God does not lie. (Isaiah 45:19; Titus 1:2) And Jesus is “the faithful and true witness.” (Revelation 3:14) So His word can be trusted (II Corinthians 1:19,20) – and His people, reflecting His character, must also be trustworthy.
This commandment is first and foremost applicable to the law courts, where a judge (or jury) cannot possibly make a just judgement on a case without being in possession of all the true facts. So the witnesses bear a great responsibility (Proverbs 19:28). “You shall not give false testimony against your neighbour.”
This applies above all in the public sphere (such as the law court), but is also relevant to our private conversations. Should we pass on rumours, or information from dubious sources, without first verifying the facts? Misinformation, flattery and exaggeration can cause others to make wrong decisions (Proverbs 26:28; 29:5). Careless words can do incalculable and uncontrollable damage, like a forest fire (James 3:5,6). When malicious office (or church) gossip threatens to undermine someone’s character or reputation, who tries to stand up for the truth? “Now you must rid yourselves of all such things as these: anger, rage, malice, slander and filthy language from your lips. Do not lie to each other, since you have taken off your old self with its practices and have put on the new self, which is being renewed in knowledge in the image of its Creator.” (Colossians 3:8-10)
A basis of trust is essential to any society – so how much more for the church! (Ephesians 4:25) So the truth must be honoured: even a ‘white lie’ lowers the value of your word. Most so-called ‘white lies’ are told to preserve our reputations in the eyes of others; it’s easier to lie than to admit to a mistake or failure.
Truth and love
But the truth is a powerful weapon, and can do harm as well as good. It must therefore be tempered with love (Ephesians 4:15). “Truth without love is brutal; love without truth is sentimentality.” Unfortunately, the words, “I’m saying this in love,” can strike fear into one’s heart; they are almost invariably the prelude to something hurtful or critical. But love is no excuse for cruel speech. Rather, love should cause us to stop and consider:
1) Should I be saying this at all? (Proverbs 12:23; 17:27,28)
2) Am I actually being arrogant or hypocritical? (Matthew 7:3-5)
3) Have I chosen my words carefully? (Proverbs 25:11)
It matters not only what we say, but when and how we say it. Criticism is sometimes necessary; but the way in which it is said can make it either constructive or destructive. Praise is usually encouraging and upbuilding – but if overdone it can foster vanity and pride. So great wisdom is required for using our tongues; they can be put to good use or to evil (Proverbs 12:18; Ephesians 4:29).
Our witness to the gospel must also be faithful and true (II Timothy 1:8) – like that of Antipas (Revelation 2:13). We are not all evangelists, but everyone who has a relationship with Jesus should be ready and able to talk about what He means to us (I Peter 3:15). Ordinary Christians are “witnesses to fact” – we just need to be able to say simply what Jesus has done for us and why we follow Him. We don’t have to know all the answers to the difficult questions; we don’t have to be theological experts. “Expert witnesses” can also give evidence in court, of course; so we can call on trained church leaders or recommend books when appropriate.
But however much or little we say, it must be honest (II Corinthians 4:2). Do we talk up the benefits of being a Christian and downplay the cost (or vice versa)? Do we make out that the Christian life is one long victory walk, or that Jesus solves all our problems? It can also be very tempting to exaggerate or make things up when giving testimony to what God has done in our lives, or to embellish stories that we have heard from others. Let us follow the example of the apostles: “We did not follow cleverly invented stories when we told you about the power and coming of our Lord Jesus Christ, but we were eye-witnesses of His majesty.” (II Peter 1:16)