When we hear the commandment “You shall not bear false witness against your neighbor.” (Exodus 20:16 NASB) should we say it means we ought not lie and leave it at that? OK, you know my answer because if I thought it to be yes, I would not have written this article. This commandment encompasses others. In practical terms, I believe this to be a difficult commandment to understand, let alone obey. I will try to explain what is required of us by the above commandment and to give practical ways for us not to stumble over it.
We all know the harm that can be done if we act on something that turns out to be false. What if the person giving us a report is ignorant or believes he is speaking the truth? Is he exonerated? Here is an example. A man says “Go ahead and dig. There are no lines there.” It turns out he was wrong, and the machine operator knocks out power to a whole town! The man did not attempt to deceive anyone so he did not lie. Is he blameless?
An honest reading of the ninth commandment should tell us that there is more to it than lying. Presumably, the machine operator in the example is a co-worker of the man and Jesus gave a broad definition of “neighbor” in the parable of the good Samaritan (Luke 10:30-37) so there would be no reason not to consider co-workers our neighbors. What the man said was proven to be false so he gave a false witness that caused harm. The operator acted on the man's word. Does this mean that it is sin to be wrong so we must know everything? I believe the keys to obeying this commandment are language, wisdom, and sense. (which does not seem to be so common these days)
If we are to attempt to obey the ninth commandment, we would do well to understand the third which is “You shall not take the name of the LORD your God in vain, for the LORD will not leave him unpunished who takes His name in vain.” (Exodus 20:7) There are many names given in the books of Moses for God. Would it not make sense here to use the name “I AM” (Exodus 3:14) because it is the name God told Moses to use when he was about lead God's people out of Egypt? This would mean we ought not use a form of “to be” haphazardly because we may be taking the Lord's name in vain. We should be able to explain why the thing we referenced is true. I would rather say “stop using the word “God” in a swear phrase” and call it a day. Oh, if it were that easy to satisfy what is required of us!
I remember an off the cuff conversation in high school with my Spanish teacher in which the jist of it was that in her country they say “I saw him in the other room” but we say “He is in the other room.” I did not take much away from her class but at least I saw the profound difference here. The first statement remains true but the second statement is likely to become false as time passes. If we are careful to qualify our statements, we can better honor God by refraining from falsehoods. “I don't believe there are wires there”, “according to the town...” and “I don't know” are perfectly valid answers if that is all we can attest to.
So is that it? Not quite. We have neglected the “bear”. Should we hold on to stuff that is not true? I don't think so. We would do well to throw up anything we believe that is false. Better yet, we should not swallow it in the first place. This is where the machine operator may come in. Does he have reason not to believe what the man told him? If the man has a record of being incompetent, careless, or loose with the facts, did the machine operator have a duty to not carry the falsehood and seek help from others?
Paul commended the Bereans because they did not swallow everything he said without checking it out. (Acts 17:10-12) We have a responsibility to make sure we have checked out things (not just scripture) before we pass them on to others and before we believe what others say to us. Should we believe ourselves to be spiritual so when a thought crosses our minds we say it is “a word from the lord” without checking it out against reality? I find this attitude infuriating and a great hurdle to overcome when presenting the gospel! If we frequently give our friends and co-workers information that they check out and find to be wrong, why should they believe us when we talk about the things of God? If they find that we are trustworthy and pretty much everything we say turns out to be true, we may be able to overcome the “fruitcake” label in some people's minds.
It is hard to bring falsehoods into conversations if all we believe is true and we do not give definitive statements about things we do not know about. How do we go about this? Two things come to mind. The first thing is we ought not take part in gossip! (Proverbs 18:7-8) (Romans 1:28-32) God takes gossiping seriously because I believe it is a way we take God's name in vain. I wonder what percentage of gossip is true. My guess is that it is not very high. Secondly, we should forbid ourselves from getting into frivolous arguments. The truth can become secondary if egos get bruised and it becomes more important to win the argument. Is God glorified in this? I believe this barely scratches the surface on this topic. I hope I have given you some food for thought.