On 11 September 2001, Tania Head was working for Merrill Lynch in the south tower of the World Trade Centre. After the second Boeing 767 ploughed into her floor, a dying colleague pleaded desperately with her to return his wedding ring to his wife. She agreed, but passed out as she was making her way down the fire escape stairs.
Welles Crowther found her passed out in the stairs and carried her to the ground floor, eventually giving his life in his heroic efforts to save at least a dozen others. Miraculously, Ms. Head suffered only minor burns to her arm. Her fiancé, Dave, was not as fortunate, dying in the collapse of the north tower.
The story had it all: tragedy, action, romance, a hero, villains. In the comic book world, she might have received superpowers and gone on to become Survivorgirl. In the real world, she was hailed as a heroine and eventually installed as president of the World Trade Center Survivor’s Network.
In 2007, the New York Times reached out to Ms. Head for a 9/11 anniversary interview. When she repeatedly cancelled interview appointments, suspicions were raised. Times staff began investigating, and the story slowly unravelled. As it turns out, Ms. Head was not only not in the south tower that day, but she was not even in the country! She was a university student in Spain, whose first visit to the United States was in 2003.
The world responded with anger and disbelief. According to Proverbs 6:16–19, God responded with hatred. The second sin listed among the seven that God hates is “a lying tongue.” The God of truth hates lies.
What exactly is “a lying tongue”? Simply defined, a lie is a statement (or act) that is made (or carried out) with the deliberate goal of deceiving or misleading. Lying involves intent; it involves “conceiving and uttering from the heart” (Isaiah 59:13). Misspeaking out of ignorance or forgetfulness is not the same as deliberately misleading. Lying intends not only to deceive, but to hurt others by deception. I am aware that that definition itself has many tentacles, but we cannot allow this article to die the death of a thousand qualifications.
Biblically speaking, lying can take on a variety of forms. Most obviously, we can speak of outright deception—bold-faced lies. Ephesians 4:25 commands us to put away lying, and 1 Timothy 1:10 lists lying among sins that are contrary to sound teaching. Leviticus 19:11 plainly states, “You shall not lie to one another.”
Another form of lying is making false promises. When you make promises you do not intend to keep, or know you cannot keep, you are lying. We instinctively know that Laban was wrong to mislead Jacob concerning his desire to marry Rachel (Genesis 29). Pharaoh, who repeatedly promised to let Israel go if Moses would remove the plagues, but always failed to deliver, is hardly upheld as a biblical paragon of virtue. On the contrary, when God speaks, he keeps his word (Numbers 23:19).
Lying sometimes takes the form of flattery. As has often been said, gossip is saying something behind someone’s back you would never say to their face, while flattery is saying something to someone’s face you would never say behind their back. Psalm 62:4 defines as “falsehood” the attitude of those who “bless with their mouths, but inwardly they curse.” Psalm 78:36 and Proverbs 26:28 likewise parallel lying with flattery.
Half-truths are similarly equated in Scripture with lying. Joseph’s brothers were technically telling the truth when they told their father that they found a blood-stained coat that looked like his (Genesis 37). They simply failed to mention that they had beaten him up, sold him into slavery, and dipped his coat in blood themselves. Aaron was technically correct that the golden calf had come from the fire (Exodus 32). He simply neglected to add that he had actually fashioned it himself. In neither instance was the full truth told, and neither situation is considered by Scripture to be excusable. In fact, Exodus 32 specifically ends with mention of “the calf, the one that Aaron made” (v. 35). We are, of course, not always required to divulge everything we know, but we should not pretend that we have told everything when we know we are keeping back part of the truth.
What motivates a lying tongue? John Piper has suggested that all lying ultimately springs from one of two fountains: fear or greed.
Sometimes we lie because we fear that something bad will happen to us if we tell the truth. We fear that people will think less of us, or that there will be other very real consequences to our sin. Joseph’s brothers lied because they did not want their father to know what they had done.
At other times, we lie because we greedily feel it will bring us gain. Gehazi, Elisha’s servant, lied about accepting a gift from Naaman because he coveted the gain the gift would bring him (2 Kings 5). Achan stole what was forbidden and lied about it in order to ultimately gain what he desired (Joshua 7). We are at times tempted to lie because we think it will work to our gain. Greed goes hand in glove with pride: We lie because we greedily and pridefully want others to think better of us.
We should note that lying is habit-forming. Jeremiah lamented that no one in Jerusalem could trust anyone else, because they had all “taught their tongue to speak lies (Jeremiah 9:4–5). If we resort habitually to lies, we soon virtually lose the ability to speak the truth.
In the context of Proverbs 6:16–19, God hates things that have direct negative consequences on others. Lying never helps anyone. It always hurts.
Lying hurts the person being lied to. “Like a madman who throws firebrands, arrows, and death is the man who deceives his neighbour and says, ‘I am only joking!’” (Proverbs 26:18–19). Telling lies is like starting random forest fires: It is always ultimately hurtful to others.
Lying hurts those being lied about. “A man who bears false witness against his neighbour is like a war club, or a sword, or a sharp arrow” (Proverbs 25:18). “A lying tongue hates its victims, and a flattering mouth works ruin” (Proverbs 26:28). We will have opportunity to explore this further in a later article, when we deal with “a false witness who speaks lies,” (v. 19), but for now suffice it to say that lying always hurts those who are being lied about.
Lying also hurts the one who is lying. Proverbs 26:24–27 speaks of the man who “harbours deceit in his heart.” Such a man cannot be believed when he speaks. Ultimately, this man, by his deception, digs a pit that he himself will fall into. He begins rolling a stone that ultimately comes back on him.
God hates a lying tongue, and those who love God, and therefore hate evil, must likewise hate a lying tongue. So, how do we overcome a lying tongue if we identify it in ourselves? Let me briefly make four practical suggestions.
First, love the truth. Loving the truth of God’s word will enable you to hate what is false. “Through your precepts I get understanding; therefore I hate every evil way…. I consider all your precepts to be right; I hate every false way” (Psalm 119:104, 128). If you want to learn to “hate and abhor falsehood” it begins with loving God’s law (Psalm 119:163).
Second, fill your heart with truth. If you love God’s truth, you will immerse yourself in it. And since the mouth speaks what is in the heart (Matthew 12:34–35), those who fill their heart with truth will speak truth and not lies. God “delights in truth in the inward being” (Psalm 51:6), and so we must meditate on what is true (Philippians 4:8). That means being willing to investigate claims before passing them on. Instead of just clicking share as a kneejerk reaction, take time to find out whether what you are about to share is true. If it is not, see below.
Third, steer clear of falsehood. “Keep far from a false charge” (Exodus 23:7). Agur, son of Jakeh, prayed, “Remove far from me falsehood and lying” (Proverbs 30:8). Solomon clearly warned, “Put away from you crooked speech, and put devious talk far from you” (Proverbs 4:24). Don’t entertain falsehood. Don’t even consider spreading lies. Stay far away from deception in order to cultivate a love for truth.
Fourth, avoid people and influences known to lie and deceive. “An evildoer listens to wicked lips, and a liar gives ear to a mischievous tongue” (Proverbs 17:4). If you entertain those known to be liars you will easily fall into their trap. Instead, cultivate the attitude of David: “No one who practices deceit shall dwell in my house; no one who utters lies shall continue before my eyes” (Psalm 101:7). Be careful of who you allow to influence you. Are they those who love and speak the truth?
David asked, “Who shall ascend the hill of the LORD? And who shall stand in his holy place?” His answer, in part, was the person who “does not swear deceitfully” (Psalm 24:3–4). The Lord hates “a lying tongue.” Do you? You must if you will be one who will ascend the hill of the Lord and stand in his holy place.