Water from the Well: November 29, 1995

The Eighth Commandment: You shall not give false testimony against your neighbor.

I used to have a friend who would believe absolutely anything--as long as he thought it was a secret. Those of us who knew him discovered that he would believe the most ridiculous stories, as long as we made them sound like gossip and gave him the information one piece at a time. Quitting school, trouble with the law, moral failures--he would believe anything about anyone, as long as it began with the phrase, "Did you hear about...?" He would be so busy trying to piece together the gossip that he wouldn't bother to question whether he should believe the story or not.

Isn't that typical human nature? We're always ready to believe the worst about others, especially about those we don't like too well anyway. In human terms, it's important to have a good name and a good reputation. The Bible observes that "A good name is more desirable than great riches; to be esteemed is better than silver or gold" (Proverbs 22:1). A trustworthy, honest person will have a name which is respected.

Ironically, a good name is difficult to obtain but easy to destroy. Something as small as a rumor can destroy a respected name. A fire can destroy a person's property, but that damage can be repaired. Rumors can spread like a firestorm, but when the fire is put out and the rumors are shown to be false, the damage often cannot be repaired. False or not, rumors are rarely forgotten. Once a false rumor has destroyed someone's good name, that good name is difficult or impossible to restore.

That's why God gave the Eighth Commandment--he knows that sinners like to believe the worst about others, yet he wants us to protect each other rather than to destroy each other. Martin Luther in his Small Catechism explained the Eighth Commandment this way: "We should fear and love God that we do not tell lies about our neighbor, betray him or give him a bad name, but defend him, speak well of him and take his words and actions in the kindest possible way."

It's easy to break the Eighth Commandment. We even respect those who do it. As sinners, we have a natural talent for destroying others with our words. Yet as sinners, we deserve to be destroyed for our evil and hurtful words about others. It may seem hard to imagine that God would punish us simply for telling a few stories about other people. Yet when our words hurt or destroy a good name or good reputation God has given another person, we deserve God's fullest punishment. The apostle James writes, "The tongue 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" (3:6).

Since we couldn't keep the Eighth Commandment on our own, Jesus came to keep it for us, to save us from our punishment. Peter writes that Jesus "committed no sin, and no deceit was found in his mouth" (1 Peter 2:22). Even though Jesus never broke the Eighth Commandment or any other, he suffered for our sins against all God's commands. When Jesus suffered and died on the cross, he earned forgiveness for all the gossip and rumors we have ever spread to others, and for every other sin we have ever committed.

Because Jesus paid for our sins, God forgives us. He promises us not hell, but heaven instead. Because of his mercy, we want to thank God. Since God has shown love to us, we want to reflect his love to others. The Eighth Commandment reminds us how we can show that love to our neighbor: as Martin Luther put it, "defend him, speak well of him and take his words and actions in the kindest possible way." This isn't natural behavior for human beings--but then, God has seen to it that we aren't natural human beings anymore. He has given us the ability to obey and serve him, to observe the Eighth Commandment and all the others.

A simple way to observe the Eighth Commandment is simply to follow Jesus' Golden Rule, "Do to others what you would have them do to you" (Matthew 7:12). Think before you speak. Are your words going to damage another person's reputation? Would you like to have similar words spoken about you? Think before you believe the stories others tell you. A good name and reputation are a gift from God.