Bible reference – Exodus 20:16
Thou shalt not bear false witness against thy neighbour.KJV
What I thought this meant: Don’t lie.
What I think this really means: Don’t lie.
Everybody lies.Dr. Gregory House
Lies are so ubiquitous that we have to qualify our speech:
- Honestly, I had a good time.
- I was just about to call you. For real.
- I have to admit, I thought you would be taller.
- Seriously! I put it in my mouth.
This happens in Chinese (真的!), Korean (진짜!), and English (Really!). I suspect it happens in many, if not all, languages. Yes, these terms can be used for emphasis… because we are used to lies in the form of hyperbole, jokes, sarcasm, or other types of misdirection.
I don’t think this is the type of lies that we are being warned against. The Commandments want to protect people from bondage. What kind of lies enslave us? Let’s look at an intentional lie. A false statement that you intend for a person to believe.
“I don’t have a girlfriend, but I do know a woman who’d be mad at me for saying that.”Mitch Hedberg
Each lie is like a strand of spider’s web. You connect a person to a lie. If you are exposed? No big deal. You pop one strand. What if you want to keep going? Then you need to start connecting everyone that person knows to that lie. More strands. Now, you are responsible for who they meet. More strands. Then you add more lies. That is layers of strands. What if some people know one lie, and other people know another lie? Then you have to track who knows what lies, as well as any people they may have told and on and on. The strands get tangled in complexity. And the more sticky strands get tangled together, the harder to unravel any part of it becomes. You become a slave to your lies.
Some people like it. It’s like a game. However, even liars bank on trust. At some point, probably many points, you will need someone to rely on you – to believe this one thing. So you can spend a lot of energy being an ace liar and dance on an intricately maintained silken lattice with spindly legs… or, you can ditch the high wire act, and just be honest. Come back to earth.
So that is an intentional lie.
People often bring up the philosophical dilemma of the Nazis:
You are harboring a Jewish family. Nazi soldiers bang on your door. The family hides. If they are discovered, they will be killed. The soldiers barge in and ask you, “Are you hiding any Jews?”
Do you lie?
When I was younger, my answer was always to crawl into corners. I tell them, “There are no Jews here,” meaning in this particular room. I could tell a truth that would satisfy the question, but still protect the family. The problem is, I see so many politicians and TV personalities and communications experts using the same tactics. Trying to escape using vocabulary, or straw men, or other technicalities. I don’t want to believe God is a lawyer. I like that the 10 Commandments are mostly pretty simple statements and not littered with caveats or clauses or articles or appendices.
In the case of the Nazis, I think the answer now is to lie, and to take the burden of sin. Rather than pretend lying is ok in some circumstances, I believe one must be held accountable.
Incidentally, I feel the same about white lies, “harmless” lies to save people from their feelings. It’s a burden we take on, in order to do what is right.
I think this is a good place to remind us that we are imperfect. And that the Commandments lay out a blueprint to strive for, to provide direction… but not necessarily to be achieved.
The problem becomes when one lie becomes many lies, and when lying becomes habit. People need to take inventory of their words and choices, weigh them against the circumstances. With this lie, am I saving their feelings or my own?
You have to be careful not to become the frog in the pot that raises the temperature with each little lie. Eventually, you will hit the boiling point whether you notice it or not.
Does this pass the Ricky Gervais Test? Yes. It’s something people always talk about… and generally ignore.
Does it make sense at #9? As we progress through the the Commandments, we are dealing with something that everyone does. Statistically 100%. How much harm do lies do? Lies can be as devastating as the most devastating thefts. I can imagine some lies that can shatter or scar a person if uncovered. Economically, I would suspect the vast majority of lies are less harmful than the vast majority of thefts. Lying generally does not interfere with one’s individual pursuits. However, if we look at it through the lens of “Treat others as you would like to be treated,” then ask yourself, what kind of lies would you forgive? What kind of lies do you invite?
Although I can imagine people having thoughtful answers to those questions, I can’t imagine many people inviting any sort of stealing, adultery, or murder.
In that regard, this seems like the right spot for this Commandment.