June 2021 Feature
“In a time of universal deceit—telling the truth is a revolutionary act.” —George Orwell
Pontius Pilate famously asked, “What is truth?” (John 18:38). Today, a new definition of “truth” appears to have emerged: when a piece of information or news is repeated as many times to as many people as possible, it becomes accepted as “truth” or worse, “alternative fact”.
How should Christians make sense of this, and what is our possible response? With the advent of the internet and other social media platforms, as well as easy access to mobile devices, the propagation of fake information or disinformation has reached new, chaotic heights. Every event can be broadcasted instantly around the world, including happenings on a battlefield. Beyond the level of individuals, when the leaders of a country or church are careless with their expressions on social media, we will produce a generation with no regard or respect for truth.
Speaking the Truth
According to the Westminster Confession of Faith, in order to speak the truth, it is necessary that we speak what we sincerely believe to be true and what actually is the case. A God-fearing Christian is truthful when he or she speaks according to existing realities. In other words, it is not enough that we simply repeat (or forward messages on WhatsApp, Facebook or Twitter) something which others tell us that is purportedly true. We need also to make the effort to verify this against reality.
The Bible condemns gossip: “The one whose walk is blameless, who does what is righteous, who speaks the truth from their heart; whose tongue utters no slander, who does no wrong to a neighbour and casts no slur on others” (Psalm 15:2-5). A discerning Christian does not believe everything he or she hears, especially evil reports. He or she will try to ascertain whether the information is really true before sharing with others. “These are the things that you shall do: Speak the truth to one another; render in your gates judgments that are true and make for peace” (Zechariah 8:16). Truth matters to the righteous person.
Our ubiquitous smart mobile devices have taken over the role of the tongue in spreading information—at a rate unimaginable in the past. Gossip may appear to be taken lightly these days and is often disguised as jokes when forwarded through mobile messaging applications. Some of us may even think it worthwhile to be the first to spread sensational news to catch others’ attention.
However, is it true that we should take this lightly, and that nobody gets hurt by gossip? According to Hebrew thought, any gossip involves three parties ¾ the tale bearer, the listener and the person in the content of the tale. The Rabbis posed this interesting question: Who is the one most hurt by the gossip? We will return to this puzzle at the end of the essay.
The Ninth Commandment is the Right Standard
We often talk about freedom of speech, transparency and human rights. Yet not enough is discussed on what is the right thing to do when handling the truth. Let us consider Moses’ ninth commandment in relation to gossip. Gossip is sin and involves bearing false witness against the person (or an event) who is the subject of the gossip. The commandment “Thou shalt not bear false witness” forbids: (1) speaking falsehood (including flattery) in all forms, as well as scheming to deceive others; (2) speaking unjustly about our neighbour thereby causing bias against his or her reputation: “And you shall not bear false witness against your neighbour” (Deuteronomy 5:20 and Exodus 20:16).
Christians are generally aware that committing adultery is equivalent to having or worshipping idols; the common denominator is having a third party in an adulterated relationship. Interestingly, Hebrew thought further shows us that the ninth commandment parallels the fourth commandment of observing the Sabbath (or Shabbat). Gossip of any kind is strictly forbidden at the Friday’s Shabbat Shalom dinner, especially for children. The underlying principle of these two commandments is the importance of bearing truthful witness. God created the Shabbat to bear witness to His six days of creation.
What Can We Do To Uphold Truth?
First, we should think before we speak or forward an electronic message. A prudent Christian gives thought to what he says for he knows when and what to speak (James 3:5). In fact, we do not have to take action in response to every text message. Scientists often practice the “Dirac’s unit philosophy” and refrain from responding to a comment or remark when they are not questions.
Relatedly, we should strive to check the sources and the authority of news. We can draw inspiration from the Berean church: “Now the Berean Jews were of more noble character than those in Thessalonica, for they received the message with great eagerness and examined the Scriptures every day to see if what Paul said was true” (Acts 17:11). Christians should be cautious about accidentally becoming complicit in the spread of falsehoods or unverified information, even in the case of Bible interpretations.
Where possible, we can also avoid skimming only titles and conclusions of online, TV or printed materials but cultivate the habit of analysing arguments from different sides. We need to form our own judgment based on sound reasoning, sincere peer reviews and reliable sources. This way, we will not succumb to fake news, and be less likely to forward something we have not first thought through.
Second, as God-fearing Christians, we should have self-control over our desire to spread information and video clips, and our eagerness to share and hear “juicy” information. It would be good for us not to get into the habit of reading WhatsApp or Facebook messages before reading the Bible for God’s message every morning. Our desire to be in the loop, or the first to share, could lead us into the realm of gossip. And the consequences of gossip can be severe. Proverbs 18:21 puts it this way: The tongue has the power of life and death. Proverb 16:28 states that “a perverse person stirs up conflict, and a gossip separates close friends”.
Third, on occasions where speaking the truth is important, Christians must speak up. Keeping silent could cause us to be guilty since our silence may be interpreted as agreement (Leviticus 5:1). C.S. Lewis once said, “Good philosophy must exist, if for no other reason, because bad philosophy needs to be answered.”
Fourth, when dealing with our “enemies”, where harm to others is imminent, it appears that we are permitted to withhold part of the truth under dire circumstances, yet not cause harm to others. For instance, King Saul demanded information from Samuel (1 Samuel 16:1-5). God commanded Samuel to tell one thing (“I have come to sacrifice to the Lord” [verse 2]), which did not bring harm to anyone, but not the other (“I am sending you to Jesse of Bethlehem. I have chosen one of his sons to be king” [verse 1]), which could result in harm. Samuel did not lie and was not permitted to lie. God is effectively saying that: (a) evil men may not be privy to all truth; and that (b) we must not lie as we steward the full truth.
Fifth and most importantly, a wise Christian would think of God and live to please God rather than man. Often, we unknowingly say or do things to please people as we desire to win their approval and gain some advantage; we may engage in flattery with or without realizing it. Proverbs 10:19 reminds us, “When words are many, sin is unavoidable, but he who restrains his lips is wise”. Jesus taught His disciples that we ought to learn to speak, in our daily conversations, in such a way that truth has the same priority with us as it would have for unbelievers in a solemn trial in a court room. Consider what King David said in Psalm 34:12-13: “What man is there who desires life and loves many days, that he may see good? Keep your tongue from evil and your lips from speaking deceit.”
Concluding Thoughts and Good News
Returning to the rabbinical puzzle of who is most hurt by the spreading of the tale, the most injured person is actually the listener. The person who shares the gossip is likely to forget what he or she has said, while the person being gossiped about remains unaware. However, the listener continues to carry the burden of the gossip.
This is some food for thought for all of us. We could have been hurt many times over as listeners, and also hurt many other listeners around us by our words.
As we conclude, it is worth pondering the fact that the world has sown two kinds of seeds for a long time. Moses in Deuteronomy 22:9 said, “Do not plant two kinds of seed in your vineyard; if you do, not only the crops you plant but also the fruit of the vineyard will be defiled.”
In Jesus’ parable of the weeds and wheat, the servants asked the field owner, “Do you want us to go and pull them up?” The owner answered no, “because while you are pulling the weeds, you may uproot the wheat with them. Let both grow together until the harvest. At that time I will tell the harvesters: First collect the weeds and tie them in bundles to be burned; then gather the wheat and bring it into my barn” (Matthew 13:28-29).
Taking a leaf from what Jesus teaches in this parable, there may be some situations where we need not be overly zealous in countering every single piece of fake news we come across. It may not be the time to pull out every single weed of fake information (including Biblical heresy) and its sowers. We can take comfort in our Lord Jesus’ words in John 16:33, which remind us that “in this world we will have trouble”, but we can take heart as Jesus has overcome the world.
Instead, what Christians can do in this age of fake news is to bring encouragement to the world, by being eager to share the true gospel of Jesus. As it is written, “How beautiful are the feet of those who bring good news!” (Romans 10:15); “How beautiful on the mountains are the feet of those who bring good news, who proclaim peace, who bring good tidings, who proclaim salvation, who say to Zion, “Your God reigns!”” (Isaiah 52:7).