It is simply amazing how we do not have to teach children to lie. Human nature is such that at an astonishingly early age we can fully employ deceptive tactics, even though we might not even know what the word “deceptive” means. Yet, something else is self-evident to us, even as children: we ought to do better. We ought to tell the truth.
The Ninth Commandment says it this way, “You shall not bear false witness against your neighbor.”1 King David wrote, “He who works deceit shall not dwell within my house; he who tells lies shall not continue in my presence.”2 In the New Testament, the Apostle Paul pleaded, “Do not lie to one another “3 And Jesus admonished us to “let your ‘Yes’ be ‘Yes,’ and your ‘No,’ ‘No.’”4
As with all of God’s Truth, the admonishing is profitable for everyone, not just Christians.
We instinctively know it is better to tell the truth rather than lie. Even those who claim that the commandments are just part of our particular culture and morality, so that what is true for us is not true for others, must admit that no culture ever celebrates someone for deceiving those a person loves most. Some may believe that it is better to lie in certain circumstances (to save a life or something of that nature), but no culture ever thought it good, for example, for parents to teach their children the best ways to deceive them. No, every human values truth. It is something that goes beyond “culture” or “morality.” It is ingrained in the human spirit.
In America, truth is fundamental to all for which we stand. “We hold these truths to be self-evident,” we wrote in our Declaration of Independence. Those truths are central to the American experiment. The Founders knew that those “Laws of Nature and of Nature’s God” on which they based their understanding were rooted in a truth that was knowable, profitable, and enduring.
Thomas Jefferson once wrote that, “Honesty is the first chapter of the book of wisdom.”5 And it was based on that wisdom that they sought to establish a government for a free people that would withstand the test of time. It needed to transcend the immediacy of their present circumstances in order to preserve freedom for generations to come.
Truth has that enduring quality.
That is why the Bible speaks so strongly for truth and honesty. It says that “God is not a man, that he should lie.”6 It says that “the word of the LORD is right; and all His works are done in truth.”7 It not only says that He is a “God of truth,”8 it testifies that He is Truth.9
And because “His truth endureth to all generations,”10 Americans should be able to pursue it and cherish it, thereby preserving and continuing through the path of liberty and freedom.
“The truthful lip shall be established forever, But a lying tongue is but for a moment.”11
But, of course, we don’t need the Bible in order to know the intrinsic value of truth. Plato said, “False words are not only evil in themselves, but they infect the soul with evil.”12 Mark Twain valued the commandment’s practicality, writing, “If you tell the truth, you don’t have to remember anything.”13 And perhaps the most famous atheist in history Friedrich Nietzsche, is attributed with saying on the topic, “I’m not upset that you lied to me, I’m upset that from now on I can’t believe you.”14
And that’s the issue, isn’t it? The breaking of this commandment has real consequences in the way we see ourselves and the way others see us. That is why we cherish and strive to be men and women of integrity. In public policy, we talk about men and women of “character.” We look for it in our leaders and role models.
Samuel Adams said, “The public cannot be too curious concerning the characters of public men,”15 and “[N]either the wisest constitution nor the wisest laws will secure the liberty and happiness of a people whose manners are universally corrupt.”16 Noah Webster said, “The virtues of men are of more consequence to society than their abilities; and for this reason, the heart should be cultivated with more assiduity than the head.”17 And Thomas Jefferson wrote:
He who permits himself to tell a lie once, finds it much easier to do it a second and third time, till at length it becomes habitual; he tells lies without attending to it, and truths without the world’s believing him. This falsehood of the tongue leads to that of the heart, and in time depraves all its good dispositions.18
There is a reason why our political leaders take an oath of office. We rely on a person’s word as they testify in court and as they send in their tax returns. America, from the beginning, was founded on the idea that in order to be free, there must be a sense of self-discipline on the part of our citizens, so that we can trust each other, even with our lives.
The Founding Fathers knew that disregarding this commandment would have dire consequences for our country. Today, we are feeling the painful consequences of ignoring this principle with the recent financial crisis – a crisis caused in no small part by dishonest business practices.
We cannot fight dishonesty with government regulations; it is a matter of the heart. Honesty must be cultivated by attending to the self-evident truths our Creator has placed within us.
Because as Benjamin Franklin said, “It’s the easiest thing in the world for a man to deceive himself.”19
- Exodus 20:16.
- Psalm 101:7.
- Colossians 3:9.
- Matthew 5:37.
- Thomas Jefferson to Nathaniel Macon, January 12, 1819.
- Numbers 23:19.
- Psalm 33:4.
- Deuteronomy 32:4.
- John 14:6.
- Psalms 100:5.
- Proverbs 12:19.
- Plato, Phaedo 91.
- Notebook entry, January or February 1894, Mark Twain’s Notebook, ed. Albert Bigelow Paine p. 240 (1935).
- Mark Grant, Out of the Box and Onto Wall Street: Unorthodox Insights on Investments and the Economy, John Wiley & Sons, (2011).
- Samuel Adams, letter to James Warren, November 4, 1775.
- Samuel Adams, essay in The Public Advertiser, Circa 1749.
- Noah Webster, Thomas Jefferson, letter to Peter Carr, Aug. 19, 1785., 1788.
- Thomas Jefferson, letter to Peter Carr, Aug. 19, 1785.
- Benjamin Franklin, Poor Richard’s Almanack p.134, Barnes & Noble Publishing (2004), originally published in (1733-1758).