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Avoiding All Lies and Deceit (1): Speak No Evil

Avoiding All Lies and Deceit (1): Speak No Evil

by Martyn McGeown

Sometimes we think that lies are harmless, but lies are very damaging. We see that in the wording of the Ninth Commandment itself, “Thou shalt not bear false witness against thy neighbor.” The Heidelberg Catechism mentions four types of sins against the Ninth Commandment, a list that is by no means exhaustive.

First, the Ninth Commandment forbids “that I bear false witness against no man.” To bear false witness is to speak something untrue about another person. Truth is something that is in accordance with reality. Falsehood is something that is not in accordance with reality. If you said that a member of the church had an adulterous affair with his secretary, when that was not true, you would be guilty of bearing false witness against the brother and his secretary. In that situation, you would be guilty of harming the good character of your brother, of his secretary, and potentially of destroying the brother’s relationship with his wife. Such a lie is “the proper work of the devil,” who loves to spread discord and ruin lives.

Bearing false witness is especially serious in a court of law. Then it is called perjury and it is not only a sin, but also a crime punishable by the civil magistrate. The history of Naboth in 1 Kings 21 is an example. Naboth was a godly Israelite farmer, whose vineyard Ahab, the wicked king, desired to acquire. When Naboth refused to sell it, Jezebel, Ahab’s wicked wife, schemed to obtain it. She commanded false witnesses to accuse Naboth: “Naboth did blaspheme God and the king.” The reality, of course, was that Naboth was a God-fearing man, who gave due deference to the king, but who refused to sell his vineyard because it was “the inheritance of his fathers.” The men who bore false witness against Naboth were responsible for his death. With their deceitful tongues they slew Naboth just as surely as if they had stabbed him in the heart with a dagger. The men who, without proper examination, believed Naboth’s detractors, and the judge, who unjustly condemned Naboth, were also guilty of Naboth’s innocent blood. 

Second, the Ninth Commandment forbids that I “falsify any man’s words.” To falsify a man’s words is to twist what he said. This is a very common sin in the world of the media. The TV reporter or the journalist will quote a man’s words out of context, or, with selective editing, they will add something to, or remove something from, what was said. They will do this to make a person look bad or good according to their preference. Our Lord Jesus Christ suffered this: when he said, “Destroy this temple, and in three days, I will raise it up” (John 2:19), his opponents twisted his words to mean that he (Jesus) would destroy the temple. Thus they deliberately changed the meaning of the Lord’s words to suit their own wicked purposes, which was to secure condemnation against Jesus or to curry favor with the religious leaders of Israel. It is also possible to falsify a man’s words, even if you quote him verbatim. You omit from your quote a qualifying statement that further explains the intention of the neighbor. The result is that you deliberately make him seem to say something that he did not actually mean.

To falsify a man’s words is wicked, because a man himself must determine his own meaning. We may not impose a foreign meaning on our neighbor’s words. If a man is unclear, then in charity we must seek to determine the meaning of his words either by asking him or, if that is not possible, by reading his words carefully in their context.

Third, the Ninth Commandment requires “that I be no backbiter nor slanderer.” Backbiting and slandering are very similar, for they are both forms of malicious speech. The aim of the backbiter or slanderer is to hurt his neighbor with his tongue. The difference is that the backbiter uses malicious speech behind the victim’s back: he is a whisperer or a gossip. The backbiter enjoys talking about other people in order to destroy their good name in the minds of others. A slanderer speaks maliciously and dishonestly in the open, publishing what is designed to hurt the reputation of the neighbor.

Another difference between slander and backbiting is that slander is always a false accusation, whereas backbiting can be and often is truth, but truth propagated with malicious intent. The word for “slanderer” in the Greek is diabolos, which means devil. That is why the Heidelberg Catechism calls all lies and deceit “the proper works of the devil.” A backbiter speaks about the neighbor behind his back, usually quoting, or sometimes misquoting, what he said, or reporting what he did, in order to paint him in the worst possible light. Of all the sins against this commandment, backbiting is the easiest to commit. We call it “gossip.” We delight in speaking about others, tearing down their character, in order to make them look bad, and so that we can feel good about ourselves. In a list of vices that characterize the wicked Paul includes these words: “full of envy, murder, debate [division], deceit, malignity, whisperers, backbiters, etc.” (Rom. 1:29-30). Before you repeat something about another person, even if the information is true, you need to ask: what is my motive? What effect will this have on the name of my neighbor? Do I really need to say it? Will it help? Is it better left unsaid?

If the first three sins—bearing false witness, falsifying a man’s words and slander/backbiting—are sins in which we speak, the last sin mentioned in the Catechism’s treatment of the Ninth Commandment occurs when we receive information or a report about others. God has requirements there, too. We will look at that next time.


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