If You Can’t Say Something Nice…

12 Nov If You Can’t Say Something Nice…

Donald Grey Barnhouse was pastor of Tenth Presbyterian Church in Philadelphia for 33 years until his death in 1960. He had a vivid metaphor for describing how the Ten Commandments work:

“The law of God is like a mirror. Now the purpose of a mirror is to reveal to you that your face is dirty, but the purpose of the mirror is not to wash your face. When you look in a mirror and find that your face is dirty, you do not then reach to take the mirror off the wall and attempt to rub it on your face as a cleansing agent. The purpose of the mirror is to drive you to the water.”

Well said, Dr. Barnhouse. The Ten Commandments are a gift, a grace precisely because they show us our need for God. They drive us to the loving, grace-filled arms of Christ because we are constantly “dirtied” by our inability to keep these laws on our own. That is never more apparent than when it comes to commandment #9: “Don’t bear false witness against your neighbor.”

The immediate context for this statute was a courtroom. In the justice system of Moses’ day people who were charged with a crime had little protection. There was no forensic evidence, of course, so almost everything depended on the witness. Often it came down to one person’s word against another’s, and since many crimes were treated as capital offenses, the defendant’s very life was at stake. The words of a false witness could be fatal.

But, the reach of the ninth commandment goes beyond the courtroom and the letter of the law. The underlying principle is that we are to avoid every form of falsehood and instead we are to speak the truth in love. Humans have practically made an art-form of lying. It takes a robust vocabulary just to capture it all: a falsehood can be described as an invention, an equivocation, a falsification, a fabrication or a prevarication. There are big lies, whoppers and grand deceptions. There are the “little” lies: the half-truths, the flatteries, and the fibs. We mislead, misquote and misinterpret. We twist peoples’ words, taking things out of context. We overstate our own accomplishments while exaggerating others’ failings. We say something that is technically true, but omit some detail or other with the intent to deceive. And, then there’s gossip which trades in hearsay, rumor and innuendo and is notoriously full of unreliable and misinformation.

The apostle James nailed it on the head when he said, “A word out of your mouth may seem of no account, but it can accomplish nearly anything—or destroy it! It only takes a spark, remember, to set off a forest fire. A careless or wrongly placed word out of your mouth can do that. By our speech we can ruin the world, turn harmony to chaos, throw mud on a reputation, send the whole world up in smoke and go up in smoke with it…..This is scary: You can tame a tiger, but you can’t tame a tongue.” (James 3:5-7 from The Message)

Here are four questions to ask ourselves before we speak:

  • Is what I’m about to say true?
  • Does it really need to be said to this person in this conversation?
  • Would I say it and say it this way if the person I’m talking about were here to listen?
  • Would I want someone speaking this way about me?

If our words fail these simple tests, they are words that are better left unsaid. Or, as my mother would say, “If you can’t say something nice, don’t say anything at all.” Thanks, Mom.

Yours for the Kingdom, 


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