Can Lies Protect Us?

Lulu Wang’s “The Farewell” explores how a family conspires to deceive its beloved matriarch about a diagnosis of terminal cancer. Only after seeing the movie did I discover that Wang’s own family actually lived the real-life drama that is the basis of the film.

Billi, the protagonist, is a Chinese American granddaughter to her Nai Nai, who lives in China. Early in the story, 80-year-old Nai Nai is given a lung cancer diagnosis. Upon hearing the doctor’s report, her younger sister (Little Nai Nai) immediately sets a deceptive scheme in motion while coaching the rest of the family to hide the truth. As Billi’s father explains, in China it is not uncommon for family members to conceal a problem diagnosis from one of their own as they try to share the burden of a life-ending illness. Meanwhile, Billi discovers the family’s plan: to ensure that everyone can pay a last visit to Nai Nai without revealing her terminal condition, there will be a wedding.

My first thoughts about the film ran circles around questions like:

  • Is every lie an unqualified evil?
  • Is it ever right to lie?
  • How would I feel if I discovered my entire family had lied to me?
  • Would their motivation to protect me make it ok?

While exploring a family conspiracy as a cultural phenomenon, the film arouses sympathy for Nai Nai’s family and subtly shifts our perspective as if to see shadows among the sharp contours between black and white. Although some will view the family’s plan of deceit simply as a kindness, there seems to be a moral conflict here. Is it more important to be honest or to share the burden of death through deception?

The movie also explored cultural differences between East and West: the right of an individual or the health of a family, feelings or duty, selfishness or service.

I can see how many Chinese centuries of ancestor worship might have led to a predisposition to deceive a terminal patient, because it could be viewed as a duty owed to the dying. I can also see how the Western elevation of individual rights, (in this case, to information), does not change the fact that individuals are most properly members of families. If individual autonomy has been exalted in the West beyond the needs of family, it is more the product of Enlightenment rationalism than the outworking of biblical principles.

But is lying so easily justified? Even with the family concerns highlighted in the movie, I’m not convinced.

Is there any reason to lie that can be justified?

In the Bible, two instances of intentional deception are described that seem to be implicitly commended—the Hebrew midwives (Exodus 1:15-22), and Rahab, who hid the Hebrew spies (Joshua 2). However, we must be careful not to interpret descriptive elements as prescriptive principles. For example, the recapitulation of Rahab’s help to the spies in Hebrews 11:31 commended not her lie, but her faith.

In both cases, we might suppose there is a higher law at work than “You shall not bear false witness against your neighbor” (Exodus 20:16), while remembering that neither Rahab nor the Hebrew midwives had direct or timely knowledge of the ninth commandment. The Bible records the lives of real people—complex characters displayed in glorious triumph and spectacular failure.

Isn’t there a higher law? Can we be guilty of obeying the letter of the law but violating its Spirit?

The Holy Spirit is the Spirit of Truth (e.g., John 15:26), and love rejoices with the truth (1 Corinthians 13:6). Proper handling of the truth is more complicated than literal adherence to the ninth commandment. Truth must be accompanied by love. It does matter how we speak the truth—Ephesians 4:15. Sometimes love means we must voice an uncomfortable truth.

Many godly people have agonized over telling the truth in difficult situations, and some of them have been commended by other Christians when they finally lied because a higher principle was in view. During World War II, Corrie ten Boom and her family hid many Jews from discovery by the Nazis, concealing them in secret compartments. If they had told the truth that they were hiding Jews in their house, they would have been sent to concentration camps and almost certain death, while the Jews would have been exterminated. In this case, loving your neighbor meant lying to preserving his life.

Rules alone will not guide us into all the truth, but the Spirit will (John 16:13).

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