Among the many, many descriptors assigned to God, you likely would be surprised to see “risk-taker” on the list.
The Lord God definitely rolls the dice when he, in our Creation, gives humans the ability to speak and the power of speech. God well knew then what we’re only just now beginning to grasp: Words matter, because words have power.
Unless I missed the breaking news alert, we are the planet’s only creatures who can talk – and think ahead of time what we’re going to say. Those abilities reflect the image of God in men, women, and children. God, the Bible declares, creates the entire universe through an explosion of powerful speech. “God said, and it was.” Now, as mini-but-imperfect incarnations of God, we, too, can create whole worlds through what we say.
Perhaps that’s why Peter – in this morning’s Scripture lesson, in the light of the Ninth Commandment – joins other New Testament writers who advise followers of Jesus to regard their every spoken word and act of speech as though the Lord himself was doing the talking.
When you and I open our mouths, what comes out should be the words we believe the Lord would say, sizing up this person or that situation with the truthful clarity and compassionate grace of God’s Gospel in Christ Jesus. In your speech, you try to adopt the Lord’s perspective – seeing things through divine eyes and reporting events with objective depth, the way that God conveys the truth of the matter, which includes the indisputable fact of our physical, spiritual, and emotional brokenness. The healing recipe for speaking in God’s sted is equal measures what Jesus would do and what Jesus would say.
Because, in the end, only God in Community – the Holy Three in One – is the Creator of reality.
The rest of us are merely reporters of that reality, and everything we say and how we present those truths are said and done in God’s immediate presence. The challenge is whether our words line up with who God is and what God says: Is this what God would say? Does this accurately reflect what God knows and does?
To ignore this tempts creation of alternate truths, false worlds, and fake news – all of which are well-used tools in evil’s toolbox of ploys. Remember when evil approaches Eve in the Garden of Eden? The serpent’s first order of business is casting doubt upon God’s word: “Did God really say you mustn’t eat that fruit, my dear?” Once evil sows that seed of doubt in the fertile soil of Eve’s mind, the serpent greases the skids to more-brazen creations of falsehood: “You won’t die. You’ll improve, get better, become more like God, which is certainly something God would want for you, isn’t it?”
Well, yes and no. Keeping the Ninth Commandment means casting our speech in the merciful tone and cadence of God’s speech. The words of our mouths and the meditations of our hearts together really are supposed to be pleasing and acceptable in God’s sight. And creating the conditions for such faithful stewardship of God’s grace definitely is not high on the devil’s to-do list.
We lie for lots of reasons. Because we’re scared. Because we’re ashamed.
Or because we don’t like someone, forever cunning and conniving to make ourselves look better and to make the other look worse.
We lie hoping to spare someone’s feelings and surely also to assuage our own emotions and conceal our own darkness. Because you sometimes don’t so much like the truth about certain aspects of yourself. You and I lie, because we surely don’t feel any need to tip our hands and offer a peek at what’s inside our broken souls and spirits.
Still worse, lying is a double-edged sword: We lie to keep things the way they are, because we sense that, if the truth about such-and-such gets out, it’ll mess up everything. But we also lie to change the way things are – particularly if such progress strokes our egos, or lines our pockets, or puts a thumb on the scales.
Regardless of motivation, when you and I lie, we’re trying to play God. Our lies strive to shape reality for another. Your world will be shaped by the lies I choose to tell. And by keeping you in darkness, you will proceed forward in life operating on a set of assumptions that are faulty, incomplete, or just plain wrong. But you don’t know that, because I’ve created a false world for you.
In other words, lying can make a person feel powerful.
Like any number of voices in the public square these days, if I as a preacher take to my pulpit 46 Sundays a year and knowingly, willfully lie to you about something or anything, I’d be reaching into the minds of maybe 100 people all at once, sending you back out into the world after coffee and doughnuts with an idea that I created for you – probably to serve my interests, not yours, and certainly not God’s. If my lie concerns another, and if any of you cross paths with her or him some point this week, you’ll treat that person according to how I’ve falsely framed the picture.
Each of us has a limited grasp on reality at any given moment. None of us is wise enough to know all that there is to know. That alone is God’s place. The best that even the brightest and the best among us can do is to know some truths, some facts about life. But we can’t know everything; some things remain veiled, particularly as they relate to the Lord and his plans for salvation. And be grateful for the Holy Spirit! Through her you ought to find the humility to admit that and the curiosity to set the record straight.
You’ll have your work cut out for you.
A good deal of what we do know comes from others. We depend on being given information that accurately and fairly reflects the world in which we now live, which feels rife with white lies, half-truths, gossip, rumor-mongering, and the like. God’s Ninth Word is uncompromising in its insistence that every form of deceit and deception comes straight from the devil’s lair, part and parcel of evil’s systematic attempt to dismantle the world God created in order to supplant it with a world that better suits evil’s tastes.
The Ninth Commandment warns against twisting the words of others. And the sad fact these days is there are many who make a comfortable living by twisting other people’s words. They’re called pundits and spin-doctors. Their trafficking makes for good ratings, but for followers of Jesus, we dare not enter that market ourselves.
No. 9 also warns against condemning anyone without permitting time for a thorough investigation and a hearing out of the person’s stance. We need to guard and advance our neighbor’s good name, and among other things that calls us to shun black-and-white caricatures of other’s ideas – the kinds of things that make for catchy, sharable sound bites but are only snippets of a larger truth – not the whole truth and nothing but the truth.
In an article a couple years ago, one contemporary theologian wrote what could be called the 11th commandment, but it really serves as a corollary to the ninth. He wrote, “Thou shalt not take cheap shots. Thou must not sit in judgment until thou has done thy best to understand. Thou must earn the right to disagree.”
In a cheap-shot society, far too many folks today speak first and think later – if even then. Though you have the right to say it, such flimsy, anemic, and dangerous speech never serves well the Gospel as loving witness.
Listen for the Words of heaven in the first letter of the apostle Peter.
Since therefore Christ suffered in the flesh, arm yourselves also with the same intention (for whoever has suffered in the flesh has finished with sin), so as to live for the rest of your earthly life no longer by human desires but by the will of God.
You have already spent enough time in doing what the Gentiles like to do, living in licentiousness, passions, drunkenness, revels, carousing, and lawless idolatry. They are surprised that you no longer join them in the same excesses of dissipation, and so they blaspheme.
But they will have to give an accounting to him who stands ready to judge the living and the dead. For this is the reason the gospel was proclaimed even to the dead, so that, though they had been judged in the flesh as everyone is judged, they might live in the spirit as God does. The end of all things is near; therefore be serious and discipline yourselves for the sake of your prayers.
Above all, maintain constant love for one another, for love covers a multitude of sins. Be hospitable to one another without complaining. Like good stewards of the manifold grace of God, serve one another with whatever gift each of you has received. Whoever speaks must do so as one speaking the very words of God; whoever serves must do so with the strength that God supplies, so that God may be glorified in all things through Jesus Christ. To him belong the glory and the power forever and ever. Amen. (1 Peter 4:1-11)
Flattery is as much art as it is science, and plenty of authors make comfortable livings writing scads of books about how to be a good flatterer.
For instance, as one such writer suggests, if you met up with actor Tom Hanks and wanted to flatter your way into his good graces, it wouldn’t be enough merely to gush, “Oh, Mr. Hanks, you’re a great actor!” No, no. A deep dive into specifics shows you’re being thoughtful: “I was moved to tears by that scene in Saving Private Ryan when your chin quivered with emotion ever so slightly.”
What’s more, it’s good form to flatter people behind their backs. If word of your glowing praise gets back to the person, she or he will be that much more likely to respond in kind. But don’t overdo it. If you tell me that my sermons make Billy Graham sound like a seminary student, gee thanks, but sorry, I’m not buying it. But if you say, “Your message touched my heart and gave me some things to think about,” take comfort in knowing that you are a sincere and honest flatterer.
Flattery, Benjamin Franklin once noted, is a safe game. When you flatter, you never look ridiculous, because the one you flatter will always take you seriously! After all, as Dale Carnegie famously said, the secret to flattery is sincerity. And once you can fake sincerity, you can get away with anything!
Mr. Carnegie died in 1955, but his observation still cuts to the quick for these our days. Our entire society – top to bottom, north to south, east to west – fakes sincerity all the time! The modern-day cult of celebrities and wannabes, pundits and politicians, Instagram influencers and posers for holy pictures gorges itself on flattery – liking and commenting over and again about how great we all are.
And everyone gets a trophy!
Yet, it’s all so desperately shallow, floating and bobbing tenuously on the surface of personality rather than arising fruitfully from the depth of character and sincerity of faith. But it’s not just celebrities who exist in such a world. Ever more we all do.
As an Enlightenment-era philosopher noted long ago, people in the modern era increasingly exist in the opinions of other people. We form our sense of personal worthwhileness based on what everybody else thinks about us. “Image is everything,” the advertising world tells us. “You’re only as good as your last customer service review says.” The measure of your life is “likes,” “shares,” and “re-tweets.” And we’ve taken the bait – hook, line, and sinker.
It’s all about surveys, and opinion polls, and professional evaluations. Sooner or later we all get a crack at evaluating a professor, a pastor, a boss, an employee, a co-worker, a president. Over time we all get asked our opinion, motivated by pollsters who’ve convinced their clients that such statistics are the most reliable indicators – the do all and end all – of how that person is supposed to feel about him- or herself.
But when you feed off of the opinions of others, you become desperate to control those opinions. And in that lust to control, we always run the risk of twisting the truth to fit our own purposes. But God’s Ninth Commandment straightens things out.
“Do you have the gift of speaking?” Peter wonders. “Then speak as though the Lord God himself was speaking through you. Do you have the gift of helping others? Then [serve] them with all the strength and energy that God supplies. Thus everything you do will bring glory to God through Jesus Christ [and the Holy Spirit]. All glory and power to the One who reigns forever and ever! Amen.” (1 Peter 4:11)
The Word of the Lord. Thanks be to God!
Pastor Grant M. VanderVelden shared this message during worship on Sunday, October 8, 2023. It is the 11th in his current series on The Ten Commandments. Scholarship, commentary, and reflection by Andrew Carnegie, Benjamin Franklin, Jean-Jacques Rousseau Richard Stengel Nicholas Wolterstorff inform the message.