“You shall not give false testimony against your neighbour.”

~ Exodus 20:16

Full disclosure, I have to give a shout out to J.I. Packer for a lot of the thoughts written below. His book, Keeping the 10 Commandments, has influenced this reflection big time. I need to give credit where credit is due.

The 10 Commandments can be found in two spots in the Bible: Exodus 20 and Deuteronomy 5. What is interesting when reading the two versions side-by-side, you notice small differences here and there. The commands themselves are the same, but some of the words are different, and therefore, sometimes different conclusions can be drawn, depending on the version of the commandments you are reading.

In the English NIV translation, however, command #9 reads the exact same in both Exodus and Deuteronomy, “You shall not give false testimony against your neighbour.”  Even though the English is the same, in the original Hebrew there is a slight difference.

When translated, the word ‘false’ in Exodus means untrue, whereas in Deuteronomy the word ‘false’ means insincere. Now, on the surface that is not the biggest of differences. But there is a slight nuance between the words that matters here. Untrue means flat out wrong, but insincere means more disingenuous or misleading.

What we can take from this is that lying, or bearing false witness, is not simply an action, but rather a collection of actions all out for the same purpose. We actually see this most clearly in the court of law. In court, when a witness comes to the stand, the bailiff simply doesn’t ask the witness ‘promise not to lie?’ 

No. We’ve all seen Law and Order. 

The bailiff asks the witness, ‘do you promise to tell the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth?’

From that little question, we can unearth that lying is wrong, but so is exaggerating, telling half-truths, or misleading someone with silence. And we haven’t even brought up things like gossiping or slander yet … both of which, at their core, deal with presuppositions and false assumptions that are used to damage and deface someone else’s character to others. 

This ninth command is a far reaching one.

So, what is this commandment getting at when it tells us not bear untrue or insincere witness against our neighbour?

This command – as we’ve been noticing with all these commandments – relates to the social/relational dynamic in a community.

Notice, God does not say “do not lie” (though, that truth is embedded firmly in the command). God says, do not bear false witness (or lie) against your neighbour. It links us to our community.

There are two main reasons we lie to each other, and both reasons are communal in nature. The first is to bring someone down.

It’s called malice – using our words to tear down one’s reputation to someone else because we are jealous, or spiteful, or we just want to see someone fail. Things like gossip, slander, or spreading rumours are all forms of malice, and are all done to someone else. 

The other reason we lie is because of pride. We lie because we don’t want others to know our true selves – how we were wrong, how we acted, or what we actually thought. By doing this, we present ourselves in a better light then we ought. No one wants to look foolish, or wrong, or have their character take a beating, and so pride holds the truth hostage. 

Whether malice or pride, both types of lies have a societal effect on our community.   

That’s the bad side of lying, but some of you may be wondering if there is room for “good” lies? Can one bear false witness in a positive way?

And the truth is, yes … you can … kind of … maybe … well, it depends.

If exaggerating, or telling half-truths, or simply omitting information all fall under the ‘lie’ category, we may find ourselves in tricky situations. What about if we are dealing with people who are emotionally compromised and can’t handle complete truths in a specific moment? Or, what about in times of war where innocent lives depend on false information being given? Or, what if foolish or evil people would use the truth to harm others? Honestly, sometimes in frivolous situations, the truth may actually do more harm than good. 

Is lying OK then? Do the ends justify the means?

Once again, we need to remember that the command is not to bear false witness against your neighbour. The heart of the command is driven by relationships. It’s driven by love. So, our motivation in these situations must also be loving. If telling a lie means loving a neighbour, maybe there’s room for that. Think of Rahab in Jericho, when she hid Caleb and Joshua and saved them from the king. Her lies saved their lives, and in the end her family’s lives as well, all in the name of the Lord (Joshua 2:4-5).

And yet, a lie is still a lie. It’s a marker of the brokenness in the world. Whether we lie out of malice or pride, or because we think the ends justify the means and by lying we can actually love our neighbour better … a lie still goes against the way God created us to live. In any situation where we lie, even if we believe we are completely justified to do so, may we remember that we need the saving blood of our Lord Jesus Christ. May we always pray, Lord, lead me not into temptation – even in the times where lying is clearly the best option for our neighbours. 

Oftentimes we lie for our own misgivings – to gossip about someone or hide our flaws from each other. But even in the trivial times where we find ourselves telling white lies to protect our loved one’s feelings – or harder yet, if we ever find ourselves in a position where we need to lie to save a life – may we always seek truth, and always remember that God’s grace covers all things. 


Questions to Ponder:

1) What acts encompass lying? Which ones do you commit more than you should?

2) How does bearing false witness affect your community?

3) Ethically, is there ever such thing as a good lie?