Summary: How do you decide when is the right time to tell the truth and when is the right time to keep silent?
I sometimes wonder whether God has structured these ten commandments with the most obvious sins first and the least obvious or most subtle at the end. Or is it just that our age has become blind to the last couple of commandments?
Truth is a difficult concept in this day and age isn’t it?
Let me tell you a story: A minister was walking down the street when he came upon a group of boys, all of them between 10 and 12 years of age. The group surrounded a dog. Concerned the boys were hurting the dog, he went over and asked "What are you doing with that dog?" One of the boys replied, "This dog is just an old neighborhood stray. We all want him, but only one of us can take him home. So we’ve decided that whoever can tell the biggest lie will get to keep the dog." Of course, the minister was taken aback. "You boys shouldn’t be having a contest telling lies!" he exclaimed. He then launched into a ten minute sermon against lying, beginning, "Don’t you boys know it’s a sin to lie," and ending with, "Why, when I was your age, I never told a lie." Well, there was dead silence for about a minute. Just as the minister was beginning to think he’d got through to them, the smallest boy gave a deep sigh and said, "All right, give him the dog."
There was a time when a man’s word was his bond, when "I’ll take your word for it" was a common expression that meant something. But things have changed. Over the last century we’ve come to realise that people can’t be trusted. One of the great discoveries of the 20th century was that history is written by the victors and so it only tells one side of the story. In fact, we discovered, what we’d been relying on as historical accounts, and therefore true accounts, were in fact often highly biased and in the worst cases untrue. As oppressed people gained their freedom and received greater educational opportunities, they began to tell the old stories from their own point of view. The stories they told were of terrible things done by colonial powers, acts of war that contravened all standards of civilisation. We began to question the possibility that we could actually find truth in historical accounts. And if history books didn’t tell the truth, what did?
Then with growth of news services we began to learn of corruption in the police forces, in the courts, in government. Not that this was anything new really. The Old Testament has plenty to say about such things, but the power of the media meant that everyone heard about it, with the result that our confidence in authority figures also began to wane. It seemed you couldn’t trust anyone. No longer could we take someone’s word for it. Now we needed proof! And of course the scientific establishment just added to this by asserting that if something couldn’t be proven by scientific evidence then it probably wasn’t true.
It’s a very sad state of affairs isn’t it? If you can’t trust someone to tell you the truth you’re in big trouble. Relationships break down. Stress levels rise. Paranoia increases. What’s more if there’s no longer any such thing as objective truth, if all we have is subjective truth, the truth as I see it, then the possibility of collective action about important issues is diminished.
From a Christian viewpoint of course it’s even more important than that. The Bible tells us over and over again that God is truth. Jesus says: he’s the way the truth and the life.
So if we’re followers of Jesus Christ, if we love God, then truth is central to what we are and what we do and say.
During his trial, Jesus said to Pilate "I came into the world, to testify to the truth. Everyone who belongs to the truth listens to my voice." And Pilate’s famous reply was a cynical "What is truth?" (John 18:37-38) Pilate had been around politics long enough to know that truth was a rare commodity in this world. And truth wasn’t going to help him in the situation he found himself in. So his answer was to ignore the issue.
In the sermon on the mount, when Jesus is talking about making oaths he says: "Let your yes be yes and your no, no." Now, he’s talking about taking God’s name in vain in that passage, but it’s not just about taking God’s name in vain. It’s also about being godly people, people of integrity, people who always tell the truth, for whom a simple yes is enough.
The problem is we live in a world where no-one seems to be able to consistently tell the truth. You may have seen the movie "Liar, Liar" with Jim Carrey. For those who haven’t it’s the story of a fast talking lawyer, Fletcher Reed, who specialises in finding excuses without much concern for the truth. In fact he’s an habitual liar. Trouble is, he even uses this technique to explain why he misses important dates with his young son. Well, when he misses his son, Max’s, birthday party, Max decides to make a special birthday wish. He wishes that his father could just tell the truth for a whole day. And so begins the worst day of Fletcher’s life, as he finds he just can’t tell a lie.