“You shall not bear false witness against your neighbor.” It’s the ninth commandment, low enough on the list that it almost didn’t make the cut. It doesn’t have the prominence of “you shall have no other gods before me” or “remember the Sabbath day and keep it holy.” “You shall not bear false witness” is not one of the two greatest commandments, according to Jesus. Despite this, or maybe because of it, after number six, “you shall not murder,” number nine has probably suffered the most at the hands of people looking for technicalities, backdoor exits, and loopholes. “You shall not bear false witness” really boils down to “you shall not lie,” which is how God puts it at other points in the Pentateuch. And that’s exactly where the problems begin for us, because we are all really good liars. We lie all the time. “How’s this dress look on me?” Lie
. “What do you think of my new haircut?” Lie
. “How much did you spend at the… grocery store, ballgame, bar, last night?” Lie
. “Can you make it to my dinner party this Friday?” Lie
We lie so much and for so many different reasons. We lie to protect our reputations. We lie to acquire a position or stature we don’t otherwise deserve. We lie to dodge awkward social situations. We lie because we don’t know what else to say, or because we are afraid of silence. We lie for no good reason at all. We are all liars—and some of us are really good liars.
Lying makes us slaves of our lies. In Exodus 20:2, God says, “I am the Lord your God who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of slavery.” Lying marches us right back into Egypt, binding us with vicious chains. So often we discover that to keep one lie going we must tell another lie—and another, and another, and another. We ties ourselves in knots with our lies, holding ourselves hostage to our own sin.
Lying destroys community. We look down on politicians because so many of them have lied to us time after time. Advertisers lie to us all the time; I once heard an advertiser admit that he could be proud of the quality of work he did as an advertiser because he was really good at his job, but he could never be proud of being an advertiser
, because his job was to lie to people.
More importantly, we use our knowledge of our own tendency to lie in order to justify our mistrust of others. We see a homeless man on the street, and we wonder, “Could he be lying?” We ask this question not because we know the man or his history but because we know ourselves. We think, “If I were in his situation, I might be lying. So he might be lying, too.” And then we use our own lying to justify crossing the street and denying the man the alms God commands us to give him: “I’m not going to give that man my money. He might be lying!”
Above all else, the church must be a community of people who refuse to lie. Not every Christian has believed this, unfortunately, and some Christians have tried to dream up circumstances where lies are permissible, or even commendable. But we Christians must never lie. Why that is so takes us to the very heart of the Ten Commandments.
You see, the Ten Commandments are not just ten really good ideas for how to live a good life. They are not a set of rules that we can check off each day, or over the course of our lives. The Ten Commandments are about a way of seeing and understanding the world and all that we have as something given to us by God in love with the expectation that in love we will offer something back to God. So the first four commandments are about the Lord offering himself to us and us offering our worship to the Lord, and not to other gods. The next three, concerning parents, murder, and adultery, are about God’s gift of human community and our refusal to sacrifice that gift for our own shortsighted greed. Commandments eight and ten are about God’s offering of what we need to live on this earth and our offering of thanksgiving instead of grumbling and jealousy.
The ninth commandment against false witness is about something just as fundamental: God’s gift to us of speech. Or, we might say, God’s gift to us of our word. “She’s as good as her word,” we say. Or, “I give you my word.” Or, “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God” (John 1:1). That’s why it’s so important that we Christians refuse to lie. When we lie, we don’t just deceive other people; we don’t merely rupture bonds of trust and respect. When we lie, we betray ourselves as people who do not trust in the Word—even, and maybe especially, when we think we are lying for a good cause. More than that, John 1 tells us that “the Word became flesh and dwelt among us.” If we want to follow Christ, we must be people in whom God’s Word can dwell. Our word must become more and more attune to God’s Word. In our lies we reveal that it is a false word, the enemy of God’s Word, that lives in us. It is as simple as this: will our word be the Word of God in Christ Jesus or not?
The opposite of lying is not unwisely running our mouths when we should be silent. If you feel that you absolutely cannot tell the truth, you can always be silent. It’s better than lying. But the true opposite of lying is confession. To confess is to offer our word in harmony with God’s Word. Our confession can be as simple as, “Jesus is Lord,” and as complicated as the Nicene Creed we’re about to speak. Our confession acknowledges our shortcomings—“I believe, Lord, help my unbelief!”—and our sin—“Have mercy on me, Lord, a sinner.” Confession happens in worship and in private devotion, but it also happens when we refuse to lie, no matter the cost to us. Confession happens when we see that our lies are a way of trying to control our world instead of trusting in God’s Word. As Christians, our lives should be lives of confession.
True speech lies at the very heart of who God is, because the Word of God is also the Son of God. The ninth commandment not to bear false witness against our neighbor is also a commandment to offer our word to others in the same way God has offered his Word to us. May we be found truthful in our speech, even as he is the True Word. Amen.