When Moral Obligations Are in Conflict
I celebrated too soon. After breathing a sigh of relief that the sermon series, You Asked for It had come to a merciful end, I now find myself dealing with a moral question that is as challenging as they come. Is it ever morally permissible to tell a lie? Or are we obligated to tell the truth in every situation, regardless of the consequences?
This is the question that we are confronted with in Joshua 2. Joshua sends out two spies to gather intelligence about Jericho. The spies need a place to hide, so they go to the house of a woman named Rahab, who was a known prostitute. Why would these men go to the house of a prostitute, of all places? The questions about what is a right and moral course of action just keep piling up. Nevertheless, Rahab the Harlot as she is known in Scripture, protects the spies by lying to the men of Jericho. Thus the lives of the two Israeli spies are spared as well as the lives of Rahab and her household. But did God save these lives because of Rahab’s lie, or in spite of her lie? The answer to that question is not as easy as it may seem. I’ll deal with the question more thoroughly in my sermon, but in the meantime, I want to stimulate you to think about this situation in a way you have never done before.
Is a Christian ever justified in communicating a falsehood? The first response that comes to mind is a clear “no.” This is the response that should be the first one to come mind. God is truth, and we are to be like God. Truth-telling is a crucial moral duty for those in the kingdom of God. When there is no question about what our moral obligation is, there is no need for discussion. But what about the times when it seems that moral obligations are in conflict with each other? Then what?
Rahab ’s moral obligations were in conflict. On the one hand it could be argued that she was obligated to reveal the hiding place of the Israeli spies. But on the other hand, she was convinced that the one true God had given their land to Israel. Clearly, she wanted to be on the receiving end of God’s mercy, and not his judgment. So she protected the spies by lying about their whereabouts.
My purpose here is neither to condemn nor justify Rahab for lying to the men of Jericho about the location of the Israeli spies. To take either position is risky business. So instead of telling you which side to fall on when you’re faced with conflicting moral obligations, I want to do something else instead. I want to point us to the grace of God.
God doesn't guarantee that the exercise of faith won't get messy. We will be called upon to make decisions in split-seconds and it may well be that we won’t know what to do. We may break one of God's commandments because something else is dominating our concern at that moment, like saving someone’s life or someone's honor and integrity.
After the dust has settled, we may well look back and see that we didn't handle it perfectly, even though our intent was a good one. Maybe that’s why in both James and Hebrews God doesn't say one word about Rahab's lie–not a single word! It is though He might be saying something like this: "Yes, what you did was wrong, and someday I’ll show you what you should have done. But what you did, putting your life at risk like that for someone else–that was something very special indeed and I want you to know that I saw it."
We have a God who loves us, and is patient with us, even when we stumble. He doesn't go for the sin. Instead, He points out the good thing. God is always looking for a way to extend mercy to us rather than judgment. Aren’t you glad?