I was watching a short clip on YouTube by Harvard Business School professor and author Clayton Christiansen on religion and capitalism in America. He was recounting a conversation with a graduate student from China who had come to America to study capitalism. When Christiansen asked him what was the most surprising thing he’d learned from his time studying in America, the man said something to the effect that he had not previously understood the role that religion played in the success of capitalism in America. What he went on to say was that it was remarkable that Americans are more or less honest. They pay their taxes usually without the police coming to beat them up. He (rightly) attributed this to an inherent fear of God baked into the culture. He said (rightly) that the attempt to impose capitalism and democracy on other countries has failed because of a lack of similar foundations.
This series of posts is about the idea that we should not only reverently obey the laws of God, but we should also see them as principles, following which will lead to the best possible life we could be living on earth and beyond. Having now arrived at the commandment, “You shall not bear false witness,” I must distinguish briefly between bearing false witness, that is, perjury, and plain old lying. Both are wrong, but the first is worse.
Lying is bad. It warps reality, and warping reality is a kind of chaos that leads to destruction. But bearing false witness is worse, because it means that you are deliberately lying about a person in order to do them harm. This puts it up there with murder, because it is an assault on the person’s LIFE. And life is sacred.
As a straightforward command, this works pretty well. To see this as a principle, we can go deeper into the “why” behind the prohibition against false witness. The problem with perjury is that it is injustice. Someone goes to jail, because someone lied under oath. The wrong man paid for the crime. The fabric of society depends on justice.
To bear false witness or to lie in any way is to give in to unreality. If you live according to anything except truth, your life will become disintegrated. You will come apart little by little. Everyone knows that to pull off a lie requires more than just that lie. You have to lie about lying. You have to lie about lying about lying. You have to remember who you lied to and remember what the lie was and to keep the lie going. You have to lie to yourself that you are not a worthless person, at least in practice. You may have worth as an image-bearer of God, but you add nothing to that by being a purveyor of unreality, making the world a worse place because of your existence and your lies. This is the opposite of what we are called to do as humans, and especially as God-fearing humans.
One way to look at this is to be ruthless on yourself to represent your opponents accurately. Why? Because the truth matters, even when it hurts your cause. There is no true conflict of your interests if you are telling the truth. Don’t shortcut the argument of who is right and who is wrong in a dispute by misrepresentation of the other side. A basic example would be a the common practice of making a straw man out of your opponent. If you cannot beat them with an accurate representation, you are not having a fight worth winning. Your win will be a lie, and the ends don’t justify the means.
Be a person who loves the truth on principle, even if it wrecks your world. If your world can be wrecked by the truth, then you are living the wrong kind of existence. It may be brutal and painful to clean up a life of contradictions, lies, evasions, and false witnessing about the other side, but if you have the heart for it, keeping this command along with all the commands against lying, will change your life. You will become a whole person; stronger, more confident, with more self-esteem and yet humility at the same time. Submission to truth is submission to God, and submission to God and his laws is humble.