Summary: Why does God want to protect our reputation?
“Sticks and stones can break my bones but words can never hurt me.” Do you remember being taught that little saying after your feelings had been hurt by some bully at school? It does keep the hurt in perspective. Better to be called “four eyes” than actually get punched in the face. However, unkind words do hurt even when they’re spoken behind our back. God knows this of course. That’s why he gave the Eighth Commandment: “You shall not give false testimony against your neighbor.” With this command God protects his gift of a good name, that is, a good reputation.
A trip back to the Garden of Eden illustrates how important the Eighth Commandment is. It was this command Satan trampled when he lied and told Eve that there would be no harsh consequences from eating from the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil. Satan went on to bear false testimony against God when he said: “God knows that when you eat of [this fruit] your eyes will be opened, and you will be like God, knowing good and evil” (Genesis 3:5). Satan made it sound like God had given this “dumb” command about not eating from that particular tree because he was selfish and didn’t want Eve to be as wise as he. Eve and Adam, who was standing there with his wife, fell for Satan’s lie and they ate. We’re still living with the bitter aftertaste of the forbidden fruit: sin, pain, and death.
Have we ever been as callous as Satan? Have we ever lied about someone for the purpose of harming and causing chaos? Perhaps our conscience wouldn’t put up with such an obvious sin. But this doesn’t mean that we’re innocent. Listen to Luther’s explanation of the Eighth Commandment. He wrote: “We should fear and love God that we do not tell lies about our neighbor, betray him or give him a bad name, but defend him, speak well of him and take his words and actions in the kindest possible way.”
I may not be in the habit of telling lies about my neighbor but I do struggle to keep from speaking about him in a disparaging way. When standing around the playground with other parents, it’s easy to join in on the nitpicking of my child’s teacher. When the conversation turns to talk about the kid who is always late to school and is never dressed properly, I’m curious, no eager to hear what the other parents have to say about that child’s family. It never dawns on me that they probably talk about me like that when I’m not there.
But is it wrong to talk about others in a negative way if you’re telling the truth? Yes! God said: “He who covers over an offense promotes love, but whoever repeats the matter separates close friends” (Proverbs 17:9). Now to be sure, God isn’t speaking against warning others to stay away from false teachers. Jesus himself did that when he spoke vehemently against the Pharisees. The Apostle Paul even pointed out false teachers by name, not because he enjoyed doing this or thought that he was better than they, but because he took seriously Jesus’ command to warn the sheep when wolves were trying to get in close and devour them. But when a friend has had too much to drink, or a sibling throws a tantrum, Martin Luther says that when you hear about such sins, let your ear become its grave. Don’t resurrect that sin by telling others about it. If you must speak about the matter, it should be with the perpetrator first. God even urges us to do this and to call each other to repentance so that we may turn away from sin and through faith in Jesus receive the benefit of forgiveness.