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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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?"
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.
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.
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.
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,
- Never speaking falsehood will necessarily be impossible at some level
- The Bible explicitly states that the spirit of the law trumps the letter
- Jesus himself, who is sinless, violated the letter of the law in some cases
- The Bible affords specific examples of people who knew they were lying and in their case it was not sin, but actually righteous.
- 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.
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.
This is what Jesus had to say on the matter:
John 8:44 "You are of your father the devil, and your will is to do your father's desires. He was a murderer from the beginning, and does not stand in the truth, because there is no truth in him. When he lies, he speaks out of his own character, for he is a liar and the father of lies."
We cannot say that we are acting in accordance to God's will when we act in accordance to the nature of the devil, the "father of lies". As others have already pointed out, there is no such thing in the Bible as a "white lie", and Jesus commands our "yes" to be "yes" and "no" to be "no". Since a "white" lie is still a lie, and the Bible condemns lying, and specifically, liars:
Revelation 21:8 "But the cowardly, unbelieving, abominable, murderers, sexually immoral, sorcerers, idolaters, and all liars shall have their part in the lake which burns with fire and brimstone, which is the second death.”
we cannot say that it is OK to lie.
Also, in case it was not immediately evident, no Christian has a "part in the lake which burns with fire and brimstone", no Christian will experience the second death,
John 11:25 Jesus said to her, “I am the resurrection and the life. He who believes in Me, though he may die, he shall live. 26 And whoever lives and believes in Me shall never die. Do you believe this?”
so therefore a Christian cannot also be a liar. A person who goes around telling lies, or even approving of the practice is by the above not a Christian. Diminishing the gravity of the sin of lying by saying there is such a thing as "white lies" is finding an excuse for sin, and certainly not a practice condoned by God either.
The examples above of certain lies not having been condemned are misleading. Many actions in the Bible do not receive an immediate notice of condemnation, because it is not necessary for the Bible to say "Rahab/Abraham/etc lied, and that is a bad thing, even though it was for a good reason and the result was good". The Bible is clear in other places in saying that lying is not good, and we should not argue otherwise from silence.
Hope that helps.
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.