The Eighth Commandment: Lesson 15 Bearing False Witness
“Thou shalt not bear false witness against thy neighbour.” (Exodus 20:16)
After the 1988 election, one politician in Fort Worth, Texas, summed up the basic reason why Michael Dukakis was such an ineffective candidate: “He forgot the first rule of knife fighting. There are no rules.”
But there is one rule that towers above all the rest. We might call it the First Rule of Human Relationships. “Thou shalt not bear false witness against thy neighbour.”
In a world where words are many and truth is cheap, we are to tell the truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth. Flip the Eighth Commandment over and it reads like this: “You must not tamper with the truth.”
A Quick Bible Survey
Consider this brief sample of what the Bible says on this subject:
Psalm 12:2—"They have spoken vain things every one to his neighbour: with deceitful lips, and with a double heart have they spoken.”
Proverbs 6:16-19—"Six things there are, which the Lord hateth, and the seventh his soul detesteth. Haughty eyes, a lying tongue, hands that shed innocent blood, A heart that deviseth wicked plots, feet that are swift to run into mischief, A deceitful witness that uttereth lies, and him that soweth discord among brethren.”
Proverbs 14:5—"A faithful witness will not lie: but a deceitful witness uttereth a lie.”
Ephesians 4:25—"Wherefore putting away lying, speak ye the truth every man with his neighbour; for we are members one of another.”
Colossians 3:9—"Lie not one to another: stripping yourselves of the old man with his deeds,”
Revelation 21:8—"But the fearful, and unbelieving, and the abominable, and murderers, and whoremongers, and sorcerers, and idolaters, and all liars, they shall have their portion in the pool burning with fire and brimstone, which is the second death.”
From these verses alone we can safely conclude that truth matters greatly to God. Not only does truth matter, telling the truth matters to God. But we can go one step further and say that God hates those who willfully choose to lie.
Truth matters to God! That’s the message of the Eighth Commandment.
I. What This Commandment Forbids
Let me suggest eight specific areas that are covered by this Commandment.
A. Lying Under Oath
Lying under oath (or perjury) is the most basic issue in view in the Eighth Commandment. It is a measure of these relativistic times that most of us would hardly consider this a major issue. Lying under oath? Sure, it’s wrong, we all know, but we see our leaders do it so often that it doesn’t seem like a big issue to us.
But William Barclay lists several dozen Scriptures in the Old Testament that repeatedly show how much the Jews feared and hated this crime. He also points out that false witnesses were used against Jesus during his trial (Matthew 26:59-60). He notes that “the man who refuses to give evidence, when he has evidence to give, is condemned as severely as the man who gives false evidence … The sin of silence is as real as the sin of speech.”
He sums up the matter this way:
“The Jewish law was so arranged that a witness was compelled to think of his responsibility for the truth. Jewish thought hated false witness; Jewish law condemned false witness; and Jewish regulations did everything to make a witness hesitate to tell anything but the truth.
Note that Deuteronomy 19:16-21 prescribes that if a man gave false testimony in court, then he would be punished with whatever penalty would have been inflicted upon the person against whom he gave the false testimony. “The rest of the people will hear of this and be afraid, and never again will such an evil thing be done among you.”
B. The Direct Lie
Here we are thinking of the deliberate, premeditated lie—such as the time when Jacob deceived his father Isaac by pretending to be his brother Esau.
C. The Subjective Lie
This is the lie in which you arrange the facts in such a way that, while not directly lying, you allow others to believe that which is not true. An example would be the case of Joseph’s brothers bringing back his bloody coat to their father Jacob. Although they had dipped the coat in sheep’s blood, they allowed Jacob to come to the false conclusion that Joseph had been torn apart by wild animals. A second example would be Judas kissing Jesus—an insincere gesture of feigned friendship.
D. Keeping Quiet When You Know the Truth
Keeping quiet is a lie because, by not testifying, you allow either an innocent party to be wrongly convicted or you allow a guilty party to be wrongly set free. In such a case, Leviticus 5:1 says that the person remaining silent “shall bear his iniquity”. In other words, he will be held responsible for his silence. Keeping silent is a crime that God will not overlook.
Slander is making false accusations against another person. Potiphar’s wife was guilty of slander when she falsely accused Joseph of raping her. This is a particularly hostile form of lying because it is usually passed along through gossip, rumor and innuendo. Note that Romans 1:29 lists slander as one of the marks of a depraved lifestyle. It is an outward mark of a life that does not know God.
Once again we come to an area of biblical truth that probably surprises us. Again and again the Psalmist condemns those who lie “with flattering lips.” Flattery is the sin of insincere compliments. We call it buttering up or kissing up. God hates it because flattery uses the cover of feigned friendship to gain an unfair advantage over others.
G. Careless Exaggeration
This is the sin of preachers and priest … Democrats and Republicans … and all salesmen. It’s the sin of those who “over-promise and under-deliver.” It’s what happens when you promise delivery on the 10th when you know full well that the factory can’t deliver until the 18th. It’s what happens when you promise a price that you know is impossibly low. It’s what happens when you brag about features your new car either doesn’t have or aren’t as good as you claim them to be.
H. Lying to God
This is what happens when you make a promise to God and do not keep it. Sometimes we talk about “fox-hole religion,” meaning those crisis times in life where we promise to serve God faithfully if only he will get us out of trouble. Or we make a decision in a church service to change our ways … but when the service is over, nothing really changes.
That’s lying to God. It’s what Ananias and Sapphira did in Acts 5 when they pretended to give all the money but actually held back some of it. They were lying to God, and as a result they were struck dead in the presence of the whole congregation.
Lest that sound brutal, remember the words of Ecclesiastes 5. It is better not to make a vow than to make a vow and then break it. God hates that. Don’t mess with God. It’s better just to keep your mouth shut.
Why Is This Sin So Terrible?
The list above barely scratches the surface of all the Bible has to say about lying. There is much more that could be said—both about the kinds of lies God condemns and the terrible results of a dishonest life.
Why is this sin condemned so frequently and in such strong terms? What’s so terrible about lying?
1. It destroys society.
2. It wrecks homes.
3. It splits churches.
4. It fractures families.
5. It poisons every human relationship.
6. It cauterizes the conscience.
7. It condemns the soul.
We may say it very simply:
Truth leads to heaven … for God is truth.
Lying leads to hell … because Satan is the father of lies.
II. What This Commandment Demands
We can sum up the positive demands of the Eighth Commandment in three simple statements. God wants …
A. Truthfulness in our Words
B. Honesty in our Relationships
C. Integrity in our Lifestyle
Truthfulness … honesty … integrity. Unfortunately, it is easier to write these words than to live up to their high demands. Truthfulness means an end to verbal sloppiness; honesty means I can’t play games with people—implying things that aren’t really true; integrity means a life that is open for all to see.
If you put those three words together, you come up with this: Transparent living. That means what you see is what you get. No deception, no dishonesty, no con games.
A Man Without Guile
One day in on of my Bible college classes, Our Professor talking about the president of our Bible college, when he made this comment: “Dr. …. is a man without guile.” He went on to say this: “When he speaks, you don’t have to wonder what he really means. What you see is what you get.”
“A man without guile … what you see is what you get.” Those words flashed into my mind as I thought about the phrase “transparent living.” Then it occurred to me that I’ve never heard anyone else described as being “without guile.”
Is that because so few of us really live transparent lives?
Wesley Pippert on Integrity
Wesley Pippert, a well-known UPI correspondent, offers these trenchant words on the importance of integrity:
One of the most effective disciplines I know is not to do something that first time—for repetition will come far easier … Not doing something for the first time is a tremendous bulwark against not doing it later. As moral philosopher Sissela Bok has said … “It is easy to tell a lie but hard to tell only one.” Discipline will help us avoid the guilt that we often experience by dabbling in things we shouldn’t. Few things are more important than whether one has a good reputation, a “good name.” Not all people are gregarious or outgoing. Not all people are sought after or loveable. But everyone can have integrity. Integrity flows more out of a disciplined character than a daring personality.
“It’s easy to tell a lie but hard to tell only one.” Now that’s a true statement. How many of us have tried to lie our way out of trouble but like Dennis the Menace have only gotten ourselves in deeper and deeper? We say one thing to Mr. Wilson, one thing to our buddies, something else to our parents. Then we can’t remember what we said to anyone.
Integrity means saying the same thing all the time!
The Hardest Truth To Tell
I’m sure you heard this little saying:
Sow an act, reap a habit.
Sow a habit, reap a character.
Sow a character, reap a destiny.
Seen in that light, we may say that there is no such thing as a “little white lie.” There is no such thing as a “socially-necessary deception.” Every act whether good or bad contributes to a habit which develops our character which determines our destiny.
Truth-telling is crucial, and the hardest truth you will ever tell is the truth about yourself! I have concluded that 90% of the solution to any problem is having the courage to tell the truth.
The people who dare to tell the truth about themselves are the people who begin to get better!
Is it painful? You bet!
Is it scary? Of course!
Is it easy? No way!
But those people who swallow their fear, endure their pain, and decide to take the hard road of truth … they are the ones who get better. I have seen marriages saved by truth-telling and I have seen marriages crumble because of inner deception.
Whenever someone has the courage to tell the truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth—especially about themselves—they are going to get better!
Why We Don’t Get Better
One Spiritual Director had done a take-off on the words of Jesus in John 8:31, “And you shall know the truth, and the truth shall make you free.” The Spiritual Director had added the phrase:
"The truth shall make you free … but it will hurt you first.”
When I read that, a light when on in my head. One reason we do not get better is because we don't want the truth to hurt us first. It is easier to avoid the truth because the truth about our own life is too painful to bear.
Then everything clickes into place. That’s why so many people struggle with their problems for years. They don’t want the truth to hurt them … so they avoid the truth at all costs.
Do they want to get better? Absolutely.
Do they know the the truth? Intellectually, yes.
Then why don’t they get better? Because they won’t let the truth get close enough to hurt them. Instead, they erect a thousand defense mechanisms that deflect the truth before it hits home.
Which explains why you can go to Mass for years, listen to Homilies for years, read the Bible and pray the rosary … and still not get better.
"The truth shall make you free … but it will hurt you first.”
When you are finally willing to be hurt by the truth about yourself, then—and only then—will you be set free.
III. How to Become a More Truthful Person
Let’s wrap this up with three simple suggestions for becoming a more truthful person:
A. Practice Creative Silence
Proverbs 10:19 says, “In the multitude of words there shall not want sin: but he that refraineth his lips is most wise.”
Proverbs 11:12 declares, “The wise man will hold his peace.”
Proverbs 13:3 adds, “He that keepeth his mouth, keepeth his soul: but he that hath no guard on his speech shall meet with evils”
Proverbs 21:23 tells us that “He that keepeth his mouth and his tongue, keepeth his soul from distress.”
Truth-telling begins with silence. Speak less and you will speak more truthfully. The more you say, the more likely you are to exaggerate, to slander, to mislead and to stretch the truth.
What is creative silence? Here is the key: It means praying while you are listening. Most of us don’t listen very well anyway. When someone else is talking, we’re busy trying to figure out what we are going to say next. No wonder we don’t communicate!
Creative silence means listening more, saying less, and praying instead of interrupting.
Pray for wisdom!
Pray for God’s guidance!
Pray for understanding!
Pray for God’s love to be manifested in your speech!
The Bible is clear on this point. The more we speak, the less truth we tell. If we want to become more truthful, the first step is to speak less.
B. Practice Personal Accountability
One reason we don’t get better is that we are afraid to let the truth get close enough to hurt us. In particular, we’re afraid that if others know the truth about the way we really are, they won’t love us or accept us. Therefore, we live behind our well-constructed masks, pretending to have it all together, playing the religious game, going through all the “right” motions, never admitting that inside we are barely holding it together.
Would you like to be set free from that? Get into a spiritual accountability group. Find a group of two or three friends who will meet with you on a regular basis to hold you accountable in your personal life. Agree among yourselves to ask the hard questions and not to accept evasive answers.
It’s a simple principle. If you are truly good friends, you’ll be able to detect when someone in the group is blowing smoke. At that point, someone says, “OK, what’s really going on here?”
Good friends help other friends find the courage to tell the truth!
As it has been said, “You’re only as sick as your secrets.” Think about that. Once you let your dirty secrets out of the closet—about your hidden addictions, your closet sins, your unrevealed bad habits—they aren’t secrets any more. Then you can start getting better.
Truth-telling is made easier in the presence of a few caring friends.
C. Commit Yourself to Becoming a “Person of Truth”
As Christians, we are called to be “People of the Truth.” After all, we know Jesus Christ who said, “I am the way, the truth and the life.” (John 14:6) When he stood before Pilate, he declared, “For this was I born, and for this came I into the world; that I should give testimony to the truth. Every one that is of the truth, heareth my voice.” (John 18:37)
Are you on the side of truth?
One famous preacher of the past said, “Don’t argue about whether or not a stick is crooked. The way to tell is to put a straight stick down next to it.” We live in a crooked world where truth is routinely devalued and where falsehood is elevated to a way of life. God hasn’t called us to go around condemning all the falsehood and dishonesty. All we have to do is tell the truth and the dishonesty will be seen for what it really is.
If we will take the Eighth Commandment seriously, the truth will take care of itself.
“Against Your Neighbor”
The Eighth Commandment adds a phrase we might tend to overlook: “You shall not give false testimony against your neighbor.” It is ironic, isn’t it, that you are most likely to lie to those you know the best and love the most.
—Your husband or your wife
—Your best friends
—The people with whom you work
Once again we come face to face with the awful reality that this Commandment is not directed to the people “out there” but to the people “in here"—to those of us who name the name of God, who claim to know the Lord, who call ourselves followers of Jesus Christ.
The Eighth Commandment is for us!
We are the ones who need its message.
May I remind you that truth is not simply a verbal proposition. Truth is ultimately in a Person. That’s why Pilate’s question—"What is truth?"—has echoed and reverberated across the centuries. Truth to him was a philosophical proposition. Little did he know that the Truth was standing in front of him.
That’s why John 1:14 says that Jesus came to the earth “full of grace and truth.”
—To know Jesus is to know the Truth.
—To follow Jesus is to follow the Truth.
—To believe in Jesus is to believe the Truth.
—To love Jesus is to love the Truth.
That’s why truth-telling is so crucial for us. We know the Truth, we have believed the Truth, we have committed ourselves to following the Truth. Therefore, we must become People of the Truth.
When will the lying end?
When God’s people decide to tell the truth!