It is not what goes into a person’s mouth that defiles him or her, it is what comes out of the mouth. For what comes out of the mouth comes from the heart and, from there, issue forth lies, evil thoughts, and slander. With words very similar to these, Jesus summarizes the eighth commandment.
Thou shalt not bear false witness against your neighbour! What is at stake here?
What is prohibited can be named rather simply. To bear false witness is to tell lies, perjure oneself, slander another’s reputation, engage in malicious gossip, unfairly judge another, or betray a trust. At a more subtle level, this commandment also forbids any manipulative use of the media of communications.
More important than these negatives, however, is its positive challenge. To keep the eighth commandment is to live in the truth and refuse to lie even when we are sinning and unhappy. Martin Luther summed this up well when he said: Sin bravely! But that is precisely what our age finds most difficult to do. We can sin, but we rarely do so bravely.
Leo Tolstoy once said that all happy families resemble each other but that each unhappy family is unhappy in its own way. That is true and it is also true of generations. Each generation has its own unique demons, peculiar to it, which spawn a particular form of unhappiness. One such demon in our time is a certain congenital infection within our culture and churches which invites us to lie. So much around us tempts us to rationalize, to blame, to slander, to not sin bravely.
We see the effects of this in a growing hardness of heart everywhere within the culture and the church. In virtually every circle, liberal and conservative alike, we see hardness, cynicism, the tendency to demonize and slander others, and a blunt, angry, rationalized refusal to look honestly at the truth without inflations, ideologies, denial, and distortion. We see, as well, an absence of healthy self-criticism which is then compensated for by an excess of criticism of those outside the circle. What we almost never see today are pockets of tenderness, forgiveness, and contrition. The absence of these is an infallible sign that we are not living in the truth, but are lying and not sinning bravely. Lying and rationalization form the root of bitterness, the root of slander, and the root of unhappy hardness of heart.
And this proclivity to lie has infected both sides of the ideological spectrum equally. Conservatives and liberals both lie; we just do it differently.
If I am a liberal, I lie through self-hatred. I look at my background and history and find no difficulty in seeing and naming the lies of the great institutions that shaped me. Thus, I look at family, church, and nation and I can see and name, in them, every kind of falsehood. But I cannot see and name the same things inside of myself. I cannot admit that I, personally, am guilty, am often false, and am largely responsible for my own unhappiness. So I go through life made unhappy by the liberal lie, a “recovering Catholic”, bitter at my own past, hating my own roots, and, not infrequently, distorting those roots through a revisionist rereading of them that is based more on ideology and hatred than accuracy. In this way, I lie … and it is only by lying in that manner that I can mouth such nonsense as: “There is no such thing as a should!” and “It is infantile to genuflect” and believe it.
However, if I am a conservative, my drug of choice, when it comes to lying, is denial. As a conservative, I have little difficulty in seeing and naming personal sin. I see sin all over. Moreover, I have no trouble genuflecting; in fact, I am forever insisting that everyone genuflect. My failure, my particular way of not facing the truth, is the exact opposite of the liberal. I cannot ever admit the real faults, historical and present, inherent and incidental, which come with family, church, nation, and every other revered institution within life. So I live the conservative lie, denial. I refuse to face certain things – and I am made hard and unhappy by that lie which, among other things, often prevents me from seeing my own anger.
The most dangerous of all sins is lying. The unforgivable sin against the Spirit begins with a lie. But there is a flipside to this. Scripture also tells us that the single condition for finding and acknowledging Christ is the refusal to lie. The eighth commandment is trying to teach us just this.