(Some of the links to my other posts may be inactive. I may need to re-post them to a different site, a project for the not-to-distant-future)
I have a thing about honesty, which is probably why I have written about it so often. “Tell the truth” and “Don’t lie” are some of the earliest rules my parents gave me. I suspect most parents teach their children that “Honesty is the best policy.” As children, most of us heard the stories of George Washington, the cherry tree, and “I cannot tell a lie” and of Honest Abe Lincoln, who walked miles to correct an error made in the country store where he worked.
I suppose we might admire honesty because it isn’t easy. We lie from shame, fear, or more evil motives. I knew of an adopted child who lied to her parents when she did some little wrong, even when the truth was plain. I think she feared being sent away, as she had been moved many times before; I advised her parents to reassure her that she would always be their daughter, even when she did bad things. Everyone has secrets, things they might reveal only to the nearest, most trusted confidante, and perhaps not to even to them; a person might lie to keep something deeply personal, whether good or bad, from being known. Apart from the most persistent kind of questioning, one can learn to evade such concerns without lying. Those who pursue their own sinful purposes will lie to achieve them, even though, generally, the truth eventually comes to light. People lie not only to gain advantage but also to harm others, the worst kind of evil.
Honesty is the most fundamental of character traits. That doesn’t necessarily make it the easiest or most common. Use words like honor or integrity, but it still comes down to one thing: telling the truth. Lying is so bad that God includes it in his Top Ten Commandments: “You shall not bear false witness against you neighbor” (Exodus 20:16); in other words, we’re not to tell lies that hurt other people.
Paul covers all the bases in Colossians 3:8-10: “But now you must rid yourselves of all such things as these: anger, rage, malice, slander, and filthy language from your lips. Do not lie to each other, since you have taken off your old self with its practices and have put on the new self, which is being renewed in knowledge in the image of its Creator.” He not only directs believers not to lie but not to do the things that often involve or lead to lying.
John pronounces the final destination of those who lie in Revelation 21:7-8: “He who overcomes will inherit all this, and I will be his God and he will be my son. But the cowardly, the unbelieving, the vile, the murderers, the sexually immoral, those who practice magic arts, the idolaters and all liars—their place will be in the fiery lake of burning sulfur.” How many categorize liars with murderers, perverts, and cowards? God does and, if we are honest, so do we. We know that lying leads to broken relationships, broken treaties, and broken promises.
Hypocrisy, deception, duplicity, unfaithfulness, insincerity, and fraud are all forms of dishonesty, and we hate them when they mislead, disappoint, or harm us. Yet, far too many of us rationalize their use and justify falsehood. We minimize it with “little white lies;” we sanitize it by calling it tact or diplomacy. We tolerate lies from politicians and used car salesmen, as if they were an acceptable part of some professions. Commercial advertising is often nothing but glorified, highly glamorized lying. Ideological deception fills our public schools, colleges, and universities because the teachers we trust are either liars or the deceived, which may be worse. Even those who report news, which is useless if unreliable, don’t tell the truth.
“Bush lied; people died” is itself a lie. The people who promote it know it’s a lie. President Bush largely repeated the same things that President Clinton said about Saddam Hussein and his defiance of U.N. sanctions. Hillary Clinton lied about her daughter’s proximity to the World Trade Center on 9/11, snipers shooting at her in Bosnia, and her role in Irish peace talks; and Chelsea, news video, and Irish leaders have exposed her lies. Here’s a more inclusive list of her lies. Al Gore invented the Internet, a lie, and yet people believe him when he speak “with moral authority” on global warming. Now Barack Obama has said he didn’t hear his pastor make some of the anti-American statements he made over the 20 years he was Obama’s mentor. What people accept as truth is an indication of how little truth is actually important to them.
To become a Christian, a person must tell the truth about themselves to God. They must honestly confess their moral failures, disobedience, and choices that have harmed others. No one is perfect; but, to receive God’s grace and forgiveness, a sinner must admit his sin. Not only will that mark a person’s new birth into the family of God, but it ought to be a watershed moment of honesty that forever changes his attitude about truth, truth-telling, and faithfulness to God and to other people. As Oscar Wilde said, “It is the confession, not the priest, that gives us absolution.” The death of Jesus on Calvary is the means, but it is the truth of one’s confession that provides access in faith.
I’m not too impressed with the public confessions of people who lie, get caught in their lies, and still lack the integrity to admit what they have done. Everyone sins; every person slips and stumbles from time to time. Complicated situations involving insecurity or personal shame, reluctance to embarrass or injure others, and momentary lapses of judgment lead to inaccuracies and misstatements if not open deception. Decent, honest people, worthy of public service, “fess up” when they realize what they’ve done or someone else points it out.
Of course, if no one seems to care, then people will lie. I don’t agree with the politics of Hillary or Bill Clinton, Barack Obama, Al Gore, or 99% of the rest of the Democratic Party. I probably disagree with Republicans more than half the time, especially those who feed at the public trough, seem to favor big government, and care more about their political careers than their duty to the voters. For me, however, honesty and trustworthiness are more basic than political views because I can’t trust a liar. Nobody can trust a liar. What good can possibly come from electing a liar to public office? Their campaigns are carefully crafted masquerades, their policy avowals are deceptions, and their promises are untrustworthy. Many of our prominent politicians are nothing more than glorified snake oil salesmen.
Still, my purpose here isn’t primarily about electoral choices; it is about facing our culture of dishonesty. We who care, and I’d like to think that includes a good many Christian believers, must speak out, not just to public figures, but also to our neighbors, friends, co-workers, and families. We need to begin demanding a new standard, a new practice, of truth-telling, honesty, openness, promise-keeping, and trustworthiness. More than that, we need to be stunning examples of the truth we value; our own honesty and integrity must be unwavering. What conceivable good can come out of a people or a culture that accepts and tolerates dishonesty? What conceivable good can come from we who claim the name of Jesus Christ if we accept and tolerate dishonesty among us or within our own hearts?? Everything in life—relationships, business, contracts, treaties, and reliable information—all depend on straightforward honesty.
I have said “demand,” but perhaps I should say advocate and justify the need for truth-telling. Too often, we Christians confront the world and culture on the authority of a Bible many do not accept, trust, or regard as God’s, not even acknowledging God. I believe it makes sense to make the case for our values and, thereby, demonstrate the wisdom and reality of the Source as well. However, we dare not forget that making a case for truth will be weakened, perhaps fatally, if our own character wavers in its commitment to truth, honesty, and faithfulness.
Perhaps an ongoing discussion about honesty will lead us back to the more basic matters of truth. I wonder if we Christians, who supposedly believe in truth and absolutes, have erred in trying to promote honesty from that foundation. Constructive dialog can only begin where people are, and people have been indoctrinated to reject absolutes and accept relativism. However, people still need trust and want to be able to trust; trust in turn requires honesty. Honesty isn’t relative when it comes to believing the promises others make; understanding that need for truth in the personal realm could then open up the possibility that relativism is, in the end, unworkable and unacceptable in the broader realm, as well.
In the end, personal honesty and integrity is not just a choice, if we believers would take seriously our task of making disciples and sharing the good news of Christ. Few will take our assertions about absolute truth come from the Creator of everything if our lives are not demonstrations of truth-bearing integrity. We may speak freely of the faithfulness of God, but people will mark the unfaithfulness of his children and disregard the message of unreliable message-bearers. I believe this connection must never be ignored. We must restore honesty in all its forms as the highest virtue if we would do justice to our high calling as ministers of reconciliation (II Cor. 5). (update begun 10/25/12)