Do nothing from selfish ambition or conceit, but in humility count others more significant than yourselves. Let each of you look not only to his own interests, but also to the interests of others. [Philippians 2:3-4 (ESV)]
While writing about lies these last few days, I recalled Mark Twain’s Was it Heaven? or Hell?, a short story in which the principle of absolute truth is challenged by that of Christian love. The widowed Margaret and her 16-year old daughter Helen live with their two elderly maiden aunts, Hannah and Hester. The aunts are uncompromisingly strict in their moral code and any sort of lie is inexcusable. When Helen admits having told a small and harmless lie, the aunts demand that she confess to her mother who is ill in bed.
It is only after the doctor visits that the sisters learn that both Margaret and Helen have typhoid fever. When the doctor asks the sisters if any situation could be a valid reason for a lie, they maintain they’d never lie to shield a person from injury or shame—not even to save someone from pain or grief. Positive that any lie would cost them their souls, they vow never to tell a lie of any kind, not even one of courtesy, kindness or compassion.
Not knowing that her daughter is sick in bed, Margaret assumes Helen’s absence from her side is to prevent her from getting typhoid. When Margaret asks about the girl’s well-being, Aunt Hester hesitantly replies that Helen is well when, in fact, her health is rapidly failing. Learning of Hester’s deceit, Hannah reprimands her sister for lying but, the following day, when Margaret asks Hannah about the youngster, she also lies that Helen is well. Not wanting to give Margaret the cruel truth that her daughter is dying, the sisters regularly reassure her that Helen is happy and healthy. As the girl’s health further deteriorates, the aunts even forge cheery notes to reassure her sick mother. When Helen dies, the aunts continue to bring her mother news of the girl’s well-being and, to explain the noise during her wake, they even tell Margaret they’re having a party. When Margaret dies, Hannah and Hester agree that she was blessed never to have known of her daughter’s death.
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, they say they’d tell the same lies again. The last words of the story ask this simple question, “Was it Heaven? or Hell?”
Mark Twain was not a Christian so he can be excused for not understanding that the sins of a Christian already are forgiven. Nevertheless, the underlying question remains—is every lie, no matter its reason or purpose, a sin? Were the sisters’ lies a sin or did their act of love trump the sin of a lie? After three days of writing about deception, I still don’t know the answer. While we have a God of truth, truth is not god! The Apostle Paul asked, “Am I now seeking the approval of man, or of God?” adding, “If I were still trying to please man, I would not be a servant of Christ.” [Galatians 1:10] If we come to a time when we have to choose between truth and deception, perhaps we should ask whose approval we are seeking and who we would be serving with our actions.