“HOLD TO THE TRUTH”

EXODUS 20:16; ROMANS 12:3; I PETER 2:1; MATTHEW 5:33-37

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           "Oh what a tangled web we weave when first we practice to deceive."  The Scottish poet and novelist, Sir Walter Scott, uttered those words about 200 years ago, and they are just as true today as they were then, and some of us are master web weavers.  The 1992 book The Day America Told the Truth found that 91% of us lie routinely about things we consider trivial.  86% of children regularly lie to their parents.  65% of married people regularly lie to their spouses.  We lie about our weight, our income, our grade point average, our work experience, our age, even how many fish we caught during our last vacation.  To top it off, we absolutely hate it when people are dishonest with us, but most of us can’t resist being dishonest with other people.

            We are even dishonest with ourselves.  Listen this great insight that comes from the Apostle Paul.  In Romans 12: 3 he counsels the folks in ancient Rome, and ultimately us, to be honest with ourselves, not dishonest with ourselves.

 

            For the grace given to me I say to everyone among you not to think of yourself more highly than you ought to think, but to think with sober judgment, each according to the measure of faith that God has assigned.

 

            The apostle Paul tells us that it’s our responsibility as Christians to view ourselves accurately.  Instead of being intoxicated by pride, Paul instructs us to have a sober, clear-headed knowledge of our strengths and weaknesses.   While the world tells us to have a positive self-image, saying things to ourselves like “you are loved,” “you are valued,” “you are one of a kind,” Paul tells us to strive for an accurate self-concept.  He doesn’t have any objections to having a positive self-image as long as that positive self-image does not come through lying to ourselves, saying things to ourselves that simply are not true.  

            I recently heard how a police department in Canada commissioned a group of police officers to film a documentary about the drug addicts and alcoholics who lived on the streets. The documentary was designed to show in schools. So these officers got to know street people, as they filmed drug abusers and alcoholics while they were under the influence. But the officers found that when they later showed some of these people the film footage while they were clean and sober, some of the people were so horrified and shocked at their own behavior that it motivated them to get treatment.

            According to the Apostle Paul, when we are under the influence of pride, we can’t see the objective truth about ourselves.  To see the objective truth about ourselves, Paul says we need to measure ourselves against the Christian faith.  That is to be our plumb line, our standard, our criteria, not how we feel, not our own opinions of ourselves, not our own positive self-talk.  No, we are to evaluate ourselves according to the plumb line of the Christian faith. 

            So, we have a battle on our hands.  We lie.  We lie to ourselves.  We lie to others, and all this brings us to the ninth commandment.  This morning we continue our “Big Ten” sermon series where we are working our way through the Ten Commandments, and we are almost done.  We see the light at the end of the tunnel.  We only have two more to go and today turn our attention to the ninth commandment, God’s prohibition against lying.   Listen to the exact words.  Exodus 20:16 ...

 

            You shall not bear false witness against your neighbor.

 

            As we explore this ninth commandment, I want to address three things.  First, the downgrading of truth, second, the nature of lying, and third, becoming people of the truth.

            Let’s begin with the downgrading of truth.  Originally the ninth commandment was dealing specifically with perjury.  In fact, we get that sense in the NIV translation of the Hebrew into English.  In the NIV version the ninth commandment reads, “You shall not give false testimony  against your neighbor.”  Back in Old Testament Israel, virtually every legal decision was decided based upon the truthfulness of the witnesses. They didn’t have DNA testing or expert witnesses back then, so a false witness could ruin a person’s reputation.  So, even though this is originally just talking about perjury, this commandment has been expanded over the years to include truth telling in all areas of life.  And, as we explore this ninth commandment we need remember that it is built upon a significant foundation.  The foundation?  Well, it’s something out of date, something out of fashion: objective truth.

            Objective truth is truth that’s valid regardless of whether people believe it or not. It’s truth that exists in objective reality apart from our personal feelings, beliefs, and ideas.  For generations our culture believed this.  The preamble to our Constitution talks about certain truths that are self evident.  For years in colleges and universities every academic field of study was based on the assumption that objective truth existed and was available to the careful student.  This assumption applied equally to physics and psychology, history and religion, biology and business management.

            Then a guy, an 18th German philosopher named Immanuel Kant, came along.  His writings, particularly Critique of Pure Reason and Metaphysics of Morals, contributed to a shift from objective truth to relative truth, and today the majority of people believe that objective truth is only possible in science, not in other disciplines of study and knowledge, particularly not in ethics and religion.  When it comes to ethics and religion truth has become relative not objective.  Two hundred years after Kant, Alan Bloom wrote a book The Closing of the American Mind, where Bloom stated that the only thing a college professor can be absolutely confident of among incoming college freshmen is that they almost all believe that truth is relative. 

            So for many in our world, truth has been demoted, downgraded if you will, to the equivalent of values, opinions and preferences.   For instance, you might like vanilla ice cream, so it’s true for you that vanilla is your favorite flavor.  But of course that’s just your personal preference, because my favorite flavor is chocolate mint.  So what’s true for you isn’t necessarily true for me or true for anyone else for that matter.  When truth becomes a subjective preference instead of an objective reality, then everyone’s opinion is equally valid and it’s impossible to prove one opinion as right and another as wrong.  And most people in our culture think this is what it means for something to be "true" in ethics and religion.  It is not objectively true, it is subjectively true.

            Let me see if I can illustrate this with a math test.  A math test in the 1960s when I went to high school read something like this:  "A logger cuts and sells a truckload of lumber for $100. His cost of production is four-fifths of that amount. What is his profit?"     The answer was an objective truth.  The answer was $20. 

            The 2010 version, the version that questions objective truth reads like this:  "An unenlightened logger cuts down a beautiful strand of trees in order to make a $20 profit. Write an essay exploring how you feel about this way of making money.  How did the forest birds and squirrels feel?"

            So, the ninth commandment challenges us to think differently.  It challenges us to believe that truth, outside of science, including ethical and religious truth, can be known objectively.  Of course, that truth might be difficult to find at times, and we must always be humble enough about truth to be open to new evidence and new ways of looking at things, but we need to remember that the ninth commandment is built upon the foundation of objective truth. 

            This leads us to the second thing I want to say this morning.  I want to comment on the nature of lying.  I’ll do so with a question:  What constitutes a violation of the ninth commandment?  Granted it was originally given in the context of a courtroom, of committing perjury in a courtroom, on not telling the truth in a court room, but even though the ninth commandment was originally concerned with perjury, but over the years, and rightfully so, it has been seen as a prohibition on all sorts of lying. 

            So, then, what is lying?   Simply put, lying is distorting the truth.  It’s distorting the truth about ourselves, as we saw earlier from the Apostle Paul, but it is also distorting the truth about others.  Listen to the words of another heavyweight apostle, this time the Apostle Peter.  I refer you to I Peter 2:1.

 

            Rid yourselves therefore, of all malice, and all guile, insincerity, envy, and all slander.

 

            Note the last word, “slander.”  Slander is the oral communication of false statements that harm another person's reputation, and it comes in many forms.  There’s the kind of slander that’s whispered as gossip from one ear to another.  There’s the kind of slander that uses put downs, like "he’ll never amount to anything."  There’s the kind of slander that passes along brazen lies about people. 

            Whenever we distort the truth about another person, whenever we bear false witness about them, we’re slandering that person, and the Apostle Peter wants us to "rid ourselves" of such behavior.  The verb "rid" literally means to take off as a garment, like taking off a dirty shirt or blouse.  Imagine it.  Imagine slander as a shirt or a blouse, and the more we slander others, the more we stain the shirt, the more we stain the blouse.  As an aside, the older I get the more it seems I spill things on my shirt.  Is it me or does that happen to you?  It’s as if I’m reverting back to pre-school days when everything I ate seemed to wind up on my shirt.  Well, the more we slander the more stains we get on the shirt, and Peter says, “Take off that shirt because we can’t establish loving, positive, healthy relationships if we go about slandering people, if we go about bearing false witness against them. 

            That brings us to the final thing I want to say.   You see, it’s not enough merely to avoid pride and slander.  If upholding the ninth commandment was just a matter of not doing certain things, of not slandering others then our dog, Calvin, (and by the way isn’t the a great name for a dog of a Presbyterian pastor, Calvin?) keeps the ninth commandment perfectly.

            Thankfully, Jesus weighs in on this issue and according to him in his Sermon on the Mount there’s more to the ninth commandment than refraining from something, from refraining from lying.  Instead, it’s being people of truth.  It’s having our “Yes, mean yes and our no mean no.”  In his Sermon on the Mount Jesus tells us to be the kind of people who value the truth so much that an oath is an unnecessary addition.

            Therefore, the bottom line of the ninth commandment is this: Since truth exists we ought to seek the truth, tell the truth, live the truth, and share the truth with others.  As Christians we often seek to avoid lying but sometimes we hesitate to share the truth with others.  We sometimes forget that the most truthful truth in the world is the good news that God loves the world so much that he sent his Son Jesus Christ to die for us so we could find forgiveness and restoration with God.  When was the last time we shared that truth with someone who didn’t know it?