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Lying, Truthfulness and the Grace of God

By September 5, 2014 No Comments

It is an old question, and it happens every fall. Every fall, I teach a required course on biblical theology as seen through the Old Testament and the Gospels. Every fall, we get stuck on the story of Rahab in the book of Joshua, and we get particularly stuck on the question of whether Rahab was justified in lying to Jericho about the whereabouts of Israel’s spies. Every fall, almost all of my students — whether they are products of more than 12 years of Christian schooling or whether they just learned in September how to distinguish between text and footnotes in their new Bibles — almost all of them judge that she either did not sin or that her sin was justified, excused by her intention to protect Israel. Every fall, I suggest to them what John Calvin said about Rahab in his commentary on Joshua: “although our purpose might be to assist our brethren, to work for their safety … it never can be lawful to lie, because that cannot be right which is contrary to the nature of God. And God is truth.” And then my students say, “Dr. Starkenburg, are you serious?” I say, “Yes,” and then we talk for a long time.

I’ve been thinking about these yearly conversations a great deal lately because I have begun to read the “new atheist” literature. Authors I read have been quoting from the literature for years now. My Facebook feed regularly includes links to new debates. Friends will ask me what I think of books by Christopher Hitchens or Richard Dawkins. So I started to read Sam Harris’ books, including his book “Lying” (Four Elephants Press, 2013). One of the things that animates most of the new atheists is that ethics and morals are better handled apart from assuming that there is a creator who is involved in the creation. What seems to particularly animate Harris is a concern with lying and truthfulness, probably in part because he credits a college course on lying as a key intellectual awakening for him. He learned, and wants others to learn, that lying is usually immoral but there are plenty of instances — for instance, when a Nazi knocks on your door in order to apprehend someone in flight — where lying is necessary. I’ve been thinking about Harris’ conclusions about lying because he sounds a lot like my students every fall.


Although not entirely clear, Harris’ basic intent is to say that honesty “is to everyone’s advantage so much of the time, and it allows us to live the kinds of lives and maintain the kinds of relationships we want to have.” Thus, most of the short book is talking about how lies damage cooperation or damage individual autonomy. Telling lies means we have to spend too much energy keeping track of our lies. Giving honest feedback on a bad movie script helps a friend to either give up or seriously revise, instead of submitting the same script over and over to possible investors. When Harris turns to the cases that involve deception for the sake of avoiding or decreasing violence, he is generous enough to consider whether telling the truth “might be more effective” or could “produce important moral breakthroughs.” In other words, maybe you could talk somebody down from what they are about to do. Yet he says that holding to an absolute prohibition against lying “can produce behavior only a psychopath might endorse” and is “ethically incoherent in anyone but a true pacifist.” Why? We must protect ourselves and others, especially our autonomy and the autonomy of others. But he also adds some interesting notes. “In those circumstances where we deem it obviously necessary to lie, we have generally determined that the person to be deceived is both dangerous and unreachable by any recourse to the truth. … We have judged the prospects of establishing a genuine relationship with him to be nonexistent.” For Harris, “lying is, almost by definition, a refusal to cooperate with others” and “to lie is to recoil from relationship.” When someone just doesn’t seem to be the kind of person with which you can be in “genuine relationship,” the path to lying can be laid open.

Again, I rehearse Harris’ points because what he writes is what my students say every year; the only difference is that my students will wrestle with God’s command not to bear false witness against my neighbor, Jesus’ prohibition of oaths in the Sermon on the Mount and the way that the book of Hebrews approves of Rahab’s faith because of her reception of Israel’s spies. In the end, though, they almost always think Calvin’s judgment is wrong and hard to imagine. Many of them smile and laugh. Why does Calvin’s point seem so silly to them? Why do I seem so silly when I tell them that he has a point? Why would Harris associate the consequences of an idea like this with psychopathic behavior?

It is about the kind of theological, moral and biblical imagination my students and Sam Harris exercise with regard to speech. Harris is an atheist, of course. But my students work on the flip side of a similar imagination. Hans Frei, in his “Eclipse of Biblical Narrative” (Yale, 1974), argued that an imaginative shift in biblical interpretation occurs with the rise of a certain type of historical criticism in the 18th century. Before this modern development, the task of biblical interpretation was “incorporating extra-biblical thought, experience and reality into the one real world detailed and made accessible by the biblical story — not the reverse.” After the rise of certain types of modern historical criticism, biblical interpretation is a matter of making the biblical story “referable to an external, more general context.” My students believe the Bible as a whole. But, for both my students and Harris, the challenges of using speech under Nazi rule and other similar contexts appear more real and more universal in their imaginations than the reality that God is truth. The reality that God is truth must be related to those contexts, not the reverse. In contrast, “precritical interpretation” would relate these contexts to the nature of God and God’s dealing with the world.


Our current stance does seem, however, to be an eclipse of Christian imagination. I have to admit that I’m not always sure Calvin is right in his conclusion about lying, but I simply cannot argue with his point of departure. When Augustine wrote “Against Lying,” he thought it was relevant to note that “when I put before my mind’s eye the intellectual beauty of Him from whose mouth nothing false proceeded, then, although my weakness reverberates in palpitation before the radiance of the truth shining ever more brightly, I am so inflamed by love of such great beauty that I despise all human considerations that call me back from there.” For my students and even for me at times, the reality that God does not lie when God speaks — a reality embedded in every layer of the biblical story — seems to be, at best, distantly relevant to exigencies of injustice. But Augustine is right to mention this because Christians approach speech in light of who God is in Christ. If speech is utterance that means something for both the speaker and the recipient, speech is utterance that is meant to share the reality of the speaker’s beliefs with the recipient. When they speak, Christians aim to speak truthfully to others and aim to receive truth from others. There are other reasons to speak to one another. We could speak to one another for the survival of the human species or for the sake of gaining more money or power or whatever. But Christians speak truth and expect to hear truth.

What I mean to suggest is that if God, who is truth, is given to us in Christ, then we can speak with truth as well. There are four realities that have more density than any exigency of injustice. First, God is truthful because God is triune. Consider the wonderful opening of the Gospel of John in this context: “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God.” Even in God there is an intentioned utterance that happens between persons. We have to be careful here, given that God, in God’s divine nature, does not have a body or mouth. But Augustine was right to say that God’s truthfulness is beautiful. Because God is three different persons, the triune God generously communicates God’s life even within God’s life. All that the Father knows is spoken in the Son and received in the Spirit. There’s more than can be said here, with care for the analogical tenor of the claims. Suffice to say, God is truth because God is triune.

Second, however, and perhaps more to the point, Christians speak the truth because God became human. If the church was right to confess, on the basis of patterns of biblical writing such as John 1:1, that Jesus Christ is fully God as God’s Word, that Jesus Christ has everything that would make him divine, then God has fully uttered God’s self to the creation through the incarnation. If God is generous enough to fully utter God’s self to creation, then it is only fitting that Christians would speak similarly. It would be a strange gratitude for Christians not to forgive each other, given that God has forgiven them. As Jesus has the king say in the parable of the unforgiving servant, “Should you not have had mercy on your fellow slave, as I had mercy on you?” (Matthew 18:33). Just so, why would we not speak truthfully to one another, as God speaks truthfully to all of creation in Christ?

Third, and even more to the point, Christians can speak truthfully because Jesus Christ speaks truth on behalf of humanity. One of the implications of the resurrection of Jesus Christ is that he continually “intercedes for us” (Romans 8:34) as he rules over us. In this context, God is not just gracious enough to speak to us by becoming one of us. When Jesus Christ intercedes, God is gracious enough to speak for us. Feeble sinners that we are, “we do not know how to pray as we ought” (Romans 8:26). What words can mortals use to speak truthfully with the God “no one has ever seen” (John 1:18)? What words can sinners with “hidden faults” (Psalm 19:12) use to speak truthfully to the God they regularly abandon? The truthful speech that we owe to the Creator we cannot muster. We no longer need to use our speech to manipulate ourselves into objects of God’s love or control our love for God. In and through the resurrected Christ, God’s humanity allows God to speak to God on our behalf even now, at this very moment. In Christ, the triune God is given to humanity so that we can now speak truthfully to God once again.


Fourth, it is not simply that God speaks for us in Christ now. God gives God’s self not only in the gift of the Son but also in the Spirit. As Jesus Christ speaks on our behalf outside of us, so the Spirit is now speaking on our behalf inside of us. Yes, “we do not know how to pray as we ought,” but the Spirit of Christ who dwells in the Christian community “intercedes for the saints” with “inexpressible groaning” (Romans 8:26-27). In other words, while we cannot muster our speech before God, the Spirit musters us so that we can indeed use words like “‘Abba, Father'” with the Spirit, with Christ. By the gift of the Spirit, we ourselves can now be caught up into the speech of Christ, into the speech of God. By the gift of the Spirit, we can now speak truthfully. If the Spirit whose mind is known by God (Romans 8:27) is even now speaking that mind to God in us, how could Christians speak anything other than what is on their minds? Wouldn’t anything else be, well, sinful?

But how do Christians speak truthfully? This gets to the real imagination block, a block that can only be overcome by God’s grace. Augustine noted that although other Christians would disagree with him about whether some lies are permissible, many would agree that in worship Christians must not lie. In other words, they are acknowledging that we should always be truthful to God. Augustine’s argument is to generalize this reality, because for him “when we lie we speak even against God.” One of the reasons Augustine wrote about lying was because, in order to catch heretics who would lie about their orthodoxy and commitment to the church, other Christians would lie about their beliefs in order to go undercover as heretics. He points immediately to the martyrs as those who simply would not lie about God before others. Interpreting Jesus’ prohibition of oaths, Dietrich Bonhoeffer claimed in “The Cost of Discipleship” (Touchstone, 1995) that, for the disciples of Jesus, “every word they utter is spoken in his presence.” Martyrs are the kind of Christians who know that all human speech is meant to be spoken not only to others. All human speech is meant to be spoken to God. Adam and Eve started speaking in the third person about God only when they began speaking to the tempter. To speak as disciples is to always be responsive to the God who even now speaks to us truthfully.

Christians speak truthfully with their bodies, their mouths, not just their minds or hearts. They speak as martyrs, or as witnesses. If Christians are witnesses before all of creation that, in Christ, the triune God speaks to us, for us and in us, then their words take on a divine weight. When the apostle Paul opens and ends his letter to the churches at and around Ephesus, he writes, “Grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ” and “Peace be to the whole community, and love with faith, from God the Father and the Lord Jesus Christ.” A simple phrase often overlooked: Paul is not offering his own blessing on the Ephesians, or offering his own wishes for their well-being. He’s not even reminding them that God gives them grace and peace. Paul is instead daring to write words that carry the blessing of the triune God to the church at Ephesus in being uttered. Paul is not blessing the Ephesian church so much as the triune God is blessing them through the speaking of these words. Thus, Christians, as Bonhoeffer wrote in “Life Together” (Harper, 1978), “receive each other’s benedictions as the benediction of the Lord Jesus Christ.” How would we speak to one another day in and day out if we considered our words to be potential benedictions from the triune God? We would speak truthfully.

Yet, finally, Christians can speak truthfully only through confession. Calvin concludes his interpretation of Rahab’s lie:

The particular fault does not wholly deprive the deed of the merit of holy zeal; for by the kindness of God the fault is suppressed and not taken into account. Rahab does wrong when she falsely declares that the messengers were gone, and yet the principal action was agreeable to God, because the bad mixed up with the good was not imputed. On the whole, it was the will of God that the spies should be delivered, but he did not approve of saving their life by falsehood.

Although Calvin does not mention this, he is clearly accounting for that line in the book of Hebrews: “By faith Rahab the prostitute did not perish with those who were disobedient, because she had received the spies in peace.” In other words, Christians don’t just respond to God’s graciousness by being truthful. God’s graciousness doesn’t just sponsor truthfulness; God’s graciousness also is a response to our untruthfulness. Christians are only truthful when they speak to the triune God and to the whole creation on behalf of the triune God and confess their own inability to speak truth. All speech happens in the presence of the God who is merciful in the face of Rahab’s lie and our lies. Thus, all of our speech must be consistent with the kinds of prayers of confession we say every week in church and every day personally. All of our speech is confessional; all of our speech acknowledges the sin and lies to which we are prone. To do anything less would be, well, a lie.

Keith Starkenburg is associate professor of theology at Trinity Christian College, Palos Heights, Ill.
Keith Starkenburg

Keith Starkenburg

Keith Starkenburg is Associate Professor of Theology at Western Theological Seminary and directs the Vita Scholars Program, a 5 yr BA/MDiv program of Hope College and Western Theological Seminary.