Perhaps no sin is committed more frequently than lying. Everyone lies at one time or another – even the best of saints. It is one of the first sins we figure out at a very young age – “Did you take the cookie?” “Uh…no!” – and it never stops being a temptation until the day we die. We lie about small things – “Yes, that hairstyle really looks good on you” – and about big things – “I’m not a crook” (11/17/73). We even lie to ourselves. Lying comes in so many shapes and sizes and degrees that the ninth commandment really affects just about everything in our lives. No one is untouched either by their own deceit or by the deceit of others. At face value nothing is more easily understood than the command, “You shall not lie.”
Lies are Evil
The command itself speaks to legal and community behavior. It specifically prohibits giving false testimony in a judicial proceeding. Under Mosaic Law no one can be convicted of a crime without the testimony of at least two witnesses. If witnesses lie, the credibility of the legal system crumbles and the rule of law breaks down. Lying becomes more than a personal or interpersonal issue; it threatens the viability of the community.
The application of the commandment is not limited to the courts, however. It forbids lying of any kind. Whether we lie in court or lie at home we bear false witness and violate the spirit of the command. And that it specifically forbids lying against your neighbor points to its communal aspect in and outside of the courts. Lying of any kind threatens the community. A group of people who cannot trust one another does not exist as a community for long.
Lying goes back to the beginning of time. Satan asked Eve in the garden (Gen 3), “Indeed, has God said, ‘You shall not eat from any tree of the garden’?” This was a deliberate misstating of God’s words. He then assured her that God’s warning about the consequences of eating the fruit was not true (he lied to get her to believe that God lied) – “You surely shall not die!” Eve later told God after He confronted her, “The serpent deceived me, and I ate.” Even before original sin was the original lie – there has never been a time when sin existed without deceit.
This points to perhaps the most dangerous facet of lying. We are never closer to Satan than when we lie. Jesus calls him the father of lies (Jn 8:44) and says when he lies he speaks from his own nature. Satan’s purpose on earth is to lead people into sin. To do this he lies. If every sin comes back to pride then every temptation is a lie that appeals to pride. Tempting is Satan’s full-time occupation so he lies as a matter of course – it is who and what he is. Thus lying makes us like the father of lies instead of our Father in heaven.
It is notable that in the garden Satan mixed just enough truth into his lies to make them plausible. God had forbidden eating from one tree but not from all the trees. And there was some truth to his claim that eating the fruit would make them like God. Satan knows that to make a lie believable it should contain some truth. It is revealing that when we justify our lies because they are mostly true that we mislead just like Satan.
Something else to consider is that sin itself is deceiving. If the temptation to sin is a lie – and logic tells us it has to be or we would never sin (“this will make you happy” – “this time will be different” – “this is worth it” – “this is better than anything else you could do right now” – “one more time will not hurt anything” – “do not think just enjoy” – “this will make them laugh and like you”) – then the sin the temptation leads to continues the deceit. It is the most dangerous aspect of sin. The one lost in sin is typically unaware of it – or unaware of the degree to which he is lost (“I know I should not do this but I can control it – I am not like the others”). Ongoing sin convinces the sinner that what he does is not that dangerous or not that bad or not all that different from what anyone else does. Or even worse, it convinces him that what he does is actually right – and others who condemn him are judgmental or unloving. When we deceive, we act like sin itself.
Deceit is also one of the primary marks of our fallen state. In Jeremiah 17:9 God describes the heart of the fallen man – The heart is more deceitful than all else and is desperately sick; who can understand it? In our natural state we are so based in deceit that we cannot even trust our own motives and thoughts. Everything we do – however righteous it seems – is questionable because we are so prone to deceit. We serve ourselves but then deceive ourselves into thinking we serve others. This is who and what we are apart from the gospel – just like the father of lies.
Lying is therefore one of the most basic and insidious of sins. It is easy to commit and easy to justify and yet comes directly from Satan and hell. It can be a sin of commission or omission – we can lie with what we say or lie by staying silent and allowing someone to believe a lie. And it often is the gateway and accompaniment to more sin. No one steals without lying. No one commits adultery without lying. Almost every sin either starts with or resides with deceit. Lying truly is the father or friend of all sin.
Words are Important
The ninth commandment is closely tied to gossip and slander. The gossip lies when he repeats what he does not know for certain to be true. And even gossip that is true will mutate as it spreads into false witness against a neighbor and so will violate the command. In the same way, slander once started serves to demean and grow beyond any truth it represents. Gossip and slander must have no part in the life of the one who abides by this command.
But no one can tame the tongue; it is a restless evil and full of deadly poison. With it we bless our Lord and Father; and with it we curse men, who have been made in the likeness of God; from the same mouth come both blessing and cursing. My brethren, these things ought not to be this way. James 3:8-10
He who goes about as a slanderer reveals secrets, therefore do not associate with a gossip. Proverbs 20:19
Of course, harmful and groundless gossip can become the basis for a lawsuit – homage that modern law pays to Scripture. Indeed, the common law of libel and slander originates out of “Thou shalt not bear false witness against thy neighbor,” extending the prohibition to more than allegations falsely made or falsely denied in the forum of a law court. The command was generalized into a prohibition against tale-bearing, recognizing not only the damage it could do to a person’s personal or business reputation, but also how in circumstances already pregnant with hostility, gossip could lead to community strife and even bloodshed. (More than just Philistines have been slain by the jawbone of an ass.) – Al George, email regarding the ninth commandment, 05/24/12
Jonathan Edwards, understanding the power of speech and how it can derail the life and testimony of the believer, made the following resolutions regarding his tongue:
Resolved, Never to say anything at all against anybody but when it is perfectly agreeable to the highest degree of Christian honor and of love to mankind, agreeable to the lowest humility and sense of my own faults and failings, and agreeable to the golden rule.
Let there be something of benevolence in all that I speak.
The liar and the gossip both show what is in their heart. Jesus said, “For the mouth speaks out of that which fills the heart” (Matt 12:34b). The liar lies to protect himself or make himself look good. The gossip gossips to make himself look good at the expense of another. In both cases their words betray hearts that place self before God (and thus break the first commandment). To lie and gossip is the opposite of denying self and taking up a cross and the opposite of loving a neighbor. The man typified by deceit and slander cannot claim to follow Christ.
Proverbs 6:16-19 shows God’s attitude toward the false witness and the rumor monger. There are six things which the Lord hates, yes, seven which are an abomination to Him: haughty eyes, a lying tongue, and hands that shed innocent blood, a heart that devises wicked plans, feet that run rapidly to evil, a false witness who utters lies, and one who spreads strife among brothers. God is not ambivalent about deceit and gossip. The one who spreads strife among brothers is equated to hands that shed innocent blood. Of the seven things that God considers an abomination to Him, three have to do with deceitful speech.
Is it Ever Okay to Lie?
There probably are situations that allow for innocent lying. If I plan a surprise for my wife and lie to keep her from finding out it would be hard to classify it as a violation of the spirit of the ninth commandment (assuming she likes the surprise). However, this kind of thinking can get out of hand. And trying to delineate between what is innocent and in good fun and what is simply deceit can prove difficult. It pays to remember that our natural bent is to justify whatever we do as acceptable and that we are prone to self-deception (about our deception). We stray into very dangerous territory when we decide that lying is okay because our motives are good.
What about lying to protect someone’s safety? Was it okay to lie to protect slaves on the Underground Railroad? Was it okay to lie to protect Jews from the Nazis? Would it be okay to lie to the authorities in a country that persecutes Christians? Can we use Rahab (Josh 2) as our example?
These are difficult questions. Rahab is never condemned in the Bible for hiding the spies and lying to the authorities in Jericho. As a matter of fact she saves her and her family’s lives and even ends up in the line of the Messiah. Does that mean we have license to lie when our motives are pure? It is notable that when the Bible discusses lying it never speaks in terms of contingencies. It never says anything about when lying might be okay. Outside of Rahab there does not appear to be any other examples in the Bible where lying is rewarded. Any direct statement on lying always precludes it without recourse. So as mentioned already, it is extremely dangerous to decide on our own when violating the ninth commandment is justified.
Sometimes lying comes down to trust in God. How much do we trust that God can work around and through the negatives that honesty might bring? Do we believe that God is big enough to bless those who obey Him even when it looks from a human vantage point to be the worst possible course? This is not to say that gray areas do not exist since they certainly do. But perhaps we shortchange the opportunities for God to work when we take things into our own hands and decide that honesty is not in fact the best policy.
If lying is truly a matter of our words showing what is in our heart, then guarding our hearts and filling them with what is good become critically important. We must be saturated in the word and must depend on the power of the Spirit to live an honest life free of the desire to harm others with what we say. Paul says the peace of God will guard our hearts and minds in Christ Jesus as a result of prayer (Phil 4:4-7). And Jesus says the good man out of his good treasure brings forth what is good (Matt 12:35a). We must continually fill our hearts and renew our minds by feeding on the word and desperately praying.
Everything in our nature screams for dishonesty and there is perhaps no sin easier to commit. To think we can make it through any day on our own without being dishonest either by what we say or do not say is naïve. We must live in the power of the gospel and continually appeal to the Spirit’s power to live in integrity with our speech. The one who walks by the Spirit will not carry out the desires of the flesh (Gal 5:16) either in his actions or his words.
O Lord, who may abide in Your tent? Who may dwell on Your holy hill? He who walks with integrity, and works righteousness, and speaks truth in his heart. He does not slander with his tongue, nor does evil to his neighbor, nor takes up a reproach against his friend. Psalm 15:1-3