Deception and the Culture War

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The metaphor of war can be quite helpful in motivating people to action, but it can also cause a lot of problems. There are things that are permitted in an actual war (such as killing), which should not be tolerated in a metaphorical war, as when a school superintendent declares war on poor spelling.

So if we have accepted the notion of a culture war, as we should have, how much comes with it? The ancient Chinese strategist, Sun Tzu, said this: “All warfare is based on deception” (The Art of War, p. 66).

For those who accept the lawfulness of warfare, this is not controversial. Pacifists object to deception in warfare, but only because they object to everything else about warfare along with it. But if it is lawful to kill a man at a checkpoint, surely it is lawful to deceive him in order to spare his life. Few Christians believe that an undercover operative has an obligation to answer truthfully when asked a direct question. “Are you a spy?” “Yes, actually . . . Thank you for this opportunity to come clean.” Still fewer Christians believe that the questioner should be summarily shot in order that the spy might avoid the sin of deceiving somebody.

A man who paints his tank to look like a bush is telling enemy pilots that his tank is a bush when in fact — let us be frank — it is not a bush. God Himself gave the Israelites a strategy that depended upon deception at the second battle of Ai (Josh. 8:2). Sun Tzu was right—warfare is deception. A good general wants the enemy to believe the opposite of what is actually the case, in as many instances as possible. He wants him to believe he is far away when he is close, and to believe he is close when he is far away. He wants him to believe he is strong when he is weak, and weak when he is strong.

So in our culture war, what is permitted and what is not? This is something we have to work through carefully because we are under constraints that the progressives are not under at all. They do not answer to God, and so they behave accordingly. But we are people who serve the Lord, one whose very name is the truth (John 14:6).

The ninth commandment strikes at the heart of falsehood and lies, which in their turn are the native language of the devil. Without truth and trust, biblical culture is an impossibility. “You shall not bear false witness against your neighbor” (Ex. 20:16).

But what is the context of false witness? The commandment prohibits lying against one’s neighbor. Paul tells the Colossians not to lie to one another, because they had put off the old man with his deeds (3:9). Trust is essential to all community, and false witness makes trust impossible. False witness can exist in such a society, but if it is not punished severely that society will not be a society long. At its base, overt deception is an act of war — “A man who bears false witness against his neighbor is like a club, a sword, and a sharp arrow (Prov. 25:18; cf. 12:17-18). The psalmist recognizes this — “false witnesses have risen against me, and such as breathe out violence” (Ps. 27:12).

Bearing false witness is therefore civil war — warfare against one’s neighbor, one’s brother. It is an act of violence directed against someone with whom you should be at peace. Conversely, if it is lawful to deceive him directly and straight up, it is plainly time for a war that has moved beyond metaphor.

The same distinction exists with this sin as we see with the distinction between murder and just killing. We see godly deception as an act of honorable war, or in a time that was equivalent to war, throughout Scripture. God blessed the Hebrew midwives for lying to Pharaoh (Ex. 1:15-21); He justified Rahab through her deception concerning the Hebrew spies (Jas. 2:25); David feigned madness to get away from Achish the king of Gath (1 Sam. 21:13-15). Such examples can be multiplied in Scripture many times over. The key is covenant — unless a covenant is assaulted or betrayed, the duty of believers is to speak the truth in love (Eph, 4:15). False witness destroys amity. If the amity is already destroyed on other grounds, or if the amity needs to be destroyed, then deception is lawful.

Having said this, we have to remind ourselves that God hates the sin of bearing false witness. “These six things the Lord hates, yes, seven are an abomination to Him: a proud look, a lying tongue, hands that shed innocent blood, a heart that devises wicked plans, feet that are swift in running to evil, a false witness who speaks lies, and one who sows discord among brethren” (Prov. 6:16-19). God hates seven things, and lying makes the list twice. God sees to it that a liar does not go unpunished — liars will perish and not escape (Prov. 19:5, 9) The lake of fire is reserved for liars (Rev. 21:8). Jesus repeats this commandment with others (Mark 10:19).

God does not only prohibit the invention of such lies, He prohibits us from circulating them. “You shall not circulate a false report. Do not put your hand with the wicked to be an unrighteous witness” (Ex. 23:1). As Thomas Watson put it, very bluntly, it makes little difference if we carry the devil around in our mouth or in our ear.

What then? What is prohibited? How must we guard our lips and ears? We should begin with the obvious — we have to deal with the sin of outright lies, which means we must repent and make restitution. Restitution means confessing the lie to the appropriate person, the person who was lied to. Whatever it costs to put the lie right, it will cost less than not putting it right.

In doing this, we have to reject euphemisms — white lies, exaggerations, spin-doctoring, etc. This just means you are compounding the lies you have told to others with lies you are telling yourself. As Christians we have a duty to cultivate the habit of accuracy of mind — blurry edges, smudgy perspectives, telling just “your side,” even if you “honestly” think them to be true at the time you are speaking, are still violations of the ninth commandment.

Truth which is “technically” the truth is just clever lying. If you tell your wife that you are happy and that the boss “came in sober today,” the fact that this is true doesn’t keep it from being a lie. Or telling someone just half of the story is really bad, when the other half made all the difference. Many pietistic Christians comfort themselves that this is scrupulous truth-telling, when it really just reveals the subtlety of their hearts. And if such a lie is told to the Gestapo (”Of course there are Jews in the basement,” followed by a sarcastic laugh), it may be justified on other grounds — just as lying through your teeth would be. (”I am hiding no Jews in the basement.”) And if such “technically true” lies are told to your neighbor, your brother, then it cannot be justified under any circumstances.

So then, what we have is a duty to scrupulous truth-telling in a time of peace, and the liberty to use deception after the shooting starts. What about those ambiguous in-between times, times of heightened tension, with the stakes very high, but with no actual bloodshed yet?

Here are several scriptural examples. When Nathan the prophet came to rebuke David for his sin with Bathsheba, he did it by trapping him. He told King David a false story about a man who had his sheep taken by a wealthy neighbor (2 Sam. 12:3-4). David was angry and pronounced judgment on the man, not knowing that he had been deceived into pronouncing judgment on himself. This was a good and godly deception. Nathan was not in a state of open war with David, but when he came to tell this “lie,” he was taking his life in his hands. David had already killed one man to keep this particular sin secret.

Another example is similar. One of the sons of the prophets deceived Ahab into pronouncing a sentence on himself (1 Kings 20:38-43). He had let Benhadad go free, even though God had delivered him into Ahab’s hands. The prophet told a parallel story, only on an individual level. In that form, the king knew what justice was, and delivered the verdict. He was highly displeased to discover that the verdict circled back and landed on him.

Consequently, Lila Rose taking hidden cameras into abortion clinics is the Lord’s work. It is deceptive, and God bless all of it. The hidden cameras that were used to bring down the utterly corrupt ACORN were in the same category. This is deception, but it is not self-serving deception.

Here is the difference. Suppose a man heads up a Christian organization devoted to some aspect of our culture war — a pro-life organization, say. Suppose also that he committed adultery against his wife thirty years before, in the early years of his marriage. His wife knows about it, and they worked through all of that at the time. They have a good marriage now. If the diggers-of-dirt on the other side throw this at him at a press conference, he has a moral obligation before God to do nothing other than to own the truth. Lying about it “because we are in a culture war” is to exhibit a high level of selfish confusion.

Now take that same man, but this time as one who has been faithful to his wife, who knows that he has a leaker in his organization, and he suspects that he knows who it is, someone who is hacking into computers where he has no right to be. He and his closest adviser exchange e-mails about a regrettable instance of adultery five years before, and gee, hope nobody finds out about it. The leaker jumps on it, and the adultery gets thrown in his face at a press conference. “It gives me great pleasure,” he should say, “to announce the successful completion of our most recent sting operation.” That is deception, just like the previous situation, but they are as unlike as night and day. One is deception in the service of deception, and the other is deception in the service of honesty. The deception was run for the sake of the denouement, so that it could be brought out in the open.

One last category should be noted. There is a kind of deception that occurs in spiritual warfare that is the result of the peculiar kind of blindness that covers the hearts and minds of those who reject God. Paul tells us that God’s open strategy of sending His Son to the cross, so that He would rise again on the third day, was a strategy that was still a closed book to the “rulers of this age.”

 “But we speak the wisdom of God in a mystery, even the hidden wisdom, which God ordained before the world unto our glory: Which none of the princes of this world knew: for had they known it, they would not have crucified the Lord of glory” (1 Cor. 2:7-8).

 There are certain moves, certain strategies, certain plans, certain ways of thinking, that are God’s version of the purloined letter. God hides some of His best work in plain sight. So should we.

In The Lord of the Rings, Sauron made his fatal mistake because he could not comprehend a mindset that could be in possession of the Ring, and yet seek to destroy it. This was hidden from him in the ordinary ways, but that is not why it was successfully hidden.

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10 years ago

Brilliantly Brilliant!

Aaron Richmond
10 years ago

You and Poythress are at war in my head. He wrote about lying just recently here:

Would you draw no distinction at all between verbal deceit and deceptive actions then?

10 years ago

This is my take on lying from a few years back. Libertarian absolutism Lying is wrong if one is voluntarily giving information. One need not tell the truth if one is being compelled to divulge information. I am responsible for my actions, not yours. Authoritative absolutism Non aggressive version: Lying is wrong in non-aggressive situations. Self-defence against an aggressor allows for lying. Authorities are owed the truth. Libertarian version: One need not tell the truth if one is being compelled to divulge information unless being compelled by a legitimate authority. I find this post helpful, I would categorise your position… Read more »

10 years ago


10 years ago

Your commenting system does not currently allow for paragraph breaks, nor is some html working (such as italics).

10 years ago

wait. is this a trick? Thank you brother. As almost always, well done.

10 years ago

Just a head’s up, if I ever need to hide from the Gestapo I’m coming to your house instead of this guy’s.

10 years ago

jigawatt, that’s an excellent article! My favorite stratagem is ‘Your Shoe is Untied,’ pagan version: “Melanthus, the Athenian general, on one occasion came out for combat, in response to the challenge of the king of the enemy, Xanthus, the Boeotian. As soon as they stood face to face, Melanthus exclaimed: ‘Your conduct is unfair, Xanthus, and contrary to agreement. I am alone, but you have come out with a companion against me.’ When Xanthus wondered who was following him and looked behind, Melanthus dispatched him with a single stroke, as his head was turned away.” (Sextus Julius Frontinus, Stratagems, II.… Read more »

10 years ago

“You and Poythress are at war in my head. He wrote about lying just recently here: Would you draw no distinction at all between verbal deceit and deceptive actions then?”

If it’s any help, the folks at Triablogue posted a direct rejoinder to Poythress here: