Sunday, March 18, 2012

Lying: When is it permissable if at all?



I put out the call for blog entry ideas late last week, and a friend of mine posed this question to me: "Is it okay to lie if it spares someone's feelings, or if there is a positive outcome from lying?"

Let's take a look at what the Church teaches on lying, namely in breaking the eighth commandment:

"The eighth commandment forbids misrepresenting the truth in our relations with others. This moral prescription flows from the vocation of the holy people to bear witness to their God who is the truth and wills the truth. Offenses against the truth express by word or deed a refusal to commit oneself to moral uprightness: they are fundamental infidelities to God and, in this sense, they undermine the foundations of the covenant." - par. 2464, Catechism of the Catholic Church

(Blogger's note: more on the Church's teaching on the Eighth Commandment may be found here)

So there it is clear as day: the eighth commandment "forbids misrepresenting the truth in our relations with others". But let's apply that to one or two hypothetical situations (ranging from low moral threat to high moral threat, but in no particular order) to emphasise the extent to which this applies.

"Does my bum look big in this?"  
Your wife - yes, husbands, this one's for you - has bought a new pair of jeans and she's looking in the mirror with a puzzled look. She turns to you and asks, "Does my bum look big in this?" Now most people would recommend the "abort, abort, danger, Will Robinson!" approach with this scenario and as a husband myself I've often wondered what good could ever come out of lying to your spouse even with queries like these. If the bum does look big in said jeans, then the answer should be 'yes'. If the bum does not look big in said jeans then, of course, the answer should be 'no'. It's all a matter of perspective too; what may be "big" to an individual may be "not big" to another. Answering 'yes' to this question is not the same as saying, "You're fat" or "you need to lose some weight" (there's a way of saying even that in a manner that is not hurtful and in a way that empowers the other).

How would I answer that question? If 'yes', then "Yes, honey, your bum does look big in that, but you know that how you look doesn't reflect who you are or how much God loves you. You are beautiful no matter what you wear; you look stunning, regardless." If 'no', then "No". If 'maybe', then "I don't know, babe, maybe try something else on so I can get a better idea". 

(Blogger's note: husbands, exerise tact; you've been warned!)

"What you're doing is hurting you/your friends are't good for you..."
I had a friend during my high school years who, for a time, I could say was my "best friend". Over time, however, he did get lost to another "crowd" that was experimenting with illegal drugs (e.g. marijuana). I was concerned to say the least; I was trying to be a good friend. In hindsight maybe I was much more mature than my friend and his new friends were and that it wasn't cool to care for a friend that much, but basically what happened is that I told him his new friends were bad news and that they'd only get him into trouble. The response I got was an accusation of me trying to hold him back and that perhaps I was jealous of his new-found friendships. Needless to say the drugs got the better of him and since then he has hit harder drugs.

I spoke in truth and lost a friend, and to this I wonder how things might have been if I had approached the situation slightly differently. How do you tell a friend or a loved one that what they're doing is hurting them or that they're friends aren't good for them? Here's the key: It may be morally negligent to say nothing or to pretend that you're happy with your friend or loved one getting involved in something which to them may seem harmless or get involved with someone or a group of people that in the long-term will only hurt them. We must speak in truth but we also must speak out of love:

"Rather, speaking the truth in love, we are to grow up in every way into him who is the head, into Christ" - Ephesians 4:15

To allow a friend or a loved to continue in sin is a sin itself. We, at the very least, must point out the error out of love. The rest is up to the individual; they must respond to the beckons of grace to do good and to avoid evil. In the mean time we must pray for them.

"My husband is abusing me, but I'm afraid to tell anyone about it."
If you are in an abusive relationship, then you need to tell someone about to help put an end to the abuse. I know women that have been abused by their husband or significant other, and it made me sick the amount of times I heard these women say, "... but I love him and I know he'll change." It's one thing to hope for change, that's noble, but if he's hitting you, then he's got a warped way of showing that "love". Don't stand for it; you are a daughter of God and you should be treated like one.

(Blogger's note: if you are in a violent/abusive relationship, then please seek help: Australia ; North America)

Like failing to help a friend recognise their sin, it may be morally negligent for the victim of the abuse to either lie about or fail to alert anyone with regards to how they are being treated. This falls under the "spare someone's feelings" banner. Obviously the victim, who loves their violent partner, might feel apprehensive or worried about making this information public (to an extent) because of the associated embarrassment or shame that may come after these revelations, but this is short term pain for long term happiness. Nothing is made to be hidden, and that which is hidden must come out into the light. Only after the problem has been pointed out can it ever be rectified. Do not fear; place your trust in the Lord (Psalms 27:1).

"They gave me too much change... should I tell them?"
This is a double-whammy scenario, and you may have been in this situation before. You're shopping, you get to the checkout and pay for your items only to realise after leaving that the clerk has given you too much change. This has happened to me a number of times and the amount of extra change given has ranged from 10 or twenty cents to a couple of dollars. What I used to think is that these were small blessings in disguise and that in some way it was God's will that this money come to/stay with me, but the more I thought about it the more I realised the moral ramifications of this seemingly innocent mistake.

Here's the problem: by walking away with money - as little as that amount may be - you're stealing, and that's a sin concerning grave matter. By failing to return the money and making mention of the mistake, as well as stealing, you're misrepresenting the truth and the constitutes as a lie. This also concerns grave matter and to do nothing about this mistake would be morally negligent.

Do the right thing; you'll feel better for it and you'll be thanks for your honest. The next time you're given too much change, return the [correct] amount with pleasantry and a smile.

Lying to save someone's life
Now this may be the scenario where it would be morally justifiable to lie. I imagine this scenario taking place during the Holocaust during World War II when many Jews were being harboured by non-Jews (a lot of them were Catholic, incidentally) to protect them. To lie to save the life of an innocent would not be morally negligent and would be an acceptable time to misrepresent the truth.

What needs to be considered in telling a lie, even though telling a lie would concern grave matter, is if the means justifies the ends, i.e. which is the lesser of the two evils? Lying or telling the truth which would ultimately lead to an innocent person's demise?

For each and every scenario the individual is required to call on the truth they must seek the echo of God's voice in their conscience. Ask yourself:

What is the ends I am trying to achieve and does the means (lying) justify it?

"Lying lips are an abomination to the LORD, but those who act faithfully are his delight. A prudent man conceals his knowledge, but fools proclaim their folly." - Proverbs 12:22-23

Amen.

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