The Truth about Lies: The Ninth Commandment
So in my reading I came across a list of sayings or phrases that we hear all the time, statements that seem to sort of stretch the truth. See if you resonate with these.
The check is in the mail.
We service what we sell.
One size fits all.
Leave your resume, we'll keep it on file.
This hurts me more than it hurts you.
I just need five minutes of your time.
Your table will be ready in a few minutes.
And one of the best? It's not the money, it's the principle.
It seems as though times are tough when it comes to truth telling, but I'm pretty sure it's been that way all along. Hence 3,000 years ago, Exodus, chapter 20, verse 16, you shall not bear false witness against your neighbor.
Just repeat that with me. You shall not bear false witness against your neighbor.
That is the word of God, for us the people of God. Thanks be to God. Let's pray. Gracious God, Open our minds to these words and open our hearts to the living Word of Christ that we may be changed today and forever, amen.
So to begin with, we need to define what we're talking about: What is false witness? It's clear that in the original context of this commandment, one of the primary applications is a legal sense, that is, giving false testimony against another person in some sort of an official hearing or official capacity. False testimony was considered very serious business in biblical days. If you were bringing capital legal charges against someone, you better be telling the truth.
In Deuteronomy we're told that if the person is found guilty, you had better be willing to be the executioner if it was a capital crime.
Lying under oath also had serious consequences. In Deuteronomy 19, we read that if the witness proves to be a liar, giving false testimony against a fellow Israelite, then do to the false witness as that witness intended to do to the other party. You must purge the evil from among you. Even today, people are placed under oath for legal testimony. “Do you swear to tell the truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth? So help me God.” To fail to do so after such a declaration results in a charge of perjury, lying under oath, and the penalties can be severe. Note that such an oath goes beyond just a plain, bald-faced lie. There is a charge to avoid half-truth and innuendo.
The principle of holding truth sacred is found throughout the scriptures.
In Proverbs especially, we read “A perverse man stirs up dissension and a gossip separates close friends.” (Proverbs 16:28). Gossip, slander, half-truth, innuendo: All of that can be just as damaging and are just as sinful as an outright lie. The command to not bear false witness against our neighbor warns us against that sort of insincerity which point to a deceitful purpose, the foundation of all falsehood.
The scriptures are clear about the destructive nature of lying about other people. Psalm 27 says, “Do not turn me over,” says the Psalmist, “to the desire of my foes for false witnesses rise up against me, breathing out violence.” Anyone who has had lies and mistruths leveled against them by others knows how much that can hurt.
And don't forget it was ultimately false witness that led to conviction and the execution of Jesus.
So why do people lie about each other? Well, partly from malice, partly out of pride. When we lie to bring someone else down. It's a motivation of malice. When we lie to impress others or to use someone else or to cover up some flaw in ourselves, well, that's a lie of self-pride.
The lying started right at the beginning. All the way back in the garden, satan lied to Eve bearing false witness against God. Eve said, “God said don’t." Satan said “well, no, not really.” And so the lies began. Satan lied to Eve, eve lied to Adam and Adam lied to himself, and it's been downhill ever since.
Satan lied and still lies, I might add, because he hates God and God's people and is constantly striving to undermine the work of the kingdom. He seeks to harm God and to build up his own image, and, in the consequence, we get caught in that crossfire. He is, as Jesus says, a liar and the father of lies. People lie to promote themselves or to attack those who stand against them. Fear, contempt, revenge, conceit, fraud, pride, jealousy, envy those are all motivations for false witness. Indeed, lying in some way, shape or form, is so universal as an activity that it is solid proof to the fallen nature of humanity.
I looked at a survey a while back about lying in America that said that 91% of those surveyed lie routinely about matters that they consider trivial and 36% lie about important matters. 86% lie regularly to their parents, 75% lie regularly to their friends, 73% lie to their siblings and 69% lie to their spouses. I do wonder, however, how you can trust a survey in which the majority of people claim to lie regularly.
The ninth commandment is a reminder that God takes lying seriously. In fact, throughout the Bible we're reminded of God's hatred of lying. In Proverbs 6:19, we read that one of the things God detests is a “false witness who pours out lies and a person who stirs up dissension among sisters and brothers.” In Proverbs 12:22, we're told that “the Lord detests lying lips, but he delights in those who are truthful.” The prophets railed against the lies of God's people, such as when Isaiah accuses them you and your lips have spoken lies, your tongue mutters wickedness, and the prophet Hosea denounces the Israelites for having eaten of the fruit of lies.
Jesus dealt with false witness in no uncertain terms when he said “out of the heart come evil intentions, murder, adultery, fornication, theft, false witness and slander.” Time and time again in the Scriptures, false witness and gossip are listed as among the evils of sin. The reason false witness is such a serious issue is that when we lie, we are reflecting the image of Satan instead of the image of God in whom we were created. Our God is a God of truth and we are to be like Him. There is no godliness, no godliness, without truthfulness. The consequence of false witness is felt not only in this world, but in the next.
In describing those who will be left outside the kingdom of God, Jesus groups liars with those who are spiritual cowards, the unbelieving, the vile, the murderers, the sexually immoral, those who practice sorcery and witchcraft, and idolaters. Lying is bad stuff.
The flip side is that God is pleased when His people tell the truth. For example, psalm 15 reads Lord, who may dwell in your sanctuary, who may live on your holy hill, he who is blameless in their walk and who does what is righteousness, who is speaking the truth from his heart and has no slander on his tongue, who does his neighbor no wrong and cast no slur upon his sisters and brothers?
Lying is bad, truth is good. It is that simple.
So what do we do about this ninth commandment? How do we work it out in our daily lives? Well, the first thing is obvious: Don't lie about other people. That's point number one. Seek your neighbors good and speak truth about them.
Sometimes the best thing to do is to be quiet. As your mama told you, if you can't say anything nice, don't say anything at all. Wise advice. We say things like “I don't want to talk bad about them, but…” and then off we go. Saying “bless your heart” does not negate the false statement we just made, so knock it off.
Paul, writing to the church at Ephesus reminded them and reminds us, to put away lying. Let each of you speak truth with his neighbor, and don't forget that when we sling mud at someone else, we're going to get our own hands dirty. If you aren't willing to say something to someone in person, then don't say it at all. That is especially true when it comes to email, texting, social media, where people seem inclined to put out information that they would never say face to face in a conversation.
Remember that once something goes into cyberspace, all it takes literally is one click of the keyboard to send that stuff all around the world. And just because you know something doesn't mean you have to tell it.
Three preachers were having coffee together, they were part of a pastoral accountability group. They decided to get open and honest and truthful with each other and unburden their souls. The first one said “well, I got to tell you, guys, I've got a drinking problem and I need your support.” They all rallied around them and prayed for them. The second minister confessed that he had a problem with gambling and he'd been dipping into the offering plate from time to time to cover his debts. They all prayed with him. The third guy was really quiet, though, and the others asked if he was going to share what his deepest problem or sin was, and he replied very meekly that he was an uncontrollable gossip. Be careful who you share sensitive information with.
John Wesley referred to all these things as evil speaking. Don't do it. When it comes to gossip, we need to realize that we don't have to spread it around in order to be considered a participant in it. If someone starts yakking about someone else, shut it down. Don't pass it on, don't even listen to it. Tell them to be quiet. They're not doing right. Don't let it go on. When we participate by listening to gossip, we are guilty of sin.
Proverbs 21:28 reminds us “a false witness will perish and whoever listens to them will be destroyed forever.” Live a life worthy of Christ. As Paul writes in Colossians, chapter three “do not lie to each other.” He’s's writing to Christians by the way, “since you have taken off your old self with its practices and have put on the new self, which is being renewed in knowledge and the image of the Creator.” Tell the truth, for God's sake and for yours. You shall not bear false witness against your neighbor. May it be so this morning and forever. In the name of the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit, let's pray.
Gracious, loving God. You do make us in your own image, and God, so often we mar that image by acting in ways that are sinful, acting in ways that do not reflect your grace, that is in our lives. For that we confess our sin and we pledge to you that we will turn around and we will act better, not by our own strength, because that's not possible, but by the strength of your Holy Spirit, who lives and works in us and through us. And we do it in the name of the one who is the way and the truth and the life, our Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ. Amen.