Protecting reputations

God says, “You shall not bear false witness against your neighbor” (Exodus 20:16).

Luther explains, “What does this mean? We should fear and love God so that we do not tell lies about our neighbor, betray him, slander him, or hurt his reputation, but defend him, speak well of him, and explain everything in the kindest way” (or “put the best construction on everything”).

Salvageable adds: Jesus declares himself to be the Truth. He calls the devil the father of lies. Which team do you prefer? In spite of the fact that most people prefer the truth to lies, most people also find occasions when they would rather lie. With questions like, “Did you enjoy the book I gave you for your birthday?” or, “Does this dress make me look fat?” we might consider it both kinder and safer to tell a lie—“a little white lie,” we like to call it.

Little lies are dangerous, though. Once we have found reasons to excuse lying under certain circumstances, we risk entering a growing pattern of dishonesty. We begin to lie for our own protection to hide the fact that we have done something wrong. We gossip about others, telling stories we heard that may not be true but are quite entertaining. Soon we move to lies that cause trouble for other people, robbing them of their good reputations and assigning blame to them that they do not deserve.

Both God’s commandment and Luther’s explanation focus on our neighbor. We are not to tell lies about our neighbor, in court or anywhere else. We are not to betray or slander our neighbor. We are not to hurt our neighbor’s reputation. Instead, we are to defend our neighbor and speak well of him. When more than one explanation fits the facts, we are to choose to believe the one that puts our neighbor in the best light rather than the worst light.

Of course if you see a crime in progress, you should report it to the proper authorities. If you are called into court to describe what you saw, again you are to be honest and thorough. Such actions do not betray a neighbor; instead, they help our other neighbors. But if someone (especially a fellow Christian) has hurt you in a way that is not criminal, you are not entitled to tell everyone else what happened. The first person you should approach is the one who hurt you—not to get even, but to try to reconcile with that person. When that works, no third person needs to know what has happened.

Explaining everything in the kindest way does not mean making ourselves potential victims. When we drive, we should be prepared for other drivers to do crazy and illegal things. When walking down the street and seeing a stranger approaching, we should have a plan to keep ourselves safe. But with family and friends we should not need to be suspicious. We should assume the best of them, not the worst. We should be truthful in all we say about them. When someone else tries to gossip with us, we should turn off the conversation rather than listening to the gossip. When we know a story is untrue, we should speak up and defend the neighbor whose reputation is being stained.

A classic question about the ethics of truth and lying poses this question: Suppose one person has plans to harm another person, and that second person is hiding. You know where that second person is. If the first person comes to you and asks you, should you tell them where the second person is hiding? Would it not be better to lie, to protect that second person from harm?

We live in a confusing, sin-stained world. Sometimes it seems that we must choose between sins, that we have no choice that does not involve a sin. I would tell a lie to protect a person from harm. I would also confess that lie to God as a sin, asking for forgiveness because I could not find a way to keep that person safe without sinning. Perhaps God would not regard such a lie as sinful, but I would rather confess the sin, confident in his forgiveness for all sins, than try to keep it hidden from God.

Jesus is the Truth. Yet he has essentially lied about us to his Father. “Father, forgive them,” he prays for us. “They don’t know what they’re doing.” (Often when we sin, we know exactly what we are doing.) More than that, he says, “Father, accept them. Their sins are gone; their debt has been paid. When you look at them, see me, and treat them as you would treat me.” God’s mercy and grace are not fair. God treats us far better than we deserve. He treated Jesus far worse than Jesus deserved. By that sacrifice, a balance has been established. As the children of God, we seek to be as honest and truthful as we can be in this world, while we wait for a perfect new creation where there will be no falsehood and no lies. J.

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