With Every Good Intention
S. M. Hutchens on the Ninth Commandment
If the commandments are approached with the intention to follow them, they lead us into terminal stages of hypocrisy or despair, or to faith. It becomes clear soon enough that no one can follow them perfectly; there are always breaches, and our conscience convicts us of them. Hypocrisy is the result when we pretend to carry out the commandments while doing what we know deep within us is wrong.
Despair is what happens to those who cannot or will not pretend they are obeying the commandments but see no hope for themselves before a righteous God. There are many who appear as unbelievers who really believe in God but are in despair. Thoreau’s “quiet desperation” is often that of the lapsed Puritan—the man with high standards who has enough respect for God to know his own standards aren’t high enough. He is, to my mind, more noble (though not less wrong) than the man who defines sin down so he can enjoy Christian Perfection.
Faith has also despaired of keeping the commandments by the works of the law but does not give up hope that they may be kept. It seeks deliverance from God without denying or ignoring the righteousness of the law, whether it comes through Moses or in the natural law set in the world and in our hearts. It will find its way to Christ as the fulfillment of the law, in whom what was impossible for us is accomplished on our behalf by someone with both the will and the power to save us, whose life now flows through us.
The command not to bear false witness against our neighbor has at least three in view: myself, another—my neighbor—and one or more to whom the testimony concerning that other is given. The center of the transaction is my speaking to one about another. Doing this is something we cannot avoid, and we are not by any means to speak falsely to one about another, either in praise or blame, or even in the mere relation of a fact.
To a certain degree—and I have seen devout people try this—one can avoid the inevitable pitfalls of speaking about others if one bridles the tongue and speaks as little as possible, particularly about others. This is a good idea, but carries its own danger. The person known for few words, and words carefully weighed when actually uttered, is more likely to be heard when he does speak, and what is inside all too frequently does come out. The tongue and its allied organs of expression are the servants of the heart. Keeping the heart, not just the tongue, is the great thing. One might apply a version of St. Augustine’s rule of charity: Guard the heart, and say what you will. That will keep us quiet enough.
To speak the truth about another you must know him, and to know him you must love him. This does not mean you must find him attractive, but it does mean that you must want the best for him, as you want it for yourself, and be willing to give of yourself so that he might gain it. Loving others is not easy, even for those who have a natural gift for liking, for loving means the giving of the self while demanding nothing in return. One can like people without loving them and love them without liking them—although many respond to real love by becoming more likeable. When you love a person, you gain entrance through charity to his soul, for you see in him a reflection of yourself, and to that extent are able to speak of him as you should to others.
Even when we love others, we still have difficulty knowing them and speaking of them as we should. Each of us is a virtually unexplored universe, known only to God. We hardly even know ourselves; how can we know others? How can we, on one hand, avoid speaking of others, and yet attain, on the other, the perfection of speech required by a pure and sinless God?
The answer is that we must depend on God for our speech. This is a great mystery, but it is part of life in Christ, a life in which we are not our own, but parts of the body of Christ, our individuality gained in submission to him. The words we speak are truly our own, but at the same time they are his, and the knowledge by which we speak of others is that of the God-man who knows what is inside us.
Christians have always condemned gossip, which we may define as conversation about others carried on outside the will of God, and thus to no good end. When a gossiper is caught gossiping, he usually excuses himself with the language of charity, saying he is speaking of some other because he is “concerned” about him. We may be assured that this is the case, but are not sure that this concern is of the proper sort, because we sense that the conversation is useless and therefore destructive.
All that is useless is destructive, for it intrudes upon the constructive intentions of God. Truth suffers, as it always does, through the desire to stimulate—that, by the way, is the main reason one cannot trust the evening news—the sanctity of the gossip’s object is invaded by the craven and uncharitable curiosity of the gossiper, who is enlarged at his expense. That is why Christians avoid gossip. And I will repeat my observation here that much of what passes for journalism is little more than gossip, at which decent people, people in whom a vital spiritual nerve has not yet been killed, should be enraged.
In my own line of work I encounter false witness most often in the form of bad assessment of the writing of others. This happens when we think we know what someone believes without taking pains to find out what he is really saying. We review his book without reading it well, we carelessly assign him partisan motives, we listen to him with an uncharitable attitude, without reserving judgment in places where judgment should be reserved, or, even when we have heard him as well as we can, extrapolate from the words to the heart in a way that only God can do.
I caught myself doing this recently, quite reflexively, not with a writer, but with a person I overheard on the street. I was in a place where I couldn’t avoid listening to him talk to someone else for a minute, and was very tempted to conclude that he was not only an idiot, but probably a man who had given up his soul—a fool in the biblical sense of the term. His whole, stupid, useless life seemed to revolve around a football team. Lest one think I am picking on sports fans, I will add that I have heard the same kind of thing from people whose lives revolve around music, books, food, animals, their children, or their work. I have even seen people obsessed with God—which is not good, since God is to be the object of love, worship, and obedience, not obsession.
The soul of such a person is surely in danger, but it is not up to me to judge that it is lost, and if I spoke about him as though he had simply reduced himself to a piece of man-shaped trash through his unwholesome identification with a mere football team, I would have been in danger of bearing false witness against my neighbor. There are things in that man I cannot see, and I should not speak of him as though I could.
A Heart Unseen
The commandment not to bear false witness against one’s neighbor is the foundation upon which rests our Lord’s command not to judge others, lest we fall into condemnation ourselves. This does not mean we cannot respond appropriately to their actions or words. It does not mean we cannot say a man is talking like a fool, or throw him out of church for heresy or blasphemy, or put him to death for murder. The command not to bear false witness against our neighbor implies that we cannot see his heart as God can, and should not act or speak as though we could.
There is a concept in Scripture that is of great importance in such matters. The Greek word used for it is kairos, which in the proper context means not simply “time” but a time that is appointed, proper, and critical in the mind and will of God. At the appointed time—not before or after—the Word of God became incarnate in Bethlehem of Judea. At the appointed time, known only to the Father, he shall come again to judge the world.
And at the appointed time, not before or after, our own words should become incarnate. There is a time to speak and a time to remain silent, and it is part of holy wisdom, that is, the wisdom who is Christ, and therefore resident in and among us, to know the kairoi, the times, of silence and speech. Those who are subject to the Spirit of God will know when to do either, will know when to speak of others and to whom, and when to remain silent, since to speak the “truth” out of season is not to speak the truth at all.
While we are in this body, there should be no presumption that our words are God’s words and our silences are God’s silences, even when we most sincerely believe they are. They may and should be, but it is not for us to judge them, only to strive to make it so—to present these things, as we present all we are and have, as offerings. Beyond that, we must let matters go until Judgment is rendered, until the Final Word is spoken on the word that was our life. •
S. M. Hutchens works as a reference librarian in Kenosha, Wisconsin. He holds a doctorate in theology. He is a senior editor of Touchstone.
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“With Every Good Intention” first appeared in the June 2002 issue of Touchstone. If you enjoyed this article, you'll find more of the same in every issue.
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