Is It Okay to Lie — Sometimes?
Article description: Obfuscation is a type of lying.
It is a form of lying that attempts to “sneak” around the
truth without being so blatant. This article addresses
this type of under-the-table dishonesty.
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
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
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!
© 2006 by Christian Courier
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