On the Plains of Moab Blog
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November 25, 2016, 12:00 AM

Truth Deprived



This Sunday, I've got the Ninth Commandment. Let me say that when you hear any sermon on any text from the Bible, remember these helpful listening guidelines:

  1. Sermons can never, ever exhaust a text. There will always be something that wasn't said that could have been said.
  2. (All) Sermons are short and time bound. (Surprise!) No time to cover everything, even if one could; which one can't.
  3. (Good) Sermons must narrow the scope of a sermon or else the sermon turns into a laundry-listed, encyclopedic recitation. (Boring!)

Sunday, there are so many ways I could go to unpack the commandment.

I could have explained the judicial basis of the commandment.

I could have made much of the parallel between the Third Commandment and the Ninth:
The Third is protective of God’s Name; the Ninth is protective of our neighbor’s name.

I could have explored the instances in Scripture where God seems to condone lying, e.g. Rahab at Jericho; or the Egyptian midwives who saved the Israelite male infants from a murderous Pharaoh.

I could have explored some of the philosophical ramifications of the commandment.

However, I can’t do it all!

So, I thought I’d share a portion of the sermon on the Ninth Commandment that I preached many years ago.
A little different track than what I will do on Sunday.

Here it is:

Back in 1992, “[t]he book The Day American Told the Truth [reported] that 91 percent of those surveyed lie routinely about matters they consider trivial, and 36 percent lie about important matters; 86 percent lie regularly to parents, 75 percent to friends, 73 percent to siblings, and 69 percent to spouses.”

Obviously, truthfulness is something that gets sacrificed quite easily.  Mark Twain, that cynic’s cynic said that for journalists, truth was their most valuable resource, and that was why they were so “economical” or frugal in its use!  Some reporters simply don’t allow the truth to get in the way of a good political or personal cause.  It seems that in mainstream journalism, the ends truly justify the means.

We’re now in the midst of yet another presidential campaign.  Democrats are accusing Republicans of lying to us and Republicans reply by saying, “No way!  It’s the Democrats who are the liars!”  Truth can be such a pragmatic, self-serving exercise in the world of politics!

When I watch television commercials and hear astonishing claims for a certain product, I’m always amused to see a disclaimer in extremely small print being flashed at the bottom of the screen for a nanosecond.  Why can’t advertisers just tell the truth?

And then, there’s our justice system.  Who doesn’t get caught up in the sensational trials of our day?  It’s simply amazing to me that our legal system has degenerated into a big game between competing lawyers.  Winning the case is everything; the truth is not so important.

I heard an old lawyer once say that when you have the facts on your side, pound the facts; if you had the law on your side, pound the law; if you have neither the facts or the law on your side, pound the table!

However, the whole tenor of Scripture is truth loving, eschewing all falsehood.  Indeed, our faith is built upon the solid rock of truth.  Jesus said, “I am the way, and the truth, and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me.” (John 14:6).  We confess Jesus as God incarnate; we understand our plight without that understanding of God’s initiative and work on our behalf; we understand the testimony of the 66 books of the Bible to be authoritative in matters of faith and in all of life; we understand that somehow, God is working all things together for the good of those that love Him; indeed, working all things together for His holy purposes.  We don’t stake our entire lives on a lie!  (Paul in 1 Cor. 15!)

At the opposite end of the spectrum is the evil one.  “[The devil] was a murderer from the beginning, and has nothing to do with the truth, because there is no truth in him.  When he lies, he speaks out of his own character, for he is a liar and the father of lies.” (John 8:44).

But, I certainly don’t want to oversimplify the issue.  Biblical ethicists have been debating since the days of the early Church over just how far one can apply the ninth commandment.  Lying has been divided into categories over time (per Augustine):

Malicious lie – We have been discussing that already this morning.

Joking lie – Where you use humor to convey truth.  It can be a bad thing too!

Polite lie – “I’m doing fine today.”  No I’m not offended.”  Your children are well behaved.” Etc.

SOS lie – A lie to bail yourself out of trouble; to cover yourself.

Lie of necessity or pious lie – Much more complex!

The classic example of a lie of necessity dates back to World War II when the Nazis were hunting down the Jews for their extermination.  Some non-Jews refused to go along with this evil and hid Jews in their houses to spare their lives.  The example of Corrie Tin Boom’s family, fascinatingly documented in her book, The Hiding Place, is an example of a pious lie.  When the Nazis came to her house, they would always deny that they were hiding any Jews, when in fact they were hidden in basement compartment.

In fact, the Bible itself seems to justify this lie of necessity:

  1. The midwives Shiphrah and Puah in Exodus 1:15-21.  God blessed them and honored their lie.
  2. Rahab the harlot hiding the spies in Jericho from Joshua 2 (cf. Heb. 11.31; Jas 2.25)
  3.  In 2 Samuel 17:19-20, the lesser known account of the woman from Bahurim hiding two of King David’s messengers in a manner like Rahab during Absalom’s rebellion against his father.

The question is, why, when the Bible places so much stress on truth telling, how could it sanction any lie, even a pious one?  This troubled the early Church Fathers.  In fact, I am told that if you look at early commentaries, especially ones from St. Augustine, you find them roundly condemning any lying.  In the case of saving someone else from death by a lie, Augustine would argue that it is worse to lose your soul by a lie than save another by a righteous lie.  If the other person was a believer, then they would go to a better place!

But, I believe that Augustine had it wrong! The Bible does lead us to believe that there is a lie of necessity – and I think that the reason is that life is precious!  Life is to be affirmed.  A lie is unfortunate, but sometimes required in the face of a greater evil.

Having said that, let me add, this is NOT a license to go out and lie freely!  The preacher hasn’t just given you a pass.  The lie of necessity is a rare necessity.  Lying to your parents to cover breaking a family rule does not qualify as a lie of necessity!  Lying to your employer to lay out of work for the day is not a lie of necessity!  Lying about your golf score may be a lie of necessity.

The issue is love for your neighbor.  The issue is also about life.  Truthfulness is the way in which God wants us to walk.  Sometimes, telling the truth hurts.  It’s not the easy way – it’s the narrow way that leads to life.

My counsel to you this morning is to recognize that you serve a God who loves the truth.


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