What is Language For?


How We Are

Once upon a time, two researchers named Richard Nisbett (a professor at the University of Michigan) and Tim Wilson (a professor at the University of Virginia) set up camp at their local mall and laid out four pairs of nylon stockings across a table. They then asked female passersby which of the four they liked best. The women voted, and, by and large, they preferred the pair on the far right. Why? Some said they liked the material more. Some said they liked the texture or the color. Others felt that the quality was the highest. This preference was interesting, considering that all four pairs of stockings were identical. (Nisbett and Wilson later repeated the experiment with nightgowns, and found the same results.)

When Nisbett and Wilson questioned each participant about the rationale behind her choice, not one cited the placement of the stockings on the table. Even when the researchers told the women that all the stockings were identical and that there was simply a preference for the right-hand pair, the women “denied it, usually with a worried glance at the interviewer suggesting that they felt either that they had misunderstood the question or were dealing with a madman.”

The moral of this story? We may not always know exactly why we do what we do, choose what we choose, or feel what we feel. But the obscurity of our real motivations doesn’t stop us from creating perfectly logical-sounding reasons for our actions, decisions, and feelings.

Ariely, Dan (2012-06-05). The Honest Truth About Dishonesty: How We Lie to Everyone—Especially Ourselves (Kindle Locations 2124-2135). Harper Collins, Inc.. Kindle Edition.


In a commencement speech at Cal Tech in 1974, the physicist Richard Feynman told graduates, “The first principle is that you must not fool yourself— and you are the easiest person to fool.” As we have seen so far, we human beings are torn by a fundamental conflict— our deeply ingrained propensity to lie to ourselves and to others, and the desire to think of ourselves as good and honest people. So we justify our dishonesty by telling ourselves stories about why our actions are acceptable and sometimes even admirable. Indeed, we’re pretty skilled at pulling the wool over our own eyes.

Ariely, Dan (2012-06-05). The Honest Truth About Dishonesty: How We Lie to Everyone—Especially Ourselves (Kindle Locations 2154-2159). Harper Collins, Inc.. Kindle Edition.

The Ninth Commandment

I have always had a problem with translating the Ninth Commandment as “You Shall Not Lie”.

Why? Because it doesn’t say that. Doesn’t that translation violate itself?

The command simply says “you shall not bear false witness against your neighbor.”

It is one of the clearest and most obviously good commands in the list.

You shall not make up charges in court against your neighbor or if you are called to witness concerning your neighbor you must speak the truth.

This is clear, obvious and good. Why can’t we just leave it there? We can’t because we know we need people to be truthful and not deceive each other for human life to flourish and for human community to exist.

We also know, however, that lying is a part of every day life and whether or not we want to admit it, TV’s Dr. House was right. Everybody lies.

The Bible on Lying

While I can honestly say the Ninth Commandment does not say “you shall not life” there are hosts of other passages in the Bible about lying.

Leviticus 6:2–5 (NET)

2 “When a person sins and commits a trespass against the Lord by deceiving his fellow citizen in regard to something held in trust, or a pledge, or something stolen, or by extorting something from his fellow citizen,3 or has found something lost and denies it and swears falsely concerning any one of the things that someone might do to sin—4 when it happens that he sins and he is found guilty, then he must return whatever he had stolen, or whatever he had extorted, or the thing that he had held in trust, or the lost thing that he had found, 5 or anything about which he swears falsely. He must restore it in full and add one fifth to it; he must give it to its owner when he is found guilty.

Leviticus 19:11–17 (NET)

11 “ ‘You must not steal, you must not tell lies, and you must not deal falsely with your fellow citizen.12 You must not swear falsely in my name, so that you do not profane the name of your God. I am the Lord. 13 You must not oppress your neighbor or commit robbery against him. You must not withhold the wages of the hired laborer overnight until morning. 14 You must not curse a deaf person or put a stumbling block in front of a blind person. You must fear your God; I am the Lord. 15 “ ‘You must not deal unjustly in judgment: you must neither show partiality to the poor nor honor the rich. You must judge your fellow citizen fairly.16 You must not go about as a slanderer among your people. You must not stand idly by when your neighbor’s life is at stake. I am the Lord. 17 You must not hate your brother in your heart. You must surely reprove your fellow citizen so that you do not incur sin on account of him.

Psalm 34:12–14 (NET)

12 Do you want to really live? Would you love to live a long, happy life? 13 Then make sure you don’t speak evil words or use deceptive speech! 14 Turn away from evil and do what is right! Strive for peace and promote it!

Proverbs 6:16–19 (NET)

16 There are six things that the Lord hates, even seven things that are an abomination to him: 17 haughty eyes, a lying tongue, and hands that shed innocent blood, 18 a heart that devises wicked plans, feet that are swift to run to evil, 19 a false witness who pours out lies, and a person who spreads discord among family members.

John 8:44 (NET)

44 You people are from your father the devil, and you want to do what your father desires. He was a murderer from the beginning, and does not uphold the truth, because there is no truth in him. Whenever he lies, he speaks according to his own nature, because he is a liar and the father of lies.

Revelation 21:8 (NET)

8 But to the cowards, unbelievers, detestable persons, murderers, the sexually immoral, and those who practice magic spells, idol worshipers, and all those who lie, their place will be in the lake that burns with fire and sulfur. That is the second death.”

So while the Ninth Commandment doesn’t say “you shall not lie” there are many many passages in the Bible that condemn lying.

Casual Lying

Lew Smedes in Mere Morality details all sorts of ways that we lie and offer justification.

  • Polite lies
  • Euphemisms
  • Exaggerations
  • Glosses

He goes on to contend this isn’t as harmless as it might appear

  • Casual lying erodes our sense of truthfulness
  • We lie casually to evade or deny reality
  • When we lie casually we keep reality and therefore freedom from those we are in community with
  • We nurture cynicism, where we tend to disbelieve what we hear from others often towards the negative.

Famous “Good” Lies In the Bible

This question about lying in fact is a very complex one and it is best illustrated by the lying we find in the stories of the Bible that God seems to not only fail to denounce, but in some cases seems to be absolutely complicit. This deeply bothers good Christians, even some of the best.

Lew Smedes in Mere Morality notes that theologians have tended to be absolutists when it came to lying but then must contend with stories in the Bible of lies.

Every absolutist struggles with the conflicts between the demands of love and the rigors of truthfulness in real life. Some absolutists take a way out called “mental reservation.” It is possible, sometimes, to defend even the biblical heroes against the charge of lying by showing they were actually telling the truth as they saw it. John Murray, as absolutistic as Christians tend to be, defended Elisha’s lie (2 Kings 6) by claiming that he was only practicing the martial art of mental reservation. A band of Syrian soldiers came to the city of Dothan to capture Elisha. But the Lord smote them with blindness just as they arrived at the gates. Elisha, in on the Lord’s strategy, went out to meet them. The soldiers asked him for help in finding Elisha. Oh, said the honest prophet, “this is not the way, and this is not the city; follow me, and I will bring you to the man whom you seek.” So Elisha brought the trusting soldiers to an Israelite camp, where they were of course captured.

An unskilled interpreter of this account might say, “Elisha lied to the soldiers in self-defense. Why not?” But Murray argues that Elisha did not lie. He merely took the truth on a detour. He was, after all, standing just outside the city gates. Thus he was being literally accurate when, pointing to the ground they were standing on, he said: “This is not the city you seek.” Moreover, he kept his promise; he brought them to the man they sought-after he had brought them to their enemy. Elisha told the truth, even though only he knew the truth he told. So, says Murray, Elisha’s words were “strangely and wonderfully true.”

Lewis B. Smedes. Mere Morality: What God Expects from Ordinary People (Kindle Locations 3096-3100). Kindle Edition.

Smedes notes that these absolutist themselves if forced find their own shades of gray.

Most of the great theological teachers who were inclined to be absolutists conceded that some lies were at least much more wrong than other lies. If you lied about God, in Augustine’s view, you were the worst sort of liar, far worse, for example, than if you lied to save another person’s soul.’

Lewis B. Smedes. Mere Morality: What God Expects from Ordinary People (Kindle Locations 3084-3086). Kindle Edition.

Are You Saying God or the Bible Lies?

Absolutist defenders of the inability of God or the Bible to lie face skeptics to these claims. I am hard pressed to not understand God’s intent for Elisha as deception. What about God’s “promise” to destroy Ninevah which Jonah was to proclaim only to see the LORD “repent from the evil he was about to do which Jonah knew he would do all along?

“OK, PVK, are you saying God is a liar?”

No, I’m saying that life and language are mysterious and subtle things that exposes the pride of legalists and absolutists. Your arms are too short to box with God and throwing out accusations of “lying” is touchy business as is the business of righteously attempting to never do so.

The Imagined Rational and Direct Life

When someone walks into church they imagine something like this goes on.

The preacher stands up in front and tells everyone what is right and wrong, what is good and bad, what they should and shouldn’t do.

Now first of all we know this itself isn’t true because every time I say something you are all evaluating what I am saying according to a host of different filters, many of which you are completely unaware of, just like the ladies picking among identical stockings.

Second, we live with this funny filter that says “if the preacher says something then everyone must agree and obey, except me of course.” Which is the reason why when one of you has trouble with someone else you come to me and say, either explicitly or implicitly “go talk to Fulano or Jane Doe and tell her to do this or that instead of what they are doing now.”

I’ve learned to not do this because it is both unhealthy to community and it doesn’t work.

The Lie Under the Lie

Right now you are all imagining that I’m going to tell you not to lie and that this will somehow accomplish something. Did any of you know NOT know not to lie before we came in today? Is this new information? Did you forget?

What if now you leave and you decide from now on you will speak all the truth that appears to you, withholding nothing. What will happen?

You all know people who “say it like they see it” all the time. They are far from being liars but they may also be far from being lovers of their neighbors and enemies. Sometimes they glory in “speaking the truth” to their rivals and adversaries and we know that such things can be dangerous, destructive, and be filled with pride and self-righteousness.

In fact if I simply tell you “not to lie” this sermon too may be an occasion to sin.

Tim Keller makes this point.

People typically try to instill honesty in others this way: “If you lie, you’ll get in trouble with God and other people ,” or, “If you lie, you’ll be like those terrible people, those habitual liars, and you are better than that!” What motivations are being encouraged? They are being called to change their behavior out of fear of punishment (“ you’ll get in trouble”) and out of pride (“ you’ll be like a dirty liar; you wouldn’t want to be like one of them”). Both fear of punishment and pride are essentially self-centered. The root motivation is, then, “Be honest because it will pay off for you.” This approach puts pressure on the will and stirs up the ego to more selfishness in order to force a person to curb his or her inclinations to do wrong. We can call this “moralistic behavior change” because its basic argument is this: “Will yourself to change your behavior, and you can save yourself.”

Christians who are taught to act morally primarily to escape punishment or to win self-respect and salvation are learning to be moral to serve themselves. At the behavioral level, of course, they may be performing actions of great self-sacrifice. They may be sacrificing time, money, and much more to help the poor, to love their family, or to be faithful to God’s law. Yet at a deeper level they are behaving this way so God will bless them, so they can think of themselves as virtuous, charitable persons. They are not loving God for himself. They are not obeying him simply because of his greatness and because he has done so much for them in Christ . Rather, they are using God to get the things they want. They want answered prayers, good health, and prosperity, and they want salvation in the afterlife. So they “do good,” not for God’s sake or for goodness’ sake, but for their own sake. Their behavior is being changed by the power of their own self-interest.

Stirring up self-centeredness in order to get someone to do the right thing does not get at the fundamental self- regard and self-absorption that is the main problem of the human heart. Consequently, it does nothing to address the main cause of the behavior you are trying to change (such as lying). Moralistic behavior change simply manipulates and leverages radical selfishness without challenging it. It tries to use that selfishness against itself by appealing to fear and pride. But while this may have some success in restraining the heart’s self-centeredness , it does absolutely nothing to change it. Indeed, it only confirms its power.

Keller, Timothy J. (2012-09-04). Center Church: Doing Balanced, Gospel-Centered Ministry in Your City (Kindle Locations 1627-1631). Zondervan. Kindle Edition.

What is Language For?

When we begin the conversation with “you shall not bear false witness” we are recognizing that language is powerful. It has the power to imprison you, set you free, give your life or take your life. What happens in a court room can make you a millionaire or send you to prison for life. Language is powerful.

Language, just like all great gifts in the world is for God’s glory given for the flourishing of his creation. This is how we are to use language.

As human beings, however, just as the stockings illustration shows, we’re very bad perceivers and judgers and our words can either be used to bless or cause great harm. Much of the time we don’t really know what we are talking about and so we make up stuff because it seems useful to try to make ourselves look and feel good.

Language should be used to bless.


While language should be used to bless, we use it against each other. We have a natural tendency to hate God and our neighbor and our language reflects this. We use language as a self-interested tool to promote ourselves at the expense of others. Lying is just one manifestation of this.


Jesus came and did a lot of talking. Much of what Jesus told us to do was not original to him, you can find its roots in the Old Testament, but even that didn’t help. Jesus said all kinds of things some of which we found attractive, much of which confused us or offended us and most of which we simply ignore in our daily lives.

What Jesus finally does, however, is to ACT on our behalf because he knew that simply talking to us was not going to accomplish all that we needed. He needed to stand in our place in his death, and redeem/restore/renew our word-making flesh in his resurrection.


If fear and self-centeredness are really beneath our lying, then Jesus’ life, death and resurrection are finally the answer to our lying.

This is good news if you realize that every day you are faced with more questions about how to use language to bless rather than curse than you can possibly answer. You are not finally saved by your ability to lie or not lie, but by Jesus’ ability to die and redeem liars of which you are one.

This doesn’t mean that we should just abandon the question. No, the world still needs truthfulness and we ought to strive to be the most truthful people around while still being the most loving.

The Heidelberg Catechism holds one of the highest standards you can imagine as application to this commandment. It places the commandment, however, not in the misery section, but in the section for gratitude. It shows that words are made for loving, for healing, and for giving life. They must be truthful because finally only true words build love and life.

112 Q. What is God’s will for you
in the ninth commandment?

A. 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 a 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 the truth,
speak it candidly,
and openly acknowledge it.
And I should do what I can
to guard and advance my neighbor’s good name.



About PaulVK

Husband, Father of 5, Pastor
This entry was posted in On the way to Sunday's sermon and tagged , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

1 Response to What is Language For?

  1. Pingback: The Ten Commandments Sermon Series | Leadingchurch.com

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s