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Presented at Trinity Fellowship on 04/13/1997
"You shall not bear false witness against your neighbor."
On a windswept hill in an English country churchyard stands a drab, gray tombstone. Bleak and unpretentious, it leans slightly to one side, beaten almost smooth by the blasts of time. But if you stoop over and look closely, you can still the barely visible epitaph: "Beneath this stone, a lump of clay, / Lies Arabella Young, / Who on the twenty-fourth of Man / Began to hold her tongue." C. S. Lewis reports a similar monument: "Erected by her sorrowing brothers / In memory of Martha Clay. / Here lies one who lived for others. / Now she has peace--and so have they." There would be a whole lot more peace in the world if the Ninth Commandment were better understood and followed: "You shall not bear false witness against your neighbor."
The real purpose of this commandment is often misunderstood so that the commandment itself is frequently misapplied. It is not really about perjury, which is covered under the Third Commandment, against taking God's name in vain. It is not about honesty primarily, which is covered in the Eighth Commandment, against stealing. It is not even primarily about truth-telling in the abstract. There are times when the truth is simply inappropriate. God approved and blessed the Egyptian midwives, who lied to protect Hebrew children, and Rahab, who lied to protect the Israelite spies. Surely He does not bless and approve people who break His most basic commandments! I have known people who refused to participate in practical jokes or in the temporary deception necessary to pull off a surprise party because they thought such things required them to violate this commandment. They had simply missed the point.
The Ninth Commandment is primarily about responsible speech with regard to our Neighbor. Look at some of the ways it is applied and developed in Scripture. In Prvb. 6:16-19, a lying tongue is one of the seven things the Lord hates. What we need to notice is how all seven are connected. They are all ways of injuring our neighbor. The first five are all body parts: haughty eyes, a lying tongue, hands that shed blood, a heart that devises wicked plans, feet that run to evil. And the climactic seventh member of the list, right after a repetition of the lying, is one who spreads strife among brothers. That pretty much tells you where the whole passage is going. In Prvb. 12:18 one who speaks rashly like a thrusting sword is contrasted with the tongue of the wise that brings healing. In Eph. 4:25-32, speaking truth with our neighbors is connected to handling anger constructively, to wholesome words for edification, and to the contrast between anger and malice, kindness and an unforgiving spirit. It all has to do with talking either to or about our neighbors in ways that are helpful rather than hurtful.
We have already seen how language, being part of the image of God in us, is so potent a force for good or ill. That is why He gives us this commandment about how we use it with reference to our neighbor. The Neighbor, and how what we say affects him, is the key concept for understanding the commandment in practical terms. Just as the commandment against murder protects the integrity of a person's life; just as the commandment against adultery protects the integrity of his family; just as the commandment against stealing protects the integrity of his property; so the commandment against false witness is here to protect his reputation and his feelings. Negatively, we should not tear him down with slander, falsehood, and gossip. Positively, then we are to build him up with honest praise, encouragement, sometimes rebuke--but all done in love, all done for edification.
I assume that no one here would deliberately lie about another person. If you are that far gone morally, repent! God hates a lying tongue. Probably the primary way we break this commandment is through Gossip. For Gossip is hurtful even if what we are saying is technically true. What then must we make sure we do not do?
You don't? Oh, really? What about the "semi-veiled prayer request"? "We really need to pray for So-and-So: they're having sever marital problems." Oh, are they now? And what might they be? We have no idea how many mouths this information has gone through before it came out of yours, and we have no idea whether these problems involve normal adjustments to each other or adultery. But we have just been given an invitation to speculate. And we have no idea how to separate fact from assumption, knowledge from conjecture. Is this likely to be helpful or hurtful to the So-and-So's? Would you want to take your chances on that score of you were them? I can tell you as a pastoral counselor who has often had access to the facts that the chances of this prayer request having been in effect if not in fact a false witness against these people is very high indeed.
Even if we don't habitually share Gossip, we often have caught ourselves enabling those who do by greedily listening to the juicy tidbits. Often we don't even realize we are doing so until we are too far into the conversation to extract ourselves easily. I would encourage you to make it a firm policy, whenever you hear something the least bit questionable, to say, "Whoa! Wait a minute! Hold it right there," and then ask two questions. The first is, "How do you know this?" Is it first hand information? Did you get it straight from So-and So? If not, there is no way you can vouch for its accuracy. And if that is the case, the conversation has to stop right there. But even if the information is first-hand, straight from the horse's mouth, there is a second question that needs to follow: "Do you have So-and-So's permission to be sharing this with me?" Again, unless the answer is a clear "Yes," the conversation needs to stop immediately.
"But wait a minute," I hear someone saying, "aren't we supposed to care about So-and-So and try to help hum?" Well, of course you are. But how does gossiping about him do that? If you really cared, there would be only one person you would be talking to: So-and-So himself. And you would keep your mouth shut otherwise. If you have his confidence, you can urge him to seek help from the pastor or other counselors or even Christian friends. But unless he is a clear and present danger to himself or others (we do have to use common sense: there is a time for what is called "intervention"; but even then we do not do it by gossiping!), you will only make things worse if you try to make that decision for him behind his back. Don't even come to me, as the pastor, without his permission! For if you did, and I did go to see him, we would just have told him that he cannot trust any of us. So how then are we going to help him? "You shall not bear false witness against your neighbor."
If we are not to use our tongues to injure our neighbor by tearing him down or hurting his reputation, then obviously we should be using them to build him up, to edify him. What kinds of speech do that? First, the intelligent praise of God, when it is meaningful, relevant to the circumstances and context, and not just an annoying pious habit. What could be more edifying than that? It is why we were made articulate in the first place. Second, an honest compliment. Not flattery--flattery is just another form of false witness, and it is hurtful rather than helpful. But when someone really does something well and we tell him, we are not only encouraging him but helping him perhaps to identify his spiritual gifts. Third, the expression of honest caring--not just a flippant "I'll be praying for you." Finally, sound doctrine, and exhortation or application based on it. In all these ways we cultivate real love of the brethren. The point of the Ninth Commandment is not to stop us from caring, but to ensure that we do it responsibly and effectively.
"Therefore, laying aside falsehood, speak truth, each one of you, with his neighbor, for we are all members one of another. . . . Let no unwholesome word proceed from your mouth, but only such a word as is good for edification according to the need of the moment, that it may give grace to those who hear" (Eph. 4:25, 29). Amen.
Here endeth the lesson.
Dr. Donald T. Williams