Is Honesty Always the Best Policy? Lying for Someone Else’s Own Good

A reader took me to task recently over an article I’d written. I’d said that we should be 100% honest and she insisted that sometimes honesty is not the best policy.

After hearing the story about her decision not to share the full truth with her elderly father, I agreed with her. Whole-heartedly.

Is the relational harm incurred by being 100% honest with your 93-year-old father worth it? Perhaps not. At some point, change is no longer possible. Not because of obstinance or lack of desire. But because time is no longer on our side.

But my reader’s dilemma made me ponder the issue of truth even more deeply.

What if her father were a healthy 70-year-old? What if instead we were talking about a 50-year-old sibling? Or a 30-year-old friend? Or a 16-year-old daughter?

How honest should we be in those situations?

It’s a good question.

It’s more than a good question, in fact. It’s foundational to our values.

Too often we lie “for someone else’s own good”. I’ll share two extreme examples.

I knew a couple who’d made a pact: if either of them ever cheated on the other, they would take the secret to the grave. Their reasoning? Telling the spouse might assuage their own guilt but it would also do unnecessary harm to the other person. They considered sharing this news to be selfish.

We could unpack so many aspects of this arrangement — such as the fact that keeping a one-time dalliance secret likely increases the odds that it’ll turn into a habit — but I’m going to stick to the truth issue at hand: Is this lie really for the other spouse’s own good?

Though I happen to disagree with them, I can understand their reasoning. They thought that knowing a spouse had cheated is the worst thing that could happen to a person. I tend to think being cheated on is worse. But that’s me. And how they conduct their marriage is none of my business. (Of course, I could make a case that, societally speaking, how others treat their marriage vows is very much my business — and yours — but that’s a topic for a different day.)

As I’ve said, marital unfaithfulness is an extreme end of the spectrum. Is it hard to admit when you’ve been unfaithful? Unless you’ve been in that position, you have no idea. Every ounce of self-preservation in your body wants to lie. And if you’re on the receiving end of a cheating spouse, the temptation to cover your eyes and pretend it isn’t happening is especially powerful— even when you see so many signs you feel like you’re driving through a highway construction zone.

The temptation to lie to preserve yourself, your relationship, and your social standing is strong. But let’s look at it from a different perspective.

  • Do both spouses deserve to know all the factors that affect their marriage (and their lives)?
  • Does the relationship deserve the opportunity to grow?
  • And if you’re hiding such a huge part of yourself from your spouse, how strong is your relationship?

It ultimately comes down to this: does your spouse deserve to know who you are?

Now, you might agree with me that a spouse deserves to know if they’re being cheated on. But what about smaller lies? And what other types of relationships? Might those scenarios differ?

Before we get to that, I promised you a second story. Because perhaps there are times when lies are necessary (or at least acceptable).

I’m reminded of a family I had occasion to observe multiple times while they visited their dementia-ridden father in a care facility. Each time he’d ask about his brother, they’d reply, “Don’t you remember? He died last year.” And each time, anguish overtook him again, and he experienced the news as if he were hearing it for the first time. He truly hadn’t remembered.

I’m not sure why the family felt compelled to respond truthfully each time. Perhaps they were hoping to improve his memory skills. Perhaps they believed that lying is always 100% wrong. Perhaps they were sadistic or just lacked communication skills. Regardless, having dealt with dementia patients in the past, I’ve often wondered why they didn’t just say, “He’s okay,” and change the subject — leaving the second half of that statement, “because he’s with Jesus now,” unspoken. Or they could have changed the subject and ignored the query altogether. (In his state, he would’ve quickly forgotten he’d inquired.)

As with the first story, you likely have your own response to the situation, which may differ from mine— we are different people after all. The point is there may be times when lies or half-truths could be a blessing.

But especially in today’s society, we’re often quick to jump to the conclusion that we’re lying for someone’s own good without determining if the lie is actually warranted.

As someone who’s been lied to and who’s done her fair share of lying, I know we can be tempted to lie for many reasons. But each lie we tell adds a wedge to our relationships — first to the relationship with yourself, and then to the one with the other person. And the bolder the lie, the bigger the wedge.

In most situations, when we lie (even just a little bit) we betray ourselves, and we disrespect the other person.

Why do we do it? Why do we risk our own integrity and our relationship to tell a fib?

I’m reminded of the climactic scene in the 1992 movie A Few Good Men. Cross-examining a Marine Colonel on a courtroom witness stand, Tom Cruise’s character yells, “I want the truth.” The response from Jack Nicholson’s character is full of anger and indignation: “You can’t handle the truth!”

Although we’re not enacting a dramatic courtroom scene, and our voices may not boom, when we prepare to tell a lie, our brain often whispers, “You can’t handle the truth.

Sometimes that’s what we mean. But sometimes aren’t we really saying:

  • I don’t respect you enough to walk you through the truth because I’m not sure where it will lead
  • You’re not worth the time or effort it takes for me to be honest with you.
  • It doesn’t matter if you know me for real; I’d rather keep you at a distance.
  • I trust myself in this situation (and my understanding of what’s best) more than I trust you, our relationship, or God.

Alternatively, we may be lying to ourselves when we avoid the truth for someone else’s own good. We might really be saying:

  • I can’t handle the truth.
  • I’m afraid for you to know the real me.
  • I believe it’s easier to lie than to face potential rejection or to do the hard work of walking through the truth together.

But lies can produce life-long resentments. They can build on each other to create larger untruths. And they can cause us — and the people we deceive— to lead false lives.

The Bible tells us that the Enemy is a liar and the father of the lie. And that Jesus is the way, the truth, and the life.

So what can you do when your first instinct is to lie “for someone else’s own good”?

  • Ask yourself the following questions:
  • Why is my first instinct to be dishonest with this person?
  • Am I protecting them or am I protecting me? From what?
  • Is the protection truly warranted? Or am I failing to give them — or myself or the relationship — enough credit for the ability to learn and grow?
  • Do I just not want to be bothered with the hassle or repercussions of telling the truth?

Often, we lie because we’re afraid of the truth — or of its consequences. But I promise you: you’re more resilient than you think. You can handle the truth. And so can the people around you.


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Hi, I’m Kendra

I help bright, successful over-thinkers change their negative thoughts using Scripture and the science of how God made you.

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