“The truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth.”

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From “Growing in the character of a disciple”: Chapter 10 – How we can develop ‘the love of the truth’ and the character quality , and habit, of truthfulness?

The above phrase comes from the wording of the oath which is used in Courts and Tribunals every day. But what does it mean? It is actually a carefully constructed phrase which forbids any kind of deception when a person gives evidence. It means that the witness is swearing to tell:

a) “the truth” – i.e. that everything they say will be true

b) “the whole truth” – i.e. that they will not leave anything out. Omitting something could alter the effect and impact of the evidence and make it untrue overall, even if no direct lie is told. In other words, it is to prevent the witness lying by the things he chooses not to say.

c) “and nothing but the truth” – this is to prevent someone telling all of the truth, and leaving nothing out, but then adding something untrue on top of it, i.e. lying by adding a lie to what would, otherwise, be the truth.

Must we always tell the whole truth?

The famous wording of the oath is clearly appropriate for use in Courts, because it is absolutely comprehensive and watertight. But it is not necessarily the right way to operate in our day to day lives. We do not always have a duty to tell the whole truth. We are not always under a duty to say all that we know, or all that is on our minds. To do so would sometimes be very unwise. Note the approach that Nehemiah took:

12And I arose in the night, I and a few men with me. I did not tell anyone what my God was putting into my mind to do for Jerusalem and there was no animal with me except the animal on which I was riding. 13So I went out at night by the Valley Gate in the direction of the Dragon’s Well and on to the Refuse Gate, inspecting the walls of Jerusalem which were broken down and its gates which were consumed by fire. 14Then I passed on to the Fountain Gate and the King’s Pool, but there was no place for my mount to pass. 15So I went up at night by the ravine and inspected the wall. Then I entered the Valley Gate again and returned. 16The officials did not know where I had gone or what I had done; nor had I as yet told the Jews, the priests, the nobles, the officials or the rest who did the work.

Nehemiah 2:12-16 (NASB)

Nehemiah was heading to Jerusalem on a mission to rebuild the wall of the city. He knew that his project was going to come in for a lot of opposition from the enemies of God’s people. Therefore, although Nehemiah told no lies, he did not tell other people everything that God had told him to do. He kept some of it to himself. Nehemiah’s approach would be inappropriate in a criminal Court, or even in a civil court, where the system is based on finding out exactly what the whole truth is.

That objective means that the Court must insist on total, unlimited frankness and for nothing at all to be held back. Justice is at stake. However, that is not always the case in our day to day lives, where we may be entitled to withhold certain facts, provided that doing so does not amount to a lie.

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