Books, articles, sermons and blogs
online, based on the Writings of Emanuel Swedenborg
8 False Witness
Thou shalt not bear false witness against thy neighbor.
The commandments of the Decalogue condemn all evils of act, of speech or of thought, and of intention or lust. Within murder, adultery, and theft, is comprised every evil act. Nor is there any perverse lust against which a warning is not given in the last group of precepts • "not to covet" the neighbor's house, or "not to covet" his wife or his possessions. The present commandment, "Thou shalt not bear false witness," which in its specific meaning forbids false accusation, or perjury and legal injustice, is also directed against all kindred evils of speech and thought, thus against lies and falsities of every kind.
The act of lying is more commonly observed among men than are the actual crimes of murder, adultery, and theft; and because it is so familiar it is not regarded as severely as are other evils. Also, a lie is generally an act of speech, and is therefore not so ultimate, not so complete a form of surrender to evil as is an act of the hands, like murder and violence. Nor can a man be so easily convicted of having issued a deliberate falsehood, since he can oft-times be deceived himself.
But the Writings show that the evil of lying is bound up with all other evils, in that it offers a confirmation of those evils. An evil, committed in the heat of passion, might be forgiven. The man may - when he enters into a more rational state - see it for what it is, see its infernal origin, acknowledge his fault, and strive to undo whatever injury is done, repenting humbly in his spirit. But if instead he should begin to hide the evil that he has done, covering it over with falsehoods before others, and stubbornly excusing himself before his own conscience - then the evil becomes really his own, and he becomes guilty in the sight of our Lord and the angels.
Man has a will and an understanding. The evil that he does from the will without consulting his understanding is not so deliberate - not performed "in cold blood" - as when he does it with the consent of his understanding. The conjunction of his evil will with the reasonings, the excuses, and the lies that hide this evil from the rebuke of his own better knowledge, is what finally condemns a man. And the more there is of such a hideous mock-marriage of falsity and evil within his mind, the more difficult becomes any future repentance from the evil so confirmed. For he is then bearing false witness about himself and about the evils which infest his spirit. He has made evil to appear good; has persuaded himself that it was orderly. And what a man has once and for all made himself believe to be allowable, that he continually commits in the secrecy of his own heart. He can in no way be led away from evil so confirmed, unless his eyes should be opened to the monstrous fact that he is living as "the witness of a lie."
The evil of lying, which is committed in the understanding of man and thence in his speech, is therefore especially dangerous because it confirms and establishes his evils of intention or act. And because of this its terrible consequence, falsehood must be regarded as an interior evil to be guarded against continually, whatever forms it may take, lest it become habitual and irradicable; an evil which should fill us with aversion because it stands as a barrier between us and that salvation which can only come through repentance and the remission of sins.
Where there is innocence, there is no need for lies. In the sacred story about the infancy of our race it is said that before evil entered into the blessed Garden of Eden, Adam and his wife were both naked, and were not ashamed. Sin was brought into the world by the suggestion of a lie - by the deceit of the Serpent who said, "Yea, hath God said..?" And so, in the life of each child on earth, there comes at some time the consciousness of sin, and with it the desire to hide his fault behind excuses, and, as it were, to clothe himself with fig-leaves to defend his self-respect.
Soon, with the child, (especially if he has been taught to fear more than to love, and if no care has been taken to show that punishments are meant for his protection, and not as a revenge), soon there appears, suddenly, the first denial, the first lie, the first entrenchment of evil. Let no parent neglect to watch for this important change of state, that moment when the cohorts of evil - evils of heredity for which the child is not up to that time responsible -begin, in their invasion, to "dig themselves in," changing the tactics of infantile discipline from one of open warfare into the more drawn and discouraging battle against confirmed evils - evils into which the element of deceit has entered. Wise are the parents who can watchfully ward off this first success of evil and keep the battle in the open. Happy the children who may remain in their Eden without knowing such poison plants as deceit and lying. For deceit consumes the remains of good, eats out the very marrow of childhood, and makes it impossible for the child to walk the way of the celestial, even though he may yet - if the evil is repented of - become saved for a spiritual heaven, by regeneration.
And here - in childhood - it is that the battle against falsehood can be fought most successfully. Yet how universal is not the tragedy of parents who neglect their opportunities! How often do they not themselves resort to convenient lies to escape meeting the questions or states of their children? How often do they not make wild promises or empty threats without any intention of fulfilling them? or permit themselves and their children to exaggerate and boast and thus to distort the truth to the advantage of their own self-importance? This habit of disrespect for truth in trivial matters is bound to undermine the love of truth, which is the saving affection of human life - the fundament on which character is built. And the first intellectual layer of that substructure is the teaching concerning the dignity of the given word - the teaching that one's word is consecrated to truth, and must neither be insincerely given, nor lightly broken. What a shifting, treacherous foundation one's life must have if, from the very beginning, insincerity and guile undermine and weaken one's faith even in oneself! - if the consciousness of being guilty of falsehood is inwardly fretting his mind! Inevitably there comes the need of constant dissemblance, and there develops an almost subconscious effort to rear a structure of other lies to cover up those first uttered, until man instinctively begins to believe in some of his own distortions of the truth.
It may appear from what has been said that the duties of parents are difficult. For they cannot always tell the whole truth to their children, nor answer all their clamorous questions in a full way. Yet there is always a right way to answer, and still to preserve the love of truth. This way the Lord Himself used when He spoke to the multitudes in parables. This way parents use when they tell the stories from the early Word about Creation, about Adam and Eve, the Flood, and the Tower of Babel: or when they stimulate the children's eager imaginations by legends and fairy-stories which represent truths in symbolic forms - forms which contain and correspond to internal truths. In that manner, also, are all the secrets of life gradually opened to the young, by answers which - while in themselves mere appearances of truth - yet contain and point to the real spiritual truth. Indeed it is so that we all - simple and wise - must learn to enter into interior truths of wisdom and judgment. They alone can know the real uses of things who have become prepared for using them. But to others in parables.'
The obvious and direct meaning of the command, "Thou shalt not answer against thy neighbor the witness of a lie," is that a solemn and deliberate lie is a sin against God and man. So far as it is intentionally deceitful it is a sin, and so far also it is a falsity of evil. If it is unintentional - spoken from ignorance or misapprehension or fear - the falsehood may indeed be in itself a falsity of evil, and might lead others into evil, yet it will not be imputed to the speaker as a sin, but as a falsity of ignorance: "If ye were blind," the Lord said, "ye should have no sin; but now ye say, We see; therefore, your sin remaineth" (John 9:41).
The need is therefore urgent that even though we may regard a thing as likely to be true, we should not persuade others of it unless we are convinced of its truth and usefulness, lest we thereby injure the neighbor's faith in the Lord and the Word, or his faith in his fellow men. We must bear responsibility for what we say, since the honor or safety of others, and even the welfare of our country, may be endangered by our idle words. The Law of Israel therefore contained the commandment, "Thou shalt not go up and down as a talebearer among thy people" (Lev. 19:16). This injunction, which, interiorly understood, directs us to protect the spiritual good of others, was, in the letter, aimed against the evil of gossip, the circulation of idle and irresponsible opinions about one's acquaintances and friends, such as are pleasant to the man's natural self-love to pass on, since this is a veiled way of belittling others in comparison to oneself - a way whereby small-minded people, with little claim to distinction on account of their own accomplishments, can bolster up their own self-esteem and importance by reflecting on the alleged doings and especially the faults of others.
Even in the Jewish Church the moral import of this commandment was seen. For - how can any social effort be brought to fruition if the atmosphere of a community is poisoned by cynicism, suspicion, and mistrust, and if we are inclined to watch for the failings of others? How can frank friendship exist where there is mutual fear that the confidences of intimacy will be abused?
Even though gossip be innocent with many - and born of friendly interest - yet it is often used as the highway of slander. It is well for us to reflect on the sentiment of the Apostle James, that the tongue is boastful, "poisonous," and, though little, is "unruly" and "hard to tame"; able to cause vast destruction, even as a small spark can set a world afire, so long as fuel is abundant (James 3). Only where no wood is, does the fire go out (Prov. 26:20). Falsehood is stopped only when it meets disapproving ears, closed by a Christian charity, which - as Peter promised - "shall cover the multitude of sins" (1 Peter 4:8). "Charity," the Christians were taught by Paul, "suffereth long, and is kind;...thinketh not evil; rejoiceth not in iniquity" (1 Cor. 13:4, 7).
Yet it is a. part of charity to give credit where credit is due; and to show a needful appreciation of a good cause by supporting it, and rewarding those who are instrumental in performing it. Beauty and strength and virtue and usefulness are indeed all worthy of praise. But praise - over-stepping a subtle boundary - can become flattery. And this - equally with slander - can involve the bearing of false witness. Although it is on the surface the very opposite of slander, wrong flattery may come from a love of self, and stimulates the same love of self in others. Praise becomes flattery, not only when it is deliberately insincere, but also when it is given without a due consideration of the fact that all use and all beauty are from the Lord -and that all praise and honor are His alone.
Thus flattery may become a form of lying. It is the recognized means which deceitful spirits in the other world, as well as deceitful men in this, employ to gain influence over others. Evil spirits praise a man by their tongue, but despise him in their hearts, while they "spread a net for his feet" (Prov. 29:5). In appearance they praise his virtues; in reality they seek to inflame his self-love, and blind him through his own vanity. Then they can lead him where they will, for he will soon lose the power to discriminate between truth and falsity.
Deceit and insincerity are the soul of every lie. And when a man has succeeded in clothing his deceit with plausibility and piety, he becomes a hypocrite, an actor, a dissembler, pretending to virtues he does not possess. It is a strange fact that hypocrisy can go on developing so secretly in a man that the man himself is not necessarily aware of it, and does not admit himself to be a hypocrite, but is self-deluded to the point of assuming that he is holier than others. This is so because his mind is so full of lying that he cannot and will not examine himself in the light of truth. The Lord therefore told some of the chief priests and elders among the Jews, that the publicans and harlots who repented at John's call "would go into the kingdom of God before them." "Cleanse first the inside of the cup and the platter," He told them, "that the outside of them may be clean also." To clean the inside means to remove deceit and lust, by self-examination and constant repentance.
* * * * * * *
"Every one that doeth evil hateth the light, neither cometh to the light, lest his deeds should be reproved" (John 3:20). If we should enter into the spiritual meaning of the eighth precept, we should find that those words of the Lord are the very words of judgment upon the evil after death. Those whose deeds are evil will flee from the truth, will hate the truth, will prefer to live on as if the truth was merely a dream - an unreality. Thus they choose the life of phantasy - the life of hell - the life of their self-love.
In the spiritual world, even those who had loved natural truth on earth, and had perhaps championed high standards of honesty and sincerity in society, might yet be convicted as breakers of the precept "Thou shalt not answer against thy neighbor the witness of a lie". The "witness of a lie" means really a falsity of faith. And the "neighbor," in the spiritual sense, signifies good. By the whole is meant that we must not accuse good of being evil by advancing false doctrines, nor persuade that a truth is a falsity, or vice versa, from purpose, and thus knowingly. Atheism itself can advocate morality and claim to be sincere in its search for natural truth, while it stubbornly closes its eyes to every spiritual truth and every spiritual virtue. Yet heaven comes only from the Lord, and without Him no virtue is genuine. Without Him a virtue is but the conceited gesture of self-love and of inward contempt for the Lord's leading - contempt for the humility that is innocent, for the purity of heart that can see God, and for the poverty of spirit which shall inherit the kingdom of heaven. No lie is more terrible in its devastating effects than the lie of the fool who says in his heart that there is no God. None can do more evil than to spread such falsehoods, about the Lord, about heaven, and about spiritual things - even though this lie be accompanied by a love of natural truth, a love of delving profoundly in facts about material and even supernatural things, and though this poison be sweetened by the most persuasive exhibitions of natural "charity." All falsities of religion have been derived from the self-love of man; and the almost subconscious object in their being formulated and accepted has been to cover over and excuse the weakness and evil of man.
The most powerful influence which a man can exert here on earth is not by his words, but by the approval or disapproval which he shows toward the uses that look to the salvation of men. By one's very sphere or attitude, one either resists or assists those spheres of the hells which seek to establish in the world of human minds the LIE that one's own comfort, one's own natural interests, are more important than the duties of worship and the uses of the Church -or than the self-compulsions needed for regeneration and for a life of conscience and usefulness. The life of the love of self is a lie, a false witness, as surely as are false doctrines.
Yet the Lord, in His Coming, has broken the web of the false witnesses. Falsity can no longer rule in the world of spirits, nor in the Lord's Church on earth. The truth of regeneration has been revealed anew, and the Lord is seen as the Truth, the Way, and the Life. The truth of the Word of the Lord may be seen to be the way to rational life on earth and to everlasting happiness. And it remains for us humbly to pray for courage at each juncture of our lives to face the truth within ourselves, to acknowledge our state, to learn to break the spells of confirming self-delusion, and to shun our evils as sins. Then we shall be nearer heaven. For heaven with its peace can descend into human life only where the mouth may speak with unreserved frankness from a heart that is penitant, humble, sincere and fearless, having nothing to conceal.