Meditating on the Wonders of the Ten Commandments: 11. No Telling Lies
Ex 20:16 You shall not give false testimony against your neighbour.
When God created Adam and Eve, peace reigned. There was no reason for a cross word. Even immediately after the Fall both Adam and Eve spoke the truth and yet within it was blame and blame puts the onus on another person: “The man said, “The woman you put here with me–she gave me some fruit from the tree, and I ate it.” ….. The woman said, “The serpent deceived me, and I ate.” (Gen 3:12,13) Once we have sinned it opens the door for other sins. Because we ARE sinners, sinning came naturally (until we met Christ and he put his Holy Spirit within us). All sins are against God and many sins are against other people.
In this context our ‘neighbour’ is anyone in close contact with us. As we saw above we can speak the truth about our neighbour but it is still unkind. To constantly point out the failings of someone near us may be pointing out the truth, but it is still unkind and ungracious. We often speak against others because they are different from us; their lifestyle or their values may be different from ours. Unless we can do something about the difference, do something to bridge the gap, then speaking out our differences may make us feel good but does little good otherwise, and may subtly, even in our own thinking make it more difficult for us to communicate with them. But so far we haven’t told lies about them, but I mention these things to show how complex relationships can so often be.
The lies, or the lack of truth or distorting the truth can come from two very similar origins and they both flow out of ‘self’. In the first one we can simply be an unpleasant person who, for whatever reason, just is unpleasant. May this never be able to be said about a Christian. This is a person still living the old life as the apostle Paul speaks about it, a life with no knowledge of Christ. Such people can have so many issues in their lives that it isn’t worth categorizing them; they simply need to come to Christ and be made anew.
Jesus said, “For out of the heart come evil thoughts, murder, adultery, sexual immorality, theft, false testimony, slander.” (Mt 15:19) Such people care little for the truth; they may say things out of sheer vindictiveness, sheer unpleasantness. It is how some people are. Inside they are all twisted up and so their words reflect what is going on inside. They desperately need to have an encounter with Christ. As I say, these cannot be Christians, or if they are they may have asked Christ into their life but never let him have his way in bringing grace and change to them. To them the law still comes – don’t say wrong things about those around you!
But then there is the far more common case, I believe, where somehow or other we come under attack from others and we retaliate – we speak back. The only thing about speaking back when you are hurt, is that your words cease to be careful and can so easily stray into the territories of exaggeration or ever complete untruth. I know let myself down when I put the word ‘always’ into a description, or perhaps, ‘never’. Speaking about the young preacher: “he is always straying away from the truth in his theology and isn’t worth listening to when he is preaching.” Perhaps he did once. Always is an exaggeration and is untrue and it is a false testimony about him. Or there is, “She never thinks before opening her mouth and so you’d do better never to listen to her.” Well sometimes she has a tendency to do that but often, no. That was a false testimony.
People who pass on information about others (it is called gossip!) are the most prone the passing on inaccurate information and any distortion is false testimony. You’ve no doubt heard of ‘Chinese whispers’ where a message is passed from person to person and by the time it has reached the tenth person is utterly different from how it started. A silly example perhaps but nevertheless it is an illustration of how false testimony comes about.
It also comes about so often through speculation. I wonder why they did that? Speculation, suggestions and soon the suggestion, the speculation, become ‘facts’. Well, no, that actually wasn’t what happened so that was false testimony. False testimony always demeans the reputation of someone, pulling them down in the eyes of the watchers and subsequently their behaviour towards that person subtly changes, and not for the better. Love they say is the mortar that holds the building blocks of relationships. False testimony is the acid that corrodes the love and causes separation.
Recounting what went on or what you heard is always difficult. Only yesterday I was listening to a CD in my car, and recounted to my wife a little later, a story being told. I had no desire to give false testimony and the effect of inaccuracy in this case was completely harmless, but when we put the CD on to listen to it together I realised I recounted the story with two inaccuracies. It is so easy to do, and when it is passing on details of what someone at a church meeting says, or even recounting a conversation, it is so easy to inadvertently be inaccurate. False testimony.
Speaking the truth is the call to all Christians and that is the up to date version, if you like, of this commandment, but it is also a call to speak the truth in love (Eph 4:15) which means sometimes we would do better to remain silent and sometimes really check our motivation,. This command seems simple but it can have serious effects.