This last summer we have heard about many wildfires that have destroyed tens of thousands of acres of land. We can’t even begin to comprehend the damage one small fire can create. A single spark, a campfire left unattended, a bolt of lightening. Any of these things can create devastation beyond imagination.
It is significant that James uses that same image of a small spark, to describe our tongue.
James 3:5-6 The tongue also is a fire, a world of evil among the parts of the body. It corrupts the whole person, sets the whole course of his life on fire, and is itself set on fire by hell.
We know this is true from our own experience. We have experience with the devastating effects of words. Somewhere in your past you have probably
- had your confidence destroyed by someone’s negative comment
- or maybe you have had to pick up the pieces from a vicious rumor
- or spent a lifetime trying to undo the hurt of someone who called you “stupid”, “ugly”, “loser” or any number of other horrible labels.
But words can also be good . . .
- you’ve had your confidence boosted by an encouraging word
- you’ve been strengthened by the person who speaks the fitting word at just the right time
Words carry a great deal of power. Jesus tells us that we will have to give an account of every idle word. It is not surprising then that the ten commandments put a great deal of focus on our words. The ninth commandment addresses our words most directly. “You shall not give false testimony against your neighbor.” (Ex. 20:16)
The Heidelberg Catechism was written by the German Reformed church back in 1563. It was designed to teach the basics of faith to children and new believers. It has a very succinct definition of the ninth commandment.
God’s will is that I
- never give false testimony against anyone
- twist no one’s words
- not gossip or slander
- nor join in condemning anyone without a hearing or without just cause.Rather, in court and everywhere else, I should avoid lying and deceit of every kind; these are devices the devil himself uses, and they would call down on me God’s intense anger. I should love truth, speak it candidly, and openly acknowledge it. And I should do what I can to guard and advance my neighbor’s good name. [Lord’s Day 43]
It’s a very good explanation. We would do well to memorize it. Look at the various components.
DO NOT GIVE FALSE TESTIMONY
The Bible is very clear that when we testify in court we are to tell the truth. We talked about this when we looked at the command to Honor God’s name. But it is not just in court that we are to be truthful . . . it is all the time. Lying is bad.
Lying is not part of life in God’s Kingdom . . . it is part of life in the Devil’s realm. Even in the Garden of Eden when the serpent told Eve that if she ate the fruit, “you will not die”, He was lying. In John 8:44 we are told that Satan is the Father of Lies. It is his modus operandi. It is Satan’s trademark . . . lies come from and are used by the Devil. And is very good at it.
Why is lying so bad? First, it’s bad because when we lie we are dining with the Devil. We are turning away from God and opening our arms to embrace Satan. Make no mistake, every time . . . . every time you and I choose a lie rather than the truth we are following Satan and not the Lord.
Second, lying is bad because it destroys healthy society. You cannot have healthy relationships if you cannot trust people. It is impossible to defend against lies. Truth and truthfulness are the bedrock on which everything else must be built. And this is why truthfulness among our leaders is so essential.
Third, lies are inconsistent with Christianity. Jesus said, “He is the truth”. If we do not deal honestly with others we make a mockery of Christ’s coming. We push people away rather than draw them to Christ. Too many people say, “I knew some Christians once. They were the most dishonest and manipulative people I know. If that’s what it means to be a Christian . . . I want no part of it!”
But there is more to this commandment than a prohibition against telling a lie.
DO NOT DISTORT WHAT OTHERS SAY
We bear false witness when we misrepresent someone. We see this kind of thing in every political campaign. A politician makes a statement in a particular context and it is replayed in a different context to make the man (or woman) appear to be saying something different from what they really meant.
Have you ever had one of these kind of arguments in your home?
“So, what did you think of the meatloaf?”
“It was O.K.”
“You didn’t like it?”
“I said it was fine.”
“That’s not exactly a ringing endorsement. I thought you liked meatloaf.”
“Then what was wrong with my meatloaf?”
“Nothing. It was just different from what I was used to.”
“It was my mother’s recipe”
“My mom made it a little different and I guess that’s what I’m used to.”
“So, now your mother is better than my mother????”
It is easy (and dangerous) to read into any conversation just about any kind of “edge” that you want. We can misrepresent or lie about someone when we tell (or know) only one side of the story, or when we only share one dimension of a person’s character. The facts can be distorted. It is so important that we work hard at understanding a situation and a person’s words. Context is everything.
Let me give you a silly illustration. Suppose you heard the statement, “they were burning up”. Now what that phrase meant would depend on the context.
- it could mean buildings or belongings were being consumed by fire
- it could mean some people were really angry
- it could mean a person was running a fever
- it could means a person was very warm and uncomfortable in a crowded room
- it could mean that somebody was doing very well in a race (as in “burning up the course”)
Context is everything. We must take time to understand BEFORE we respond. I find that I am often guilty of answering questions that weren’t asked because I start talking before I know what is being asked.
DO NOT GOSSIP OR SLANDER OTHERS
The Bible condemns those who gossip, slander or tell tales. Most of us can recognize gossip . . . if we want to. Anytime we pass on or initiate a rumor, innuendo, or a fact that hasn’t been verified . . . we gossip. Anytime we fail to correct faulty information we are party to slander. Anytime we turn the spotlight to focus on another’s failure we violate the law of love. People love to gossip! If there was an Olympic event in gossiping, many people we know would have a shot “at the gold”.
Don’t get me wrong. I find myself perking up when the gossip is flying. I want to know the scoop. I find myself drawn by a magnet to the “dirt” on others. But the question is: “Why?” Why do you and I find gossip so appealing? As I thought about it I came up with several possibilities.
- hearing the negative things about others somehow makes us feel better about ourselves. We can look at another and say, “At least I’m not THAT bad.”
- deep down we want to be God. Like Eve, when she saw a chance to “be like God” she jumped at it. We love being able to sit in judgment and to look down on others. We want to be the standard of truth. We want others to conform to OUR behavior.
- we love sin more than we love goodness and truth. The Bible tells us we are to hunger and thirst for righteousness. But we hunger and thirst more for the sordid than we do the good. We are much more concerned with covering our sin than repenting of it.
DO NOT CONDEMN WITHOUT THE FACTS
If we are honest with ourselves we recognize how quick we are to assume the worst about someone.
- We conclude that the driver ahead of us got his drivers license over the Internet because they are not driving as we are. What we may come to discover is that they are working hard to be obedient to the law out of reverence for Christ. Or maybe they are trying not to drive beyond their comfort level.
- We assume the person who was arrested is actually guilty.
- We assume the person who has AIDS was engaging in immoral behavior.
- We assume the person late for work is undisciplined and inconsiderate when they may have had a problem on their way to work . . . or they may have been helping someone else.
- We assume that troubled children had inattentive parents.
- We assume that the person who doesn’t do what we expected them to do is insensitive and incompetent. Even though it is just as possible that they did not know what was expected.
Rather than quickly jumping to the worst case scenario, we would be better to consider all the other scenarios that could also be true. Jonathan Edwards calls this the “Judgment of Charity”. Edwards points out that when we do things that don’t turn out well, we want people to give us the benefit of the doubt. We want them to see that we were trying to do something good. Naturally, if this is what we want others to do for us . . . we should do this for others.
THE POSITIVE BEHAVIOR
Tell the Truth
We are called to be truth tellers. We have already seen that we are to be people who keep our promises. Jesus tells us that “our “yes” should be “yes” and “no” should be “no”. Our word should mean something. We should not need a written contract to guarantee that we are going to do what we said we would do. We should be truth tellers in every area of our life.
But the question arises: “What if the truth is going to hurt someone else?” Should we tell someone that the outfit they are wearing is hideous? Or how about the old dilemma often raised: suppose you were a POW and asked to reveal where other soldiers were located? Is it O.K. to lie in these situations? That is a tough question.
There are some simple principles
- we have an obligation to tell the truth only to those to whom truth is due. We don’t have to tell a thief where valuables are located. We don’t have to tell an enemy where our comrades are located.
- we don’t have to tell the truth in a blunt fashion. There are tactful ways of telling another person the truth. It is just as truthful to say, “I think you look better in the blue dress” as it is to say “you look horrible in the green dress.” However, one is much more loving than the other. Remember, we are to “speak the truth in love.”
- telling the truth is always better in the long run than lying.
Get the Facts
We’ve already talked about this. Finding out the truth takes work and most of us are usually too lazy to bother with the truth. Consequently we pass on lies and innuendo. God wants us to bother with the facts. Do you remember those great “Hidden Picture” drawings that you find in Highlights for Children? You have to look closely at the drawing in order to see the hidden objects. A quick look and you will miss many things. Finding the truth is like that . . . you must look and then look again. Quick conclusions are very often wrong conclusions.
Focus on the Positive
We have a choice. We can draw attention to a person’s faults or their strengths. We can highlight what a person is doing right or we can highlight what they have done which is wrong. If we immediately look for the positive in the situation we will have less problems with gossip and slander than if we spotlight the negative. Someone has suggested that before you pass along information or comments about someone else, ask four questions,
- Is it confidential? (If so, never mention it.)
- Is it true? (This may take some investigation)
- Is it really necessary Information? (So many words are useless.)
- Is it kind? (Does it serve a wholesome purpose?)
Extend the Grace to Others We’d Like for Ourselves
I suspect you are similar to me. When you make a big mistake you have one fervent hope . . . that people will give you another chance. You want to prove that you can do better. You yearn to show that you are trustworthy. Since that is the way that you wish to be treated, we should treat others this way.
Everyone makes mistakes. Everyone sins. Everyone has failures in their life. We hope and we pray that people will put the spotlight on what we do right and will forgive what we do wrong. And the greatest blessing we can extend to each other is to allow each other to escape our pasts. The truth is, we don’t have to remind each other of the mistakes of the past . . . most of us are painfully aware of those things. It is a Christlike person who believes that “if anyone is in Christ he is a new creation. The old has gone. The new has come.” (2 Cor. 5:17)
This morning we have talked about communication and the need to guard our words . . . especially as they relate to others. What I hope you have seen is that it really is a spiritual problem. If we loved the things of God more we would love the things of the world less. Obviously some of this comes from the fact that we surround ourselves with worldly thinking much more than we do godly thinking. We pander in evil much more than we cultivate good. We watch television more than we pray. We read (or watch) news shows more than we read our Bible. We spend more time in recreation than we do in worship. And these things affect our relationship with each other. We find ourselves becoming hard, aggressive, nasty just like the people and things we surround ourselves with.
So how do we change? We’ve tried fervent resolve, but that hasn’t worked. We’ve tried gimmick and self help programs. They may make us look a little better for awhile but it doesn’t change our heart. The only way to be obedient to His prescription is to begin where we always begin . . . at the cross. We come to the cross with our sin and rebellion in our hands and we give it to Jesus who pays for it with His life. Then we place our trust in Him and in His Spirit which He gives us. So we start by working at our relationship with Christ. Jesus is the one who will lead us to where we want to go. He is the one who will teach us what we want to learn. And yes, he will help us to be the people we would like to be . . . and the kind of people others would like us to be as well.