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[W]e have renounced secret and shameful ways; we do not use deception, nor do we distort the word of God. On the contrary, by setting forth the truth plainly we commend ourselves to every man's conscience in the sight of God. And even if our gospel is veiled, it is veiled to those who are perishing. The god of this age has blinded the minds of unbelievers, so that they cannot see the light of the gospel of the glory of Christ, who is the image of God.


— 2 Corinthians 4: 2-4



‘economical with the truth’ is an expression that  describes a careful use of facts so as not to reveal too much information. In common usage, it is generally understood as a euphemism for deceit, whether by volunteering false information that is, lying or by deliberately holding back relevant facts.

The modern phrase became popular after it was used by Robert Armstrong, Cabinet Secretary at the time of the Spycatcher trial in 1986. It derived from Edmund Burke, 18th-century British statesman, author and philosopher, who wrote that


Falsehood and delusion are allowed in no case whatever: but, as in the exercise of all the virtues, there is an economy of truth. It is a sort of temperance, by which a man speaks truth with measure that he may speak it the longer.


Another euphemistic expression was coined by Winston Churchill, British politician and later Prime Minister during the Second World War. He used the phrase ‘terminological inexactitude’ during the 1906 election campaign, and later as Under-Secretary of the Colonial Office he repeated in the House of Commons what he had said (February 22, 1906):


[T]he conditions of the Transvaal Ordinance under which Chinese labour is now being carried on . . . cannot in the opinion of His Majesty’s Government be classified as slavery in the extreme acceptance of the word without some risk of terminological inexactitude. . . .


While the expression may have been literally referring to imprecise or inaccurate terminology, it has been adopted as a euphemism for a lie. To accuse another member in the House of lying is unparliamentory (another euphemism!), so the implication that a ‘terminological inexactitude’ had been expressed was a useful device.


Economy of Speech — To Deceive

It started a long time ago. When the serpent accosted the woman in the Garden of Eden he was crafty enough to modify what God’s stated punishment for disobedience would be: ‘you will die’, Satan’s adjustment of the sentence: ‘You will not surely die’, achieved his purpose to deceive the woman and ensnare the man (Genesis 3: 1-6).


Jesus put it plainly when denouncing the Jewish teachers of the Law: ‘You belong to your father, the devil, and you want to carry out your father’s desire. He was a murderer from the beginning, not holding to the truth, for there is no truth in him. When he lies, he speaks his native language, for he is a liar and the father of lies’ (John 8: 44).


Adam and Eve quickly learned to be evasive once their guilt had sullied their relationship with God. And Cain, their firstborn, having murdered his brother, and being asked by the Lord the whereabouts of Abel, retorted, ‘Am I my brother’s keeper?’ (Genesis 4: 9).


Even Abraham, called the friend of God, employed a little subterfuge in representing Sarah to the Canaanite king, Abimelech, as his sister, for a somewhat obscure fear that because of her beauty his own life would be at risk were it known she was his wife. Their genuine blood relationship lent an element of truth to the deception, and by the Lord’s intervention the matter was resolved satisfactorily (Genesis 20).


An untruth may be expressed in actions, the tongue being silent. According to Acts 4: 32-37, the church in Jerusalem, in order to help the poor and needy, was practising a policy by which ‘No-one claimed that any of his possessions was his own, but they shared everything they had’. Many wealthy members of the congregation sold their property and gave the proceeds into the charge of the Apostles.


Among these were Ananias and his wife, Sapphira, but unlike the others, they held back some of the proceeds without disclosing the fact. Peter was evidently aware of the deception and accused Ananias of lying to the holy spirit and to God. Hearing the Apostle’s judgement, Ananias fell down and died, as did Sapphira three hours later (Acts 5: 1-10). There may be more behind this strange and sobering account than is recorded, but it is clear that it was not the retention of some of the proceeds of sale that was wrong, but the decision to convey a false impression to the church, or to the Lord, as Peter declared.


Economy of Speech — To Protect

Cautious parents some decades ago were sometimes apt to monitor adult conversation in the presence of youngsters reminding everyone that ‘little pigs have big ears'.


The principle is sound. Too much information may be harmful to minds not mature enough to assimilate it correctly, and there are many Biblical instances where economy of speech has been employed for the wisest of reasons. When the disciples asked Jesus why He spoke to the multitude in parables, His answer was quite explicit: ‘The knowledge of the secrets of the kingdom of God has been given to you, but to others I speak in parables, so that, “though seeing, they may not see; though hearing, they may not understand”’ (Luke 8: 10).


But even the most intimate of the Lord’s companions were not ready, during His ministry, to learn the yet deeper truths He wished to impart to them. During the anxious days before His arrest and crucifixion, Jesus talked with them at great length and sought to prepare them for the fierce trial ahead. He knew they understood only imperfectly His meaning, and said ‘I have much more to say to you, more than you can now bear’ (John 16: 12). It was not until they had received the baptism of the holy spirit at Pentecost that they were to grasp the deeper truths. As Jesus had promised, ‘the Holy Spirit, whom the Father will send in my name, will teach you all things and will remind you of everything I have said to you’ (John 14: 26). Being veiled with the truth was no longer necessary.


In His great wisdom the Heavenly Father Himself expresses His plans and purposes in such a manner as to confuse His enemies. Many truths are hidden in parables and metaphors, in signs and symbols, in types and allegories, making the Bible almost a closed book to the unworthy. Secretiveness is evidently an element of God’s character, yet the honest seeker of Divine truth is rewarded, as David declares: ‘The LORD confides in those who fear him; he makes his covenant known to them’ (Psalm 25: 14), and Amos 3: 7 assures us that, ‘Surely the Sovereign LORD does nothing without revealing his plan to his servants the prophets.’


So Where Do We Stand?

We have plenty of Biblical guidance, and our heading Scripture from the Apostle Paul says it all. Yet it is a rocky road to follow, and there are pitfalls all along the way: the evasive answer, the guarded facial expression, the body language, and the ‘white’ lie. In his epistle James discusses at length the unruliness of the tongue, asserting that if anyone is never at fault in what he says, he is a perfect man, able to keep his whole body in check (James 3: 2). But none of us is perfect, and our human frailty is acceptable to our Heavenly Father only through our trust in the merit of Jesus Christ.

Copyright June 2009

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