“You shall not bear false witness against your neighbor.” Exodus 20:16
I was in ninth grade, on my first youth group trip. A bundle of insecurity, I tried to figure out the best way to fit in and realized that a great way to get everyone’s attention—and alleviate that gnawing feeling of, “am I fitting in?” – was to crack jokes about others in the group.
Patti was an easy target for these jokes. She went to a different school, dressed a little differently, talked a little louder. Leaning against the sink in the girl’s bathroom, sensing everyone’s attention and wanting to seal my spot in the group, I made a joke about her. It was true, but it wasn’t nice.
I didn’t realize she was also in the restroom until she exited the stall into the cloud of my words still suspended mid-air. While everyone else shuffled away awkwardly, my eyes locked with Patti’s.
I wish I could say that seeing how hurt she was cured me of any desire to ever speak ill of anyone. I felt bad. But I also experienced the power of words for the first time, and the power of sharing a secret, fact, or observation about another person was intoxicating. While I knew it was wrong, I often resorted to gossip to garner attention. I operated under the assumptions of “I’m just saying what everyone already knows,” “I’d totally say this to their face.” Or, the ever popular, “Well, I’m telling people so they can add it to their prayer intentions.” While this used to prick my conscience, like any sin, the more I spoke the less I felt bad.
“The eighth commandment forbids misrepresenting the truth in our relations with others” (CCC 2464). This manifests itself in many ways— while lying (not telling the truth) is obviously forbidden – the Catechism clarifies that “respect for the reputation of persons forbids every attitude and word likely to cause them unjust injury” (CCC 2477). This forbids us from saying anything that could damage the reputation of another – even if it’s true.
I struggled to reign in my tongue for years, wanting to be kinder with my speech, but not as much as I wanted to fit in. Then a wise priest gave me James 3 as penance after I confessed my struggles with gossip. Reading that “We bless the Lord and Father, and . . . curse human beings who are made in the likeness of God” (James 3:9), I was struck that my worship and honor of God was only as authentic as the honor I gave those created in His image. Basically, every comment I made about God’s creation was the ugly footnote to my words of worship.
Resolving to be kind to others is difficult, because humans can annoy and hurt us. If you struggle with gossip or unkind speech, don’t act based on what you think others deserve, act based on what God deserves. In the end, it wasn’t kindness that helped me reign in my tongue as much as my desire to worship God authentically, realizing the power of words, and the reality of the community St. Paul describes in Ephesians 4:25 when he states, “Speak the truth, each one to his neighbor, for we are members of one another.” Worship the Lord in truth by honoring those He created.
How to Obey the Eighth Commandment
- Tell the truth
- Speak kindly about others, instead of using your words to tear them down or ruin their reputation
- Always confess all your sins in Confession, not purposefully holding anything back
- Frequent the Sacraments! Confess gossip every time you fall. When you confess, be specific. It will give you the grace to be stronger the next time the situation arises.
“Great minds discuss ideas, average minds discuss events, small minds discuss people.” – Eleanor Roosevelt