If I call you a liar, you will feel deeply insulted, for we think of liars as persons whose words we cannot trust, as morally pretty far gone. From the ninth commandment, and much else in the Bible, we learn that this is God’s estimate too. Some treat lying as a kind of fine art, but Scripture views it with horror, and our Anglo-Saxon conviction about the sanctity of truth and the shamefulness of lying reflects the Bible’s health-giving influence on our culture.
False Witness: The command not to “bear false witness against your neighbor” comes in Exodus 20:16 and Deuteronomy 5:20. The word for “false” in the first text means “untrue,” that in the second means “insincere,” thus pointing to the deceitful purpose which breeds the falsehood. The NEB rendering, “give false evidence,” highlights the fact that the commandment relates in the first place to the law-court, where justice can only be done if witnesses tell “the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth”—a formula which forcibly reminds us that exaggerations, half-truths, and misleading silences can all in effect be lies. But the principle of holding truth sacred goes beyond the law-court, and touches all our living.
Why Lie?: Why do people lie to and about each other? Why, for that matter, did Satan (“a liar and the father of lies” according to our Lord in John 8:44) lie to Eve in the garden? Partly from malice, partly from pride. When you lie to do someone down, it is malice; when you lie to impress, move, and use him, and to keep him from seeing you in a bad light, it is pride. Satan lied (and lies) because he hates God and godly folk, and wants to extend his anti-God revolt. Men lie to shield themselves from exposure and to further their supposed interests. Wounded Jewish pride spawned false witness in court against both Jesus and Stephen (Matthew 26:59ff.; Acts 6:13). Fear, contempt, and revenge, boastful conceit, fraud, and the desire to shine by telling a good story are other motives which prompt lies.
Indeed, lying in some shape or form (including “white lies,” which are rarely as white as we make out) is so universal an activity as to constitute compelling proof of our fallenness, just as do the locks on all our home and car doors.
God and Lies: Lying insults not only your neighbor, whom you may manage to fool, but also God, whom you can never fool. A truth-telling, promise-keeping God who “cannot lie” (Titus 1:2, NEB; also Numbers 23:19; 1 Samuel 15:29), and who wants to see in us his own moral image, naturally “hates … a lying tongue … a false witness who breathes out lies” (Proverbs 6:16–19). Lying is part of Satan’s image, not God’s, and we should not wonder that “every one who loves and practices falsehood” should thereby exclude himself from God’s city (Revelation 22:15; cf. 21:27). There is no godliness without truthfulness. Lord, have mercy!
Truth and Love: But when one sets out to be truthful, new problems appear. There are people to whom it is clearly not right to tell the whole truth—invalids, not yet strong enough to take bad news; enemies in wartime, to whom one should not give information, and from whom, like Rahab (Joshua 2) and Corrie ten Boom, one may have fugitives to hide; mad and bad folk, who would use what you tell them to harm others; the general public, when as a politician one is putting through a beneficent plan which depends for its effect on nobody anticipating it; and so on. Nobody doubts that in these cases responsible persons must dissemble. But does that square with the ninth commandment?
In principle, yes. What is forbidden is false witness against your neighbor—that is, as we said, prideful lying designed to do him down, and exalt you at his expense. The positive command implicit in this negative is that we should seek our neighbor’s good, and speak truth to him and about him to this end. When the love which seeks his good prompts us to withhold truth which, if spoken, would bring him harm, the spirit of the ninth commandment is being observed. In such exceptional cases as we have mentioned, all courses of action have something of evil in them, and an outright lie, like that of Rahab (Joshua 2:4, 5; note the commendation of her, James 2:25) may actually be the best way, the least evil, and the truest expression of love to all the parties involved.
Yet a lie, even when prompted by love, loyalty, and an escapable recognition that if telling it is bad, not telling it would be worse, remains an evil thing (unless, indeed, with old-style Jesuits and modern-type situationists we hold that the end justifies the means). To bear false witness for one’s neighbor is not so bad as bearing false witness against him; but the lie as such, however necessary it appears, is bad, not good, and the right-minded man knows this. Rightly will he feel defiled; rightly will he seek fresh cleansing in the blood of Christ, and settle for living the only way anyone can live with our holy God—by the forgiveness of sins. Again, we say: Lord, have mercy!—and lead us not into this particular type of temptation, where only a choice of sins seems open to us, but deliver us from evil.
Further Bible Study
- 1 Kings 21:1–24
- Acts 6:8–15
- Matthew 26:57–75
Questions for Thought and Discussion
- Why is truthfulness important not only in the courtroom, but in all life?
- Why did Satan lie to Eve? Do you ever misrepresent the truth with the same motives?
- Why can there be no godliness without truthfulness?