Many years ago I read an anecdote that I found most interesting. It went more-or-less like this:
A man, newly arrived in a small town, asked a long-term resident about the reputation of a local cleric. The man replied, “Let me tell you a story about him and you will see what kind of a man he is.
One day, while he was away from home, a thief broke in and stole several things. The cleric arrived back in time to see the robber running down the street with them. He followed him, shouting with all his might for the neighbors to hear, ‘I give them to you so you are not stealing them. Did you hear me? I give them to you so you are not stealing!’
The newly-arrived man asked, ‘Do you believe this story?’
And the other replied, ‘Of course not. But it shows what kind of man he is that such a story would be told.’”
Generally speaking, I think it is a safe, common-sense maxim to suggest where there is smoke there is fire. If the smoke is fragrant and ‘light’ there might be some kind of sweet-smelling incense aflame. If it is heavy and oily, perhaps someone is burning old tires. The kind of smoke not only identifies that there is a fire, but probably what kind of fire, too.
But in the world of human relationships it is only safe to tentatively believe the ‘smoke’ of alleged stories about others when we know them very well, isn’t it? And even then, of course, the gold standard is to verify directly with them.
I am thinking about this because of Tim’s altercations with the discernment bloggers he has recently written about. It is not that I feel the need to defend him. (Though I must say that when I investigated such a blog once in response to a friend’s concern for Tim, the blogger’s tendency to have two plus two equal five was impressive) It has just made me think again about truth, and the sub-stratum of truth that is the bearing of false testimony.
Lies are part of a spectrum, aren’t they? They run all the way from careless, ill-founded gossip to the deliberate words of those intent on destroying reputation. I am sure many of the words directed against Tim and others are of the first category. But, you know what? The end results can be remarkably similar. I have thought often of that fascinating proverb, “He who is slack in his work is brother to the destroyer.”
The slack researcher is brother to the deliberate underminer.
And this is no small matter. Let me insert some words of the magnificent Heidelberg Catechism:
“Question: What is required in the ninth commandment?
Answer: I must not give false testimony against anyone:
twist no one’s words,
not gossip or slander,
nor condemn or join in condemning anyone rashly and unheard.
Rather, I must avoid all lying and deceit
as the devil’s own works,
under penalty of God’s heavy wrath.
In court and everywhere else,
I must love the truth,
speak and confess it honestly
and do what I can
to defend and promote
my neighbor’s honour and reputation.”
So, the remedy to ‘the devil’s own works’?
‘I must love the truth.’
May the Christian community – a beleaguered minority, horizontally speaking – and starting with me – aspire to this standard mirroring the beauty of our God of Truth!