You were taught, with regard to your former way of life, to put off your old self, which is being corrupted by its deceitful desires; to be made new in the attitude of your minds; and to put on the new self, created to be like God in true righteousness and holiness. Therefore each of you must put off falsehood and speak truthfully to your neighbor, for we are all members of one body. “In your anger do not sin”: Do not let the sun go down while you are still angry, and do not give the devil a foothold. Ephesians 4:22-27
“You shall not give false testimony against your neighbor” Exodus 20:16.
Point by Point
- This law was originally about what people said in “life or death” court testimony
- Its meaning eventually spread until it was understood to refer to almost all lying, ever
- When we turn it power, positive, love-side out, it certainly means “guard each other’s reputations”
- Truth-telling is essential to building the kingdom-community of God on earth
- This law also has a dark, whistle-blower side; risky speaking truth to power
- When we tell the truth, it needs to be the whole truth, not truth caught up in a liar’s question
- What if we have festering untruth lodged in our souls, eating at our hope and confidence?
- Our Abba will show us how to become free of toxic lies we have buried deep inside
- We may be the powerful truth-tellers who are changing the world
Big Ten Law #9! Originally this law-word concerned trial situations where a person was called upon to testify for or against another Israelite. Because so many of the penalties in that violent time were so severe, a false testimony against a neighbor could ruin the person’s life; it could even cause his or her death (see the shameful story in I Kings 21:1-15). Therefore, it was a very serious business to testify and the people of Israel were forbidden to testify falsely. Over time, Israel came to see that almost any form of lying was a bearing of false witness and so this law expanded exponentially in how it was heard by people for their daily affairs. Eventually, everyone understood lying was wrong, unless one was talking to a foreigner, a stranger from outside of Israel, in which case all bets were off.
How does this law look when filtered through the two laws of love? The law has to do with more than just lying. Its central focus is the power we all have over the reputations of others.
Loving God with everything we’ve got and our neighbors as much as ourselves clearly empowers a positive-side out reading of this law. What sort of things do we say about one another? How do we lift each other up in the eyes of all around? When we hear a story about an enemy or even a friend, do we happily rush to spread the rumor? Or do we pause and reflect on how we would feel if the same story was being spread about us? There are sometimes even stories in the media which, although false and deeply distorted, can tear apart organizations and even cause good people to lose their jobs. Does anyone have any responsibility to check facts anymore? There is evil in the world which means to spread lies and not truth for its own ends. How do we cope with such a world?
As Christians, we know we are loved. We are always, wherever we may be, secure on the lap of our Abba. Our aches and pains and insecurities are being massaged away, stroked with wise, loving hands, right out of us. We can afford to be gracious to all around. St. Paul, in the same passage, in the same letter as we discussed when looking at Law Word 10, turns around the negative posture of bearing false witness, and puts the commandment in a positive, Spirit-empowered way:
Therefore if you have any encouragement from being united with Christ, if any comfort from his love, if any common sharing in the Spirit, if any tenderness and compassion, then make my joy complete by being like-minded, having the same love, being one in spirit and of one mind. Do nothing out of selfish ambition or vain conceit. Rather, in humility value others above yourselves, not looking to your own interests but each of you to the interests of the others. Philippians 2:1-4
Here St. Paul describes life in the body of Christ. He will say similar things to the Romans (12-14) and in Colossians and Ephesians (see above). Given what we have going for us, given how we are being transformed through God’s costly power, what are we doing to build and, where necessary, to restore the reputations of others?
There is also an important dark side to a Spirit-empowered reading of this law. What if so-and-so is guilty? What if everyone knows so-and-so is guilty, but so-and-so is powerful and dangerous and so no one will come out and speak the truth? It is good to remember that to say good about a guilty person in a court of law is also to “bear false witness.” Sometimes the most dangerous thing we can do is to speak ill when ill needs to be spoken. And to fail to speak up at such times is to do damage to ourselves, to our own integrity.
If I am reading behind the story right, then one morning, Nathan the prophet got up, kissed Mrs. Nathan good-bye, thanked her for a wonderful marriage, then headed off to the court where he was going to publicly trap the king in a lie, after which, of course, the king would have him executed. So, Nathan got to court, told his little story, the king fell right into the trap and Nathan declared, pointing a finger at King David, “You are the [guilty] man!” (II Samuel 12:7).
Of course, if you know the story, you know it did not go the way Nathan had surely feared it would. David was unlike any other king of Israel or of anywhere else. He was not perfect by any stretch, but he knew whom he served. Rather than killing faithful Nathan, he declared his own guilt, before God and everybody (II Samuel 12). Sometimes, telling the truth will get us into trouble. Sometimes it will mean we must speak ill even against a fellow Christian. The church at Corinth found out they were deep into a collective sin of false witness when Paul had to publicly call them out in a letter for harboring a person who was doing something even the pagans of Corinth would despise, and that is saying something (I Corinthians 5:1-2)!
The point, I think, is that we are, in Christ, empowered to call things as we see them, regardless of whatever way things may then fall. We do not have to be foolish or blunt and/or rude, but the Truth, far from a set of distant propositions, is our Friend. He has called on us to be true to him.
So, if the Nazis come to your house when you are hiding some Jews behind a trap door under your kitchen table, and they ask you if you are hiding Jews, what are you to say? If you will be true to the Truth, the Way and the Life who has rescued your life from all sorts of bondage, you must have Spiritual discernment and see the lie in the Nazi’s question. Their true question is, “Are you hiding any Jews in this house whom we have the right to arrest, detain and work to death in our labor camps?” And your true-to-Jesus answer is a definitive, “No! We would never do such a thing!” We are called upon and empowered by the Spirit to be true to Jesus and to the people of his kingdom. And only so can we be true to ourselves and to others.
If all this makes you feel restless because you know that although your heart belongs to Jesus, there are blocked mazeways in your soul, blocked streams where you have been carrying painful and toxic lies, little festering tumors of mendacity, malignant places in your soul that make it hard for you to be the truth to others, then relax in the Lord. Know that you can join with the Holy Spirit who is already groaning for your release from these small but dreadful places of darkness. God already knows the truth. You can be released. Snuggle back deep into the lap of the Truth and he will show you what to do, where to go and whom to see. It is not always the case but sometimes it helps to share some of those secrets with someone you trust. Whatever the small risk and cost, know that your redeemer wants to heal even your festering falsehoods. The Truth really will set us, each of us, free. Jesus has a kingdom to bring to everything and everyone, everywhere in all creation. He wants us to show up here and there to tell his truth. He wants us to be free and gracious and filled with true, clean, whole, witness power!
Sometimes, Lord, we do not even know which way is up, let alone what is true. Sometimes we have trouble even caring. We know we are family with you, Lord and that you would never toss us out, however foolishly we may have behaved or how badly we may have screwed up. Cuddle us, Lord. Draw us close and squeeze the fear and falsehood right out of us. Then fill us with your love, your patience, your gentle and listening silence. There are true words that must be said, Lord, said with mouths and hands and feet which are true to you and which show up where they are needed. Help us to carry your truth and no lies wherever we go. In the name of King Jesus we pray. Amen.