A country preacher in a small farming community was falsely accused of a horrendous deed. It was a scandalous tale, and it swept the town like wildfire. “Have you heard about the pastor? Can you believe it? Who would have thought he could do such a thing?
After a period of time, it was discovered that it was just an empty rumor, an ugly lie really. But the damage had been done. Many people had believed the story, and when told it really wasn’t true, they still had their suspicions. There must have been some truth in it, they thought, or why would everyone have been talking about it?
A while later the couple who had started the false story felt guilty and went to the pastor to apologize and ask for forgiveness. The pastor told them that he forgave them. But he added one thing. He said, “This may seem a little strange, but I would like you to go back to your farm, butcher one of your chickens, pluck all the feathers off and put them in a bag.” The couple thought it was strange but agreed to do it.
“Then,” said the pastor, “I’d like you to go throughout the town, and at every corner take out a few feathers and scatter them on the ground. Then with whatever feathers you have left, climb the hill outside of town and throw them in the wind. Would you do that for me?”
Again the couple was mystified by this request but agreed to do it. “There’s just one more thing,” said the pastor. “Tomorrow I would like you to go back through the town and collect all the feathers, and do the same on the hillside. Make sure you retrieve every feather you scattered.”
“Well, pastor,” they replied, “that would be impossible. The wind will have blown them all over the county.” And then slowly, painfully, the point sunk in. Yes, they could be forgiven for the lies they spread, but it would be impossible to undo the damage they had caused by spreading their false and slanderous words.
Words pack more power than a cruise missile, for they can destroy the lives and the reputations of others instantly. And the destruction they leave in their wake cannot be undone. And so, because God loves and desires the well-being of people, in Scripture He has placed some firm parameters around our use of words. One example of this is the ninth of the Ten Commandments, found in Exodus 20:16, which reads: “You shall not give false testimony against your neighbor.”
This is a commandment that we can easily break. For one thing, the consequences for us if we break it are not nearly as serious as with other commands. If we commit adultery, if we steal, and certainly if we murder we know that we will likely face very severe consequences. But if we lie it’s different. There still are consequences, as we will see in a few moments, but we’re not likely to be thrown in jail – unless it involves a legal matter.
And we also easily break this command because the weapon we need to violate it is with us always – our tongue, combined with our sinful nature that sometimes wants to hurt others, get back at others, protect ourselves, and build ourselves up. One writer (J. Ellsworth Kalas) has made this observation:
Many of us would never think of striking another person
physically, but our sensibilities are not offended by repeating an
unverified story. Some who would faint at the sight of blood are not at all disturbed by the sight of a battered reputation.
We can break this commandment without really considering the consequences, should there be any consequences at all.
Now strictly speaking, this command deals with a legal setting. If you are called to testify regarding your neighbor you shall not give false testimony but rather you must be truthful. But that’s only part of the intent, just as we’ve seen with other commands. The seventh command forbids adultery, but Jesus said the full meaning of that prohibition concerns lust as well. The sixth commandment forbids murder, but Jesus expanded that to include even hateful attitudes or malicious actions and words toward others.
The same is true with this command forbidding the giving of false testimony; there is more to it than appears on the surface. False testimony, whether in a courtroom or anywhere else, is about deceitfulness, and that is really what this commandment forbids – deceiving others. In fact, already in Leviticus 19, while Moses was still leading the Israelites, we have an expanded version of the commands. And in vs. 11 God says through Moses, “Do not lie. Do not deceive one another.” That’s what this commandment forbids – deceiving others.
Elsewhere in Scripture are numerous commands against lying. Prov. 12:22 says, “The Lord detests lying lips, but he delights in men who are truthful.” In the New Testament, Col. 3:9 exhorts us, “Do not lie to each other, since you have taken off your old self with its practices, and have put on the new self, which is being renewed in the knowledge in the image of its Creator.” And Eph. 4:25 states: “Therefore each of you must put off falsehood and speak truthfully to his neighbor.” Falsehood includes any kind of deceitfulness. So Scripture is full of warnings against lying and deceiving.
The problems is that we are by nature liars. Not that we lie all the time and in every situation, but deceitfulness is one of the results of our fallen nature. No one has to teach us to lie. Every parent knows this. When you ask three-year old Johnny, “Did you take the toy away from your sister?” Johnny will automatically say, “No,” even though he did. Parents don’t have to teach their children to lie. Due to our sinful, self-centered nature we just do. We have to be taught not to lie.
As we know, this command flies in the face of contemporary culture. The fact is, lying is very common and very accepted. In their book The Day America Told the Truth, published in 1991, authors James Patterson and Peter Kim discovered from their research that 91% of Americans lie regularly. Even though this book is now 26 years old and dealt specifically with Americans, I’m quite sure their findings would still be true today and would be true across cultures, for human nature doesn’t change. In their book they wrote:
The majority of us find it hard to get through a week without lying. One in five can’t make it through a single day – and we’re talking about conscious, premeditated lies…
When we refrain from lying, it’s less often because we think it’s wrong (only 45%) than for a variety of other reasons, among them the fear of being caught (17%)….
We lie to just about everyone, and the better we know someone, the likelier we are to have told them a serious lie….36% of Americans confess to telling that kind of darker lie…
We lie, and we lie in lots of ways. The most obvious is when we say something false to or about others. Sometimes when we do this our intent is destructive and mean-spirited. We want to hurt someone and so we lie about them. Perhaps we do this when we have been hurt by others and so we want to get back at them. Or other times we may be jealous of their success or accomplishments and so we say something untrue or destructive to cut them down to size a bit.
Sometimes we lie to others not to hurt them but to protect ourselves. Like the boy who refuses to admit he took his sister’s toy, so we sometimes deny the truth about ourselves or our actions to protect ourselves. We may do this through outright lies, or often with what we call “half truths.” We share part of the truth but not all the truth.
The teenage girl whose parents have told her she is not to date a particular young fellow goes to her girlfriend’s house. But she stays only a bit and then goes to spend several hours with this young fellow. When she comes home her parents ask her where she was. She says she went to her girlfriend’s. That’s a half-truth, but in reality it is a lie because she used it to deceive her parents, and that’s what this commandment is about - not some technical application of the command but it’s about deception.
One of the worst ways we lie is when we lie to ourselves. The alcoholic tells himself he doesn’t really have a problem. A woman convinces herself that the problems in her marriage are all her husband’s fault. When we lie to ourselves, when we falsely justify ourselves to ourselves, when we deceive ourselves we paint an unrealistic picture of who we are, and thus we are not able to change and grow in the ways we need to.
And there are lots of ways we lie and deceive others besides simply saying something that is untrue. For instance, our silence can be just as deceitful as our untrue words. Lev. 5:1 declares: “If a person sins because he does not speak up when he hears a public charge to testify regarding something he has seen or learned about, he will be held responsible.” We do not do justice to this command if we reduce it to a narrow, legalistic interpretation of just what qualifies as a lie. For the command prohibits deceitfulness and promotes truthfulness. Thus, when we refuse to speak out on behalf of another who is perhaps unfairly accused or caricatured, we are being deceitful. By our silence we are endorsing the falsehood that is being perpetuated, and thus we break the command just as much as if we said something that was untrue.
We can even violate this command when we speak true words, for true words can be used in such a way as to deceive and give a false impression. It’s like the ship’s first mate who was angry at the captain because he felt the captain treated him unfairly, and so to get back at the captain he wrote in the ship’s log, “Captain Smith was sober today.” The words were true, but they create the impression that some days Captain Smith was drunk. The words, though true, are filled with deceitfulness, and thus violate this command against lying.
We can also lie with our actions rather than our words. The New York Times reported on May 11, 2011, that the Texas State Legislature just passed a law making it a crime to misrepresent the size or weight of a fish you caught. Now, we all know that fishermen have been exaggerating the size and number of the fish they caught since the beginning of time. But this law relates specifically to fishing tournaments, where the prizes can be many thousands of dollars. The winner is determined by the total weight of the fish they catch. So some contestants had been stuffing small lead weights into the stomachs of the fish they caught so they would weigh more. In one tournament that offered a grand prize $55,000 fishing boat, it was discovered that the winner had stuffed a one-pound lead weight into the stomach of a 10.49 pound bass he caught so he could claim first place and win the boat. He never said a word, but he lied through his deceitful actions; he misrepresented the truth.
Related to that, we also break this command when we buy into the philosophy that “image is everything.” Like some of the Pharisees in the time of Jesus who put on a front of religious devotion but whose hearts were far from God, so we can create or enhance a certain image of ourselves that doesn’t correspond to reality. We may act one way the hour a week we spend in church but live completely differently the rest of the week. Image in this context is simply a creation based on what is superficial if not even non-existent. In other words, it is not based in truth. It’s a deception. Truthfulness has to do not only with what we say but with what we are. There are so many ways we deceive and thus break this command.
Now we may ask, “Why is God so against lying?” For one thing, lying and falsehood are in contradiction to the character of God. We’ve seen this with the other commandments; they reflect the character of God, and so they are what God wants for those created in His image. We are not to murder because God is the giver of life and cherishes life. We do not commit adultery because God is faithful in His relationship with us. We do not steal because God is a giver, and He gives lavishly. So we keep these commands not only to avoid the damage they cause, but also that we might grow in the character of God.
This is true for this command also regarding truthfulness. Heb. 6:18 proclaims that “it is impossible for God to lie.” And Jesus said in Jn. 14:6, “I am the way and the truth and the life.” Jesus, as God the Son, not only spoke truth but He was and is truth. Everything about God is true and authentic. God never deceives us.
And aren’t we glad this is the case. Just think if God were not completely true. Just think if God spoke true words only some of the time. Just think if some of what He has told us in Scripture is true but not all of it. Relationships depend on truth and so there could be no real relationship with God. We couldn’t be sure that God loves us, cares for us, will lead us, will protect us, for maybe God was not being truthful when He said those things.
Jn. 3:17 says, “For God did not send his Son into the world to condemn the world, but to save the world through him.” What if we stand before the pearly gates only to hear God say, “Oh, I was just kidding about that. I didn’t send my Son into the world to save the world.” Our whole relationship with God, both in this life and the world to come, depends on God’s truthfulness – that what God has said is true and what God has promised He will fulfill. So since the character of God is marked by truthfulness, the same is to be true of us as His followers.
On the other hand, regarding the enemy of God, Satan, Jesus said, “When he lies, he speaks his native language, for he is a liar and the father of lies.” When we lie we in a sense identify with, we take the side of God’s enemy, for that his is native language. In other words, deceit is the character of Satan, and when we chose to lie, we are taking action against the goodness God wants for His creation.
Also, God has commanded us not to lie and deceive for our own good, for when we lie we damage our own character. We forfeit our integrity. We have an expression in the U.S, that a man is only as good as his word. If your word is not good, if what you say is not true, not only will people not believe you, they will not trust you, and in fact they will want little to do with you, for you have demonstrated through your deceit that you are not trustworthy. Obeying this command upholds our own integrity.
In a similar fashion, obeying this command also serves to strengthen our relationships with others. Healthy relationships depend on trust as much as anything. Whether it’s the marriage relationship, the relationships we have with our children, relationships in the workplace, in the church, or wherever, without trust those relationships disintegrate.
And so truthfulness is necessary for the sake of community, for apart from truth there can be no community. Without truth there is no trust, and without trust there is no community. And this means community in the fullest sense of the word, in all the ways we experience community.
This is true of our personal relationships, whether that is marriage or friendships. If we deceive each other, trust is eroded and the relationship is destroyed.
It means there must be honesty in business negotiations, for otherwise community breaks down as trust disintegrates.
Sometimes we read about scientists who fudge on the results of their experiments simply because they need to get published or they are trying to claim some new breakthrough. Decisions affecting the community might be made based on such false conclusions, and thus the whole community is damaged. Lies, half truths, gossip, and withholding the truth all injure people and destroy community.
Knowing how destructive lies and deceit are - to ourselves, to those close to us, and to the community at large, why then do we do it? Well, we lie for a variety of reasons. Sometimes it is simply mean-spirited. We deliberately lie to hurt someone. Perhaps we blame someone else for our mistake.
More often we probably lie out of fear – that is, we fear the consequences of the truth. This was true of Peter when he denied three times that he knew Jesus. He feared what might happen to him if the truth were known.
Sometimes we lie because we think it will be to our advantage, such as by embellishing our resume, or if we are not confident in ourselves and struggle with our self-image, we may boast or as we say, “stretch the truth.” When we stretch the truth, it ceases to be truth.
Maybe we’ve been in the situation where we were pressured to lie, such as by our boss so that the sales figures would look better than they were.
Perhaps sometimes we lie in order to protect someone else, as when some who were hiding Jews lied to the Nazis who were looking for them.
This brings up an interesting question: Is it ever okay to lie? Yes, we’d all agree that as a general rule we should tell truth. But are there ever circumstances that justify lying?
Actually, serious Bible scholars differ on this question. The ancient theologian Augustine said that it was never permissible to lie. On the other hand, Luther pastor and theologian Dietrich Bonhoeffer, who was arrested and executed for his opposition to Hitler in World War II, believed that not only is lying at times permissible, sometimes it is even morally mandated, such as deceiving the enemy in times of war, or lying to protect others, such as helping the Jews avoid being caught and sent to the concentration camps by the Nazis.
This was the case of Corrie ten Boom and her family, who deceived the Nazis as they hid the Jews during World War II. Because they did, they ended up showing love to others, specifically to those who were innocent. They were not like those who lie to protect their friends who did something wrong so they won’t get into trouble. They were not protecting those who had done wrong, but they were protecting the innocent.
We see this principle lived out earlier in the Book of Exodus. In the first chapter we read how the Hebrew slaves were multiplying rapidly, causing Pharaoh and the Egyptians to become afraid. So Pharaoh ordered the Hebrew midwives to kill all the boys right after they were born. It says in 1:17 though that “the midwives, however, feared God and did not do what the king of Egypt had told them to do; they let the boys live.” When Pharaoh saw that the boys were not being killed, he asked the midwives why they let the boys live. The midwives replied, “Hebrew women are not like Egyptian women; they are vigorous and give birth before the midwives arrive.” The midwives lied, but in doing so they fulfilled the intent of the law, to truly love others, in this case by saving their lives. So there are some – few but some – instances when love for others may demand that we withhold the truth.
Today we might think of an undercover police detective who lies and deceives to infiltrate a human trafficking ring, in order to collect evidence to bring to justice those engaging in this evil practice and set free those who had been held captive.
So while we’re on thin ice here, because we will probably want to excuse our lies more often than is justifiable, I think we would have to answer yes, there are times when lying or deceiving is justifiable – although such instances will be rare. In fact, we may never find ourselves in such a situation. But there may be rare occasions in this fallen world when it is justifiable to lie or deceive, when it means we are really demonstrating love for others. For we must remember that the supreme commandment is to love God with all our heart and to love our neighbor as we love ourselves.
And this brings us to the full meaning of this command. The bare minimum of this command is that we do not lie by saying things that are untrue or in other ways deceiving and creating false impressions with our words, our silence, our actions, or our lifestyle. But as with the other commands, there is also the positive application. This command reveals God’s desire that we love our neighbors, and that as an expression of our love for our neighbors we are truthful with them.
I Cor. 13:6 states that “love rejoices with the truth.” Why? Because love wants the best for others, and so will not tolerate lies and deception. The welfare not only of our neighbor but all society depends on this. Earl Palmer writes, “The goal of human speech is integrity and edifying communication.” The health and even survival of a community – whether that’s a community of just two people in a marriage relationship or a whole nation – depends on integrity in communication, on truthfulness. We cannot live together if we cannot believe one another, for there can be no community apart from trust. This command protects the integrity of the individual and thus the health of the community.
So this prohibition against lies and deceit is not simply a negative restriction on our use of words. What it really is a sure foundation for honest communication, which is an absolutely essential building block for wholesome relationships and a healthy community.
So let us join with the writers of Prov. 30:8 and Ps. 119:29 and make their words our prayer: “Keep falsehood and lies far from me.” “Keep me from deceitful ways.”