Have Regard For Your Neighbor's Reputation
HAVE REGARD FOR YOUR NEIGHBOR’S REPUTATION
A Midweek Lesson
By Pastor Brian Wilbur
Date: May 23, 2019
Note: Scripture quotations are from The ESV® Bible (The Holy Bible, English Standard Version®), copyright © 2001 by Crossway. Used by permission. All rights reserved.
Truth matters a great deal. Indeed, truth is absolutely foundational to life and flourishing. Knowing the truth – the truth about God, the truth about our world, the truth about ourselves, and the truth about our neighbors – is central to living well and loving well. And if we know the truth, then we also ought to speak the truth – and we ought to speak the truth for our neighbor’s good.
Our Lord Jesus Christ is the truth and came in order to bear witness to the truth, and He said: “If you abide in my word, you are truly my disciples, and you will know the truth, and the truth will set you free.” (John 8:31-32) And those who come to “know the truth” and experience its liberating power then become people of truth who “[speak] the truth in love” (Ephesians 4:15) in order to edify our fellow believers (Ephesians 4:11-16, 25, 29). It is truth that gives life, sets free, builds up, and binds together.
By contrast, lies facilitate death. And who is “the father of lies” (John 8:44)? Answer: the devil. Our Lord Jesus said, “[The devil] was a murderer from the beginning, and does not stand in 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)
Pastor John Piper has noted the close connection between the devil as murderer and the devil as liar, namely, that the devil uses lies as his chief weapon in order to murder his victims. Isn’t this the weapon he deployed against Eve in the Garden?
In the Garden of Eden, the serpent bore false witness about God in order to facilitate Eve’s and Adam’s destruction. First, he bore false witness about God by giving the impression that was not generous and kindhearted, but restrictive and holding back (Genesis 3:1). Second, he bore false witness about God by directly contracting the clear instruction that God had given (Genesis 3:2-4). From the opening “Did God actually say” (Genesis 3:1) to the “You will not surely die” (Genesis 3:4), the devil bore false witness about God – maligning God’s character and calling God a liar. To put it simply, Satan misrepresented God to Eve and thus sullied God’s reputation in Eve’s mind. Bearing false witness against someone is nothing less than character assassination, and that’s what happened in the Garden.
At the same time, the devil bore false witness about God against Eve, in the sense that he was deliberately seeking to destroy her. Thus his lying was an act of malice against God and, at the same time, an act of malice against mankind.
When our first parents fell into sin, the whole world was cast under the spell of satanic deception. Our Lord Jesus Christ came into this deceived and disordered world for the express purpose of bearing witness to the truth:
“Then Pilate said to him, “So you are a king?” Jesus answered, “You say that I am a king. For this purpose I was born and for this purpose I have come into the world–to bear witness to the truth. Everyone who is of the truth listens to my voice.”” (John 18:37)
Jesus came in order to bear witness to the truth about God: “No one has ever seen God; the only God, who is at the Father’s side, he has made him known.” (John 1:18) Whereas Satan misrepresented God and maligned God’s character, the Lord Jesus Christ faithfully represented God and perfectly embodied His character. After telling His disciples that He is the way to the Father, Jesus told them: “Whoever has seen me has seen the Father.” (John 14:9)
Further, Jesus bore witness to the truth about God for our good. Satan deployed lies to destroy us, but Jesus deployed truth to deliver us. Jesus said, “My sheep hear my voice, and I know them, and they follow me. I give them eternal life, and they will never perish, and no one will snatch them out of my hand.” (John 10:27-28) But “those who are perishing” remain attuned to satanic deception “because they refused to love the truth and so be saved.” (2 Thessalonians 2:10) The truth brings about salvation for those who treasure it, whereas the lie brings about destruction for those who are captive to it.
THE NINTH COMMANDMENT
With this wider biblical context in mind, let us go to the ninth commandment. As I have said in earlier lessons, commandments 6-10 are especially concerned about loving our neighbors. We love our neighbors by having regard for their life (sixth commandment), their marriage (seventh commandment), and their property (eighth commandment). To those three neighborly regards, we now add a fourth: we love our neighbors by having regard for their reputation (ninth commandment). The commandment says,
“You shall not bear false witness against your neighbor.” (Exodus 20:16)
As we look at Exodus 20:16, it is very important to note the phrase “against your neighbor.” This phrase puts the commandment within the context of loving our neighbors and seeking their good. In other words, the ninth command isn’t about lying in general – although it has implications for lying in general – but it is specifically about wielding lies for the express purpose of harming our neighbor. The instruction is clear: do not deploy falsehood in an effort to injure your neighbor.
The sixth commandment taught us that our neighbor’s life is precious, the seventh that his marriage is precious, the eighth that his property is precious, and now the ninth teaches us that his reputation is precious. Our neighbor’s name – that is, his reputation and public honor – ought to be treated with great respect. Our neighbor ought to be represented fairly, honestly, and charitably. Liars, slanderers, gossips, unfair critics, and not a few politicians and political campaigners, routinely violate the ninth commandment.
Do Not Speak Falsehood Against Your Neighbor
In the most basic sense, we ought not to say anything false about our neighbor because doing so would be injurious to our neighbor, to our neighbor’s reputation, and to our neighbor’s capacity to enjoy his life, his family, and his property. If we are called to the witness stand in a court of law, or if we are taking the initiative to witness in the court of public opinion, or if we are simply speaking our minds in the course of ordinary conversations with family members, co-workers, or friends, we have a solemn obligation to say nothing false or misleading about another person.
Exodus 23 sheds further light on the ninth commandment:
“You shall not spread a false report. You shall not join hands with a wicked man to be a malicious witness. You shall not fall in with the many to do evil, nor shall you bear witness in a lawsuit, siding with the many, so as to pervert justice, nor shall you be partial to a poor man in his lawsuit…
“You shall not pervert the justice due to your poor in his lawsuit. Keep far from a false charge, and do not kill the innocent and righteous, for I will not acquit the wicked. And you shall take no bribe, for a bribe blinds the clear-sighted and subverts the cause of those who are in the right.” (Exodus 23:1-3, 6-8)
In our communication and evaluation of information, reports, charges, and lawsuits, one thing matters: truth. Truth is not for sale: therefore “you shall take no bribe.” Truth is not established by majority consensus: therefore “siding with the many” because they are “the many” is the wrong way to go. If “the many” happen to be right, then side with them – but not because they are “the many,” but rather because in this instance they are right. Truth doesn’t bend to “a poor man,” as if his poverty or victimhood automatically places him on the right side of justice. It is possible to practice favoritism to the rich, and it is equally possible to practice favoritism to the poor. Avoid both; fear God; and adhere to the truth. All that matters here is truth, justice, and righteousness.
When it comes to the court of law, we do not want a guilty verdict to be rendered against an innocent and righteous person. When it comes to the court of public opinion, we do not want other people’s minds prejudiced or poisoned against our neighbor. Think about it: all of us are called to love our neighbors. One way to love my neighbor is to help other people love my neighbor – but if I am in the habit of tearing down my neighbor or discrediting my neighbor, then I am actually making it more difficult for other people to love my neighbor. Which means that I am failing to love my neighbor. Instead, I should want my neighbor – even a neighbor who frankly rubs me the wrong way – to have the blessing of being loved by other people. So as much as truth allows, I should speak about my neighbor in a way that commends my neighbor to other people and doesn’t injure his reputation.
Avoiding Falsehood Isn’t Enough; We Must Also Be a Good Steward of Truth
Interestingly enough, the prohibition on bearing false witness against my neighbor is not a license to indiscriminately bear true witness against my neighbor. Charlotta, having been married to me for nine-plus years, has particular insight about my weaknesses and sins. What would you think if she made it a point to regularly set forth my weaknesses and sins on Facebook? What would you think if she made sure that our children had keen insight into all my failings and follies? She could not take refuge in the technical wording of the ninth commandment; she could not say that she is innocent because she said nothing false. For even though she may have said nothing false, she has nevertheless run afoul of the larger intent of the ninth commandment, which is that we “[speak] truth in love” (Ephesians 4:15) for the good of our neighbor. She may have spoken truth, but not in love, and not for my good, and not to appropriately safeguard my reputation.
Now don’t misunderstand what I am saying: if we are called to testify as part of criminal proceedings in a court of law, we ought to disclose the information that we know to be true. And in situations where a predator is on the loose, we ought to sound appropriate warnings in order to protect life and keep children safe. But these circumstances are atypical in nature.
However, in the ordinary ups and downs of life – in ordinary situations, within ordinary relationships, involving ordinary sins – it is actually our great privilege to cover sins and not air other people’s dirty laundry. To practice gracious forbearance and tenderhearted forgiveness toward one another means, among other things, that we are not broadcasting each other’s foibles and faults. Consider these proverbs:
“Hatred stirs up strife, but love covers all offenses.” (Proverbs 10:12)
“Whoever goes about slandering reveals secrets, but he who is trustworthy in spirit keeps a thing covered.” (Proverbs 11:13)
“Whoever covers an offense seeks love, but he who repeats a matter separates close friends.” (Proverbs 17:9)
“Good sense makes one slow to anger, and it is his glory to overlook an offense.” (Proverbs 19:11)
A faithful and loving man counts it a privilege to overlook offenses, cover offenses, and guard confidences. As a general rule, a faithful and loving man will not use truth against his neighbor, will not use truth to injure his neighbor’s reputation, and will not use truth to cause relational friction in the community.
The Beauty of the Ninth Commandment: Truth and Love
So let’s appreciate the beauty of the ninth commandment. It calls us to have a high regard for truth and a high regard for our neighbor’s reputation and well-being.
The person who carelessly and heartlessly speaks truth against his neighbor is not technically guilty of lying, but is guilty of not safeguarding his neighbor’s public honor in the community. On the other hand, the person who lies in order to protect his mischievous neighbor’s reputation is not technically guilty of speaking against his neighbor, but is guilty of violating the truth. So we’ve got to keep the entirety of the ninth commandment before us: the trajectory to avoid is the habit of speaking falsehood unto the harm of our neighbor; the trajectory to embrace is the habit of speaking truth for the good of our neighbor.
We should never violate the truth. In this particular lesson, it is not my intent to evaluate extraordinary circumstances in which honorable people might lie for the express purpose of saving lives. But the general rule is clear: never violate the truth. However, we cannot stop there. It is not enough to never violate the truth. For it is possible to be rigidly committed to telling the truth and not care about blessing and edifying and honoring people. In fact, it is possible to be rigidly committed to telling the truth and to enjoy telling it for the express purpose of hurting people. But Scripture calls us to love the truth and, at the same time, to love people. Therefore, we must embrace both!
Speak Truth for Your Neighbor’s Good
Whether we are dealing with everyday matters or eternal matters, we must have a disposition to bear witness to the truth for my neighbor’s good. Listen to some other proverbs:
“With his mouth the godless man would destroy his neighbor, but by knowledge the righteous are delivered.” (Proverbs 11:9)
“There is one whose rash words are like sword thrusts, but the tongue of the wise brings healing.” (Proverbs 12:18)
“A truthful witness saves lives, but one who breathes out lies is deceitful.” (Proverbs 14:25)
Do we want to use our words to destroy or to deliver, to inflict harm or bring healing, to save people or deceive people?
All this comes right down to our everyday conversations: what do we talk about, whom do we talk about, how do we talk about those whom we talk about, and what are we aiming at? Are our words in the habit of building up or tearing down, blessing or cursing, giving the benefit of the doubt or assuming the worst, kindly covering sins or unkindly sharing our critiques?
At the same time, all this gets taken up into words of eternal importance. John the Baptist “came as a witness, to bear witness about the light, that all might believe through him” (John 1:7). Jesus is “the faithful witness” (Revelation 1:5) who came in order to bear witness to the truth, so that we might feast on His words and be saved. The Lord Jesus Christ commissioned His apostles, and by extension the whole church, to be His witnesses “to the end of the earth” (Acts 1:8). Paul’s entire aim in life was to testify to the truth: “But I do not account my life of any value nor as precious to myself, if only I may finish my course and the ministry that I received from the Lord Jesus, to testify to the gospel of the grace of God.” (Acts 20:24) In our own time and place, it is our privilege to bear witness to the truth of the gospel for the sake of our neighbors, that they might repent and believe: “Walk in wisdom toward outsiders, making the best use of the time. Let your speech always be gracious, seasoned with salt, so that you may know how you ought to answer each person.” (Colossians 4:5-6) And in the context of our church family, it is our responsibility to speak the truth in love to one another, in order to give grace and strength to our brothers and sisters and so that together we might grow into increasing maturity as a congregation.
JESUS, TRUTH, AND ETERNITY
Jesus said, “Everyone who is of the truth listens to my voice.” (John 18:37) And when we are aligned with Jesus, who not only speaks the truth (John 18:37) but is the truth (John 14:6), we are part of His forever family, built on the firm foundation of holy truth, that will endure into eternity. Consider three more proverbs:
“Truthful lips endure forever, but a lying tongue is but for a moment.” (Proverbs 12:19)
“Lying lips are an abomination to the LORD, but those who act faithfully are his delight.” (Proverbs 12;22)
“A false witness will perish, but the word of a man who hears will endure.” (Proverbs 21:28)
So let us first of all hear – indeed let us hear the life-giving truth of the Lord Jesus Christ, who is the Faithful Witness. Then as we hear and understand the truth, so let us speak the truth for the glory of God and the good of other people. Another proverb says:
“A wicked messenger falls into trouble, but a faithful envoy brings healing.” (Proverbs 13:17)
God is glorified when we act and speak faithfully. And when we speak forth the gracious words of truth, healing flows into other people’s lives.
CONCLUSION: WHAT THE NINTH COMMANDMENT CALLS US TO
The ninth commandment calls us to safeguard our neighbor’s reputation.
The ninth commandment calls us to speak the truth.
Yes, the ninth commandment calls us to speak the truth in order to safeguard our neighbor’s reputation.
But there’s more. The ninth commandment calls us not only to speak the truth, but to “[speak] the truth in love”: speak the truth in love in order to publicly honor our neighbor and in order to bless our fellow Christians and in order to evangelize the lost.
Brothers and sisters, as a steward of God, leverage the gift of speech for the positive benefit of your neighbor. And never bear false witness against him.
 See, for example, John Piper, “Where Is Satan Most Visibly Active Today?” (Ask Pastor John, Episode 1209) Published by Desiring God, June 11, 2018. Audio and transcript available online: https://www.desiringgod.org/interviews/where-is-satan-most-visibly-active-today.