By William M. Cwirla
You shall not give false testimony against your neighbor. What does this mean? We should fear and love God so that we do not tell lies about our neighbor, betray him, slander him or hurt his reputation, but defend him, speak well of him, and explain everything in the kindest way. (Small Catechism, the Eighth Commandment)
Have you ever been the victim of gossip or slander? Has anyone ever spread lies about you or put your private sins in a public light? In these social media days of Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, and Snapchat it’s easier than ever. One little click, comment, or picture and a reputation can be ruined. People have been driven to despair, depression, and even suicide over having their name and reputation dragged through the social media muck. Cyberbullying is a real problem, as is cyber-gossip and cyber-slander. Maybe you know someone who has experienced it. Maybe you have yourself.
What’s in a Name?
In the Second Commandment, God’s concern is over His Name and how we use it. In the Eighth Commandment, God’s concern is over the name of your neighbor. God’s desire is that we have a good name and reputation. He has covered our sin with the righteousness of His Son. He has named and claimed us as His own children in Holy Baptism. He has silenced the accusation of the Law against us. In God’s court, we aren’t simply declared “not guilty” but rather “innocent” and “holy.” Of course, that’s not in ourselves, but in Christ, who is our innocence and holiness. Our good name is Jesus’ good Name.
The Eighth Commandment, first of all, applies to the courtroom, where we swear to tell “the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth.” This isn’t for our benefit but for our neighbor’s benefit. We may suffer injustice personally, but “everyone should help his neighbor maintain his rights” (Large Catechism). Lying in court is not only perjury, but a subversion of justice. Everyone suffers when lies are told in court. And God’s justice is mocked.
Make Your Ears a Tomb to Gossip
The Eighth Commandment also speaks to how we speak about others. It deals with the works and sins of the tongue, which is like a wild beast that cannot be tamed (James 3:7-8). We are commanded to speak well of our neighbor, even if we know something ill about him, and to “put the best construction on everything.” If you can’t say something nice, then be silent until you think of something good to say. “I may see and hear that my neighbor sins, but to make him the talk of the town (or social media) is not my business” (Large Catechism). Indeed, “love covers a multitude of sins” (1 Peter 4:8). Instead of broadcasting the sins of others, the commandment would have us do what Jesus has done for us: Cover them up with love. Gossip ends at your ears. Make your ears a tomb to gossip and bury it.
What if you know that someone is guilty of something? “God forbids you to speak evil about another even though, to your certain knowledge, he is guilty” (Large Catechism). If you’re not willing to press charges with the proper authorities and testify in open court, then you need to close your mouth and bite your tongue. God has not made you judge over your neighbor.
This is why Jesus has us go to our brother or sister alone when someone sins against us (Matthew 18:15-18). If you’re not willing to do that, then you have no business telling anyone else. And, if your brother or sister repents, then you’re obligated to forgive and move on, just as God in Christ forgives us. If not, then take one or two trusted friends with you and try again. You see, Jesus would have us work to preserve our neighbor’s name and reputation, even when he isn’t doing such a good job at it himself! Finally, if he won’t listen to you and your friends, tell it to the whole church, but even then, only with the intent of restoring and forgiving him.
Let’s face it. Old Adam, our sinful nature, loves gossip. He loves to talk about the sins of others, so that no one will notice his sins and call him out. He loves to point out the speck in his brother’s eye, all the while ignoring the two-by-four made of the same wood stuck in his own eye (Matthew 7:3-5). He even argues, “Hey, I’m telling the truth!” But the truth is to be spoken in love to build each other up not to tear others down (Ephesians 4:29). Old Adam needs to shut up, which is the work of this commandment.
Cover Your Neighbor’s Sin
When we cover the sins of another, when we strive to speak good about others and put the best, rather than the worst, construction on things, we are speaking with the mouth of Christ Himself, who doesn’t speak of our sins but covers them up with His blood and righteousness. “Father, forgive them. They don’t know what they’re doing.” That’s putting the best construction on everything.
Rev. William M. Cwirla is the pastor at Holy Trinity Lutheran Church in Hacienda Heights, CA. He is also a president emeritus of Higher Things.
This article was originally published in the winter 2016 issue of Higher Things Magazine.