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Orthodox views on it state that any sort of lie is a sin by itself. More liberal Christians will say that it doesn't really mean that much provided it doesn't hurt anybody. But more importantly than personal opinions; what does the Bible have to say about white lies?

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The only time I've ever heard any Christian defend lying was in the context of protecting the innocent. The typical example is the "I have Jews in my attic when the Nazis knock on the door" scenario. But Pharaoh’s daughter lying about the identity of Moses to protect him is a Biblical example where God apparently approved of lying. And in neither of these cases would I call such a lie a "white lie." –  Flimzy Feb 13 '12 at 3:11
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Aquinas gives some defense of lying, as does Chrysostom, especially where a lie would be more charitable than the truth. –  cwallenpoole Feb 13 '12 at 3:48
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Just for clarification, responding no to "Does this dress make me look fat" is usually technically true. Cuz it's not the dress, it's the fat that makes you look fat :) (Coming from a fatman) –  2tim424 Jun 5 '13 at 16:31
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8 Answers

In the sermon of the mount, Jesus teaches about the sixth through tenth commandments, deepening their meaning. For example, "Don't kill" he expands to "Don't have unresolved anger or conflict". "Don't commit adultery" becomes "Don't lust".

For "Don't bear false witness", Jesus says (not quoting one of the ten commandments directly, but a related passage about making vows):

Again, you have heard that the ancients were told, "You shall not make false vows, but shall fulfill your vows to the Lord." But I say to you, make no oath at all, either by heaven, for it is the throne of God, or by the earth, for it is the footstool of His feet, or by Jerusalem, for it is the city of the great King. Nor shall you make an oath by your head, for you cannot make one hair white or black. But let your statement be, "Yes, yes" or "No, no"; anything beyond these is of evil.

Matthew 5:33-37 (NASB)

The idea is that you should always follow through with what you say. In other words, be trustworthy. The same applies to the commandment: people should be able to trust you, whether that is in a courtroom, or in daily life.

White lies are not compatible with being trustworthy, because it tells others that you will lie for the sake of convenience.

Whether white lies are ok in the context of helping another, I don't know. That leads to: "can the ends justify the means?"

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Thank you for pointing out the obvious link to "do the ends justify the means"! That was in my head, but it's so ingrained into my worldview that I never thought to verbalize it. –  David Stratton Feb 13 '12 at 13:17
    
I think that you need to distinguish between deceptive white lies and non-deceptive ones. Sometimes people dress up the truth but both parties still understand the real meaning. Adversarial contexts, such as war, also need to be considered. –  Bryan Rosander Feb 13 '12 at 15:29
    
@BryanRosander, you're right on the first point. I wouldn't consider non-deceptive white lies (such as sarcasm, theater, or humor) actual lies. Regarding war, you'd have to first wrestle with the "Do not kill" commandment before you got anywhere near to "Do not lie". –  Matt White Feb 13 '12 at 16:36
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Regarding the situations where it is not always unambiguous: I think God equipped us with something quite useful for this purpose: conscience. –  vsz Feb 14 '12 at 7:14
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Regarding marriage (and I am married), though in the short term a polite white lie might make your wife feel better, I think cultivating a culture of honesty and authenticity in the relationship will be better in the long term. It will be more real. And taking the time and energy to come up with real compliments instead of easy white lies will be worth it (disclaimer: I'm not good at this!). I think we need to look at these moral conundrums in a long-term view; often they could have been avoided by a lifetime of following the corresponding virtue (i.e. honesty). –  Matt White Feb 15 '12 at 7:11
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The answer is... "sort of". It seems the admonition against lying would be better explained as "Do not bear destructively false witness". While some might point to the ten commandments and leave that as their answer, saying that the rule is, "don't lie... ever" is easily refuted:

  • In the beginning of Exodus, the midwives are told to kill the Jewish boys but "they feared God and let them live." While you can try to say that they were telling the truth when they said, "the Hebrew women are not like the Egyptian women; for they are vigorous and are delivered before the midwife comes to them," you are doing some real verbal gymnastics to try to make it work (and, inevitably, it doesn't).
  • In Joshua, Rahab lies to the servants of the King of Jerico about the location of the two Jewish spies (Josh. 2:4), but this is counted as a good thing because it saves their lives.
  • In 1 Sam. 21, David deceived those he was with by pretending to be mad. While this is not outright, "lying" you are hard pressed to demonstrate the distinction.

Would Christ condemn these? Doubtful. Especially since Exodus says,

So God dealt well with the midwives; (Exo. 1:20, RSV)

The question then becomes, "What is actually prohibited?" and the Bible becomes very ambiguous. Yes, the weighted scale (Prov. 20:23) and the lying tongue (Prov. 6:17) are prohibited, but considering what is said above, we cannot say that God is condemning all deception. Rather, we must say that only the deceptions which arise out of desire for profit or are destructive should be considered forbidden. Now, this could include white lies which are told for flattery, but not necessarily.

In this matter, I have always (well, since I became Catholic) deferred to Chrysostom's Treatise on the Priesthood.

A man was once suddenly attacked by a fever of great severity; the burning heat increased, and the patient rejected the remedies which could have reduced it and craved for a draught of pure wine, passionately entreating all who approached to give it him and enable him to satiate this deadly craving— I say deadly, for if any one had gratified this request he would not only have exasperated the fever, but also have driven the unhappy man frantic. Thereupon, professional skill being baffled, and at the end of its resources and utterly thrown away, stratagem stepped in and displayed its power in the way which I will now relate. For the physician took an earthen cup brought straight out of the furnace, and having steeped it in wine, then drew it out empty, filled it with water, and, having ordered the chamber where the sick man lay to be darkened with curtains that the light might not reveal the trick, he gave it him to drink, pretending that it was filled with undiluted wine. And the man, before he had taken it in his hands, being deceived by the smell, did not wait to examine what was given him, but convinced by the odor, and deceived by the darkness, eagerly gulped down the draught, and being satiated with it immediately shook off the feeling of suffocation and escaped the imminent peril. Do you see the advantage of deceit?

No, it is not the Bible. But where there is ambiguity in the Biblical text, that is where the Church's guidance is the most important.


As a side note:

It should also be remembered that "false witness" does not necessarily mean lying. Half-truths and gossip can be particularly destructive. Imagine someone saying of St. Paul, as he entered a new town, "This man has persecuted us. He has done much to damage the Church and should not be trusted." Technically, whoever said that would be right. Paul even gave tacit endorsement of murder. BUT, he had reformed. The first two parts of the statement were 100% true, and the third part was completely subjective. Yet, that "truth" would be destructive and demonstrate a complete lack of charity.

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Not one of those passages indicates that God was pleased with the lie. God was pleased with the midwives because they refused to murder innocents, not because they lied to cover it up. Like David Abraham lied to save his own skin and said that Sarah was his sister. It was cowardly, it showed a lack of faith in God's ability to protect him, and the result was a threat of a curse from God upon Abimelech. Just because the heroes of the faith lied and got away with it does not mean God condones it. –  David Stratton Feb 13 '12 at 2:53
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@DavidStratton: There's also no evidence in those verses that I see that God condemned their behavior. And given that the commandment is not to bear false witness, and not to "tell the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth," I think there's still a burden of proof on anyone who says lying is always wrong. –  Flimzy Feb 13 '12 at 3:19
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@DavidStratton That is a hard sell. The passage about the midwives is particularly difficult for the, "you must never lie" crowd. Where else in the Bible can you find someone who is so completely rewarded for doing something which was so clearly against divine law? –  cwallenpoole Feb 13 '12 at 3:47
    
That's fine, but the question still asks "what does the Bible have to say?", not "What can we imply?" perhaps a better, Mora accurate than this OR my answer would be "It doesn't specifically answer white lies." I just get so sick of seeing that answer here because we're so afraid of offending anyone. –  David Stratton Feb 13 '12 at 12:53
    
@DavidStratton That's why the first sentence says that the answer is "sort of". It says a class of action which is wrong, and then it gives several counter-examples which clarify that it is not absolutely, "no lying." –  cwallenpoole Feb 13 '12 at 14:10
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Proverbs 6:16-19 These six things doth the LORD hate: yea, seven are an abomination unto him: A proud look, a lying tongue, and hands that shed innocent blood, An heart that deviseth wicked imaginations, feet that be swift in running to mischief, A false witness that speaketh lies, and he that soweth discord among brethren.

There's no Biblical distinction between little or big lies. Nowhere in Scripture does it distinguish between types of lies. That's a human construct based on the idea that the ends justify the means. A white lie is a lie.

There's an article here that goes into depth, but in short, a lie is a lie is a lie.

However, I will agree that there is often a need to choose between the lesser of two evils. I have difficulty with this because of James 2:10 (KJV)

For whosoever shall keep the whole law, and yet offend in one point, he is guilty of all.

However, we don't live in a perfect world, and I understand that sometimes we need to choose between two evils out of necessity. We may need to lie to save a life, as some of the other answers point out.

I would argue, however, that those examples are not within the scope of the question. The question asks about "white lies" which are understood as small lies that have no consequence and are often used to spare someone's feelings or avoid unnecessary conflict.

  • Answers to "Does this dress make me look fat?" or if I were to ask "Am I really that ugly?" would qualify as situations where a white lie would be the usual answer.

  • Telling a Nazi soldier that there are no Jews hidden in your attic is not a white lie, but a deliberate choice between the lesser of two evils.

    • If I were in this situation, I'd lie, too, and my prayer after the fact (and even before) would be something like "Forgive me, father for the lie. I know it's against your word to lie, but it's also in your word to love, and to protect life. I'm doing my best to choose between the lesser of the evils. Please forgive me for the lie."
  • Lying to save your own skin never qualifies as a "white lie" either.

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I gave some of the other answers and comments s a lot of thought over the last few days and modified this. –  David Stratton Feb 15 '12 at 13:23
    
If you look at the case of bad situations the Bible definitely allows us to tell Nazis that there are no Jews in the house. 2 Samuel 15:34 The wise Hushai told a lie to protect a state secret and was never condemned. That said if your heart convicts you it is sin. I go so far to say it would be a sin not to lie to nazis but thats my heart. James 4:17 –  caseyr547 Jun 5 '13 at 8:36
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The Bible speaks to lies in the 9th Commandment:

You shall not bear false witness against your neighbor.

If a lie is a "false witness" (which it certainly is), then it is forbidden.

Jesus called Himself "the Truth", and as CHRISTIANS, we are to be emulating Christ in everything we do.

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What is your justification that lying is certainly bearing false witness? My understanding is that the phrasing to "bear false witness" is legal terminology in the original language (it sure sounds that way in English, too), which seems to make the context both broader and narrower than strictly "lying." That is to say, it is possible to bear false witness without telling a "lie"--and the more relevant point, I think it is also possible to lie without "bearing false witness." –  Flimzy Feb 13 '12 at 3:26
    
@Flimzy - how is a lie not bearing a false witness? It is a falsehood. –  warren Feb 13 '12 at 18:39
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False witness is a specific legal term. See more about it here, but in short, that commandment says nothing about lying to protect yourself, or pathological lying, or lying to keep a birthday party a surprise, etc. It is specifically talking about lying in court, to convict someone unjustly, or to let someone off unjustly. (Please note I'm not advocating self-preserving lying or pathological lying; a strong case can still be made against those from a Biblical standpoint; just not based on that partverse.) –  Flimzy Feb 13 '12 at 19:03
    
This answer equates lying with bearing false witness, but that can't be true if Rehab is commended as righteous in lying to protect the spies. –  Ben Mordecai Mar 6 '13 at 3:50
    
@BenMordecai - God can use anyone, whether fully trusting Him or not, to accomplish His purpose. There was no way when she told the government officials who came to ask her about the spies that her 'testimony' was not a 'false witness'. Additionally, to fully qute her entry in "The Hall of Faith": "By faith Rahab the prostitute did not perish with those who were disobedient, because she had given a friendly welcome to the spies." She is not commended for lying - she is commended for welcoming them to Jericho peacefully. –  warren Mar 6 '13 at 14:00
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Ananias and Sapphira were killed for telling a "white lie." They sold a piece of land and told everyone that they were giving all the money to the church. However, they actually kept back some. Peter says they were punished not for keeping their money, but for for lying about it.

Acts 5:1-11 But a man named Ananias, with his wife Sapphira, sold a piece of property, and with his wife's knowledge he kept back for himself some of the proceeds and brought only a part of it and laid it at the apostles' feet. But Peter said, "Ananias, why has Satan filled your heart to lie to the Holy Spirit and to keep back for yourself part of the proceeds of the land? While it remained unsold, did it not remain your own? And after it was sold, was it not at your disposal? Why is it that you have contrived this deed in your heart? You have not lied to man but to God." When Ananias heard these words, he fell down and breathed his last. And great fear came upon all who heard of it. The young men rose and wrapped him up and carried him out and buried him. After an interval of about three hours his wife came in, not knowing what had happened. And Peter said to her, "Tell me whether you sold the land for so much." And she said, "Yes, for so much." But Peter said to her, "How is it that you have agreed together to test the Spirit of the Lord? Behold, the feet of those who have buried your husband are at the door, and they will carry you out." Immediately she fell down at his feet and breathed her last. When the young men came in they found her dead, and they carried her out and buried her beside her husband. And great fear came upon the whole church and upon all who heard of these things.

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Lying is characteristically condemned in general, but in a few rare specific cases it's actually the right thing to do. A notable example is when Rehab directly lied to her people for the protection of the Jewish spies.

The morality of her lie was never even questioned. The Bible commends her as trusting God.

This fits very well with Jesus' explanation that the law and the prophets are fulfilled in the command to love the Lord with all your heart and your neighbor as yourself.

It is exceedingly rare that telling a lie is loving to your neighbor and proceeds from a heart that isn't being self-serving, but it can happen and at that point it is appropriate to lie.

This is a perfect example of the distinction between the letter of the law and the spirit of the law.

In Islam, for example, charging interest is completely prohibited. The spirit of that law is to prevent usury, which abuses the poor who might take a loan in desperation only to find themselves enslaved by it to a merciless lender. Yet because of the nature of law in Islam, regardless of the spirit of the law, there is no interest allowed, period. It neglects the fact that loans can be a mutually beneficial and necessary arrangement to fund business transactions or allow a person to buy a house with enough time to actually live in it. Muslims had to invent an entire banking system that relies on shareholding rather than interest in order to be compliant with the laws of Islam.

Christianity is completely different. Jesus regularly violated the letter of the law regarding the Sabbath, but never once violated the spirit of it. Jesus regularly made himself unclean by kosher and temple standards through his interaction with people with skin diseases, adulterers, and so on, but never violated the spirit of cleanliness. His "uncleanliness" was to make many clean!

By extension, this means that there will be places where lying must or should occur, and even places where lying is simply inconsequential. For example, actors must "lie" by profession as a part of getting into character who will say things they don't mean or believe, yet acting is a morally neutral event. You can take pedantic views of lying out to the nth degree. What about getting an answer wrong on a test and incidentally saying something false? What about saying something that is true at one level of precision but false at another, like "I live 5 miles away" when you really live 4.9685744834 miles away? Let's get more ridiculous! That distance is constantly changing on a quantum level. It's actually a logical impossibility to create an air-tight falsehood-free statement in every scenario. By this point I hope I've reduced that idea to absurdity.

So to bring it all back together,

  1. Never speaking falsehood will necessarily be impossible at some level
  2. The Bible explicitly states that the spirit of the law trumps the letter
  3. Jesus himself, who is sinless, violated the letter of the law in some cases
  4. The Bible affords specific examples of people who knew they were lying and in their case it was not sin, but actually righteous.
  5. The laws of God must be interpreted in light Jesus' teaching that the law is summarized in loving God and neighbor.

Thus the conclusion is: Lying is permitted when it actually serves to love God and neighbor, which is very rare. Additionally, if the falsehood was spoken in good faith without intention to deceive it's probably not sin either.

Ultimately, this is detailed for the sake of answering the question, but on a practical basis, the average believer probably would be best served by seeking the grace rid themselves of uncontroversially sinful dishonesty, and confessing and receiving forgiveness for those instances when they do sin.

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Actually, there is nothing like white lies. 'lie' is 'lie'. Or do you want to say that white lies are small lies. The bible says ' do not lie'; it didn't say 'do not lie big lies/small lies'. No matter how big or small it is, it is still a lie. The hell those who lie a big lie will go that is the same hell those who lie a small lie will go. If you want to say about actors who lie in a movie, watch out, they do not end well in the movie and their secrets exposed.

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Welcome to the site! I agree with this answer, but it would be better if you could expand it a bit, and provide supporting doctrinal or Biblical statements. See What makes a good supported answer?. –  David Stratton Jun 5 '13 at 11:35
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As a person working in a social services field I must say that most people lie to themselves. They live in denial or a false perception of themselves or others. So what is a lie? I think we need to be real careful. It is often said lying to protect Jews from Nazi's was acceptable yet we frown upon a parent lying on a resume to keep her kids fed and the rent paid. We all know good lies from bad lies. Bad lies are a betrayal they are personal. Good lies protect others. I believe the Hebrew meaning of lie is betrayal, to fail, to deceive. Our hearts will tell us if we are doing right or wrong. God's love for us is bigger than any lie you could ever tell,even the lies you tell yourself.

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