Don’t talk out of both sides of your mouth; avoid careless banter, white lies, and gossip. [Proverbs 4:24 (MSG)]

Souls are saved by truthful witness and betrayed by the spread of lies. [Proverbs 14:25 (MSG)]


“I never cross the line,” he said and then added, “but I do stand on the line and lean way over!” The line between right and wrong can be fuzzy and I wondered, “How far does he lean?”

His comment reminded me of a short story by Mark Twain: Was it Heaven? or Hell? In it, the widowed Margaret, her 16-year old daughter Helen, and their two elderly maiden aunts, Hannah and Hester, live together. The aunts are uncompromisingly strict in their moral code and any sort of lie is inexcusable. One day, Helen admits having told a small and harmless lie. The aunts demand that she confess to her mother who is ill in bed and the sobbing girl is comforted in her mother’s loving arms. It is only after the doctor visits that the sisters learn both Margaret and Helen have typhoid. When the doctor asks the women if any situation could ever be a valid reason for a lie, they maintain they’d never lie even to shield a person from injury or shame or to save them from pain or grief. Insisting that any lie could cost them their souls, they vow never to tell a lie of any kind, not even one of courtesy, kindness or compassion.

Both mother and daughter are on their death beds and Margaret assumes her daughter’s absence is to keep the girl from getting typhoid. When she asks about Helen’s health, Aunt Hester hesitantly replies that she is well. When Aunt Hannah learns of this deceit, she reprimands her sister for lying. The following day, when Hannah is asked about the youngster, not wanting to give Margaret such a cruel truth, she also lies that Helen is well. Daily, the sisters reassure Margaret that her daughter is happy and healthy. As the girl’s health deteriorates, the aunts even forge cheery notes to reassure the sick woman. When the girl dies, the aunts continue to bring her mother news of Helen’s good health. During the child’s wake, they even tell Margaret they’re just having a party. When Margaret dies, Hannah and Hester agree, “How blessed it was that she never knew!”

At midnight, an angel of the Lord appears and says “For liars a place is appointed. There they burn in the fires of hell from everlasting unto everlasting. Repent!” The women fall to their knees but, rather than repent, profess they would do the same thing all over again. The final chapter asks this simple question, “Was it Heaven? or Hell?”

Back to that accountant’s comment—how far can we lean without falling over the line? Not every situation is black and white and it’s not always easy to know how to behave in that gray area. I suppose the best way for any of us to know how far to lean is through God’s word, prayer and by always remembering to let love lead us: love of God and love for one another.

Let the Word of Christ—the Message—have the run of the house. Give it plenty of room in your lives. Instruct and direct one another using good common sense. And sing, sing your hearts out to God! Let every detail in your lives—words, actions, whatever—be done in the name of the Master, Jesus, thanking God the Father every step of the way. [Colossians 3:16-17 (MSG)]

There is no room in love for fear. Well-formed love banishes fear. Since fear is crippling, a fearful life—fear of death, fear of judgment—is one not yet fully formed in love. [1 John 4:18 (MSG)]

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