Are White Lies Ok?

white lies 2

Q. I was witnessing to a very smart 13-year-old girl who has an inquiring mind. She asked me, a little boy drew a picture, if she tell him the picture is beautiful to make him happy, would that be a sin? If she tells him the truth, it would hurt his feelings. I said, saying something that is not true is lying, but there are white lies, I lie too. I know that she is not satisfied with my answer, but I didn’t know how else to answer her. Please advise how I should answer her. Come to think of it, Moses lied to his father-in-law (Ex 4:18), Rahab lied to protect and save the Israelite spies (Joshua 2:4-6). God did not condemn them for their sin of lying.

A. I wrote a series on Falsehood last Fall. My comments on Rahab are in:
http://raykliu.wordpress.com/2012/09/02/strategy-3/
http://raykliu.wordpress.com/2012/09/16/falsehood-views-2/
But what about white lies? They don’t hurt anyone, do they? Everyone does it, so it’s ok? Many have asked this question, so I will elaborate a bit besides giving you my opinion.

To some, a lie is a lie, and all lies are sin, with no exceptions.
Eph 4:25 Therefore each of you must put off falsehood and speak truthfully to your neighbor, for we are all members of one body.
• Lk 16:10 “Whoever can be trusted with very little can also be trusted with much, and whoever is dishonest with very little will also be dishonest with much.

A white lie is a little falsehood, but it shows the character of the person that he will do what’s expedient. When larger issues are at stake, he will be dishonest with much to protect himself, and therefore cannot be trusted. All these are true, and we have to very careful about avoiding lies. But before we get to that I have a fundamental question, “What is lying?”

Some feel lying is deception. Others add “deliberate” because we may give a false impression inadvertently, without ourselves even knowing it, but others are somehow “deceived”. I define lying to be immoral deception, and not all deceptions are immoral. For example, a fake move in sports is a deliberate deception, but it is not immoral. In war, we are not obligated to tell the enemy the whole truth and nothing but the truth. They have no right to know our military secrets, as their intention is to kill and destroy. To tell the enemy the truth would be immoral, and withholding information from them to protect our citizens is moral.

My position in ethical issues is graded absolutism. That is, I believe there are higher and lower laws. In ethical dilemmas, you choose the greater good. Since the greater law supersedes the lesser law, in choosing to abide by the greater law we are not held accountable and charged under the lesser law, just as an ambulance is not charged for crossing a red light when it is rushing to save lives in emergencies.

I think Aristotle’s rule is helpful here. He said honesty is:
• speaking the right truth (subject)
• to the right person (object)
• at the right time (timing)
• in the right way (manner)
• for the right reason (motive).

We don’t have the right to disclose truths shared in confidence, and not every person has a right to know. Some meant harm, others are just nosy. A truth shared at the wrong time still hurts, and sometimes our attitude is more important than what was said. Finally what is our motivation in disclosing truths? Is it correct? These are all important considerations when we share or withhold information tactfully.

If you think that’s only Aristotle and not Scripture, just look at how Jesus dealt with individuals:
• Subject: While Jesus is the truth (Jn 14:6) and truth came through Him (Jn 1:17);
• Object: He refused to answer the chief priests and elders (Mt 21:27; Mk 11:33; Lk 20:8);
• Timing: He delayed disclosing Himself to the Samaritan woman at the well (Jn 4:26);
• Manner: He confronted the woman caught in adultery after He forgave her (Jn 8:11); and
• Motive: He did what He did because He did not come to judge, but to save (Jn 12:47).
Aristotle’s rule described His conduct very well.

That much for principles. Now how do I apply it in your case. First, is there a higher moral law to obey than to speak the truth? Are there lives to save? Is national security at stake? In your example, there is none, and there is no real reason not to tell the truth. Second, as the boy is the one who drew the picture, his right to know is legitimate. Third, timing does not appear to be an issue in this particular instance. Fourth, the manner needs to be tactful. We want to build up the boy, not tear him down. Fifth, the teenager’s motive is not to hurt the boy’s feelings, which is honorable, but not sufficient to justify withholding the truth.

There are other considerations as well. Beauty is in the eyes of the beholder. Few people would call insects and pests beautiful, but when God created them He pronounced them “good”. And from the perspective of design, symmetry they are beautiful works of art. Is she evaluating his picture with her subjective teenage standard, or is she comparing his composition to other young children?

So taking all the above into account, I would suggest instead of simply saying “It’s beautiful!” or “It’s ugly!”, she should first tell him what’s good about his picture, and then how he can improve it. Showing him the areas of improvement is a positive way of building him up, and a gentle way to let him know it is not fully satisfactory and does not meet all expectations yet. You have not lied and you are encouraging him at the same time. You are being true to both God and man. Others may have better solutions, but that’s my approach. Hope that helps.

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