Today we come to examine the 9th commandment, Thou shalt not bear false witness, which is often paraphrased more directly as Thou shalt not lie.
Reading through the Bible, it is interesting that even though the 10 Commandments contain a law against lying and against giving false witness, the Old Testament is full of stories of lies and deception. The great Patriarch’s of Israel, Abraham, Isaac and Jacob all told lies. Abraham lied repeatedly that his wife Sarah was his sister, in order to give her to Pharaoh so that he could save his own life (Gen 26:11-13), which raises all sorts of other dubious moral questions. Likewise, Isaac did the same with his wife Rebekah calling her his sister. Jacob is the most well known of the Biblical liars having lied to his father in order to steal his brothers birthright (Gen 27:19-20). According to the Exodus story, God even told Moses to lie to Pharaoh that the Israelites only wanted to leave Egypt for three days to worship God in the desert (Ex 3:18). In addition, in the book of Joshua, there is a story of how God saves the life of the prostitute Rahab for lying to protect Israelite spies (Josh 2). And in the book of Kings, Jehu lies to the prophets of Baal in order to lure them to being killed (2 Kings 10:18-28). (Thanks to Michael Nugent).
Michael Nugent points out that according to Leviticus (19:16) and Deuteronomy (19:18) the command against lying only applied to “your neighbour” or “your people” and “your brother” (hopefully sisters were included as well). The 9th Commandment was therefore again originally conceived of as a tribal law to protect inter-tribal relationships and not as an universal moral principle as it later came to be especially in the teachings of Jesus, where Jesus says without qualification “let your yes be yes and your no be no.”
The pervasiveness of lying in the stories of the Old Testament seems to quite accurately reflect our human experience, for although a recent YouGov survey conducted in America indicated that 88% of Americans believe that the Commandment not to bear false witness is an important principle to live by, a number of research articles suggest that in truth, lying, massaging and embellishing the truth is quite pervasive and that most people lie in one form or another at least twice a day.
One website referred to a study for example that found that 81 percent of patients lied to their doctors in various kinds of ways, for example, whether they took their medication as instructed, whether they exercised regularly, whether they agreed or disagreed with a doctors recommendations, and whether or not they had been taking someone else’s medication.
So even though a survey in a western nation showed 88% of people believe that not lying and not bearing false witness are important principles to live by, in big and small ways a pretty high percentage of us are not always very good at adhering to the value.
Things perhaps become further complicated when researchers makes the distinction between two different kinds of lies: what they called, antisocial lies on the one hand, and what they called and pro-social lies on the other.
Anti-social lies would refer to any lies that is told out of selfish motivation, for selfish gain, to get out of trouble, or to make oneself look better that one really is. Because of their selfish motivation, they tend to have darker consequences, undermining and destroying individual and social relationships and trust. These are sometimes called black lies and tend to spiral and grow.
By contrast, prosocial lies are are told in order to soften and preserve social relationships and avoid hurting the feelings of others often out of a sense of concern and compassion for others. Giving a brutally honest opinion in some instances could destroy a relationship or even another persons sense of self worth. From the perspective of sociology and psychology, this is an important and a highly developed and complex skill that all children need to learn in order to operate with a high degree of social competency, over-riding what one might be thinking or feeling for the sake of a relationship. Those unable to learn these skills might find social integration far more difficult. While in some instances prosocial lying may be necessary to serve a greater purpose or a valued relationship, there is also the danger that we end up living lives of pretense, dancing around each other, never being real with one another and therefore never able to engage in truly honest, deep and meaningful relationships.
And the truth is that we all play along with such lies, or untruths. Research and basic human experience shows that on the whole, very few of us really want honest truthful feedback. What most of us really want is social reassurance and we might even become angry, because the truth is not what we are really wanting to hear.
Research shows that people who are too honest can often be shunned because they are regarded as too direct or too blunt. The majority of us would prefer a bit of sugar-coating most of the time. It takes enormous maturity to hear and receive a truth that we would prefer not to hear.
What might a truly Christian response be in the midst of all of this dark murky water?
Firstly, we might affirm that in certain rare occasions, speaking the truth could be both harmful, dangerous and maybe even immoral. I have previously used the hypothetical situation of someone living in Nazi Germany. In such a situation if your Jewish neighbour came to you asking you to hide them from the Gestapo, when the Gestapo came knocking on your door asking if you were hiding your Jewish neighbour, would you out of honesty say yes, of course, let me show you where they are, or would you out of care, concern and compassion say “No! There is no Jewish person hiding in my home”.
Secondly we might likewise affirm that in certain other social instances, telling the blunt truth about how you are feeling is not necessarily always going to be helpful or constructive, but could even be destructive. When a child comes home excitedly with a picture that they have drawn, do you honestly point out all the ways they could have done it better, or do you affirm their attempt out of encouragement, knowing that over-time they will naturally grow and improve.
Are there also limits to this however? If someone wishes to make a career out of singing, but clearly does not have the natural talent or ability, does one like Simon Cowell on Britain’s Got Talent offer and honest opinion and try and direct them to find another area of interest where they might find a real niche for themselves? And if one does so, does one do so with contempt (as has sometimes been done) or does one do so with an underlying sense of love?
Having acknowledged that there may indeed be grey areas where a simplistic implementation of the 9th Commandment might be harmful and even morally wrong, we need to remember the words of Jesus to the women at the well that the true worshippers of God will worship in Spirit and in Truth. In other words, to truly follow Jesus and to truly worship God means that we will more and more become people of truth, people whose words and actions are truthful, transparent and dependable. As Jesus says in the Sermon on the Mount in Matthew (5:37): When you are speaking and making vows, let your words be simple, let your yes be yes and your no be no.
And Jesus suggests that this kind of simple truthful living and truthful speaking will ultimately be freeing. The truth will set you free says Jesus (Jn 8:32). And it will set us free because we will be free from living a life of hiding and pretending. Like last week, implicit in this is the invitation to test it for yourself and see how it feels. Tell a lie. What effect does it have on you? And then speak the truth and see how that feels. In most occasions we will discover that it is liberating and freeing except in instances that could bring harm and hurt to others.
And then lastly, along with any truthful speaking, a truly Christian response to the 9th Commandment is that whatever words we speak need also to be loving, kind and compassionate. As Paul reminds us in Romans (13:8ff), love is the fulfilling of the law. And so if we are to interpret the 9th Commandment in a truly Christian way, we need to hear the words of the apostle Paul when he urges us in Ephesians (4:15) to speak the truth in love. It is not enough to speak the truth alone because it is possible to use the truth as a weapon to cause great hurt and harm to others. From a Christian perspective, the 9th Commandment is only fulfilled when the truth is accompanied and spoken with love.
In closing, I have always found the advice of Bernard Meltzer helpful, who says: Before you say anything, ask yourself 3 questions:
Is it true? Is it necessary? (Not all things that are true are necessary to be spoken). And lastly, is it kind?
Such advice is echoed in the Buddhist Tradition which says:
“A statement endowed with five factors is well-spoken: It is spoken at the right time. It is spoken in truth. It is spoken affectionately. It is spoken beneficially. It is spoken with a mind of good-will.”
I close with Proverbs 3:3 “Do not let kindness and truth leave you; Bind them around your neck,
Write them on the tablet of your heart."
May God bless each of us as we wrestle with these things, seeking to become more and more people who worship God in Spirit (the Spirit of love), and in Truth (with lives that are transparent and honest). And in doing so, may we discover the freedom and joy that this brings. Amen.