March 19, 2022 - 9th Commandment

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Today’s we’re talking about the 9th Commandment, “Thou shalt not bear false witness against thy neighbor.” When a witness testifies in court, reputations, family fortunes, even lives hang in the balance. Our 42nd president lost his law license for the crime of perjury. Back in Moses’ day, false testimony in court was a popular and often effective way to rip off or get rid of an enemy. That’s why Hebrew law throws the book at anyone found guilty of perjury. Dt 19:19 says that a false witness shall suffer the same penalty they tried to inflict on their neighbor.

 

God is concerned in this commandment, not merely about false testimony in court, but ultimately about all forms of lying. Proverbs 12:23 – “Lying lips are an abomination to the Lord” (they turn God’s stomach). A lying tongue is one of God’s 7 pet peeves in Proverbs 6. Colossians 3:9 – “Do not lie to one another.” Ephesians 4:25 – “Therefore, putting away falsehood, let everyone speak the truth with their neighbor.” Why? Because Paul says, “we are members of the same body.” If we lie to a fellow believer, we are only hurting ourselves.

 

What difference does it make whether we misrepresent reality? If God did not exist, it wouldn’t make a whole lot of difference. Without God, so what if we tell lies? All you can say is that we don’t like it when people lie to us. Who cares whether we like it? If there is no source of absolute truth, then why not withhold, distort, or exaggerate the truth? Why not fabricate truth to suit our own desires? A lot of people today believe that truth is entirely in our heads, that truth is whatever we think it is. The reason why we must be honest with the truth is because God is truth, and because the devil is the source of all lies (John 8:44).

 

Why do we lie? Dr. Scott Peck, author of The Road Less Traveled, observes that lying is our attempt to avoid the pain of challenge. Lying is a shortcut to avoid necessary suffering. Lying is the easy way out of an uncomfortable situation. In the short run, it is less painful to lie in a pinch. Hiding a little bit of truth from the IRS can save you megabucks if you don’t get caught. Telling the truth can be costly. But we will pay a price if we do not tell the truth.

 

Nobody knows exactly how much we lie (the stats keep changing). According to a report years ago, 2/3 of us confess that we lie every day. More than half of teenagers say that lying is a necessary part of life. Only 30% of us agree that honesty is the best policy. 40% of us make false excuses to get off from work. 25% of us lie about our weight. 15% of us lie about our age.

 

Women usually lie to keep from hurting other people’s feelings. Men usually lie to save face or bolster our egos. We lie to escape punishment. We lie to keep from losing our job. We lie for convenience: we make excuses why we can’t help someone, or we say we’ll come to an event, when we just don’t have the courage to say No.

 

The most common lies we hear are the so-called “little white lies,” the ones we consider “socially acceptable,” the kind that are told for the sake of “being polite.” I question the value of being polite if it requires us to tell lies. Miss Manners the famous advice columnist, once argued, “There has to be a withholding of certain blunt truths.” I would rephrase that and say: We need not be brutal in our honesty. BUT – if we tell lies to avoid hurting people’s feelings, we may have to live with the consequences. When a person asks, “How do you like my new dress?” or “How do you like your dinner?”, and we respond with white lies, the other person may take us at our word. They may then act on our dishonest feedback. They may buy another ugly dress, or cook the same awful meal for us again. Plus, the other person will learn not to trust us for honest feedback again when they find out what we really think. Better to be like NBC’s Tom Brokaw, who told us tactfully what he thought of Tibetan tea buttered with yak milk. He said, “It was an acquired taste, which I failed to acquire.”

 

Parents tell white lies to their kids. A child asks for a cookie, and the parent says, “Sorry, all gone,” when there are still plenty of cookies left in the jar. Lying by parents undermines the parents’ future credibility, and it is often done for selfish reasons. Parents hide marital conflict, drug problems, and bankruptcy from the kids, not for the good of the child, but to avoid the pain of looking like losers.

 

The younger generation has learned from its parents that it’s OK to tell small lies. Is it any wonder they have learned to tell large ones? My policy has been to model for my kids 100% reliability in what I say. If we parents make the effort to get rid of even the littlest lies, and teach our children by example that NO lie is right to tell (even polite social lies), our children will take us far more seriously when we talk to them about truth and right and wrong.

 

The motives behind lying to cover up a crime or an affair, or lying on tax returns, insurance claims, or job applications, are the same motives behind our little white lies. We tell them to avoid an embarrassing, threatening, or fearful situation, whenever we feel it’s too costly to tell the truth. Telling the truth may take more courage than most of us can muster.

 

But we will pay the price when we do not tell the truth. Lying creates complications that will disrupt our lives. We may be forced to manufacture new lies to protect old ones. Those who lie must also keep track of every word they have said to avoid contradicting themselves. It’s so much easier to tell the truth – there’s much less to keep straight. As Shakespeare says, “O what a tangled web we weave, when first we practice to deceive.”

 

Those who lie, sabotage their own credibility by doing so: the ability of others to believe what you say, to take you at your word. Credibility is an asset we can’t afford to throw away. Dishonesty is a HUGE red flag in a job applicant or a potential marriage partner; it is a guaranteed warning of trouble. Dishonesty will come back and bite us. And nothing destroys the personal credibility of a Christian like a lying tongue. People will say, “Yeah, I know what she said, but you know how reliable she is,” or “Why should I believe what you say about God, when I can’t believe anything else you say?” Credibility is easy to lose, and hard to earn back.

 

Directly contradicting the truth is only 1 form of lying. Other ways we can lie include failing to tell all the truth, withholding vital pieces of information, the telling of half-truth, telling the truth in a way that deceives by creating false impressions. Our news media withholds vital information all the time. They have been guilty of downright malpractice by their failure to tell us the whole story we need to know. We always need to take their reports with a boxful of salt. We have supposed fact-checkers imposing their opinions as if they were fact. We also have big tech companies canceling any news report they disagree with.

 

The public is not well served when our flow of information is controlled by companies who want to dictate what we have a right to know, or by one political party, regardless of which party. That leaves us no better off than the Soviets with their state-run news media. The Soviets had 2 newspapers, Pravda (which means Truth) and Izvestiya (which means News). As the old saying used to go, “In Pravda there is no izvestiya, and in Izvestiya there is no pravda.”

 

Distortion is 1 subtle form of lying. So is misquoting a person’s words. So is exaggeration, the “superlative syndrome,” blowing our claims out of proportion. Spouses need to avoid sweeping claims like “My husband never spends time with me” or “My wife always nags.” Christians do not help the cause of Christ when we overstate God’s blessings, when we give the impression that God magically solves all our problems. That’s an exaggeration, and unbelievers can see through it instantly, but they admire Christians who can be honest and transparent about their struggles.

 

The craziest kind of lying is when we lie to ourselves: denial, failure to be honest with ourselves. Most of us have what are called “vital lies” that we think we need to protect ourselves from our own painful blind spots. Denial is not a river in Egypt!

 

Can lying ever be a righteous act? Is it moral to conduct a sting operation, to tell lies in order to catch crooks or spies? The needs of our criminal justice system could justify such an action. One could argue that the criminal in such cases does not deserve to know the truth. In cases where I am bound by confidentiality, I may choose to withhold vital information from those who do not need to know it.

 

What about lying to a terminally ill patient who asks, “Am I going to die?” Whose needs are best served by denying the patient their right to know their chances of survival? Why should we deprive the dying patient of the chance to make the most of the little time they have left?

 

A passenger on United Flight 232 (which crashed in Sioux City IA in 1989) told about a boy on the plane who was understandably upset by what was happening. The passenger told the boy: “Son, I’m a pilot. I’ve been through stuff like this before. Everything’s going to be OK.” None of what the man said was true (the man was not a pilot), but the boy believed the man and quieted down. The man was never able to find out whether the boy lived or died. As I read this story, I asked: Which matters more: the comfort that a lie can give, or the disillusionment when that lie is shattered?

 

In such hard cases, the question we must ask is: Who will be harmed by the truth? Will someone’s life be placed in jeopardy? Or is it my own comfort that is threatened? The Bible praises Rahab the harlot for lying to protect the lives of Hebrew spies, and certainly we would approve of those who lied to the Nazis to protect the lives of Jews in WWII. But lying to save someone’s life or catch a crook is much different from lying to protect one’s career or reputation.

 

Oliver North lied to Congress because he claimed Congress had become an enemy of our national interests. To some political extremists, truth is whatever promotes their ideology, and so they will tell any lie necessary to achieve their goals.

 

God can forgive lying, and so can we. But lying cannot be forgiven until it is confessed and honestly forsaken. The Ancestor of all lies wants us to believe that sin is no big deal with God. Sin itself is a product of lies about ourselves and God. We humans must face the truth. We are not as wonderful as we think we are. All of us are sinners who need a Savior. The moment we surrender and confess that truth, eternal life is ours for the asking.

 

A life of unswerving devotion to truth is the only sensible way to live. Again, Dr. Scott Peck says, “Mental health is an on-going process of dedication to reality at all costs.” Seeking the honest truth even when it hurts – being honest with others – refusing to live under a cloud of our own delusion. Jesus tells those who place their faith in him, “You shall know the truth, and the truth shall make you free.” (John 8:32) It is lies that bind us. It is truth that sets us free.

 

Truth matters! Truth and justice are inseparably linked. We cannot have justice unless we can establish what the truth is in any given situation. And we live in an age where truth is as hard to nail down as Jell-O, an age where people think that truth is whatever is “true for me,” while some think that truth is simply a product of whoever holds the shotgun or whoever can shout the loudest, lobby the longest, or manufacture the most sympathy. Without truth, forget about justice – power is the only game in town.

 

Truth can be extremely hard to find, or at least hard to recognize when we find it. In sexual harassment cases, or cases where police arrest a suspect, how do we figure out who’s telling the truth? We talk about how big is the federal debt – we’re just taking somebody’s word for it, and who knows what the truth is? (I haven’t personally counted the money!) We even debate the truth about the latest spending bill in Congress, which may not be a secret, but it’s so big, who’s actually read it?

 

Until lately, society has been relying heavily on science to nail down truth for us. What’s scary is that now we hear reports of scientists faking their data, from global warming to what’s the truth about the coronavirus. Science has been shamelessly hijacked by politics.

 

Truth matters! And yet, some truth remains between the ears. We hear all kinds of stories about what happened at work, and they can’t all be true. The last supervisor was a jerk. The last supervisor walked on water. This person or that person got ripped off by decisions that were made. We try to figure out what really happened, but often we find that it doesn’t matter what really happened. Perceptions become reality, even if those perceptions are false. Unless you can prove them false, you are stuck with perceptions.

 

What does God say about the relationship between truth and justice? In Exodus 23:1, God says, “Do not spread (lift up) a false report.” Both in the Iron Age and the age of the Internet, people can lose huge amounts of money and business due to false reports. False reports can devastate a business. They can drive down a stock price. They can knock a candidate out of an election. Truth matters!

 

That’s why this verse goes on to say, “Do not join hands with a wicked person to be a malicious (literally: violent) witness.” False witness is often an act of violence. Exodus 23:7 says, “Keep far from a false charge, and do not slay the innocent or the righteous, for I will not acquit the wicked.” Back then, you could easily, literally slay an innocent person with false testimony. Today, it’s usually livelihoods rather than lives on the line. God says: Don’t use falsehood as a tool of literal or economic violence.

 

Truth matters, immensely! People deserve truthful information about matters that critically affect their lives, like what’s in the food they eat and the water they drink, or how’s their money being handled by Social Security or the Federal Reserve, or who exactly are these people we elect to office. How do we figure out which sources of information to trust? Watch and see: who gives you only half the story? Who has to backtrack the least when all the facts come out? Who ends up having to admit more of what the other side was saying all along?

 

Truth matters, immensely! It makes a huge difference in our lives, whether it’s threats to our health, threats to our money, threats to our system of justice (whether it still works or not), threats to our environment, or threats to our nation’s survival. Truth is the only way we can establish justice, the only way we can right the wrongs in this world. And God is the only one who knows the whole story. Only God knows the score. Only God always knows whose case is just. No one can hide the truth from God. No one can fool God into believing baloney.

 

God is truth. God puts the lie to the claim that truth is whatever is “true for you.” Some truth is absolute. That means that some truth cannot be changed by wishing it away. Some truth is timeless and universal; it doesn’t change with the times, it doesn’t change when you cross a border. Jesus Christ is truth packaged in a person. He is the One who knows our secrets. He is the One who knows what is just. He is the baseline by whom we will be judged.

 

God knows the truth about us. And Jesus says that one day God’s going to do the world’s biggest Wiki-Leaks document dump. God knows enough dirt on us to drive us to our knees. If we look in the right mirror, none of us can claim to live a holy life. None of us can claim to be “good” as God defines it. All of us desperately need a Savior.

 

That’s why Jesus spells eternal relief. Jesus came to take away our guilt, to take away that humongous pile of evidence against us and nail it to the cross. From this moment on, you can know that your sins have been permanently taken away. We cannot be saved by our own goodness. All we can do is receive what Jesus Christ has done for us in faith. That’s the truth that can and will set us free.

 

Next time, we’ll be talking about our constant desire for more: coveting, the desire to acquire. Join us as we explore the 10th Commandment next time on Biblical Words and World!

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