Is there such a thing as a righteous lie? My guess is that you probably have a strong opinion about this question. My guess is that you probably also thought about this question tonight as you watched Daryl lie to Carol’s face in order to protect her. It is a very serious question and many disagree about the answer.
Is it sometimes okay to lie to people?
You may have encountered this question during a discussion on ethics at school. Or you may have read many of the volumes of works written on this subject, especially in the last few hundred years. Or possibly, you have had discussions about this issue at church or in another religious context. But in my experience, this is one of those questions that usually produces heated debates.
The debate usually starts (as all debates do) with the definition of the word lie. Webster’s Dictionary says it is “a false statement made with deliberate intent to deceive; an intentional untruth; a falsehood.” However, if you look at this definition, there really are two different definitions within the definition. Two of them involve intent, and one of them doesn’t (a falsehood). This immediately brings up the question, is it actually a lie if the person doesn’t intend to lie but their statement is false? The answer depends on which definition that you choose.
But let’s face it, the discussion about lying is rarely about unintentional falsehood. The question is much more about whether an intentional falsehood is ever justified. And if you are like me, you probably do justifiable intentional falsehoods all the time, and you probably feel fine about it. For example, when you throw a surprise birthday party for someone and you concoct a gigantic cover story in order to fool the birthday boy or girl, are you lying? Technically, according to the definition, you are intentionally intending to deceive and therefore you are lying.
But come on… it’s a birthday party! It’s a lie they actually enjoy, right?
So is lying ever right? If so, when is it wrong? Just when it hurts someone?
If you think it is always wrong, you probably have to refrain from surprise birthday parties. But if you believe it is okay to lie when it doesn’t hurt someone, does that lead to the idea that is so common in our culture today – “if no one knows the truth, does it really hurt anyone?” Believe me, I have seen many marriages break up because of that very destructive idea (here I reveal my thoughts on the issue).
And then there is the issue of omission. When is omission a lie? Is it a lie when a husband fails to disclose to his wife that he met for lunch with his ex-lover? Most people (especially spouses) would agree that that kind of omission is deliberately deceitful and clearly a lie. But what about the person taking care of their elderly parent who has dementia? If the elderly parent thinks that they are on a luxury cruise ship, and “orienting them to reality” only increases their anxiety, is it alright to go along and withhold the truth? I know that I have done this many times with senile grandparents (and anyone who tells you the situation is black and white probably has never been in this situation). The reality is that there is a huge spectrum when it comes to the issue of righteous omission.
Also, there is the issue of hurtful truth. If I ask my wife whether my pants make me look fat, she could say, “No, it is your big belly that makes you look fat”. But that just might not be the best truth to express to those you love. I would prefer that my wife is just a little more discriminating with the truth. Emily Dickenson has this great line from one of her poems where she says, “Tell all truth, but tell it slant…lest every man be blind”. I know that I don’t want everyone to tell me everything that they think about me uncensored. In these cases, omission is actually a pretty good thing.
Inevitably, the conversation then usually gets to hypothetical and anecdotal situations. For example, if Nazis were coming in to your house and you were hiding Jewish people in your cellar, is it right to lie to Nazis? That is an extreme situation that most of us (hopefully) will never have to experience, but some people have had to wrestle with it. In Corrie Ten Boom’s book, The Hiding Place, she states that when her family was in that exact situation, they decided that they would not lie to the Nazis. They were Christians, and they believed that lying would show a lack of faith, and so they just tried to omit as much as possible and trust in God. However, there are plenty of other examples of Christians who would have lied in that situation.
In one of my articles from the first half of this season (Season Seven, Episode Four, Service), I mentioned the story of Rahab found in the book of Joshua. She faced a similar dilemma when she hid two of the Israelite spies from the Canannites (her people). She just lied outright in order to save the spies. You may have noticed that I didn’t mention anything about whether her lying was right or wrong in my previous review. I did that because the text just doesn’t tell us at all. She clearly broke one of the Ten Commandments, but didn’t Joshua also break one of the Ten Commandments when he killed the people in Jericho? (Is it only okay to break a commandment when God tells us to? Okay, I know that I just opened up a whole can of worms there that I am not going to deal with here. Sorry!) The problem lies in the fact that she is revered for her faith and for protecting the spies in Hebrews chapter 11. The same issue could be said about the story of the Hebrew midwives in Exodus chapter one. They clearly lied to Pharoah in order to save Hebrew children (Moses is a case in point). Are these Biblical examples of righteous lying?
Tonight on The Walking Dead, we saw a situation where Daryl lies overtly to Carol in a way that just didn’t feel all that wrong. Maybe I was just so excited to see them together after all of this time. I also was moved by the compassion that Daryl had for Carol in this scene. I know that a lot of people conjecture that they will be lovers, but I always saw Carol as the mother that he never had, and Daryl as the son that she never had. So I was waiting with great anticipation to see how Daryl would tell her about Glenn and Abraham. Eventually she asks the important question:
Carol: The Saviors — did they come?
Carol: Did anyone get hurt? Is everybody okay? [Voice breaking] Did the Saviors… Is everybody back home okay? Daryl…
Daryl: They came. We got them all. Made a deal with the rest of them, like Ezekiel. Everyone’s all right. Everyone’s all right.
He pauses before he says it, but he lies overtly to Carol. When he says “everyone is all right” he is deliberately misleading her. So the question is, is this a righteous lie? We know that his intent is to help her continue living without the burden of pain that all of the others have experienced this season. We also know that Carol will join the fight if she hears this information, and Daryl may just be honoring her wishes in order to let her live in peace. I am sure that this is just a case of “the ends justifies the means” for Daryl. He may also be thinking that she won’t be all that upset with him anyway for hiding it when (or if) she finds out about the dead members of the group. But anyway you look at it, he is hoping that what she doesn’t know can’t hurt her.
You may have noticed that I have asked many more questions so far than I have actually answered. The reason is simple – I don’t know…really know… the answer in most of these hard cases. I have never had to face the situation of lying to a Nazi. I honestly don’t know if Rahab did something wrong when she lied to protect the spies. (However, many Christians believe that she should have showed more faith and not lied. But I believe this might be hard to argue seeing that she is mentioned in the Hebrews 11, the hall of faith, for what she did in that very situation). I also am not going to stand here and say that the Hebrew midwives in Exodus 1 were sinning when they saved babies from Pharaoh.
But here is what I do know. First, those situations are extremely rare, and probably have and never will happen to most of us. As a matter of fact, these two Old Testament stories were the only ones I could find where this was even a question. Most of the other lies in the Bible are portrayed as horrific and almost always have terrible consequences. Second, there is no place in the Bible where it says lying is okay. Even in these two stories that I mentioned, their behavior is not condoned in any way. (This brings up an important Biblical interpretation principle – just because someone does something in the Bible doesn’t mean that it is right or prescribed for others). Pair this with the fact that lying is something that is explicitly forbidden in the Bible starting with the Ten Commandments and ending with the book of Revelation. There are literally hundreds of verses in the Bible that deal with the problems of deceit and the consequences that follow. It is pretty clear that God just hates lying.
And most of us know this to be true in life. For every story that we have about a possible righteous lie, we can come up with hundreds of stories where lies have destroyed relationships and in many cases, people’s lives. Most people innately know that truth is better than lies. I even suspect that Daryl’s lie may come back to bite him. Will Carol really appreciate that he willfully kept the information about Glenn and Abraham’s death from her? I am guessing that it would have been better to be honest with her, or just not answer her question at all. Even in this case, I think that lying is going to have some pretty devastating consequences.
One of my favorite verses dealing with this issue comes in Colossians chapter 3. Apostle Paul is talking about some of the important realities of living as a new believer, and he explicitly deals with the issue of lying and why it is so important to be truthful.
Don’t lie to each other, for you have stripped off your old sinful nature and all its wicked deeds. 10 Put on your new nature, and be renewed as you learn to know your Creator and become like him. (Colossians 3:9-10, NLT)
Notice that he explains some of the reasons that we aren’t to lie. He says that lying is equated with our old sinful nature and consequently that truthfulness is part of our new nature. Why? Because part of the process of becoming renewed is becoming more like our creator. What do we know about our creator and the truth? We know that God never lies…Ever. He never has and he never will.
There is no discussion about righteous lying when it comes to God. We can simply trust in what He says, whenever He says it, because He is always trustworthy.
Often I think that these hypothetical situations, while they are important to talk about, distract us from some important truths in life. The reality is that we need to focus on making our words truthful. Like most issues of right and wrong, God cares about what is going on in our heart. That is why He probably isn’t all that worried about our surprise parties, but he is very concerned with our attempts to manipulate people with lies for our own ends. He is also concerned with those who use truth as a blunt instrument in order to hurt others. But most importantly, He desires that his children (believers in Jesus) strive daily to act a little more like Jesus – the most honest man who ever lived. It is through His truthful life, death and resurrection that the world can be saved. And that is no lie.
SEASON 7, EPISODE 10 DISCUSSION QUESTIONS:
1) When Daryl finds out that Richard’s plan is to sacrifice Carol in order to start a war with the saviors, do you think that he disagrees with the plan in general, or that he is just upset that it is Carol? Why?
2) Daryl tells Morgan that whatever he is holding on to is already gone. What do you think he means by that?
3) Should Morgan use his influence with Ezekiel to get them to join the conspirators against Negan?
4) Why do you think Daryl lies to Carol? Do you think that his lie is justified?
5) Would it still have been wrong for Daryl to artfully dodge the question and just omit telling Carol about Glenn and Abraham’s death?
6) Do you think that Daryl is actually sparing Carol from pain because of his lie, or is he just delaying it? Why or why not?
7) Have you ever been in a situation where intentionally deceiving someone was the right thing to do? If so, how?
8) Are these types of situations rare in your life?
9) What are the results/consequences of being honest in everything you say? Would you say that most of those results are positive or negative?
10) What things can you do to help you be more truthful in the things you say?
Thom McKee Jr. is a husband, father, pastor… and film geek (and brother of Jonathan McKee). Thom lives in Northern California with his wife and two kids.