Note: sorta like To Be A Hero, this post is a bit of a brain dump. Usually I do a lot more to organize it, but in this case, because it’s sort of an argument with myself, I just want to give a bit of a glimpse of how my thought process on this went. Also, this post was written several weeks ago.
Recently in a book discussion (with the same group mentioned in To Be A Hero) we were discussing the book Number The Stars in which a family hides escaping Jews from Nazis. The question was brought up asking whether it was okay for the family to lie about hiding the Jews, and we ended up getting into a whole discussion on it. This is what I got out of it along with my follow-up of it. Just to be clear, just because I say something doesn’t mean it’s true.
So when is it okay to lie? In the case of the Nazis and the Jews, would it be better to lie or tell the truth? We probably would tell the truth, but why? After talking a while, I had the thought that maybe when considering the situation, you should see which is the greater sin: to murder someone (or let someone die) or lie? Obviously the latter. There, we have a solution.
However, someone brought up the excellent point that it wouldn’t actually be your fault. That is, even if you knew that the man standing in front of you would kill someone unless you lied, it still wouldn’t actually be you murdering someone if you tell the truth. It’s that man’s choice to kill, not yours. Even if it might feel like you were the murderer, the man didn’t have to kill that person. With that in mind, you can’t really compare two sins because it’s either you sin and lie or they sin and murder someone.
Maybe instead of comparing two sins you compare the two ends: someone dies or you sin. You compare the outcomes and choose the one that is more important to you. You could maintain your integrity and tell the truth or you can sin and save a life. Unfortunately, this has it’s faults as well. What would be better is asking what is more important to God, you obeying His commandments or the other person living.
What if you were told to deny your faith or someone would die? Denying your faith is a much greater sin than merely lying, at least in the opinion of most people I’ve talked about it with. We are told to never tell lies, but there are always possible exceptions like the situation in the last few paragraphs. We are also told to never deny our faith, but unlike merely lying we are often told that it is better to die than deny your faith. But what if it is someone else who will die? We can go back to the weighing priorities, which is worse, which would you rather, which would God rather, which is the right way to determine it, etc., but it doesn’t really help. It’s a conundrum.
Let’s come back to that later. Another topic that was brought up is was about less important, smaller lies. It was said that part of what you should consider is for what type of reasons you were lying, whether you were lying for selfish or unselfish reasons. When someone is lying for selfish reasons, it is usually a bad thing e.g. you don’t want to admit to breaking the vase or stealing the candy, you want to trick someone into doing something wrong, you want to get somewhere you shouldn’t be, etc. These are all associated with lying (sinning) to cover up other sins.
Meanwhile, unselfish lies are generally associated with better reasons, e.g. you don’t want to hurt someone’s feelings, you don’t want to spoil the surprise party, you want to keep an immoral thing from a child, etc. These are usually done with good intentions, even if it is done by sinning (lying).
Having heard this idea of “selfish reasons vs. unselfish reasons”, I decided to apply my “weighing the priorities” idea. I thought, “What is the greater sin? Lying or getting in trouble for something you did wrong?” This would be lying for selfish reasons, and clearly lying to get out of admitting your sins would be sin. On the other hand, what would be worse, lying or insulting a friend? In this case, because we are doing it for someone else, we usually think that lying would be the lesser of the two sins.
But didn’t we decide that weighing which was the greater or lesser sin wasn’t necessarily the best way? So, instead, let’s say which is more important to you, not lying or not insulting your friend? Again, we’d usually think that not being rude would be better than not lying. What about for a selfish reason? Which is more important to you, owning up to your guilt and being punished or simply lying and getting away with it? This is why earlier I said that “which is more important to you” isn’t a good way either.
Which is more important to God? Generally He wants you to learn from your mistakes and take appropriate action to fix them, which pretty much includes telling the truth. So, by this ruling we shouldn’t lie for selfish reasons. What about for unselfish reasons? Which would He rather, you obey His command to be kind or His command to be truthful? Those of us who face this problem generally try to find a sort of middle ground, trying to not actually tell a lie, but also trying to not insult your friend. It’s a narrow path we walk all the time, and it is well-worn by the footfalls of all the indecisive.
Here’s another thing I wanted to mention that ties to two different strings of thought together: what if you had to lie to save your own life? Lying to save someone else’s life is almost always more on the unselfish side, which we decided is more of a gray area, but what about lying to save yourself? Most people don’t live entirely for others, so pretty much no matter what you’d be lying for selfish reasons. Unfortunately, we just decided in the last paragraph that we shouldn’t lie for selfish reasons. So I guess you should tell the truth and die.
On the other hand, going back to the weighing of greater vs. lesser sins (I keep bringing it up because it offers an interesting view), wouldn’t telling the truth in that situation be the equivalent to killing yourself? We are commanded to not lie. We are also commanded to not commit suicide, and considering suicide rates versus lying rates as well as common sense, lying is pretty much universally considered the lesser sin. So does that mean that we should lie to not commit suicide?
But then there was that point brought up a while ago: it’s not you who is killing someone. It’s the fault of whoever is threatening you. You’re not committing suicide, you’re telling the truth and they’re committing murder! Meanwhile, if you lie, you’ve sinned (for a selfish reason nonetheless). So which is more important, to sin and live or tell the truth and die? Which is ultimately the right decision? I don’t know, maybe it’s better to live on and repent than die telling the truth, or maybe it’s better to die opposing sin.
What if you were told to deny your faith or die? Denying your faith is generally considered a greater sin than merely lying, so we have to take that into consideration. Then there is also the fact that God has promised blessings in heaven to those who die in His name, so there’s always that. Perhaps this means that in this situation you should never deny your faith so that when you go to heaven you will be rewarded where it matters more. Unfortunately, even then there’s still the argument that it might be better to live on and repent. Who would have thought this would be so hard?
To conclude, this is a very complicated topic that can be carried on and on. For those who have read this far, I do actually have a solution. Even if it seems like a cop-out answer, it is the truth, at least as far as I can tell as a mere mortal: Ultimately, we must listen to the Spirit. We must ask the Lord and obey His commands. We must live our lives according to His gospel and strive to seek for, listen to, and obey His commands and advice as they are given to us through the Holy Ghost. Only then we will be prepared to make the hard decisions. Only then will we be able to answer the question of when it is okay to lie and know that we got it right. I know this, and I hope that you will too if you don’t already. Thank you for reading.