The 8th commandment is "You shall not give false testimony against your neighbor." This is the commandment that everyone breaks and that no one breaks. What I mean is that this is the commandment that people always break against you, but which you never break against someone else. It's is hard to justify murder or lust, but easy to justify breaking the 8th commandment. "Oh, I'm just reporting what I heard." "I know what he said, but here is what he really meant...." And so on.
In the Small Catechism, Martin Luther explainse it this way:
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 possible way.In another translation, the last line says, "put the best construction on everything." That seems to be the rub.
On the one hand, I think this requires some qualification. Sometimes putting the best construction on something results is sugar-coating bad behavior. And that is something we should never do.
For instance, if a Sunday school child tells me his uncle is molesting him, I don't just pat the lad on the head and say, "Now, now. How can we explain this in the kindest possible way? Your uncle is just really affectionate and likes to hug you with his pants off." Sure, innocent till proven guilty, but take every accusation or hint of impropriety seriously.
Another example I've heard is when a man keeps beating up his wife and she excuses him saying, "Oh, I know he's a good man deep inside. He really does love me. He only hits me when he's drunk anyway."
Hmmm... Oscar Mayer produces a meat-type product that answers that. BALONEY. Sorry, sweetie. The man's a creep. He does not love you.
How does that beautiful paean to love from St. Paul go: "Love is patient. Love is kind. Love will punch you in the face, but only when drunk...."
Just like faith w/o works is dead, so also love. Call the cops. Move out. Get help. Don't let anyone use a perverted understanding of the 8th commandment to to keep you from doing what is necessary. According to Luther, the theology of the cross calls a thing what it is. Preserving that man's rep is not as important as saving your life.
ON THE OTHER HAND - and this is what I initially set out to write about - how quick we are to judge one another. Explain things in the kindest possible way? Seems like sometimes folks bend over backwards to attach the worst possible interpretation to your words or actions.
One thing I always advise couple who come to me for pre-marital instruction is this: Never assume you know what the other person is thinking. And never ever think that you know another person's motives. Certainly, I can judge your words and actions, but not your motives. Never. Why? Because only you know what your motives are and maybe you're not even sure.
So here are some practical ways to understand and obey this commandment:
- Don't assume you know someone's true motives.
- Don't read so much btwn the lines.
- Remember that you are not a mindreader.
- Remember that gossip is a sin.
- But DO call a thing what it is. Do not feel you must put a good construction on truly bad behavior.