I am intrigued, though I suppose I should not be surprised, by how many Christians struggle to answer the question: is lying always a sin?
Before you answer too quickly let me note that if I were harboring Jews and the Nazis came to my home I hope that I would have lied through my teeth.
I was recently teaching a course at the (Christian) university and asked them if lying was always a sin. They were unsure of how to respond.
It seemed to me that some of them were thinking that there are times when lying seems the right thing to do (we had just discussed the Nazi’s question), but they were uncertain if it was permissible to say this to their Christian professor.
For some, the answer is “yes,” it is always a sin to lie. In fact, when I was in graduate school—at a very conservative, and shall I say “fundamentalist” school—I was instructed that the way to resolve such moral dilemmas was to understand that there is “a gradation of ethics.”
This approach to ethics basically asserts that although it is always a sin to lie, it is more important to save a life. Therefore, the act of saving a life outweighs the “sin” of lying. So, even though lying is always a sin, there are times when it is “okay” to lie.
Well, I don’t think it is always a sin to lie. Let me explain.
Did the bishop sin?
After discussing the question of lying and whether or not it is always a sin, I showed my students this (3:00) clip from Les Miserable—which is an amazing story contrasting the Gospel of grace (Jean Valjean) and the Gospel of Law (Javert).
In the scene, Jean Valjean steals silver from a local bishop and proceeds to knock the bishop out before scurrying away into the night with the silver.
The next day Jean Valjean is arrested. The local law enforcement officials bring Valjean to the bishop.
The bishop, however, much to the chagrin of the officials, corroborates Valjean’s erroneous testimony by affirming that he indeed “gave the silver to Valjean.” The bishop, in fact, goes one step further by scolding Valjean for not “taking the candlesticks.” Then, after the candlesticks are loaded into Valjean’s bag full of silver, he leaves a free man.
I then asked my students whether or not the bishop sinned. After all, the bishop not only lied, he lied to the authorities and he lied to protect a guilty man.
I argued that the bishop not only didn’t sin, but he did precisely what God does. He showed mercy.
The problem with “lying is always a sin,” or the “gradation of ethics” reasoning, is twofold:
First, I would say that lying to the Nazis about harboring Jews is not a sin. It is not a question of one sin being the lesser of two evils. I think it is a question of having mercy and not having mercy. In fact, I would say that to “not have mercy”—because we “cannot lie”—would be a sin.
Second, “a gradation of ethics” approach does not provide any basis for condoning the bishop’s actions.
Rooting for Jean Valjean
What is interesting is that we all (I assume we all) are pleased, maybe even relieved, when the bishop lies to spare Jean Valjean. The fact is that throughout Les Mis we root for Jean Valjean and we root against the law-enforcing legalist, Javert.
The problem with holding to a “gradation of sins” ethic, or a “lying is always a sin” ethic, is that it does not explain why we are rooting for the one who has “sinned.”
These views leave us no option: Javert is right. Valjean is a criminal who not only stole the bishop’s silver but also assaulted the bishop.
There is only one thing for the bishop to do: tell the truth. There is only one thing for Valjean to do: turn himself in.
Yet, we applaud the bishop’s actions and we root for Valjean. Are we violating biblical standards when we do so? Is Les Mis a sinister play that undermines the Gospel and urges us to cheer for that which is actually evil?
The reason why I believe that we can say that the bishop was justified in lying to the officials is because the bishop was acting the way God acts.
“Therefore the Lord longs to be gracious to you,
And therefore He waits on high to have compassion on you.
For the Lord is a God of justice;
How blessed are all those who long for Him?” (Isa 30:18)
Sure, we can read the commandments as absolutes. And generally speaking, that is a good idea.
But, I fear that to do so is to miss the point. If they are absolutes, if lying is always a sin, the bishop’s act of mercy was still a sin.
The problem with Javert is he didn’t believe that sinners could be redeemed. He even says that once a criminal “always a criminal.”
The beauty of Les Mis is that it illustrates for us the heart of the Gospel. God gives mercy and grace and sometimes it produces redeemed people!
Do we long to be gracious?
While I was searching to find the video clip from Les Miserable, I stumbled across a blog by Jonathan Simon titled: “Why do we idealize Jean Valjean and act like Javert?”
It is an excellent post and I recommend you read it—after you finish my post of course.
In it, the author notes that Americans tend to revere Jean Valjean and scorn Javert. Yet, he states,
“But herein lies the irony. If we Americans identify with Jean Valjean, why does our justice system, more than any other in the world, embody the spirit and philosophy of Javert? In no other nation are people so routinely incarcerated for breaking the law, no matter how trivial the violation, or compelling the need behind it. Moreover, in the very decades that we have been lining up to see Les Mis, we have enacted a legal system committed to the inflexible imposition of harsh justice and the impossibility of reform. Indeed our state and federal courts today are largely in the hands of Javert and his disciples.”
This is tragic. We know that God desires mercy and yet we have established a society predicated on justice.
Perhaps we might ask: should we be people who look for opportunities to bestow grace and mercy?
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