By Drew Zuverink
"Then Joshua secretly sent two spies from Shittim. 'Go, look over the land, especially Jericho.' So they went and entered the house of a prostitute named Rahab and stayed there. The king of Jericho was told, 'Look, some of the Israelites have come here tonight to spy out the land.' So the king sent this message to Rahab: 'Bring out the men who came to you, because they have come to spy out the whole land.' But the woman had taken the two men and hidden them. She said, 'Yes, they came to me, but I did not know where they came from. At dusk they left. I don't know which way they went. Go after them quickly. You may catch up with them.' (But she had taken them up to the roof and hidden them under the stalks of flax she had laid out on the roof.)"
Rahab lied but look at how scripture talks about her. James commends her actions as admirable (James 2). Matthew makes sure to mention her name specifically when he highlights people from Jesus' genealogy (Matthew 1). And the author of Hebrews even includes her name in his "hall of faith," right alongside of people like Enoch, Noah, Abraham, and Moses (Hebrews 11). According to scripture, Rahab is someone to imitate but how is this possible when God so clearly condemns lying?
To find an answer let's look at 3 views of God.
God As A Legalistic Judge
God as a legalistic judge is ready to condemn us for any and every slip up. There is no room for context or nuance with this kind of a God. If he has said, "Don't lie," then we must never say anything that is not true no matter what. If we had lived in Germany in the 1940's and a Nazi soldier asked us if we were hiding any Jews, we better tell the truth. If we lied, God would surely condemn us for breaking his law. If God says, "Obey authority," then we must always do that. So If the speed limit is 45 then we can never go above that, even if we are rushing our sick child to the hospital.
A legalistic judge would condemn Rahab.
God As A Harsh Taskmaster
God as a harsh taskmaster is always looking over our shoulder, demanding perfection from us. If any of our actions have even the slightest flaw in them, then it doesn't matter if we were trying to do something good, it wasn't perfect so God is upset. If we share the gospel with a friend but it isn't articulated perfectly - God is angry. If we start our day with 20 minutes of prayer, God is upset that it wasn't an hour. If we tithe 10 percent of our income, we should have given 15 percent.
Our actions are never perfect so our taskmaster is never pleased with them. The safest way to please this kind of a God is to do as little as possible. Just stay inside, avoid sin, and pray that he doesn't find anything wrong with us.
A harsh taskmaster would scold Rahab.
God As A Person
God as a person, not a legal code or an algorithm, is too big to be put into a box. He gives each commandment for a reason, and there is room for nuance and context with him. God as a person commands people not to steal, lie, or murder because he is a God of life, love, and truth. He wants what's best for the world and each commandment is a means towards that end. God as a person is much less predictable because that's true of all persons. As C.S. Lewis describes in the Chronicles of Narnia, God is not tame, he's wild - but he's good.
A personal God praised Rahab.
God was pleased with Rahab because she acted in faith, trusting in him as a person. Her understanding of him gave her the freedom to act, even if there was a chance that she might be wrong. She trusted that God wasn't a moralistic judge or a harsh taskmaster, and if she was wrong to lie, a personal God would give her grace because she did what she thought was right.
Life is full of tricky situations where the answer is not always clear. When should I speak up about something and when should I keep quiet? What career does God want me to pursue? As a woman, is God ok with me going into ministry? How politically involved should I be? Must I keep the sabbath? If someone tries to harm me can I fight back? Should I go to my gay friends wedding?
All of these questions can be paralyzing if we view God as a legalistic judge or a harsh task master. Thankfully God is neither. His goodness gives us the freedom to act and to do what we believe God wants us to do, even when we aren't 100 percent certain. Of course intentions aren't the only thing that matters and it's possible that we will make some mistakes. We shouldn't minimize that. Good intentions sometimes lead to really bad actions. However, this is when God's goodness gives us even more freedom. His grace allows us to repent, to learn, and then to try again.