Pinocchio - When is it Right to Lie?


Being truthful is more about motivation than actions

I love films with moral dilemmas because they deal with issues we all deal with every day. For example, when is is right to lie? Most of us would give the knee-jerk answer, "Never;" but the circumstances of life don't bear that out.

In the film National Velvet, Mrs. Brown, Velvet's mother, asks the question, "Which is better, Mr. Brown: to do what is right for the wrong reasons, or what is wrong for the right reasons?" Biblically, the second is better, because, in God's eyes, inner motivation is more important than outward actions. The Pharisees in Jesus' day were constantly doing the right thing for the wrong reasons, and were constantly being reproved by Him for their hypocrisy. But who are some examples of people who did what was wrong for the right reasons, and it was the right thing to do?

I watched a Hallmark film recently called Season of Miracles, in which a woman lies about who she is, and who her niece and nephew are, in order to keep them out of a foster home when their mother is sent to prison. In the film, Dear Frankie, Lizzie lies to her deaf son about who his father is because his real father abused him and actually caused him to become deaf. In The Diary Of Ann Frank, Ann's neighbors lie to the Germans in order to keep the Frank family from being sent to a concentration camp. In the Bible, Abraham lied (at least by omission) about who Sarah was - twice; Jochebed, Moses' mother, must have lied to protect him from the Egyptians during the months she had him in hiding; and Rahab the harlot must have lied about the Israelite spies she was hiding in her home.

I've never heard a pastor defend Abraham's lying, but I'm sure that most of us, if faced with the same circumstance, would have done the same thing. These kings were in the habit of killing the husband of any pretty women so they could have her for themselves, and Abraham knew that. The interesting thing is that in almost every instance where someone lies "for a good reason" - especially to protect someone else - things work out. At first they get in trouble when their lie is discovered; but then, when the reason they lied is revealed, they are usually forgiven and end up in a better place than they were when they lied.

I don't think anyone would blame a starving man for stealing food. In Les Miserable, Jean Valjean is sent to prison for stealing bread, but he escapes; and, for the rest of his life, he is hunted down by police inspector Javert, who, when he finds him, persecutes him unmercifully - over a loaf of bread! Valjean spends his life helping people in response to the mercy shown him by Biship Myriel. But Javert spends his life obsessing over Valjean in an effort to extract what he believes is justice - but is really revenge. Both men are doing what they believe is right, but they differ in their motivations.

I think God's grace covers for us when we sin out of the right motivation. I'm not talking about lying on our income tax or lying about an affair to our wife - I'm talking about lying to evil people who are trying to hurt us or someone we love. Evil people and evil circumstances make life complicated, so that, often, it is hard to see clearly the right thing to do. Emotions sometimes blind our eyes, as does fear. Life's decisions are not always black and white.

Ideally, we all struggle to do what's right, and God promises that His grace is sufficient for us. But sometimes that grace takes a roundabout way to get to the answer, because there is a journey He wants to take us on that will build our character. Often, He allows us to make a mistake in order to learn a valuable lesson or to get to His answer. That is a good thing.

I think films and books that deal with moral dilemmas are far more interesting than good-guy-bad-guy scenarios because they more realistically reflect life and the issues we all face. They reflect character, which the black-and-white scenarios rarely do. As Christian filmmakers and writers, I hope we will learn to focus more on these types of stories and leave the superhero variety, which Hollywood seems obsessed with, to Saturday morning cartoons where they belong. There's only one real Superhero, and even though He's inside us, we are pretty much just sinners trying to do the next right thing - with His help.


Text © 2007 Waitsel Smith. Photo © Disney. All Rights Reserved.

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