Homily for The Geneva School Rhetoric Chapel
Wednesday, March 26, 2014
“You shall not Bear False Witness”
Dr. Michael S. Beates
Scripture: Matthew 19:15-20; Proverbs 14:5, 25; 15:4; 16:13, 24, 28; 17:4, 20; 18:8; 19:1, 5; 25:18
There was a study a few years ago that said Americans lie – all the time! 9 out of 10 do so regularly – less than half of Americans even think it’s wrong; and more than a third of our population confessed in this study to telling a really serious lie to someone they know really well.
Wait a minute – the commandment is about not perjuring ourselves in a court setting, right? True enough, but just as with the other commandments, so also this one, Jesus takes the commandment and applies it to a whole new level to include any sin of the tongue. And there are numerous famous statements in Scripture that start out “Six things the LORD hates, seven that are detestable to him” and this list in Proverbs 6 begins with “haughty eyes and a lying tongue” and ends with “a false witness who pours out lies and a person who stirs up dissension among brothers” (Prov. 6:16-19). God hates falsehood because He is Truth and further because Satan is the father of lies.
But before we get further, we ought to note that Augustine (and Luther about 1,000 years after him) noted there are three kinds of lies: humorous, helpful, and hurtful. A humorous lie, whether joking or in play acting, is not considered in the category of sin since it is not meant to be taken as serious truth. The helpful lie is that rare example where a higher good is achieved. Rahab, and more recently Corrie ten Boom, are most often cited as examples of these. But the hurtful lie is what we want to consider. Hurtful lying is loathsome because in this act we show hatred toward God, toward our fellow human being, and even toward ourselves.
First, lying shows hatred toward God: The first lie ever told was about God. In the garden Satan said, “Did God actually say . . . ?” By questioning God, he was calling God a liar. When we lie (and I am speaking about those intentional – how-ever small – bending of truth), whatever the circumstance – and to whomever we are speaking, in an ultimate sense, we are bearing false witness against our Creator. We are saying God is not true. When I know something other than what I am saying is truth, I am acting at that point like I deserve to be able to say whatever I wish for my own benefit; thus, I disrespect and hate God. We also make God out to be a liar when we think to ourselves, “God could not have actually meant such and such when he said such and such” in order to self-justify some wrong doing of ours. When we stake a claim that our thoughts and words are more right than His, we express hatred of Him and bear false witness against him. This is our biggest problem, it’s nothing less than cosmic rebellion. But it’s also the one area we are most likely to dismiss. So let’s get more personal.
Second, lying shows hatred of our neighbor. Lying has many motivations: plain inner wickedness, fear, embarrassment, personal gain, blame-shifting to avoid consequences, and more. But in every case, we are not loving our neighbor as ourselves. We are not counting others as more important than ourselves, but instead we are putting our own interests first. But if our neighbor bears the image of God, when we lie to them, we insult an image bearer of God. Whatever it is we seek to avoid or to gain by lying (whether embarrassment or status), isn’t it much more costly to insult the image of God in another? When we lie about someone, we lessen the other person’s value and dignity as a human being. When you or I attach a lie to someone else, saying something false about them, spreading gossip about them, we cheapen them as a person. We give them a “bad name” – but Proverbs 22 begins by telling us that “a good name is more desirable than great riches; better than silver or gold. Rich and poor have this in common: Yahweh is the Maker of them all” (Pr. 22:1-2). A good name is valuable and honorable. To devalue someone’s reputation purposely by false witness is far more serious than we allow ourselves to think. We think to ourselves, it’s not that big. But it is! It erodes their personhood, it devalues them as human beings; it makes them small or ugly or suspicious in the eyes of those to whom we speak. The same is true when we lie to someone. We don’t consider them valuable enough to receive the truth.
Now, don’t get side tracked thinking about those hard cases where you are being accosted by Nazi Gestapo and you lie in order to save Jewish lives – this is not our situation, ok? We lie to save ourselves some small hassle, not the lives of innocent people. Let’s admit it – too often we lie about or to someone because we want them to hurt, and in so doing, we assault their dignity as people imago Dei.
The commandment not only guides us not to speak falsely about another, but positively, we should always seek to say things with candor that are true, in the best possible manner to reflect truth. When we hear about someone else in a way that lends suspicion, the biblical response is to believe the best about the other person, to give the benefit of the doubt, until the whole story comes out. This is called the “judgment of charity.” This means of course, that we should reject as true some scandalous morsel about a classmate – we should rather presume negative things are not true and defend our classmate’s reputation rather than to indulge the gossip and so contribute to our friend’s harm.
But third, sometimes we bear false witness against ourselves. Think about this. We all have received messages from our culture about ourselves. When we repeat them to ourselves – that we are loathsome, that we are ugly, or lack some vital aspect to make us worth others loving – we bear false witness against ourselves. This is a lie you are telling yourself – and it is false witness against the image of God in you! And it can be so self-destructive.
Are we all sinners? Of course. Could we all improve in our pursuit of and attainment of righteousness in body and soul? No question. But when you tell yourself the lie that you are worthless, that you are ugly, that you are unlovable, you assault the wonderful work of God in you. You cast aspersion on the immortal soul God has created in you. If you are a Christian, if you have trusted in Christ and are united with Him by faith, He has promised (and begun!) to remake you in His own image – an image you denigrate! That is serious business. And that, my friends, is a lie from the father of all lies that has crept into some of your hearts. [See “Seven downward levels of Dishonesty” below] Do not bear false witness against God by doubting His Word and His truthful character. Do not bear false witness against your classmates, teachers, parents, teammates, and friends. Lies and gossip destroy relationships. And do not bear false witness against your own soul by believing the lies our culture tells about you. Remember, you are made in God’s image.
Join me in making the words of Agur in Proverbs 30:7-9 a regular prayer – “Two things I ask of you; deny them not to me before I die: Remove far from me falsehood and lying lips; give me neither poverty nor riches; but feed me only with the food that is needful for me, lest I be full and deny you saying, ‘Who is Yahweh?’ or lest I be poor and steal and so profane the name of my God.”
And seek as Paul says in Ephesians 4 to speak the truth in love with the result that we “grow up in every way into him who is the head, into Christ, from whom the whole body, joined and held together by every joint with which it is equipped, when each part is working properly [that is respecting truth and honoring God’s image in us], [and so] makes the body grow so it builds itself up in love.”
This is so important in our community. It goes without saying that words have the power to hurt and destroy, but we aspire that our community be one where our words build up, encourage, and heal. And let’s be honest, it is so easy to use words, as the Proverbs said, as a club, a sword, or a sharp arrow. It’s easy to use our tongues as weapons. But how much better to use your words to bring a smile to your classmate’s face, joy to their eyes. And let me be honest, in a “Dean of Students” moment – it grieves me when some of you use words destructively toward or about another Genevan. Life is hard enough without having to run a gauntlet of destructive words at school. You know that I know too many such instances – when rumoring about a classmate has a paralyzing effect on someone. You know that we all see and grieve when careless or hurtful words threaten friendships that have grown deep over many years together at Geneva.
My vision for us as a community is one where we don’t have to fear coming to school due to what people may say about us. Rather we look forward to the uplifting and encouraging words from friends and teachers. Our secular culture has made lying about friends too often not merely acceptable, but almost obligatory! Let’s aspire, with God’s grace, to be contra mundum in this respect. Let’s use words of truth and goodness to make peace, build up, and bring joy.
May God give us grace more and more to love truth and to flee from false witness and lying tongues.
7 Steps Down the Staircase of Dishonesty
We all know that sin generally leads to lies and dishonesty, and
lying begets more lying. We see it in our kids; we see it in
ourselves. But just how does lying lead to more lying? In
What We Can’t Not Know (pages 210-212), J. Budziskewski
lays out the “seven degrees of descent” on the downward
staircase of dishonesty. I summarize his thoughts on each step
“The greater our trespasses, the more we have to lie about. We lie about money, sex, and our children, because we sin about money, sex, and our children.”
Lies need bodyguards. So for each lie, we add a protective ring of additional perjuries in order to shield ourselves from the consequences of our falsehood.
Lies become your habit. You lie even when you don’t need to, and when there’s no “good” reason for it. This is the point where you move from lying to being a liar.
This is the stage where you lose track of truth. Now, you half-believe the lies you’ve told. It’s the only way your heart can relieve the guilty conscience of lying as much as you do.
The weakness isn’t in you and your lies; it’s in truth itself. Everything is shades of gray. Nothing is absolute. Truth is simply “what we let each other get away with.”
Lying is now a craft. The best lies are those that are so great no one could possibly believe you would invent them. No one would believe you could tell such big lies or so many of them. Any whistleblower who calls you out on the lies must be the one lying, since it’s virtually impossible that you could be guilty of telling so many lies.
7. Duty Turns Upside-Down
“The moment lying is accepted instead of condemned, it has to be required. If it is just another way to win, then in refusing to lie for the cause or the company, you aren’t doing your job.”