Francis Schaeffer, tells the story of John Cage, an American composer who believes that the universe is impersonal by nature and that it originated only through pure chance. In an attempt to live consistently with his personal philosophy, Cage composed all of his music by various means of chance. He created sounds by tossing coins and rolling dice to make sure that no personal element entered the final product. The result is that his music has no form, structure and for the most part no appeal. Though Cage’s professional life accurately reflects his belief in a universe that has no order, his personal life does not, for his favorite pastime is mycology, the collecting of mushrooms, and because of the potentially lethal results of picking a wrong mushroom, he cannot approach it on a purely accidental basis. Concerning that, he states: ‘I became aware that if I approached mushrooms in the spirit of my chance operations, I would shortly die.’ Schaeffer goes on to say: Cage is an example of a person who believes one thing but denies the truth, for when he is faced with the certainty of order in the universe, he still clings to his own chance theory.[i]
It was a lie that forever tainted our world and introduced brokenness, separation, disease and ultimately death into our world. Satan’s lie to Eve was the vehicle that ushered in the fall of mankind. Jesus points out in John 8, that people often would rather believe a lie then embrace the truth.
Why is my language not clear to you? Because you are unable to hear what I say. You belong to your father, the devil, and you want to carry out your father’s desires. He was a murderer from the beginning, not holding to the truth, for there is no truth in him. When he lies, he speaks his native language, for he is a liar and the father of lies.[ii]
One of the great temptations of life is seen in this arena where people are being deceived and deceiving by speaking lies, rather than the truth. “A false person is not one merely wrong or mistaken or incorrect; it is one who is intentionally deceitful or treacherous or disloyal.”[iii]
Lying is a deliberate, willful misuse of both the God-given power of speech and the God-ordained principle of neighbor love which is the inevitable obligation of those made in God’s image. The most important human characteristic is that we are all-whatever our sex, race, age, status, or culture-made like and for God. This monumental reality should bind us together in worship of God and respect for each other. Lying assaults this reality in both its divine and human dimensions. It is one of the most insidious by-products of our fall in Adam (Gen 3). Honest speech, on the other hand, is an essential part of our commitment to be what the Creator made us to be, reflectors of God’s truthfulness and protectors of the life and reputation of his people.[iv]
The problem with lying is that it destroys trust. Once trust is destroyed it becomes more difficult to believe what a person who lies is now saying. Is this the truth? Or is it just another lie. Often the best liars are people who have lied to themselves so long that they are no longer able to recognize the truth any longer.
Here in the wisdom literature of Proverbs we discover the power of speaking the truth and its value in our lives. So, what do we learn about people who speak the truth? What outcomes happen when we become truth speakers? Are there occasions when speaking the truth is not wisdom? Are there situations when silence is preferable? We are admonished from the N.T., to speak the truth. The apostle Paul whose words were shaped by wisdom literature like Proverbs points out to us. “Therefore each of you must put off falsehood and speak truthfully to your neighbor… (Ephesians 4:25a).” One of the aspects of false teachers is that they speak in order to deceive others, but that should not be what comes from our mouths.
Then we will no longer be infants, tossed back and forth by the waves, and blown here and there by every wind of teaching and by the cunning and craftiness of people in their deceitful scheming. Instead, speaking the truth in love, we will grow to become in every respect the mature body of him who is the head, that is, Christ.[v]
So what does Proverbs have to say about speaking the truth, particularly as we are looking at Proverbs 12? There are three things we can learn about speaking the truth.
Speaking the truth reveals the nature of our character
What is intrinsic and internal within us will eventually be expressed though our words. “An honest witness tells the truth, but a false witness tells lies (Proverbs 12:17).”
Here the text may be referring to a court of law and the idea is to determine what is the truth. Richard Clifford points out that the word that is translated witness here is used in all six instances in Proverbs in relationship to court. But he then raises this important question. “How can one evaluate courtroom testimony? Is there a reliable way to determine which witness is telling the truth?”[vi] He then goes on to argue that the idea that this Proverb is conveying is not just or only from the courtroom but “refers to a person’s normal manner of speaking. In other words, one should examine how the witness speaks outside of court and look to the character of the witness.”[vii] “The point may be summarized by saying, on the one hand, that wise person speak words that reflect reality and therefore their speech is just. On the other hand, false witnesses are fraudulent because their words skew the actual situation.”[viii]
This is speaking to the issue of credibility. Our credibility is established based on what we say, and what we say flows from the condition of our innermost being. Last year, I completed a thesis, which addressed the issue of ‘Communication from the book of Proverbs.’ In it, I argued that what we say is generally a reflection of who we are. It is interesting that we are admonished to guard our heart (which in the Hebrew mind speaks of the essence of our innermost being). “Above all else, guard your heart, for everything you do flows from it (Proverbs 4:23).” What is interesting is the very next Proverb. “ Keep your mouth free of perversity; keep corrupt talk far from your lips (Proverb 4:24).” The idea of what is communicated either corrupts the heart or is a revelation of what is within our hearts. Derek Kidner points out: “Superficial habits of talk react on the mind; so that, e.g., cynical chatter, fashionable grumbles, flippancy, half-truths, barely meant in the first place, harden into well-established habits of thought.”[ix]
What is he saying? Be careful what you say because what you say and how you say it becomes habitual.
How we respond to truthful communication is also an important concept. The way in which people respond to correction is often indicative of the state of that person. Will they respond in wisdom and receive instruction and correction, or will there be an abusive response?
Whoever corrects a mocker invites insult; whoever rebukes a wicked man incurs abuse.
Do not rebuke a mocker or he will hate you; rebuke a wise man and he will love you.
Instruct a wise man and he will be wiser still; teach a righteous man and he will add to his learning.[x]
The proper response to correction and criticism is an openness to the message. Regardless, whether the criticism is warranted or not, the wise response is to evaluate if there is any merit whatsoever and learn from the criticism. There is a need to be open to instruction and correction which is vital in communication. The danger of rejecting instruction and correction in any stage in life is warned against, but in Proverb’s prologue, the warning is given, particularly, in one’s youth. It is at that moment that life’s course is being set. It is imperative that young people be open to godly instruction and correction. If there is a rejection of instruction it leads to a hardened heart. The sages call such a person a mocker. Bruce Waltke defines a mocker as being “…so full of himself and contemptuous of others that he will not humble himself under any authority, not even under that of the LORD.”[xi]
A mockers response will be abusive when corrected. The contrast between the mocker and the wise is made. The wise continue to grow wiser as they receive instruction, whereas the mocker’s outcome is suffering alone. Alienation and ultimately isolation from others is the outcome of those who are mockers.
Speaking the truth pleases God and others.
Trustworthy or true words foster and grow relationships. You know where you stand both before God and others. “The Lord detests lying lips, but he delights in people who are trustworthy (Proverbs 12:22).” When we speak truth, we are behaving like God whose words are trustworthy. In Proverbs these words are described by the picture of Lady Wisdom. Lady Wisdom’s words are truthful, right and produces good fruit. She calls out and challenges the listener to understand and gain from her words.
Listen I have worthy things to say; I open my lips to speak what is right.
My mouth speaks what is true, for my lips detest wickedness.
All the words of my mouth are just; none of them is crooked or perverse.[xii]
Jewish scholar Michael V. Fox points out: “What wisdom speaks is truth [emet], nothing else. The basic sense of emet are ‘reliable’ and (by extension) true. …It is axiomatic [self-evident or unquestionable] in Proverbs that genuine intelligence is inherently and inevitably honest.”[xiii]
Several descriptions are used to describe the contrast between those who speak wisely and those who speak foolishly. The wise are described as being ‘honest witnesses’ (v. 17), speaking ‘the truth’ (v. 17), which will have a lasting impact (v. 19). The impact of the wise person’s communication is the healing that it brings (v. 18). In contrast the ‘false witness’ tells lies (v. 17) and their lies ‘last only a moment’ (v. 19). The false witness uses ‘reckless words’ that cause pain and ‘pierce like a sword.’
Truthfulness is not only critical in the public arena, but also critical in interpersonal relationships in every realm of life from the workplace to the home. “The tongue that brings healing is a tree of life, but a deceitful tongue crushes the spirit (Proverbs 15:4).” Proverbs 15:4 is an antithetical parallelism that is contrasting what happens when people communicate in a healthy way versus the deceptive or lying words when discovered devastate the person that was lied to or deceived.
The idea of the right words to enhance relationship is also seen in Proverbs 25:11-12, where we see a powerful analogy in correcting the wise. Wisdom not only gives just the right word, but also receives correction and responds positively to it. “A word aptly spoken, is like apples of gold in settings of silver is a ruling rightly given. Like an earring of gold or an ornament of fine gold is a wise man’s rebuke to a listening ear (Proverbs 25:11-12).” Obviously, the opposite is true. When people are wicked their words are often deceptive and designed to bring destruction to those they speak to. “The plans of the righteous are just, but the advice of the wicked is deceitful. The words of the wicked lie in wait for blood, but the speech of the upright rescues them (Proverbs 12:5-6).”
So how does all of this apply to our lives? When I was working on my thesis on communication, my desire was to be able to glean enough understanding to be a blessing to those relationships that were struggling, often in this very area of communication. What I discovered was that communication was often only symptomatic of something far deeper. John Gottman, in his studies on marriage (cf. The Marriage Clinic), points out, “Unfortunately, in distressed marriages the communication is often quite clear-and quite hostile. So improved clarity does little to help distressed couples.”[xiv]
In classifying the discussions of these couples’ major area of continuing disagreement, we [Gottman and his team of researchers] found that 69% of the time they were talking about a ‘perpetual problem’ that they had had in their marriage for many, many years. These were the problems that usually had to do with differences in personality or needs that were fundamental to their core definition of self. Only 31% of the discussions involved situationally specific problem-solving. We discovered that, instead of solving these perpetual problems, what seems to be important is whether or not a couple can establish such a dialogue with their perpetual problems [in other words, could they learn to accept and love each other for who they were?]. If they cannot establish such a dialogue, the conflict becomes gridlocked, and gridlocked conflict eventually leads to emotional disengagement.”[xv]
What Gottman is pointing out is that there needs to be understanding of each other and their differences and needs. When we ignore this it means that conflict continues until there is so much emotional pain that people begin to emotional withdraw from each other. Their hearts become harden as they try and protect themselves and block the other person out. It is critical that we understand the nature of our words and emotional empathy for each other. What’s true in the most intimate of relationships, is also true in our other relationships.
Speaking the truth is eternal in nature.
Truth is timeless and therefore will never be exposed. Truth is also liberating. So, often the reason we are living in bondage in our lives is that we are believing a lie about the nature of God, or an incorrect self-assessment in light of what God states about his children and finally about others. “Truthful lips endure forever, but a lying tongue lasts only a moment (Proverbs 12:19).”
The lying tongue’s words last only a moment. The Hebrew literally means in the twinkling of an eye. It speaks of the impermanence that lies have. They will eventually be exposed even though it may be years before the truth be fully known. How many lies have destroyed the lives of others?
The Smithsonian Magazine related the story of Ricky Jackson, who was falsely accused of a murder he did not commit and served 39 years in prison until the lie was exposed and he was finally exonerated and released.
In 2011, The Scene, a Cleveland magazine, published an article about the frail nature of Jackson’s conviction and the implausibility of the testimony that had condemned him. Among the readers was Eddie Vernon’s pastor [Eddie Vernon was the State’s key witness and was only twelve years old at the time.], who arranged a meeting between Vernon and lawyers with the Ohio Innocence Project. Vernon rescinded his 1975 testimony, saying police coerced him into fingering Jackson and Ronnie and Eddie Bridgeman [two brothers who were also indicted for the crime]. In 2014, prosecutors dismissed charges against all three men.
…Eddie Vernon met with Jackson and the Bridgeman brothers after their exonerations and apologized for implicating them. Jackson forgave him. “He was just this goofy little kid who told a whopper,” Jackson says. Besides, “it wasn’t only [Vernon] that put us there. It was the lawyers, the police, the whole broken system. And there are a lot of innocent men out there who are never going to get justice. In that sense, I feel lucky.”[xvi]
Lies have no enduring foundation in which to sustain them, but the truth is a solid foundation which ultimately will triumph, if not in this life, it shall in eternity. When our hearts are being transformed by God’s grace, our words begin to change. We realize the impact of even idle words on those around us. Jesus warns us of what we are saying in its impact on our eternal wellbeing. “But I tell you that everyone will have to give account on the day of judgment for every empty word they have spoken. For by your words you will be acquitted, and by your words you will be condemned (Matthew 12:36, 37).”
Lying destroys relationships as well as the person who goes down the road of telling them. Sissela Bok reminds us how damaging lies are: “Trust and integrity are precious resources, easily squandered, hard to regain. They can thrive only on a foundation of respect for veracity [truth].”[xvii] When we lie, we destroy trust and our integrity is now questioned. We are no longer integrated which is the idea behind the word integrity. There is a duplicity in our lives. God desires to make us integrated, or whole, which is the same concept as holy. James reminds regarding doubting when we ought to trust God, that being double minded creates instability in us. “Such a person is double-minded and unstable in all they do (James 1:8).”
What do we learn about ‘Speaking the truth?” It speaks to our character; it enriches our relationships and finally it is enduring. We are called upon to speak the truth, which begins by having a work of grace happen in our hearts. The problem with lying is that it causes self-deception and bondage n our lives and also costs us relationships.
So how can we respond to the challenge of speaking the truth? We need a greater awareness of the need to be honest with ourselves and others. When truth fills our lives it begins an amazing work of liberating us. If we know the truth is will set us free. Jesus makes that very promise to his disciples. “To the Jews who had believed him, Jesus said, ‘If you hold to my teaching, you are really my disciples. Then you will know the truth, and the truth will set you free (John 8:31-32).”
[i] Francis Schaeffer, The God Who Is Still There, (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 1968, 72-74 adapted.
[ii] John 8:43-44 New International Version of the Bible, 2011.
[iii] Sissela Bok’s, Lying: Moral Choice in Public and Private Life, (New York: Vintage Books, 1989), 7.
[iv] David A. Hubbard, Proverb, The Communicator’s Commentary, (Dallas, TX: Word Books, Publisher, 1989), 186.
[v] Ephesians 4:14-15.
[vi] Richard J. Clifford, Proverbs, The Old Testament Library, (Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox Press, 1981), 132.
[viii] Tremper Longman III, Proverbs, (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 2006), 276.
[ix] Derek Kidner, Proverbs: An Introduction and Commentary, Tyndale Old Testament Commentaries, Vol. 15, (Downers Grove, Il: Inter Varsity Press, 1964), 68.
[x] Proverbs 9:7-9.
[xi] Bruce Waltke, The Book of Proverbs: Chapters 1-15, The New International Commentary on the Old Testament, (Grand Rapids, MI: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 20040), 440.
[xii] Proverbs 8:6-8.
[xiii] Michael V. Fox, Proverbs 1-9: A New Translation with Introduction and Commentary, The Anchor Yale Bible, 18A, New Haven: Yale University Press, 2000.
[xiv] John Gottman, The Marriage Clinic: A Scientifically Based Marital Therapy, (New York: W. W. Norton, 1999), 16.
[xv] Ibid, 56.
[xvii] Sissela Bok’s, Lying: Moral Choice in Public and Private Life, preface to the 1999 edition.