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ANALYSIS: Is lying that bad?


EDITOR’S NOTE: Please see additional story “Quran: lying allowed to protect Muslims” below this article.

NASHVILLE (BP) — Reports of apparent lies by NBC News anchor Brian Williams and President Obama have highlighted the prevalence of dishonesty among Americans as well as the dismissive attitude many have toward it. But the Bible portrays lying as a violation of God’s intended order for the universe — with consequences as real as those that come from failed attempts to violate the laws of physics or medical science.

Williams is a prime example. He was suspended by NBC for six months after an internal investigation uncovered multiple “instances of exaggeration” in the veteran journalist’s reporting, including the false statement that he was riding on a military helicopter hit by a rocket-propelled grenade during the Iraq war, the Washington Post reported.

Obama made headlines when his former adviser David Axelrod claimed in a book released Feb. 10 that the president lied about his support for same-sex marriage during the 2008 election cycle. As an Illinois state senate candidate in 1996, Obama stated on a questionnaire, “I favor legalizing same-sex marriages, and would fight efforts to prohibit such marriages,” TIME reported. But Obama said during his first presidential campaign that he only supported civil unions and believed marriage “is the union between a man and a woman.”

Axelrod claimed the lie was an attempt not to offend voters in black churches. Obama countered in an interview published Feb. 10 that he did not lie but was “struggling” to balance between “people’s rights” and “religious sensitivities,” Politico reported. Obama officially endorsed gay marriage in 2012.

A 60 Minutes/Vanity Fair poll released last year suggests Obama and Williams are not alone in their struggle to tell the truth. Only 56 percent of Americans surveyed said a person “should always tell the truth under every circumstance.” The top three areas about which Americans are tempted to lie are their past, their salary and their age, according to the poll.


So if most everyone is doing it, is lying really that big of a deal? In short, yes.

Of course, Christian ethicists disagree about whether it is morally acceptable to lie in extreme circumstances. For example, were people in Nazi Germany justified in lying to the Gestapo about hiding Jews in their homes? Was Rahab sinning when she lied about the Israelite spies to the king of Jericho’s messengers (Joshua 2:4-5)? And no one is suggesting a moral obligation to reveal everything we know in every circumstance. But Scripture is clear that the relaying of false information under normal circumstances is a sin with real consequences — even when it is a “white lie” or one intended to protect the fibber.

Honesty is of primary importance in Scripture, first of all, because truthfulness is an attribute of God. The Old Testament teaches that God is incapable of lying (Numbers 23:19), and Jesus said He is “the truth” (John 14:6). God codified the importance of truth-telling for humans in the ninth commandment (Exodus 20:16) as a way of ordering human interactions to reflect His holy character.

When the Lord disciplines those who lie, it is not an arbitrary hand slap doled out by a capricious deity. It is the attempt of a loving Lord to align His creatures with what is best for them and purge the world of what is objectively evil. Lies have consequences.

In Genesis 3, the serpent’s lie led to the ruin of God’s good creation. Abraham’s lie about Sarah being his sister once led to plagues on the Egyptians (Genesis 12:17) and on another occasion to the near death of Abimelech and his subjects (Genesis 20:7). A similar lie by Isaac about his wife Rebekah threatened to undo Abimelech’s kingdom again a generation later (Genesis 26:6-11).

Jacob’s notorious deception stole his father’s blessing from Esau and led to years of strife between the two brothers as well as their descendants (Genesis 27:1-29). The deception of Joseph’s brothers concerning his death led to prolonged grief in their family (Genesis 37:29-35).

When Israel was established as a nation, God included numerous provisions about honesty in its laws. The nation’s eventual exile from the Promised Land was partly due to its dishonesty (Isaiah 59:4).

In the New Testament, Peter’s dishonesty led to shame (Mark 14:66-72) and that of Ananias and Sapphira to death (Acts 5:1-11). At the end of time, the “father of lies” will be cast into a lake of fire along with the “false prophet” and “all liars” who have refused to repent (Revelation 20:10; 21:8; John 8:44).

While all of us have been liars at some point (Romans 3:13), we don’t have to continue such behavior. There is grace and forgiveness in Christ — as well as increasing relief from the consequences of lying the longer we practice honesty. Yet persisting in dishonesty yields a painful harvest. Just ask Brian Williams.


Quran: lying allowed
to protect Muslims

NASHVILLE (BP) — Contrary to the Bible’s persistent emphasis on honesty, adherents of Islam believe the Quran permits lying in order to prevent death or injury to Muslims.

Known as “taqiyya,” the practice of lying in the name of Islam is based in part on chapter 16, verse 106 of the Quran: “Anyone who, after accepting faith in Allah, utters unbelief under compulsion, his heart remaining firm in Faith shall be absolved — but such as open their breast to unbelief — on them is wrath from Allah, and theirs will be a dreadful penalty.”

Though most often associated with Shiite Muslims, Sunnis have practiced taqiyya as well. Sunnis and Shiites differ over who should be Muhammad’s successor as the caliph, or ruler, of the Islamic community.

“Over time, pro-Shi’i movements used taqiyah [an alternate spelling] to hide revolutionary activities,” according to the Oxford Islamic Studies website. “Taqiyah became a widely accepted practice, and in the 900s, Ibn Babawayh, a prominent Shi’i authority, declared it to be a religious obligation. Some scholars, however, voiced concerns about the danger of following a policy of deceit. They argued that taqiyah permits Shi’is to say anything and make any claim, and therefore, their words are not trustworthy. As a result, Shi’i scholars created rules for the use of taqiyah.”

Taqiyya has been advocated by both medieval and modern Muslims. In the seventh century, Muhammad’s son-in-law Ali temporarily accepted the rule of his rivals following Muhammad’s death even though he believed himself the legitimate heir to Muhammad’s authority. Ali’s pledge of loyalty to his opponents was actually a strategic maneuver to preserve his movement until he saw an opportune moment to seize power. Sunnis view Ali’s action as one basis for taqiyya.

In the 1980s, Islamic writer Afif Tabbarah stated in his book “The Spirit of Islam,” “Lying is not always bad, to be sure; there are times when telling a lie is more profitable and better for the general welfare, and for the settlement of conciliation among people, than telling the truth.”

Former Iraqi President Saddam Hussein, former Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad and former Palestinian leader Yasser Afafat all practiced taqiyya in their dealings with the international community, some Islam experts say.

Hussein was known to break promises to U.N. weapons inspectors, and Ahmadinejad said Iran’s uranium enrichment projects were for peaceful purposes although western leaders suspected that was a lie.

In 1994, Afafat said in a Johannesburg mosque, “The jihad will continue, and Jerusalem is not for the Palestinian people. It is for all the Muslim nation.” When questioned by journalists, Arafat said he was merely using the term “jihad” to call Muslims to be more devout in their faith.

Although Muslim scholars have identified situations in which they believe it is acceptable to practice taqiyya, “in general, they advise against its use, whenever possible,” the Oxford Islamic Studies website said.