmer

    Thanks for the correction on Corrie. Glad to know she had the common sense to lie. I respect her family member’s scruples, even if they are misplaced.

  17. Kevin Weaver

    Part of issue with hiding Jews from the Nazis in Holland was that the war was still going on.Corrie ten Boom was a citizen of an occupied country, and therefore the Nazi operatives had no moral or legal right to demand the truth from her. I believe that God commended her for her actions.

    I think Bonhoeffer’s situation is more significant here. He was lying to the legal authorities in his own country. He made the decision of his own accord that he would disobey laws, lie, and even indirectly support an assassination attempt. I read in one biography that he told at least one friend toward the end that he had decided that if he had the means himself, he would be morally bound to be the assassin. Yet, he also believed that he possibly was committing many sins throughout the whole situation. He felt it was impossible to know God’s will with absolute certainty in the crisis and that the he could be wrong at many points.

    Critically, Bonhoeffer believed that God wanted him to act on what he was convinced of, once he was convinced of it, rather than spend an indefinite amount of time debating the moral implications. I don’t believe he had much concern about how many arm-chair moralists would judge his actions decades later. Rather, he believed that if he was wrong, God would forgive him based on Christ’s work on the cross, not because he had attempted to do his best in a difficult situation.

    Going back to the PP deception, the folks at PP have no moral or legal right whatsoever to demand that people outside their organization are not allowed to deceive them. A big part of their operation is based on deceiving the American public. We have known that for years. As far as I am concerned, if the folks involved did not take some form of oath about who they were and what they were doing, then it was just run-of-the-mill investigative journalism in action.

  18. My opinion is really a very simple one. My example is obedience. We are to obey authorities above us unless they usurp the authority of God in that they demand something from us that is not of God. Your secret Bible study is an example, Daniel is another example. He’s told praying to God is not permitted, but God commands prayer so he prays. The line is drawn when it goes against God and His commands for our lives. In the case of PP, if it will help open people’s eyes to the truth (if it wasn’t already clear enough) on abortion and what Planned Parenthood is all about, then I’m all for it. If it will advance the fight against this immoral and disgusting act against God by revealing the deceitfulness of PP then I feel that God is pleased. They are not killing the people they are interviewing (though I may have a very hard time sitting there and not lashing out at what they are saying) to stop the killing of the unborn, they are exposing the truth. That’s my take. I also like Josh’s answer, very well said. 🙂 Thanks for provoking thought Mike, this is great stuff! I think I will make this one required reading in our home tonight for devotions and discussion!

  19. […] further reading, two important posts: Spies and Lies and The Ethics of Righteous Video Sting […]

  20. Lovvely post

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