But the fact that we should not lie does not mean that we always need to tell the truth we know – as in telling all the truth. Many new Christians, and even those who have been in the Way for many years, have not thought this through. Some, in their desire to do what is right, unnecessarily harm themselves and others by a lack of understanding in this area when saying more than necessary can have unfortunate or even serious consequences. The old World War II conundrum of Nazis at the door looking for people sheltering Jewish families comes immediately to mind, but there are many lesser instances of this kind of situation.
The point is, we clearly cannot always vocalize the truth, or all of it, without hurting or even endangering others. I think many of us confuse biblical responsibility in this area with courtroom protocol. The legal injunction to tell “the truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth” is firmly fixed in most people’s minds regarding the subject of telling the truth and that colors our thinking in other areas. Naturally, in any legal situation, if we give our word that we will tell the whole truth that is what we should do, but life is not a courtroom; the necessity of voicing everything we know is not usually an issue.
But there are times when it is simply better to refrain from speaking the truth if the truth does not need to be spoken or might have consequences in which someone is harmed. This principle is clearly supported by at least one example in the Bible.
In 1 Samuel we read that after Israel’s first king, Saul, sinned and disqualified himself from kingship, God told his servant Samuel to go to Bethlehem to anoint David, one of the sons of Jesse, as the new king. Samuel was naturally worried about the repercussions of doing this: “But Samuel said, 'How can I go? If Saul hears about it, he will kill me'” (1 Samuel 16:2).
Now notice God’s reply to Samuel in the same verse – his instruction on how to handle this situation: “The LORD said, 'Take a heifer with you and say, “I have come to sacrifice to the LORD.” Invite Jesse to the sacrifice, and I will show you what to do. You are to anoint for me the one I indicate.’” Here it is God Himself telling Samuel that rather than speaking the whole truth about why he was going to Bethlehem, Samuel should simply speak something equally true, but not the part of the truth that might get him killed.
There is a clear lesson in this story that we should always speak the truth when we do speak, but when people may be hurt or endangered by what we say, the truth, or all of it, does not always need to be spoken. It is also a clear example of what Christ meant in saying that we should be “wise as serpents and harmless as doves” (Matthew 10:16).