“You shall not bear false witness against your neighbor.” Exodus 20:16
The Ten Commandments accomplish many things at once. For one, they define human rights. “You shall not steal,” for example, means that every person has a right to his possessions. God says so. To steal, therefore, is even more than a violation of a person’s rights; it is a violation of God himself, for it is God who gives every person his hard-earned things. God commands us to humble ourselves before his arrangement of reality, including our neighbor’s property.
The ninth commandment, against bearing false witness, means that a person has a right to his good name. God makes a person’s reputation a sacred thing. God listens to every whisper. God watches every “like” on Facebook. God notes every retweet and comment. God reads every email. God hears every phone call. Our discourse about one another matters to God above. It matters to him so much that he included this in the Ten Commandments.
To diminish a person’s good name by spin, lies, exaggerations, slanders, incomplete accounts, misrepresentations, self-serving narratives, one-sided versions of events, not including the facts unfavorable to oneself — there are many ways we can violate the ninth commandment. And we do. It is one of the primary ways we do violence to one another, dishonor God, deconstruct a gospel culture, replace it with an anti-gospel culture that God cannot bless, and scare unbelievers away from our churches. God deserves churches in this world marked by beauty, humaneness, restraint, kindness, humility, where every reputation is guarded as a sacred thing, for Jesus’ sake.
With the wisdom of the Heidelberg Catechism, Tim Challies helpfully presses this commandment into two recent occasions of bearing false witness against our neighbors. He concludes:
“The ninth commandment forbids us from lying, but it does far more than that. It demands that we deliberately seek out the truth. Even in an age of skimming, in an age in which we are drowning in a glut of information, it demands that we pursue the whole truth rather than risk promoting a lie. It demands that we resist the lazy temptation to have our views shaped by a skim and that we instead do the hard work of pursuing facts. For as the [Heidelberg] Catechism warns us, we are in danger of doing the work of the devil.”
To honor and restore a person’s good name is surely the work of the Holy Spirit.