Thou shalt not bear false witness against thy neighbor (Exodus 20:16).
It is something we have all done as children– “passing the buck.”
We have done something, and the parental authorities have learned about it. When we are confronted about it, we try to find someone else to blame.
If we have siblings, the brother or sister did it.
If we do not have siblings, but have pets, then the pet did it.
If we do not have siblings or pets, then no one did it. It must have happened on its own!
Thus begins a challenge that humans will face their entire lives– the dilemma regarding whether we will speak the truth when confronted with difficult circumstances. Will we stand up and say what is right, or will we say a lie in order to shift blame or to gain some other advantage? Will we speak what is really truth, or will we seek to distort truth for our own purposes?
This challenge is not new, and it was one that was going to beset Israel. Therefore, when it came to interpersonal relationships, God dictated the ninth commandment to Israel: you shall not bear false witness against your neighbor.
God is not really worried about those circumstances under which telling the truth is to your advantage, or in circumstances under which telling the truth is to the advantage of both you and your neighbor. At those times most everyone will tell the truth. But what happens if the truth is to your neighbor’s advantage but not your own?
We can think of a lot of circumstances where that might be the case. Perhaps it is a situation akin to Ahab and Naboth, where Ahab was able to gain Naboth’s vineyard because people were induced to testify falsely against Naboth (cf. 1 Kings 21:1-16). Or perhaps, like Potiphar’s wife with Joseph, you have been caught in a compromising position, and it was easier to blame the other person than confess the truth (cf. Genesis 39:6-20). We could think of many other circumstances.
All such examples and circumstances have a similar theme: it seems more “cost-effective” to lie or stretch the truth than to actually tell the truth, and therefore, even though it may cause great harm to our neighbor, we tell the lie in order to gain or keep our advantage. In such circumstances we are guilty of bearing false witness against our neighbor.
“Bearing false witness” sounds like legal terminology, and the commandment certainly applies to that type of setting. Nevertheless, there is more to the commandment than just what happens in the legal system. We testify about others far more in the “courts” of our family, friend group, work, school, and church than we ever do in a court of law. The commandment continues to apply!
When it comes to our neighbor, Israel was to tell the truth– and so are we (Ephesians 4:25)! In order to do so we must put away slander, malicious talk, lying, distortions, and all such things (cf. Ephesians 4:31-32). We are to tell the truth to our fellow man and about our fellow man, even if it means that we must take the blame for our own failures and even if it works to our disadvantage.
The command to not bear false witness is rightly understood in terms of the command to love our neighbor as ourselves (Leviticus 19:18, Romans 13:8-9). As Paul says, love does no wrong to a neighbor, and lies and slander certainly accomplish wrong and evil! Furthermore, we can truly understand why it is so important to not bear false witness when we consider that we are to love our neighbor as ourselves.
When you were a child, were you ever blamed for doing something that you really did not do? Did you have a situation when your brother, sister, friend, or enemy bore false witness against you and you had to suffer the consequences? I am sure that such felt quite wrong, unfair, and inappropriate. And, indeed, it was wrong, unfair, and inappropriate!
If we understood as children that it felt wrong to be blamed for something we did not do, then we can understand as adults that just as we are wronged, hurt, and suffer pain when others bear false witness against us, thus we do to others if we are doing the same. Would we want others bearing false witness against us? Of course not! Therefore, why would we do that to others? Bearing false witness is entirely contrary to God’s purposes by which we are to show love, mercy, and compassion toward one another (Romans 13:8-9, Ephesians 4:31-32)!
A word should be added about distortion of the truth. We live in a time when many people are more than willing to promote a particular way of looking at things in order to gain some advantage, be it political, economic, or otherwise. When this happens, the truth is distorted, altered and adapted in order to fit the narrative that is being peddled.
Distorting truth is no better than lying; to intentionally distort the facts, or to promote material that distorts the truth, is a way of bearing false witness, particularly when it is done in order to lead to disadvantages to a particular person or group of people. While it may be true that we are entitled to our own opinions, we are not entitled to our own version of truth. We are to speak truth even when the truth may not fit the way we want to see things. We are to speak truth even if it is not to the advantage of our particular political or economic philosophies. And, above all, we must always speak truth when we speak about God in Christ, never distorting the pure Gospel message in order to obtain some worldly advantage (Galatians 1:6-9, 1 Timothy 6:3-10)! Woe to us if we are found to have borne false witness against God Most High!
It is a lesson we are taught from a young age, and while it might seem to be optional in many aspects of life, it should not be: we must always tell the truth, even if it gets us into trouble. Lying, shifting blame, or distorting the truth so that we may gain advantage and cause others to be disadvantaged is entirely contrary to the character of God– He, after all, suffered great disadvantage for our benefit by giving of His Son for our reconciliation (Romans 5:6-11). Therefore, let us rather be wronged than to wrong, and to seek to speak truth to one another, about one another, and concerning all men!
Ethan R. Longhenry