“Thou Shalt Not Bear False Witness”


Obedience to the ninth commandment frees us from the fear, insecurity, doubt, torment, and eventual condemnation that are the fruits of deceit.

The young man had been on the job a little more than a year. He hoped his part-time assignment under one of the most influential supervisors in the organization might develop into a challenging, satisfying full-time assignment.

Then one day as he and his supervisor met with their manager, the young man’s trust in his supervisor vanished. The manager criticized a report the young man had prepared, and the supervisor, who had reviewed the report and changed the section in question, sat silently, offering no help.

“But I handled this in what I wrote originally,” the young man said, turning to his supervisor. The supervisor answered, “I don’t remember reading anything about it.”

The young man was certain of what he had written. Later in the day, after the supervisor left, the young man went to the file where everyone in the department filed copies of their reports. All the copies were in place, in proper order, except the one in question. It had disappeared.

After that day, the young man was careful to keep a second copy of everything he wrote. He cooperated with his supervisor as the job required, but when an opportunity came for a less prestigious assignment under a supervisor he knew to be honest, the young man took it. His life had been affected by someone who bore false witness.

“Thou shalt not bear false witness against thy neighbour” (Ex. 20:16) is the ninth of the Ten Commandments given to Moses to govern and bless the children of Israel. But its place on the list does not mean it is less consequential than other commandments. Peace, happiness, security, trust, and tranquility are in jeopardy when this commandment is ignored.

Breaking this commandment may be as subtle as teaching our children, by negative example, that shading the truth just a bit is acceptable if there is no chance of getting caught. But its consequences may be as dangerous as the punishment of an individual for crimes he or she did not commit. In any case, bearing false witness—of which lying is just one aspect—erodes the souls of individuals and snips away at the cords of common trust that must bind any society together if it is to survive.

For the Love of God and His Children

There are two major categories in the Ten Commandments. The first four commandments focus on our relationship to God. The other six deal with our relationships with others. The fifth commandment—to honor our parents—is a natural transition between our duties to our heavenly parents and to our fellow mortals.

These same two categories can be observed in the Savior’s reply when he was asked, “Master, which is the great commandment in the law?”

The Lord answered:

“Thou shalt love the Lord thy God with all thy heart, and with all thy soul, and with all thy mind.

“This is the first and great commandment.

“And the second is like unto it, Thou shalt love thy neighbour as thyself.

“On these two commandments hang all the law and the prophets” (Matt. 22:36–40).

Thus our obedience to the commandment not to bear false witness should be rooted in both our love of God and our love of others. But the violation of the ninth commandment is among the most common of sins. Elder Adam S. Bennion (1886–1958) of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles wrote: “Murder, adultery, and stealing, dealing respectively with life, virtue, and property, are generally considered more serious offenses before the law than the bearing of false witness. And yet, what the latter may lack in severity, it more than makes up for in prevalence” (“The Ninth Commandment,” in The Ten Commandments Today [1955], 134).

Bearing false witness involves the destruction of character and reputation. To do so maliciously is to commit the sin of calumny, or character assassination, described in Shakespeare’s Othello:

Who steals my purse steals trash; ’tis something, nothing;
’Twas mine, ’tis his, and has been slave to thousands;
But he that filches from me my good name
Robs me of that which not enriches him,
And makes me poor indeed.

(Act 3, scene 3, lines 157–61)

The Truth and Nothing But

“Thou shalt not bear false witness” plainly is more than a prohibition against inventing falsehoods. The language of the commandment requires that an honest and straightforward answer be given whenever we are asked to share our knowledge of the truth, as in a court of law. The ninth commandment’s broad injunction forbids all forms of giving false evidence or manipulating information. Our words are to agree with the facts.

An interesting case of breaking this commandment is found in the book of Acts. During this time, “all that believed were together, and had all things common;

“And sold their possessions and goods, and parted them to all men, as every man had need” (Acts 2:44–45).

In Acts 5:1–11, however, we read of Ananias and Sapphira, who sold a piece of property and “kept back part of the price” (verse 2), agreeing that they would say they had sold it for a smaller sum. Peter was able to discern the falsehood and told Ananias, “Thou hast not lied unto men, but unto God” (verse 4).

Whatever sacred covenants Ananias and Sapphira may have made in connection with having “all things common” were violated when both husband and wife bore false witness. Their intent was to deceive Peter, the Lord’s authorized servant, which is the same as lying to God. Both suffered the same dire results; they died immediately. Although few who lie are thus smitten, this case is an example of the seriousness of the deed and was obviously so handled by the Lord to teach a great lesson. (To learn how seriously the Lord regarded similar covenants made by Latter-day Saints, see D&C 42:30–34; D&C 82:11–21; D&C 104:1–8.)

Thus, the ninth commandment is a strong declaration against covenant breaking, oath breaking, and all forms of untruth, including exaggeration, gross understatement, fabrication, and the willful giving of any explanation not supported by the facts. Partially sharing the truth can have the effect of lying when we tell only half-truths that do not give a full picture. We can also be guilty of bearing false witness if we say nothing, particularly if we allow another to reach a wrong conclusion while we hold back information that would have led to a more accurate perception. In this case, it is as though an actual lie were uttered.

Joseph’s brothers both lied and concealed the truth by leading their father, Jacob, to believe his son was dead. After Joseph was carried away toward Egypt and slavery, his brothers stained his torn coat with goat’s blood, carried it to their father, and said:

“This have we found: know now whether it be thy son’s coat or no.

“And he knew it, and said, It is my son’s coat; an evil beast hath devoured him” (Gen. 37:32–33).

For 20 years Joseph’s brothers let their father live with that false conclusion.

“To Him It Is Sin”

Lying and misrepresentation in all forms are wrong, no matter how they are rationalized, and those who silently let these evils pass unchallenged are also doing wrong. James explained, “Therefore to him that knoweth to do good, and doeth it not, to him it is sin” (James 4:17). On that basis, it is clear that when someone is slandered, or evil is spoken of someone, and we know an injustice has been done, we are morally and scripturally bound to step forward and defend the injured party. To keep silent in such circumstances is bearing false witness ourselves. Elder Gordon B. Hinckley, when a member of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles, spoke of this problem:

“Television recently carried the story of a woman imprisoned for twenty-seven years, she having been convicted on the testimony of witnesses who have now come forth to confess they had lied. I know that this is an extreme case, but are you not acquainted with instances of reputations damaged, of hearts broken, of careers destroyed by the lying tongues of those who have borne false witness?” (“An Honest Man—God’s Noblest Work,” Ensign, May 1976, 61).

Examples of bearing false witness are everywhere in our modern society: turning back the odometer on the used automobile in order to ask a better price, misrepresenting the age of a child in order to buy a less expensive ticket, cheating on tests, charging for work that was not done.

A friend told of an experience that ended his relationship with a business he had regularly patronized. He had received a letter in the mail with a coupon entitling him to a free oil change at a particular car dealership. After the work was done, he was presented with a bill for the oil. When he objected, he was told that the coupon did not cover the price of the oil, only the cost of the labor to change it. Technically and legally that may have been correct, but my friend, feeling that he had been deceived, never went back to that business.

Advertisers, businesses, and individuals often twist, warp, or package language to convey misleading thoughts. One common method is the use of long, unusual, technical, or jargon words that convey an impression they mean more than they really do. The packaging of words—the selection of type sizes and the use of photographs or illustrations unrelated to the subject matter,charts that are misleading, and the like—is so frequently deceptive that we must be careful to recognize and avoid these deliberate attempts to bear false witness for personal or financial gain.

It was probably to help curb all such clever deception and bearing of false witness that Jesus commanded his followers to limit their language to the simple “Yea, yea” or “Nay, nay” (see Matt. 5:33–37). Simplicity of speech can help us be easily understood, avoid confusing the issue, and remain honest in our hearts.

It seems obvious that the Lord will be offended and honest souls will be repelled by such behaviors as writing a check without sufficient funds to cover it or making promises with no intention of keeping them. The acceptable standard of behavior for Latter-day Saints is much higher; it calls for us to shun even the appearance of evil (see 1 Thes. 5:22).

This lesson was brought home to one Latter-day Saint mother after a trip to the store with her daughter. None of the packages of hair bows on the shelf had exactly the right selection of colors, but it was possible to open and reseal the packages, so the mother removed unwanted bows from one package and replaced them with bows in preferred colors from another package. Both packages still had the same number and quality of hair bows; only the colors were different. But the mother was troubled for days after making the purchase. Finally she saw the problem clearly; she had manipulated the truth to her own advantage, in effect bearing false witness. Humbly, she asked her daughter’s forgiveness for teaching a lesson in dishonesty, and the two of them discussed how they could make amends.

Elder J. Richard Clarke, now an emeritus member of the Seventy, explained that all forms of deception are particularly out of character for disciples of Christ:

“In the Book of Mormon we are told that ‘to be called his people’ we must be willing ‘to stand as witnesses of God at all times and in all things, and in all places, … even until death.’ (Mosiah 18:8–9.) As individual members of the Church it is in the everyday context of our lives that this witness we exemplify comes under constant scrutiny. …

“To the Israelites and again to the Nephites the Lord commanded: ‘Thou shalt not bear false witness.’ (See Ex. 20:16; Mosiah 13:23.) Are we not false witnesses if we are untrue to gospel principles we profess but do not practice?” (“Hold Up Your Light,” Ensign, May 1985, 73–74).

Free from the Web of Lying

The seriousness of lying is not measured only in injury or pain inflicted on the one deceived. Lying also has a devastating effect on the perpetrator. It robs the liar of self-respect and deadens his or her ability to recognize the difference between truth and error. When a lie is told often enough, even the one who knowingly spreads it may begin to believe it. This was the case with the anti-Christ Korihor in the Book of Mormon (see Alma 30:52–53).

Furthermore, one who lies may also steal; someone who has little regard for the integrity of truth will probably have little regard for property rights. One sin leads to another. The Lord has said that unrepentant liars—“whosoever loveth and maketh a lie” (Rev. 22:15)—shall spend time in hell and eventually be assigned to the telestial kingdom for eternity (see Rev. 21:8; 2 Ne. 9:34; D&C 42:21; D&C 63:17; D&C 76:102–106).

One member learned how easily an unchallenged lie can snare us in the web of sin even if we believe we have personally kept ourselves at arm’s length from it. He bought a motorcycle from a man who told him, “Pay me [U.S.] $600, but I’m writing out the bill of sale for [U.S.] $400. That way we won’t have to pay as much in taxes.” The buyer fully intended to report the price of the motorcycle honestly; if the seller chose not to do so, the buyer reasoned, he could do nothing about that.

But as he prepared his own tax return, reporting the price of the motorcycle correctly, he realized the problem might not be as simple as he originally had assumed. What if the names of the buyer and seller were somehow linked on tax records? What if he had to back up the information on his tax return with a bill of sale? There was little likelihood of ever being challenged, he reasoned, but that was not the point. He could not live with the idea of sustaining a lie, even though it was not his own.

The buyer of the motorcycle returned to the seller and asked for a legitimate bill of sale. He went away having learned a valuable lesson: if we tolerate lying to any degree, we are accessories to deception.

The Ten Commandments provide the ethical bedrock necessary in any society, and that alone justifies our obedience to them. But in the light of gospel knowledge, their ethical content is not the most important reason to obey them. The larger reason is that we have been commanded to do so by our Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ. If we do not, we will suffer the spiritual consequences.

Shunning the bearing of false witness is one of the Lord’s saving doctrines. All that we know of our Heavenly Father and his kingdom teaches us that nothing false is acceptable to him—not lying, not withholding the truth, not manipulating facts in our favor. All such actions are unworthy of his children and unworthy of the sacrifice of Jesus Christ, who is our beacon of truth. We must be true “witnesses at all times and in all things, and in all places” (Mosiah 18:9) if we desire to be among those whom our Lord and Savior will count as his own when he comes again.

[illustrations] Illustrated by Robert T. Barrett

[illustration] Moses the Lawgiver, by Ted Henninger

[illustration] Just as we pledge to bear a true witness in matters of earthly consequence, we are pledged to offer always a true witness of our Savior, Jesus Christ.