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Watching Our Words

There is a strange paradox that people demonstrate all the time. On the one hand, no one likes to be lied to. No one likes to be tricked and deceived. But at the same time, people have no problem telling small or even enormous lies when it suits their purpose. There are numerous examples of this in our culture, from the statistical male who is afraid to tell his wife that her outfit does not look that great, to the woman who is unwilling to tell people her age or weight. We interact with lies all the time. We see advertisements that promise way more than will ever be delivered. We hear politicians promise things that we know will never happen. If you have children, you hear them say things like "I cleaned my room" or "I do not know who hit my brother." We understand that lying is wrong, but we still do it. Because of this, the subject is worthy of our time to discuss and think about.

The Ninth

The ninth commandment is reasonably straightforward. It states, "You shall not bear false witness against your neighbor" (Exodus 20:16). This is not the only place in scripture that deals with the issue of lying, but it is an excellent place to start. What does the ninth commandment require of us?

I must not give false testimony against anyone, twist no one's words, not gossip or slander, nor condemn or join in condemning anyone rashly and unheard.[1] Rather, I must avoid all lying and deceit as the devil's own works, under penalty of God's heavy wrath.[2] In court and everywhere else, I must love the truth,[3] speak and confess it honestly, and do what I can to defend and promote my neighbour's honour and reputation.[4] (Heidelberg Catechism Q.112, A)

The commandment primarily deals with the idea of testimony. This could apply to a courtroom, where the judge calls you up to the witness stand and asks you about what you saw. You are not to give a false testimony one way or another. This means you are not to say they did something that did not happen. This could also apply to a friend coming to you and asking about your neighbor. You are not to make things up or give your friend a false idea of your neighbor. What is interesting about the commandment is its relational focus. It is about how we interact with our neighbors, the people we come in contact with. The catechism makes it clear that deceitfulness and lying is wrong, but it goes further to talk about what the positive aspect of the command is. The negative is do not do this thing, but there is also a positive aspect of the command.

What I Must Do

The positive aspect of the command is that I must love the truth. I must desire good for my neighbor and build them up. Like with every other commandment, we are dealing with a heart issue. In the vast majority of lies, the heart of the issue is that I want to make myself look better. I either lie about things I have done or have not done or attempt to make myself look better than someone else by saying something negative about them. These are not the only instances of lies, but we will return to this in the next paragraph. We are called to build up one another in the truth. Telling someone a lie in an attempt to spare their feelings does not do them any good and can actually cause damage. While the truth may not always be pleasant, it is best for us. But the truth also needs to be communicated in a caring way. The method of telling the truth can be as important as the truth itself. We are called to tell the truth in gentleness and respect.

Some Challenging Examples

As we look through the text of scripture, it becomes clear that lying is sinful. For example, David writes in Psalm 5:6, "You destroy those who speak lies; the LORD abhors the bloodthirsty and deceitful man." But there are also instances where a lie is seemingly praised. The two biggest examples are in Exodus 1:15-21 and Joshua 2:5. In the first passage, we find the story of the Hebrew midwives. The king of Egypt commanded them to kill all the male children, but because they feared the Lord, they did not do what they were commanded. When the king comes to ask them why not, they told him a lie. They tell him that the were not there for the birth of the males. What makes this a challenging example for us is that the verses that follow say that the Lord bless them as a result of their actions. The second story is similar. It is the story of Rahab. She lies to the men of the King of Jerico when they ask her about the Israelite spies staying in her house. This one is a little less challenging since Rehab is not explicitly said to have been blessed by the Lord, but the result is still positive. She ends up marrying into the family of Judah and is listed in the genealogy of Christ. What are we to do with these examples? Does this mean that lying is okay in certain circumstances? I would argue that, to some extent, it is.

The Argument

My argument goes like this. The ninth commandment deals with false witness against my neighbor. The examples above are explicitly about protecting someone from those who would destroy them. In this, the heart is one of protection and preservation. It is seeking the good of those placed in your charge. Another example from history would be people in Germany during the Second World War that helped hide the Jews from the Nazies. When asked about a family of Jews that was hiding in their home, they would lie and say that they knew nothing of the family. The point is not that lying is okay but that there is an order of importance in things. In this case, it is more important to prevent evil than to participate in it. The fear of the Lord is more important than the fear of men. So the lies in the examples are good because they are to protect life from evil men who would seek to destroy it. In everything, the issue comes back to who we are seeking to glorify. Are we seeking to glorify God or to glorify ourselves? This is similar to how we are commanded to obey the government, but not when it goes against the commands of God. But even then, we are to be willing to face the consequences of our actions.


Lying is a serious and sinful issue, but the sin is more profound than just the words spoken. It is about what we fear. We should seek to always live in the fear of the Lord and not men. In the examples we looked at above, the people lying did so with full knowledge of the potential earthly consequences. The people who helped the Jews in Nazie Germany were willing to face death and even torture in some instances rather than participate in the vile actions of the Nazies. The midwives were the same. They were willing to face the potential wrath of Egypt rather than go against the Lord. The vast majority of lies do not fall into this category. They come about because we fear men more than the Lord or hate our neighbor rather than love them. Everything comes back to those two things. We are to fear the Lord, love him above all else, and love our neighbors as ourselves.

Soli Deo Gloria

[1] Ps. 15; Prov. 19:5, 9; 21:28; Matt. 7:1; Luke 6:37; Rom. 1:28-32. [2] Lev. 19:11, 12; Prov. 12:22; 13:5; John 8:44; Rev. 21:8. [3] I Cor. 13:6; Eph. 4:25. [4] I Pet. 3:8, 9; 4:8.

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