Like Button

Thursday, August 03, 2017


I watched a TV show (better than a real life example that might cause the thought train to derail) in which a character -- let's call him "Tim" for the sake of discussion -- had information that he did not want to share with his wife-to-be about the place they would live. (Apparently a murder had taken place there over a decade ago.) Some of his coworkers berated him. "You're such a liar!" One said, "No, that's not a lie. He's just keeping it a secret."

Now, we all know what a lie is ... right? I'm not so sure, once we think it through. says it is "a false statement made with deliberate intent to deceive; an intentional untruth." Applying that definition to Tim, you couldn't say he lied. He made no "false statement". Omission of the truth is the opposite of making a statement. Of course, goes on to offer a second definition: "something intended or serving to convey a false impression." Okay, now we have the other side of the lie -- the intent to deceive. That is, there is the lie of commission -- speaking a falsehood -- and the lie of omission -- leaving out something in order to deceive.

So far, so good. I think we're all on the same page here. A person can lie -- attempt to deceive -- by either presenting something that is known to be false or failing to present a truth in order to give a false impression. Now, you can decide about our TV show character on your own. He didn't present false information, but he did omit information. Was it an intent to deceive? Or was it simply that he didn't think the information was important and she didn't need to know it? I think it gets a bit sticky at this point.

But wait! It gets stickier. If simply withholding information is classified as a lie, where does that end? You see, there isn't a man, woman, or child among us that does not hold back information. We all do it. We all expect it. Frankly, requiring "the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth" in its most literal form would make relationships impossible. Detailing every single thought, action, emotion, and event in one's life to one other person would become a never-ending process. So, we necessarily filter stuff. "This is significant; that is not." Sometimes things move from "significant" to "not" and vice versa. Sometimes things are remembered that were not before. We all withhold information about ourselves and what we know, think, and feel. Is that necessarily a lie?

But wait! It gets even stickier. I remember there was this big complaint back in the Bush era -- "Bush lied, people died!" The argument was that when President Bush sent troops into Iraq, he did so under false pretenses -- an attempt to find WMDs. They weren't there (actually, they were, but we'll just leave that alone), therefore, he lied. But sticking with that definition we've come up with, is that a lie? If someone presents false information that they actually believe to be true, can it be called an attempt to deceive? Is the "innocent" presentation of false information -- innocent in the sense that they didn't know it was false -- actually a lie or is it just an error, a mistake, erroneous information? This would make it possible to "attempt to deceive" without even knowing it. And given the human condition of a deceitful heart (Jer 17:9) and blinded people (2 Cor 4:4), it would make the lie the norm rather than the exception just by being mistaken in what you think you know. Is that a lie?

And, yes, it gets one step stickier. Are all lies -- even the "intent to deceive" kind -- sin? We know, for instance, that Rahab lied about the spies (Josh 2:1-5) and was commended by Scripture (Heb 11:31; James 2:25) for doing so. We know that God commanded Samuel to present a partial truth in order to deceive King Saul (1 Sam 16:1-3). And, of course, we have these stories of Christians protecting Jews in Nazi Germany by means of deceiving the authorities; most people consider that a good thing. So can it be said that all lying is evil?

If you haven't figured it out, this is one of my occasional question posts. I'm not making statements here as much as asking questions. What is a lie? Does omitting facts necessarily constitute lying? Does presenting false information that one believes to be true make it a lie? Is all lying sin? You tell me, because some of this seems a bit hazy.


Craig said...

I guess I would wonder if that makes changing the subject potentially a lie.

Marshal Art said...

"Does presenting false information that one believes to be true make it a lie?"

Yes, but I think the question should refer to the speaker and whether or not he's a liar if he believes the lie he's telling is actually truth. In that case, I'd say no until such time as all facts and evidences are presented to the contrary. After that, the speaker is a liar unless he provides counter facts and evidences that support his belief or mitigate the evidence presented to him.

Some won't accept the facts because they don't want to believe the truth. But if they can't dispute the facts to any degree of success, at some point they're just lying and primarily to themselves.

Stan said...

Yes, Craig, I suppose it would.

Yes, Marshal, the accusation of the lie is one thing and the reality of it is another. That is, to accurately accuse someone of lying, you have to first have an agreed upon definition of what a lie is. If someone says, "You're lying" by which they mean "You're presenting false information that you actually believe to be true", then they're operating on a different definition than I am. If they say, "You're lying because you're presenting information that agrees with my information", then it's vague, since to me "lie" requires "intent to deceive" and merely disagreeing with "your information" does not necessarily require "intent to deceive".

Marshal Art said...

Yes, but I was making a distinction between the person who relays false information he believes is true before and then after having received evidence and facts that disagrees with the belief. Before the presentation of facts, he's merely mistaken. After he's a liar if he insists on rejecting the facts because he prefers to believe the lie. I have someone in mind who fits this bill routinely. You may have heard of him.

Stan said...

Are you referring to someone who is presented with facts, agrees with the facts, and then chooses to continue to embrace the false information? It is possible for someone to be presented evidence contrary to their current beliefs and reject the evidence. A quick example is the global warming naysayers. Give them the evidence and they reject it -- "Those aren't accurate, don't adequately address the situation, aren't reliable." A person who says, "Well, yes, I can see that your evidence is valid. I'm going to stick with my position anyway" would likely be considered a liar.