We don’t always have to answer the questions people ask us

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From “Growing in the character of a disciple”: Chapter 10 – How we can develop ‘the love of the truth’ and the character quality , and habit, of truthfulness?

One of the things that has caused me difficulty for many years is knowing what to do when asked a difficult question where I am not yet entitled, or willing, to reveal the truth, but where I may not tell a lie either. Often the only solution is to sidestep the question. Politicians have to learn how to do this and it does not necessarily signify that they are dishonest. Often it’s for very good reasons.

The point is that we do not always have a duty to give people an answer. It depends on the circumstances, on who is asking the question, and on whether they have any right to receive an answer. Often they do not. Realising this fact has been a great benefit to me. I had previously felt obliged to give an answer all the time and that caused me many difficulties. Here is an example of Jesus brushing aside a question which had not been asked sincerely, and was only intended to trap Him:

19The scribes and the chief priests tried to lay hands on Him that very hour, and they feared the people; for they understood that He spoke this parable against them. 20So they watched Him, and sent spies who pretended to be righteous, in order that they might catch Him in some statement, so that they could deliver Him to the rule and the authority of the governor. 21They questioned Him, saying, “Teacher, we know that You speak and teach correctly, and You are not partial to any, but teach the way of God in truth. 22“Is it lawful for us to pay taxes to Caesar, or not?”

23But He detected their trickery and said to them, 24“Show Me a denarius. Whose likeness and inscription does it have?” They said, “Caesar’s.” 25And He said to them, “Then render to Caesar the things that are Caesar’s, and to God the things that are God’s.” 26And they were unable to catch Him in a saying in the presence of the people; and being amazed at His answer, they became silent.

Luke 20:19-26 (NASB)

Nevertheless, it’s also possible to lie without saying any words at all, i.e. by not volunteering information to those who are entitled to it

Sometimes a clear duty to speak does exist, for example because you are acting in some fiduciary capacity, i.e. a position of trust. If so, then you must speak. To fail to do so would then be dishonest, whereas it would not be so if there had not been a duty to speak. It could therefore be a lie to say nothing, where your silence could be reasonably taken to mean something, so as to convey a false impression.

Let’s imagine that at 12:00 noon you send an email saying, truthfully, that £x would be a fair price for some shares, or for a house. Then at 3.00pm some event occurs that changes everything, such that the value has suddenly gone up or down. Must you send another email to say “Ignore my previous email”? It may be that you must, depending on your role and the position of the other person in relation to you. You would have to ask yourself: “Do I owe this person a duty of care? Would my silence now be misleading? Is the other person professionally represented or not?” It may turn on questions such as those, and many others.

What about “nothing but the truth”?

It is hard to imagine any circumstances, other than in warfare, where it would be appropriate to add facts that are not true. We can sometimes withhold true facts, but we may not add false ones. So, if we need to fob a person off or get them to stop asking questions, without indirectly betraying that some secret is being withheld, you may need to think of creative ways of changing the subject, as Jesus often did. But you still cannot lie in doing so, unless, as stated, there is a war on and you are being questioned by the enemy.

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