Honesty is in conflict with our need to feel in control. For example, once, in Afghanistan, Karen congratulated an Afghan mother on her newborn:
“Where was he born?” Karen asked.
“Red Cross Hospital,” the mom replied.
Another Afghan woman arrived and congratulated the mom.
“Where was he born?” she asked.
“Wazir Akbar Khan Hospital,” the mom replied.
When they were by themselves again, Karen asked, “Why did you hide the true location of the hospital where your son was born when she asked you?”
“Well, you never know when a fact will be used against you, so I told a lie just in case.”
When something as benign as a newborn’s hospital location is kept hidden “just in case,” we see how the need to feel in control competes with honesty. We see how much we live in a “gotcha” culture pushing us not just to cover our bases with liability release forms, but to cover the facts because, well, “you never know.”
But what we do know is that honesty can be a tremendous risk requiring faith and courage. Here is why.
- When we are honest, we are empowering another. That power can wield massive consequences, for we cannot control how others will respond. We may be ambushed with it later, effectively making each honest word a dagger or deer rifle in the hand of another. We may lose our money. We may lose our jobs. We may lose our beloved. Our freedom. Our lives. Yes, in the appropriate circumstance, honesty can grant others authority over us to this life-altering degree.
In reality, the consequences are often lighter, but we still feel them. A friend becomes distant. A relative respects us less. A coworker is promoted and you are not. Someone unsubscribes or “unfriends” you. You are penalized on your tax return.
We do not like this. That is why we are tempted to remain less than fully honest. We retain power to keep what we have — and to keep who we have.
- When we are honest, we reveal we are not enough. As if a transfer of power were not hard enough to permit, honesty also reveals how limited we are, how insufficient. If, for example, we give our candid opinion on a matter, at one and the same time we may reveal we don’t understand the matter fully or we lack sufficient maturity. We might also reveal that we have sinned. True, if the listener is mature, our confession of sin will be met with grace and truth. But there is a concurrent risk in reaching such a safe harbor: our honesty may reveal that we are much more different from one another than we had thought.
For in truth, I am not enough of the thing you prefer me to be. My honesty might show I am not spiritual enough, or correct enough, or relevant enough. Name the complementary adjective, and my honesty might reveal that I am not enough of it. I turn out to be a work in progress — or just a piece of work!
In the same way that stretching out my hand exposes the bare flesh of my arm on both sides, honesty opens us up to being outflanked. We may not be understood. We may be assailed with insurmountable, logical counterarguments. We may end up looking like fools.
We do not like this. That is why we are tempted, often, to parrot someone else’s words or fill our mouths with statements that mimic the lingo of our circle of people. For the more we sound like everyone else, the less likely we are to stick out and be outflanked. As the Afghan proverb says, “If you don’t want to get noticed, wear the same color clothes as everyone else.”
Is honesty worth such risks? Yes. Here is why.
- Honesty aligns us with the next world. For this one will end — or, more likely, before it ends, you will die. But the outcome is the same: you are destined for a transfer to another world. It is a solo journey. As the dying Johnny Cash foretells in his final music video, “Everyone goes away in the end.”*
The gathering point of all in their solo transit to the next world is before the throne of the One “through whom all things were made” (John 1:4). Honesty in this life, therefore, is an act of faith acknowledging the day when all secrets, all motives, and all choices will be opened up before the One whom Scripture calls the Ancient of Days. The will happen not only before His presence, but in the presence of all who have ever lived. It will be a fair trial that makes a sham of all the Coliseums of this world that had pretended to be our courts, accepting or rejecting us in ways that were often incoherent and arbitrary. In contrast, nothing but true, humble, honest accounts will be spoken before the presence of the One who is “light from light,” as the Nicene Creed says.
This is the plumbline for honesty which makes the immediate price payable. In light of the fact that “books will be opened” (Rev 20:12) and each of us will give an account to God, being honest now is a far preferable price to pay. Far preferable. It sets in perspective the three options we have before us in this life, which are:
to confess, to cover up, or to get caught.
It could be said that a person who gets caught is experiencing more mercy from heaven than the person who successfully covers up things to his grave, for the one on earth who gets caught still has the opportunity to pour wet cement ahead of the day when death hardens his path into one concrete, irrevocable direction.
In light of this reality that all things will be laid bare before the Lord, the cost of honesty in the short term becomes, as St. Paul says, “light and momentary.” (2 Cor 4:17)
- Honesty honors the courtroom of our personal conscience. A Persian friend of mine (a Volvo car salesman no less!) quoted this proverb to me: “Your conscience is the courtroom over which no other judge can preside but you alone.” St. Paul puts this forward as one of the two reasons all mankind is accountable to God. If the glory, wonder, and wisdom of creation is not enough to call people to seek the Creator, the human conscience is. It is wired in “at the factory,” so to speak. For the conscience, like a courtroom, bears witness to a person, his thoughts accusing or else excusing him. (Rom 2:15)
In a word, honesty gives us the ability to live in harmony with ourselves. We are depressurized from keeping up with appearances. We save ourselves from the massive energy burn required to break orbit with community, flinging ourselves toward the lonely planet named Concealment. We save ourselves from the intense labor (and money) required to maintain the cosmetology of acceptance.
And even if the hope of eternal reward is not an influential element of your thinking, conscience remains. For example, I am friends with a Persian, atheist, chemistry professor who was genuinely concerned about how my faith in Jesus was limiting my prospects.
“You are such a good person,” he said. “It is tragic that you live under a religious construct. There’s so much more you could do if you did not have that yoke.”
“Thank you,” I replied. “You are a true friend to confess such concern. Thank you for caring for me enough to speak to me.”
“May I give you a book by Richard Dawkins called The God Delusion? It will open up your eyes.”
“But you will have to wait a few days, Kurt. I would give you my own copy, but that would be dishonest, almost like copyright infringement. I must honor the author’s hard work by purchasing a fresh copy for you.”
There I was, before an atheist with a sense of ethics beyond my own, beyond what most people, the pious included, would say is required. Why did he not give me his own book? (Give, not loan.) Because it would be dishonest.
Do you see how he strove to live in harmony with himself? Can you see how such honesty is attractive to God, the one whose first recorded words in human history are “Let there be light.” (Genesis 1:3)?
We need that light, and it is worth a dark path to get there. The dark path of risk. The dark path of loss. The dark path of struggle until our conscience becomes clear.
But the Resurrection assures us that any bitterness honesty initially produces will convert to sweetness on the other side of the grave. And the Incarnation assures us we are not alone in the risk, loss, and struggle that honesty guarantees. Another One is there. A holy One. An atoning One. One who never lies to us, but always tells the truth. And He tells it in such a way that we experience the truth as love even when it is difficult to hear.
“For it is the God who commanded light to shine out of darkness, who has shone in our hearts to give the light of the knowledge of the glory of God in the face of Jesus Christ.” (2 Corinthians 4:6)
© Kurt Mähler
- “Hurt” Johnny Cash. Cover of song by Trevor Reznor of Nine Inch Nails. Produced by American Recordings. 2002.