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9th Commandment – Speaking and Seeking the Truth for the Honor of Others

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You shall not bear false witness against your neighbor.” (Exodus 20:16; Deuteronomy 5:20)

“Everyone lies.” That is one of the guiding principles of Dr. Gregory House, a character from the 2004-2012 TV show House. While there were many qualities and choices of this character that we are wise to run from, this belief resonates with us, as it seems that at some point in each person’s life, they lie. We may lie to protect ourselves or others, it may be the denial of something that is true, or it may be an assertion or claim that is false. Regardless of the motive or reason for the lie, the ninth commandment says that it is wrong. This commandment does not simply forbid false witness, though, as it goes on to say “against your neighbor.” Thus, the command is not just about what we say, but also how it portrays and relates to others around us. Because false claims and malicious attacks constantly appear on social media and all over the internet, it seems particularly important to consider what this commandment means, both regarding the nature of false witness and how it relates to others. We need to avoid the sins it forbids and strive to be virtuous people whose lives do not contain even a hint of these actions.

“False Witness” – Speaking the Truth, the Whole Truth, and Nothing But the Truth
The word “witness” causes me to think of a courtroom, as a person is called as a “witness” and takes an oath to “tell the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth.” I don’t think Jesus’s words in Matthew 5:33-37 forbid us from taking oaths, but rather teach that our words should always be truthful so we never have to swear that we are speaking the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth. This should be true of us in the courtroom and everywhere else. Since the devil is the “father of lies” (John 8:44), he seems to be the first false witness, and we are prone to follow the variety of ways that he serves as a false witness. 

At times, Satan spreads outright lies, statements that are untrue and make false claims. For example, he tells Eve that she and Adam would not die when they eat from the tree (Genesis 3:4). Unfortunately Adam and Eve – and all their descendants – discovered this was a lie too late. We need to be aware that there are lies out in the world and to make sure we don’t say things that we know are patently and plainly untrue! 

Satan does other things that are much more subtle to conceal the truth. In his encounter with Eve in the Garden of Eden, he twists the words of God, both by adding something to it, but also by taking it a bit out of context, when he says that God said, “You shall not eat of any tree in the garden” (Genesis 3:1). You might be able to say that technically God did not allow them to eat of any of the trees in the garden since one was forbidden. However, this looks at the single prohibition rather than the spirit of the words – which was both for enjoyment (you get all these to eat from all these trees) and also for protection (don’t eat that one!). Actually, Satan doesn’t even say this is what God said, but asks a question, “Did God really say…?” He is able to sow seeds of doubt while also having plausible deniability in that he could say he didn’t claim God said something that He didn’t! Thus, another danger to avoid is taking words and statements out of context and/or twisting them to push our agenda rather than what actually happened or what was actually said. 

Something else I see in Satan’s tactics here is that he attributes a motive to God: “For God knows that when you eat of it your eyes will be opened, and you will be like God, knowing good and evil” (Genesis 3:5). We know this motive is false, but how often do we hear people make claims about reasons a person or group says or does something? We might fairly report their actions, but when we attach them to motives that we cannot prove and then use that impinge upon their character, we are bearing false witness. That is, we are doing what the Heidelberg Catechism calls “condemning anyone rashly or without a hearing” (Q & A 112) in that we have likely not asked them to explain their motives or brought to them our accusation against them. 

Therefore, we need to not only speak the truth, but we also need to make sure it is the whole truth (not just part of it) and nothing but the truth (no spin or alteration of it). 

“Against Your Neighbor” – Seeking the Honor of Others
The heart of the commandment itself is not about truth in the abstract, but truth in relation to others, as we are not to bear false witness “against” our neighbors. I think the Heidelberg Catechism states well what this means: “I should love the truth, speak it candidly, and openly acknowledge it. And I should do what I can to guard and advance my neighbor’s good name” (Q & A 112). We break this commandment not only when we don’t speak the truth, but also when we gossip or slander other people; when we say what may be true but do it in a way that seeks to hurt the person’s reputation or the person themself. This does not mean that we don’t share truths that might hurt others or cause bad consequences for them, but that our goal should never be to hurt others. We should protect others from harm, help a person see the error of their ways and repent, and make sure that lies are not spread and adopted by others. We should always view others as people made in the image of God and thus worthy of dignity and honor, and we should always desire for people to come to knowledge of the truth and ultimately come to know Jesus Christ. We should say, “I want to be worshipping with them in the church on earth and ultimately in the church in eternity.” Are there people in your life or in the public sphere that you do not feel that way about?

Basically, we should treat others the way we want to be treated (as Jesus told us!). Do we listen to others and process their thoughts and ideas the way that we would want them to process our thoughts? Do we share things and speak about people the way we would wish them to speak about us and share our thoughts?

Trust and Skepticism in an Age of Distrust, Division, and Cynicism
As I processed this commandment and what it means for us today, I realized we live in a time of great division in which there is distrust and cynicism of others – but also deep trust concerning others. This commandment calls for us to speak the truth, and in order to speak the truth, we need to seek the truth. So, what is the proper attitude to have when we read and hear claims made by others? Should we be like Dr. House and be doubtful of everyone because we suspect they are lying (but somehow always trusting ourselves and our judgment as Dr. House seemed to do)? I wonder if we need to think through looking to authorities who we think are credible with the old adage of Ronald Reagan, “Trust but verify.” We can’t live in constant skepticism of others, but we should not blindly trust everything we hear either, even among those who have proven themselves to be truthful in the past. We are sinful, fallible people who sometimes deceive others (even ourselves). We need to look for potential falsehoods in arguments and be aware of confirmation bias within all people (including ourselves) to only look for things that support what we already believe. In a similar way, maybe we should approach those we are suspicious of with “doubt, but consider.” It seems wise to not adopt their view, but do we take into consideration the reasons for their view and consider challenges they may make to our current position? When we take this view, I think we will follow both elements of this commandment- seeking the truth and honoring others.

Everyone is sinful and lies, but we should seek to speak the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth — for the good of others and ultimately for the glory of God.

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