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Ten For Our Time; When Honesty Takes A Holiday

Proverbs 12:10-22

Do you know the name George O’Leary?

George O’Leary had a fairly successful tenure as the football coach at Georgia Tech. Then in December of 2001, George O’Leary’s greatest dream in life came true. He was named the head football coach at Notre Dame, perhaps the most coveted position in college football. However, just two days later George O’Leary’s dream turned into a nightmare. It was revealed that he had lied on his resume, and he was forced to resign in disgrace. Some may suggest that, in spite of that, George O’Leary landed on his feet, for now he has become the head coach at the University of Central Florida in Orlando. Well, dear friends, I know UCF in Orlando and UCF is no Notre Dame! The fact is that George O’Leary paid a heavy price for violating the ninth Commandment where God prohibits bearing false witness or giving false testimony. Of course, sad to say, what George O’Leary did is not so unusual. In fact, according to a survey of 3,000,000 job applicants, nearly 50% of America’s resumes contain one or more falsehoods. A recent column in Time Magazine expressed it this way: “The injunction against bearing false witness branded in stone and brought down by Moses from the mountaintop, has always provoked conflicting emotions. On the one hand, nearly everybody condemns lying. On the other hand, nearly everyone does it every day.”

In fact, I would go so far as to suggest that the ninth Commandment is broken far more than all of the others. Mark Twain once said that he had managed to discover 869 different ways to tell a lie! Well, I’m not so sure about that calculation, but I am altogether sure about this: There are many people who would never dream of killing or stealing but who would tell a lie at the drop of a hat. That’s why this ninth Commandment is so important. You see, in life we are called to tell the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth, and if we lie, then we need to know that we’re going to hurt not only ourselves and the people around us, but also, we are going to hurt the nation in which we live. So the ninth Commandment says, “Thou shalt not bear false witness against thy neighbor.” In other words, “Thou shalt not lie.” Proverbs puts it this way, “Lying lips are an abomination to the Lord, but those who act faithfully are His delight.” Express it in positive terms and it comes out like this, “Lying is the opposite of loving.” Today I want us to play out that theme and see what happens…

The first thing I want to say is that lying hurts us all because it creates in our nation a culture of deceit.

You see, when people in a society are engaged in lying to one another, then that society becomes so involved in deceit that the very life of the society is threatened. We understand that virtues like honesty, integrity, and trust are the glue which holds the nation together. People cannot live together without trust and honesty. Therefore, when honesty takes a holiday in the experience of a nation, when the truth is slain in the lives of people, then trust disappears. When trust is gone, then hope is gone. When hope is gone a nation dies. Daniel Boorstin, formerly Director of the Library of Congress, said recently, “We are living in a nation so caught up in lying through its advertising and propaganda and our daily conversations with one another that we are actually imperiling the very life of our states.” He may have a point.

Let me try to express it to you this way. On occasion we hear of a college student who is caught cheating and expelled from school. Usually when that happens we say, “How could such a person end up doing something like that?” I’ll tell you how. Chances are that when that individual was eight years old, he heard his father say that the clerk in the department store had given him too much change, he had put it in his pocket, and thanked his “lucky stars.” When he was ten years old, he heard his mother and father talking about how they cut corners on their income tax explaining that everyone else was doing it. When he was twelve and broke his glasses, he listened as his mother called up the insurance company and told them that the glasses were stolen not broken so that the insurance would pay the replacement cost. Then when he went to high school, his coach taught him how to surreptitiously grab a jersey while throwing a block or how to use a well-placed elbow to stop an opposing forward from driving in for a layup. When he got his first job at the supermarket, they taught him how to always put the best fruit on the top and the overripe fruit on the bottom. Then he went off to college, and he discovered that he could purchase for himself already completed research papers, or he could go over to the files at the fraternity house and there pick up the answers to tests because so many of the professors hadn’t bothered to prepare new tests in years. Then he gets caught cheating; he is expelled from school; and people are surprised. But, of course, it shouldn’t come as any surprise at all.

Yes, when honesty takes a holiday in a nation, the whole atmosphere of that nation becomes polluted. It begins to affect and infect everyone and terrible things occur. Building codes, quality controls, and fire safety standards can no longer be trusted. We begin to expect the worst from the TV repairman, the auto mechanic, and the furniture salesman. The doctor’s Hippocratic Oath is regarded as meaningless. Lawyers are considered as experts, not in upholding the law, but in getting around it. Marriages are built on promises which are not kept. National leaders are known not so much for the quality of their leadership as for their ability to speak out of both sides of their mouths. You see, when we begin to bend the truth, to look the other way, to cut corners, to take and use things which are not ours, to pass answers across the top of the table or money in payoffs under the table, to transform advertising into a not-so-subtle tissue of lies—when we get into the habit of endlessly lying to one another, what else can happen but that the fabric of the nation be torn apart.

Take the case of a man named Henry Durham. He was the production manager for a large company engaged in work for the Defense Department. He became aware of the fact that improper practices were being condoned by his company. He complained to company officials. Nothing changed. Finally he took the matter to the authorities. An investigation revealed that those improprieties had cost the taxpayers more than $2,000,000,000. Yet, what happened to Henry Durham because he told the truth? He lost his job. He was branded in his neighborhood as being a traitor to America. His friends began to ostracize him. He even received threats against his life. After all that, do you know what he said? He said, “I have become disillusioned with the virtues I used to believe in.” In other words, now he is going to start lying too. That’s what happens when honesty takes a holiday in the experience of a nation. People get into the habit of lying. We start to lie, and we expect everybody else to lie. Over against it all stands our God saying to us very clearly, “Thou shalt not bear false witness. Thou shalt not lie.” Dear friends, lying is the opposite of loving. So if we love America then we shall stop lying in the course of our daily living.

The next thing I want to say is that there are three guiding principles to help us all be obedient to the ninth Commandment.

  1. We ought always to stand for the truth no matter the cost. George Orwell said, “In a time of universal deceit, telling the truth is a revolutionary act.” If that is true, then we as Christians are called to be revolutionaries because we are certainly living in a time of universal deceit when everyone seems to be lying. There are the lies that business people tell—all of the different ways they put their own spin on the truth in order to enhance the bottom line. There are the lies that academics tell—these days the biggest lie on campus is that there is no universal truth only different versions of reality. This is a part of what some scholars call postmodernism. It’s the big lie that makes it possible for academics to tell all sorts of other lies. Then there are all the lies that politicians tell especially during campaign season. After all the attack ads and broken promises, voters wind up being more cynical than ever. And there are the lies that journalists tell, as well. When the story is more important than the truth, the line between fact and fiction gets blurry. With all of the lies going around, it is hardly surprising to learn that fewer than half of Christian young people today believe that there is an objective standard of truth. Yet in this culture of lies -what Chuck Colson has termed “A post-truth society”—we as the people of Christ are called to be the people of truth. Whatever lies other people tell in the course of their every-day lives, we as Christians are called to tell the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth, so help us, God.
  2. We ought never to articulate our assumptions as if they were facts. I recently read about a woman who contracted an illness. This fine Christian woman made the decision to keep it a secret from all but her family and her priest. As a result of that, her priest began to visit her regularly and to minister to her in her final days. Some of the people in the neighborhood, seeing the priest come so frequently to the home, made evil and iniquitous assumptions about the woman and began to spread those assumptions far and wide. Three months later the woman died, and the truth became known. Those neighbors then went to the priest to confess what they had done and to seek forgiveness. That was the right thing to do, but it was too late for the good woman who was gone. As Martin Luther so pointedly reminded us, “Reputation is something quickly stolen, but not quickly returned.” So, let us never speak about others by “verbal inflation” because “verbal inflation” is as hard on the truth as monetary inflation is hard on the economy. When we speak about others, let us be sure that what we say is built upon what we know to be certain—never upon what we infer or assume to be true.
  3. We ought never to be talebearers or tale-listeners. Are you aware that it is just as much a crime to pass counterfeit money as it is to print it? Passing along the stories that come to us in life can only lead to broken reputations, fractured friendships, and shattered families. In my own life, I have known the pain that comes when others have told lies about me. Careless words can even kill. I could cite for you today one suicide I know of which occurred because of a false and malicious story which was rapidly spread. We ought never to be talebearers. Before we open our mouths and start talking about someone else, we need to ask ourselves some hard questions: Is what I am about to say true? Does it really need to be said to this person in this conversation? Would I say it if the person I’m talking about were here to listen? If our words fail to pass this simple test, then it would be better for us not to speak at all. But if we are not to be talebearers, then we also ought not to be tale-listeners either. As wrong as it is to gossip, it is just as wrong to listen to gossip. This, too, is injurious to the truth. According to an old Rabbinic saying: “Slander kills three: the one who speaks it, the one who listens to it, and the one about whom it is spoken.” So what should we do when someone tries to tell us something we shouldn’t hear? Interrupt! We should say, “You know, I would rather not talk about that if you don’t mind.” Or we should say, “Wait, before you say anything more, why don’t we stop and pray about this?” I guarantee you that will stop gossip right in its tracks! So we ought never to be talebearers or tale-listeners.

Well…

It seems to me that I’ve come full circle. Lying really is the opposite of loving. So I plead with you today, in the name of Jesus Christ, let’s put truth and honesty back to work in America. Let’s put truth and honesty back to work in our lives. When we do this, then we’re going to be loving one another in a profound and practical way, and we shall be blessed. And the people around us shall be blessed. Even our nation shall be blessed. I think that’s why God says to us so plainly, “Thou shalt not bear false witness. Thou shalt not lie.” That’s what He says. He says what He means. And He means what He says …

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