“You shall not bear false witness against your neighbor.” Exodus 20:16 (Big Ten Series)
At some point, no matter how great they are, kids are going to lie to their parents. Whether it’s lying about going to a friend’s house, doing your homework, sneaking into a movie, or brushing your teeth, everybody lies.
When kids are really young, it is comically easy it is to tell when they are lying. When parents don’t buy the lie, the kids are left scratching their heads about how we knew. I decided to try an experiment with Michaela and her lying (and no, it is not lost on me that this experiment began with me telling a lie).
Michaela asked one time how I’d known that she was lying. So I lied! I told her I knew because, whenever she lies, her ears turn red. From that point on, when I knew Michaela was trying to feed me a line, I’d cock my head, look at her ears, and say, “Your ears are turning red.” She’d quickly back pedal on her story.
After a while, when she would come in with lie, she’d cover her ears with her hands so that I couldn’t see them. This was always a sure sign that she was lying! These days, with most things, she finds that honesty is the best policy.
Often we shorten this 9th commandment to “thou shalt not lie.” But the context and the phrasing are important because it is specific. Bearing false witness against one’s neighbor doesn’t mean, “Don’t lie to your neighbor,” but rather, “Don’t lie about your neighbor.” Even more specifically, don’t offer false testimony against your neighbor.
This sort of thing happens more often than we think, only we don’t call it lying or false witness; today, we call it gossip. Even if the details are factual, gossip is not the truth. Gossip is never about lifting the person you are gossiping about up; rather it is about lifting yourself up above that person, saying things in tones and ways that cast doubt on the character and personhood of the subject of the gossip.
We fill in the blanks with our own imaginations, and create narratives that get farther and farther from the truth. Consider, for example, that it might be true to say that your neighbor is a private pilot, but once you start trying to guess what important people she’s flown, or ruminating on how lonely her spouse at home must be while she jets off to exotic places with powerful people — you’re bearing false witness. Your idle imaginations could hurt your neighbor and even ruin her relationships. When we gossip, the facts get distorted; another person becomes a caricature of themselves, trotted out for our own amusement, rather than someone Jesus has commanded us to love as we love ourselves.
If you want to lie and tell me you like my new necktie when you really don’t, I’m not going to be hurt by that. If you create a false narrative around my life, that is harmful. Above all, the big ten commandments are there to help prevent us from harming each other.
Before you say something about another person, ask yourself if you would say the same thing to that person. If not, chances are, it’s best not to say anything at all.
Truth be told,