If you know me or have followed my Table Talk blog posts (here and here) or my Bedrock posts (here, here, here, and here), then you most certainly know that I have a thing about truth. It’s not a new thing; somewhere back in my teen years, I think, I became thoroughly and stubbornly convinced in the central importance of truth at the very core of my Christian beliefs. I grew evermore confident in the Bible as God’s truth, to be wholly followed and never altered. I came to see honesty as a absolute virtue, an unquestionable mark of godly character, and lying as simply wrong. While I cannot say that I’ve been on a crusade to restore the place of truth in our culture, ever since, I have never given up my convictions, my desire to know and practice the truth and live as an honest person. I will admit, however, I’d sure like to see a bit more truth and honesty in our contemporary American life.
I have preached and written on the critical necessity of absolute truth to guide us, emphasized the need for truth especially in relationships where the desire for faithfulness requires it, and decried the obvious lying that has become so prevalent among those who would lead us. I find it difficult to respect any person, especially those in prominent positions, who lie; I find the notion that “everyone lies” to be abhorrent. I, for one, try not to lie…ever
So, when I caught myself defending, in a manner of speaking, a glaring case of dishonesty, I found myself growing increasingly uncomfortable. My young friend and student had spoken with the unwavering assurance of a young idealist, but he was taking a position that is most frequently my own…and I am long past the age of idealist youth! In fact, if you read that older post before you continue, you will understand why I feel more than a little embarrassed as I reflect on this recent conversation.
The incident raises the question as to whether there is ever a justification for speaking with less than complete honesty. For example, consider the area of tact and diplomacy, an area of communication where care in speaking must be both cautious and gentle. Does this objective ever justify dishonesty? Some will say yes. I recall an occasion where I was leading a small vocal ensemble of college and post-college young people. After a Sunday evening performance in our church, the teacher of our college age Sunday School class, who sang in the adult choir, complimented us on our music. Later, when criticism arose (because we were using guitars before they had become completely acceptable), the same elder gentleman told us we really needed some work. In our confusion, we asked why he had complimented us earlier, he said he wanted to encourage us. In the end his dishonesty neither encouraged us nor motivated us to change; he lost influence over us, at least as it related to music, if not more.
Of course, diplomacy may impact international relations, where truth is often deemed impractical if not simply inconvenient; of such lies wars arise. However, tact in relationships can keep a person from hurting another. Can this be done without compromising truthfulness? I believe it can be. A beautiful young lady friend from our college group showed up one evening at church with short hair. A product of my generation, I loved then, and still do, long hair. Already somewhat taken aback, my friend almost immediately asked me what I thought of her new hairstyle. Inside, I wanted to say, “I hate it!” but I didn’t want to hurt her feelings. Yet she clearly wasn’t going to settle for silence from me, if that itself wasn’t already a negative answer. I thanked God quickly when I thought to say, quite truthfully in fact, “To be honest, it’s too new for me to give an opinion. I need to get used to it first.” She readily accepted that, and I avoided saying anything hurtful for either of us. Oh, and later, I learned she hadn’t cut her hair; it was a wig!
The old saying suggests that “silence is golden,” although another counters, “it’s just plain yellow.” “Say nothing, and people may think you’re stupid; speak and you will remove all doubt.” In other words, I don’t believe silence is dishonest. I don’t believe honesty requires us to correct the wrong assumptions of others. I found, on more than one occasion that, as long as I didn’t directly challenge the common beliefs of those with whom I disagreed and spoke the truths I held gently, sometimes those with inflexible opinions simply assumed I shared them. I found they rarely asked if I didn’t give them cause to wonder, but those who were more thoughtful and lest inflexible understood me plainly. I am less inclined to call that tact as I am to call it the grace of God. As long as I don’t strike the first blow in a war of words, I usually avoid the battle of ideas altogether. To be painfully honest, it’s something I could stand to use more often when I’m addressing political positions.
I found myself in an awkward situation a few years ago. I had been called upon to pick up a class for a teacher I was informed would not be returning, although the stated reason for the absence was only temporary. Another substitute took most of the classes, but I covered the one for which I was better qualified. We met between classes as his students were leaving and mine were coming into the classroom. On the third day, the students noticed that the absent teacher had come in overnight and cleared out everything personal, including a desktop computer. Their first question was “What happened to him? Why did she take all her stuff?” Our answer was, “Well, it looks like maybe he’s not coming back.”
That afternoon, I received an email from the administrator stating that no one had authorized us to announce the permanent departure of the absent teacher. After some considerable thought, I replied to say that we believed in telling the truth and that saying anything else would not only have required a lie but would clearly be recognized as a lie by the students! I returned to school the next day with a bit of trepidation, assuming that the administrator might not have appreciated my thoughts. So imagine my surprise when the senior pastor of the church where the school was located (and to whom I had copied my email) shared my comments with the staff! He commended them as an example of brave communication, something he felt we all needed to practice more often. His “brave communication” was nothing more than an honest commitment to truth-telling.
I do accept that some ethical dilemmas may require lying. If I’m hiding a Jewish person from an anti-Semitic mob, I will not feel guilty for denying knowledge of where their intended victim is hiding. I believe every Christian should read or take a class in ethics in order to understand what dilemmas such as this may require. What disappoints me is the ease with which supposedly virtuous Christians lay aside their integrity for far less substantive or justifiable reasons. We live among believers who have disconnected the appearance of morality from their consistent commitment to practice it. Truth is not something we praise on the church sign out front while we practice something else inside.
In the question raised by my young friend, dishonesty was notable in its inconsistency. Where truth was the justification for exposing sin in one case, it was abandoned to hide sin in another. In my opinion, it would probably have been better if less had been said publicly in both cases. One dicey area, these days, involves the threat of lawsuit as it relates to dismissing an employee with cause or in providing referral information. Sadly, the latter has most likely allowed those with a history of immoral behavior, whether something like stealing or sexual harassment, to move into new situations without those at risk having any warning. In the current environment, a man who is homosexual may sue for discrimination, yet the same parties so threatened may later be criticized or worse for failing to expose a sexual predator. This casts an entirely different light on “ethical dilemmas” where protecting others takes second place behind self-protection.
As my young friend pointed out, as Christians, we must put our trust in God and do right, rather than fear the consequences and thus do wrong. Of course, the world will not understand, and the most twisted may demand their skewed idea of justice. I am not recommending blatant foolishness in the name of truth; wisdom and tact, with a ample amount of prayer, is essential. Nevertheless, I find I am a bit embarrassed for not affirming to my young friend that truth must never be abandoned, regardless of the fear or justification.
That still leaves us with a dilemma. After the fact, what should be done? If things better left unspoken were openly handled with dishonesty, even if only yesterday, what remedy is there today? If one party was spared well-deserved judgment while the other faced public condemnation, what remedy might there be, once the damage is done? It’s not an easy question to answer. The one spared embarrassment will undoubtedly face consequences in the future; that is God’s business. I am wondering at the use of public shame as a punishment in our American past—stocks, public whippings, tar and feathers. I tend to think we are better off without them, but not all have escaped the notion that shaming and blaming is somehow a tool for correction. I don’t think so! I believe doing so puts well-meaning but sinful people in place of our righteous God in judging and justice (though not all are even well-meaning). Who are such men and women to do so? I see little evidence that even our Lord Jesus himself did that! When he caught the money changers in the temple in the very commission of their sinful disrespect of God’s house, he drove them out, less shaming them than simply cleaning house! A woman caught in adultery he simply told not to do it again while putting her not so innocent accusers on the spot. I find Peter’s confession of unworthiness stunning because Jesus never accused him except by being the epitome of righteousness himself.
This leads me to note that honesty does not require total transparency (Peter did not list all his sinful failings) we need not “spill our guts” to anyone but God. Some bizarre traditions practice a kind of public confession that shares every sin with everyone. We are called to confess and repent before God. We are told to admit our fault to those against whom we have sinned and seek reconciliation, and I believe we should confess our blatant public sins just as publicly. Otherwise, no one who has not been directly affected needs to to hear our dirt. I offer only one qualification, which is never to forget that indeed we have been, are, and will continue to be “only sinners saved by grace.” We do not become “nice” people who are now better than those reprobates out there; in such condescension, we do violence to the grace of God, the good news of the gospel, and to those yet to be saved, especially the young ones, even more especially our children! Totally transparent honesty is not necessary, but honesty about our sinful need is essential!
Nevertheless, an unwavering commitment to uncompromising honesty is essential. Without it, in a church, both evangelism and discipleship will be undermined. In a school, students will fail to gain a clear appreciation of the importance of honesty. In a business, a reputation for trustworthiness will falter. In a home, the practice of deceit and dishonesty will handicap the building of godly character in its children. In my opinion, despite my own momentary lapse, honesty must never be compromised!
(Slightly revised, links corrected for new) blog site, 11/24/13; links added, 12/6/13)