In Exodus 20:1-17 we find the 10 Commandments Moses received from the LORD atop Mount Sinai. Verse 16 gives the eighth (Lutheran numbering): “You shall not bear false witness against your neighbor.” To bear false witness originally meant giving false testimony in a courtroom setting. Over time, this commandment has been read so as to extend to lying, gossip, and other forms of defaming one’s neighbor—ANYONE AT ALL. Anytime we talk ABOUT someone else (and not to their face) in a way that is other than loving, affirming, or uplifting, we are, in turn, bearing false witness. For some people (generally those who want to justify their actions), this is considered as a subsidiary sin in comparison to ones such as “you shall not kill” or “you shall not steal.” While there is no hierarchy of sins—they are all equally damaging and damning—the breaking of the eighth commandment is arguably the worst in how common it is committed within the confines of the church building (and in the parking lot). The church—considered a holy place by many—despite people’s piety, is not free from a form of witnessing that is far from evangelical.
To be quite frank, whenever we bear false witness—whether it’s lying or simply gossiping about another person—we are destroying God’s good creation that is that person. If that statement hits you hard and causes some discomfort, than good—it should. No matter how much we recite the adolescent defensive comeback: “Sticks and stones may break my bones, but words can never hurt me,” the truth of the matter is that words—especially those spoken about me, but not directly TO ME—hurt worse than much of anything you could physically cast at me. Each and every person in this world is God’s good creation—including those whom we dislike or despise. In the first creation narrative from Genesis (1:1-2:4a), at the end of each day’s work God looks upon that which God has been made with love and affirms it as, indeed, good: “And God saw that it was good.” The work of God’s hands is always initially good in the sight of the Creator. Humanity—not God—is the first to ever deem any part of creation as less than this beautiful. From the first damaging word spoken by Adam against Eve, through all of history, to now, countless people all across the world have been destroying God’s good creation—their neighbors—by bearing false witness. You, me, and even those whom we talk about have all contributed—at one time or another, in some form—toward this ongoing genocide of our neighbors by our false witnessing.
It is not for us to undo what God has so wonderfully and beautifully made in the person of another. We are called to be stewards (Gen. 2:15), tilling and keeping the goodness of God’s creation. Yet, somewhere along the way each generation has followed in line with its forefathers’ and foremothers’ sin of instead acting as Cain—murdering—with our words. As stewards of God’s good creation, we have been made to affirm God’s work in caring for and praising all that God forms and fashions—including those whom we often times talk ill of behind closed doors (and occasionally unapologetically in public). The question we each should ask ourselves is this: “How much (many) of God’s creation have I destroyed in the spreading of rumors, telling lies, defaming privately to others?” Hear this not as self-righteous condemnation on others—I am just as guilty as the next whisperer, I am just as in need of being held accountable, confessing my wrongdoings, and receiving forgiveness. When I truly stop and ponder on those whom I have destroyed over the years by my ill words against them to others—sometimes damaging a person beyond ways I could ever imagine—I am filled with such guilt and shame I wish I would had never spoken in the first place. We each and altogether have a witness to bear—one that can, and should, be spoken publically without fear of the wrong person hearing it: our faith in Jesus, the Crucified and Risen Christ. Our witness of Christ is a joy to be shared with the whole world—a good word that does not tear down another, but raises those who have been damaged and destroyed to be filled with love and hope for new life. The good news of Jesus Christ is resurrection to those who have died by our gossip and defaming—it is cool, refreshing water to a plant that has withered from the sultry sun. In the Risen Christ, the only thing spoken of another is words that affirm and honor the good creation and the One who made it.
If you have witness to bear—something to say that is other than the gospel—take it to that person and not anyone else, so that they may not be broken by deceit and secrecy later. Filled with the Holy Spirit, we each have the opportunity (countless opportunities) to build up others—to, as stewards, till and keep God’s good creation—with our words of love, kindness, and affirmation. Your neighbor is a work of God’s hands—called good and given to share with the world in love. Don’t destroy this one (or any others for that matter) by bearing false witness, but nurture them in the love of Jesus Christ so that they may grow abundantly as the good creation God made each of us to be.