“Which commandment causes the most pain when broken?”
You could probably make a good case for any of them, but I’m going to suggest to you that the one that causes the most heartache is Exodus 20:16 – “Thou shalt not bear false witness against thy neighbor.”
This encompasses much more just lying. It is not simply perjury. In fact, you could tell the absolute truth and break this commandment.
This most devastating sin is gossip. Tales told about someone, whether true or not, undermine the victim’s integrity and reputation. People pass judgment based on hearsay, and the victim never has a chance to face an accuser or even refute the claim with evidence. There’s no opportunity to explain things. No court of appeal. The victim simply finds that people regard him differently, often negatively, for no reason. Sometimes a well-meaning soul will come forward and offer congratulations for something that hasn’t happened or commiseration for a non-existent crisis. That’s the first the victim knows about what’s going on, and by then considerable harm has been done and damage control will be fruitless.
The speaker’s intention need not be to cause harm. In Christian circles, gossip often starts sounding like this, “Well, so you can pray more effectively, let me tell you all about … ” but what follows is like the kids’ game “Telephone” where the story mutates with each retelling. What started out fairly benign can quickly turn downright ugly.
It isn’t even necessary to be spreading the rumor to be guilty of this sin. Have you ever let someone tell you tales about someone else? Broken a confidence? Failed to set the story straight when you heard someone being spoken ill of and you knew better?
The Bible is very vocal about this particular sin. Once you get past the general admonitions about Folly and Wisdom, it’s hard to get ten verses in Proverbs without running into one that admonishes the reader to mind his mouth.
Here are a few for your consideration:
Proverbs 10:14 — Wise people treasure knowledge, but the babbling of a fool invites trouble.
Proverbs 10:19 — Don’t talk too much, for it fosters sin. Be sensible and turn off the flow!
Proverbs 10:31 — The godly person gives wise advice, but the tongue that deceives will be cut off.
Proverbs 10:32 — The godly speak words that are helpful, but the wicked speak only what is corrupt.
Proverbs 11:9 — Evil words destroy one’s friends; wise discernment rescues the godly.
Proverbs 11:11 — Upright citizens bless a city and make it prosper, but the talk of the wicked tears it apart.
Proverbs 11:12 — It is foolish to belittle a neighbor; a person with good sense remains silent.
Proverbs 11:13 — A gossip goes around revealing secrets, but those who are trustworthy can keep a confidence.
And that’s just 2 chapters in Proverbs. The list continues. Consider these outside of Proverbs:
Leviticus 19:16 — Thou shalt not go up and down [as] a talebearer among thy people: neither shalt thou stand against the blood of thy neighbour: I [am] the LORD.
Psalms 50:20 — Thou sittest [and] speakest against thy brother; thou slanderest thine own mother’s son.
Ezekiel 22:9 — In thee are men that carry tales to shed blood: and in thee they eat upon the mountains: in the midst of thee they commit lewdness.
Matthew 12:36 — But I say unto you, That every idle word that men shall speak, they shall give account thereof in the day of judgment.
Ephesians 4:29, 31 — Let no corrupt communication proceed out of your mouth, but that which is good to the use of edifying, that it may minister grace unto the hearers. … Let all bitterness, and wrath, and anger, and clamour, and evil speaking, be put away from you, with all malice:
So how do you avoid breaking this commandment?
Well, in cases where the gossip is malicious, employ Matthew 18 before spreading stories about someone you’re miffed with. In Matthew 18:15-17, Jesus instructs his disciples to confront someone personally about an issue. If that doesn’t fix it, bring a witness. Still no joy? Involve the church. If that doesn’t solve it, treat the person as a publican. Do, however, remember how Jesus treated publicans, tax collectors (IRS agents?) in our modern vernacular. (How many times should you forgive your brother? 70×7.)
Verify the story before you start telling it. Don’t assume. What you think it looks like may not be what it is. How often, as a single person, have you had a friend of the opposite gender and all of a sudden people assume there’s a romantic relationship where there isn’t?
If someone starts gossiping in your area, ask the person to stop. If they won’t, remove yourself. Yes, some people will brand you a stick-in-the-mud, but others will recognize your integrity for what it is.
If someone tells you something personal about himself, assume the information is confidential until given permission to share. People really don’t need all the gory details to pray for someone about a crisis. God knows what’s going on.
We humans can do the most incredible harm to each other with nothing but ill-chosen words. Words are like toothpaste. Once out in the open, you can’t put it back where it came from.