In past articles we have shown the Scriptures make it clear that it is not wrong to word statements and answers in such a way that an impression will be created that protects innocent individuals who might be harmed if we were to tell the whole truth in a given situation.
This is the kind of situation posed by the classic moral question of “Should a person give a full and true answer if asked if they know the whereabouts of innocent individuals being hunted by those who would clearly harm them” (as in World War II Nazi hunts for Jews in hiding)? Most Christians can see the need for withholding known facts in situations like this, and there are biblical precedents for such behavior.
The story of the midwives protecting the newborn male Israelites in Egypt (Exodus 1:15-21) and the woman Rehab protecting the Israelite spies (Joshua 2:4-6, 6:17, 25) are two such cases. But the clearest example of this is where God himself is said to have instructed the prophet Samuel to tell King Saul that he was going to Bethlehem to offer sacrifices and to omit the detail that he would anoint the young David as king while he was there (1 Samuel 16:1-5). Had Samuel told all the truth to Saul in this situation, Samuel’s life may well have been endangered, and at the very least he would probably have been blocked from doing what God had instructed him to do. A similar situation is found in Jeremiah 38:24-27 where the prophet Jeremiah, although asked, does not repeat all the details of a conversation that could endanger him.
But while it is relatively easy to see the morality of withholding information in such cases, what about situations where lives are not endangered, but telling everything we know may cause unhappiness if not actual harm? We must be particularly careful in situations such as these, but once again there may be biblical precedent to guide us.
Genesis 18 tells the story of how the patriarch Abraham was visited by three “men” – one of whom was clearly God himself in human form (Genesis 18:13-33). In this well-known story, the Lord announces to Abraham that despite his advanced age (Abraham was some 90 years old at this time), God would give him a son and heir. Hearing this, Abraham’s wife, Sarah, who was nearby “… laughed to herself, saying, ‘After I am worn out, and my lord is old, shall I have pleasure?’” (Genesis 18:12 ESV).
We are then told that the Lord asked Abraham “…Why did Sarah laugh and say, ‘Shall I indeed bear a child, now that I am old?’” (vs. 13). Interestingly, the Lord did not repeat Sarah’s exact words or her complete statement, only what was necessary for his purposes. He did not repeat Sarah’s specific comments on her own condition or Abraham’s, which would have been embarrassing and perhaps hurtful if repeated.
This would seem to be a clear example that it is sometimes not wrong to withhold the whole truth from someone – without saying anything untrue – when all of the truth might be hurtful or distressing. In exactly this way, as parents we might not give our young children all the facts of a medical report or what a doctor tells us regarding a child’s illness.
It is true that in withholding part of the truth we may sometimes be creating a situation in which people may get the wrong idea regarding given circumstances. So in these cases we must always be sure that we are withholding facts for the sake of others – not to protect ourselves or for our own advantage in some way.
We see this careful withholding of information in the Gospel accounts of the life of Jesus. John’s Gospel tells us that prior to a religious festival in Jerusalem Jesus told his family members: “You go to the festival. I am not going up to this festival, because my time has not yet fully come” (John 7:8). However, a few verses later we read that “… after his brothers had left for the festival, he went also, not publicly, but in secret” (John 7:10). The secrecy involved in Jesus’ actions indicate that he may well have gone separately in order to protect his family members from the danger he knew he might bring on them, but John makes it clear that in order to protect them in this way it was necessary for Jesus not to tell them all the truth regarding his plans at that point.
We do not have the perfect character and wisdom of the Son of God, of course, so scriptures such as these are not invitations to “juggle with the truth” using our own human understanding as we go through life. But what the biblical examples do show us is that sometimes it is not wrong to withhold specific information that might endanger, hurt, or embarrass others. The Bible shows that, of itself, is not lying.