A recent study called ‘Secrets and Lies, Uncovering the Underbelly of Australia’ investigated how many Australians lie, what it means to lie, and the implications.

Researchers conducted 2,500 face-to-face interviews across the country, and partnered with a leading anthropologist. They found that, contrary to Australians’ image as straight-talking and easy going, people lie “about all sorts of things and some of those lies are whoppers.”

While 81% value the notion of living an authentic life, 49% admit to misrepresenting themselves, 52% have lied at work and 63% have made up an excuse to cancel a social arrangement. Perhaps surprisingly, 27% have lied about their whereabouts to family and friends, and 29% admit to doing something illegal.

So lots of us lie. It’s a reality and one that appears to be tied in part to self-worth. But what are the ethical implications of this? We’re often told growing up that it is wrong to lie, and yet it seems to be so much of the fabric of adult life in Australia.

What do the Bible and theologians think?

Several important theologians who have closely analysed biblical texts have outright condemned any falsehoods. Chief among these are the likes of Augustine and Thomas Aquinas. So what does the Bible have to say about lying? It’s a bit complicated.

Several of the praised figures from the Old Testament tell lies in order to get out of tight situations, including Abraham and Joseph.

In the case of Joseph, his cunning comes up at a few points in the narrative, a factor that posed no moral problem for ancient audiences, who viewed cunning as an admirable attribute.

The ninth commandment is you shall not commit false testimony against your neighbour. Lying, then, is something that scripture explicitly forbids in certain circumstances.

Dietrich Bonhoeffer is one theologian who wrote extensively on the subject of lying. To Bonhoeffer, truth was not something to be compromised, a conviction that saw him up against what he viewed as the lies of the Third Reich ( the struggle that would eventually take his life). Bonhoeffer’s commitment to the truth also found himself in conflict with his American colleagues at Princeton University. For American Christians, the German theologian contended, the notion of tolerance had trumped the notion of truth.

On the other hand, Bonhoeffer understood that to properly judge the moral value of a lie, he needed to take into account the circumstances surrounding the lie. As Stanley Hauerwas puts it, “Bonhoeffer’s account of the lie is determined by his understanding of reality.”

In his book Ethics, Bonhoeffer includes a chapter called ‘What Is Meant By Telling The Truth?’

Bonhoeffer includes the hypothetical example of a young boy whose teacher asks him in front of a class if his father comes home drunk. In order to protect his family, the boy denies it. According to Bonhoeffer, the child is right to lie when he has been asked a question that the teacher should not have put to him in the classroom.

“The child’s answer can indeed be called a lie”, he writes.

“[Y]et this lie contains more truth, that is to say, in is more in accordance with reality than would have been the case if the child had betrayed his father’s weakness in front of the class. According to the measure of his knowledge the child acted correctly.

“The blame for the lie falls back entirely upon the teacher.”

Can lying point to a greater truth?

Of course, Bonhoeffer himself engaged in deception in order to mislead the Nazi regime. His Letters and Papers from Prison features one letter where he recalls his supposedly faithful service to the Abwehr (the German secret service). Bonhoeffer lied to his superiors in order to help German Jews escape to Switzerland. In the letter in question, he goes so far as to include an insincere “Heil Hitler.”

From Bonhoeffer, we learn that lying is something that can sometimes itself point to a greater truth and that lying must be judged in accordance with the circumstances surrounding it.

A 2014 study from Wharton University found that lying could be considered altruistic in some circumstances. The Wharton study found that there were moral layers to lying, from malicious lies to well-intentioned misleading intended to shield people from hurt. Emma Levine co-authored the study.

“We say lying is wrong in our personal and professional lives, but we often catch ourselves feeling very uncomfortable when we have to tell the truth, such as when we deliver critical feedback or when we tell grandpa that we don’t like the oranges he sends us every year as a birthday present,” she said.

“We lie all the time and we see other people doing it, so we get very mixed messages.”

With this moral mixture comes a few awkward situations. Calling someone on a lie is a particularly heavy accusation. As Mark Wingfield writes for Baptist News, it is sometimes treated worse than lying itself.

Social media and dishonesty

Today, the digital sphere involves a kind of lie, namely the way that we often present ourselves online.

As Mark Delbridge writes:

 I’m sure you see examples of it online, all the time. A beautiful shot of friends and food. Smiling faces, great times… “Love these people!” #lovemyfriends #nofilter

But is that ‘perfect’ snapshot always an accurate summary of what’s really going on?

Christians, however, are called to build one another up in positive and selfless community (Ephesians 4). This, he argues, comes into conflict with the in-authenticity of social media.

According to Delbridge, Ephesians’ call, “[M]ust spur us on to take responsibility to consider, at least, the impact of our activities (online or not). For Christians, how we act among each other matters. It’s not about deception, but about love. And if that means adjustments to serve others, should we not do it?”

Jonathan Foye is Insights’ Editor


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