Great Themes of the Bible (#26-Honesty)

"We have renounced secret and shameful ways; we do not use deception, nor do we destroy the word of God. On the contrary, by setting forth the truth plainly we commend ourselves to every man's conscience in the sight of God" (2 Cor. 4:2).

In a perfect world, upright people would never suffer from the machinations of wicked ones, and a liar would never have the advantage over someone who tells the truth. In a fallen world, however, it doesn't always work that way. And that makes some people wonder if it is worth it to be honest, to tell the truth, to resist temptations to cheat on homework, taxes, or mates. These aren't new problems.

Do you remember how Jesus met his fate on a Roman cross in Jerusalem? Perjured testimony led to his conviction on a trumped-up charge of treason against the empire. So it should not surprise us that Paul met opposition in his evangelistic work. Part of that opposition came in the form of lies told about him; part of it was the accusation that he was a liar himself.

In today's text, Paul defends himself against the charge that he had somehow been deceptive in his teaching or had distorted Scripture. He insists that he had done nothing shameful or exploitive. There were, even then, manipulative techniques that public speakers and politicians would use to spin their message or to dupe potential followers. False advertising is nothing new. On top of that charge, Paul's Jewish opponents appear to have been accusing him of destroying the Word of God because he would no longer embrace their legalisms for himself or permit them to force them on his Gentile converts. They wanted the Gentiles held accountable to the Law's requirements about circumcision, kosher foods, and the like. When Paul would not hear to it, they tried to undermine his reputation with charges of duplicity, scheming, and dishonesty with the Word of God.

Paul refused to waste his time in what would have been a pointless self-defense against each of their charges. He chose, instead, to declare that he was content to continue living uprightly and working openly "in the sight of God" and to leave the matter "to every man's conscience" to observe, weigh, and draw his own conclusion. That is what most of us have to be willing to do who come under scrutiny and have to face the judgment of our peers. Sometimes there is a single fact or litigation event that can clear things up. More often, one must simply keep on doing right, trust that people of good will can discern integrity over time, and be confident that God knows the truth and will vindicate those who honor him.

I wish I could assure you it always works out that way in the short term. That would not be honest of me! It is the long-term view that I have in mind. Honesty doesn't win every battle, but it will prevail far more often than deception and falsehoods. And when everything is put into the light before God at the end, truth wins hands down!

We Have a Problem

Our culture has a serious problem with honesty. Perhaps I should say that our problem is with being dishonest.

Perhaps you remember the furor caused ten years ago when authors James Patterson and Peter Kim released their book The Day America Told the Truth. Their research with an extensive questionnaire was disheartening. He is a sampling of what they found:

91% said they lie regularly both at work and in their personal lives;
86% lie to their parents;
75% lie to their best friends;
73% lie to their siblings;
69% lie to their spouses;
50% feel free to call in sick to work when they are perfectly well.
We know our government has lied to us about everything from illegal assassination plots against Fidel Castro to activities in Vietnam to secret deals made in the nation's capitol. So citizens feel justified in cheating on their taxes to a government that lies to them, and kids have defied teachers or parents to punish them for telling lies by pointing first at Nixon and later at Clinton as their defense. Our culture has become cynical about truth. When somebody thinks the right to lie has been established, there is no drawing the line.

Do you ever read political commentary otherwise placed on the comics page in your newspaper? One of my favorite strips is "The Wizard of Id." It occasionally rebukes our glibness with lies by means of humor. For example, I remember a series of strips about golf and politics.

In one of them, the king tells his golf instructor he had a three on a certain hole. "Not bad," said the pro. "Now, try it again without the smirk." In another strip, Rodney told the king he had found the ideal caddy for him. When asked about the man's experience, Rodney said he was a forest ranger and got thrown into jail! But my favorite one was a two-frame stip in which Spook asked his jailer, "Do you know what politicians and golf pros both do best?" "What?" bit the jailer. And Spook's answer came through the cell door: "Get out of trouble . . . with bad lies."

One of the brightest-turned-quickly-dark stories I've ever read was about a New York City student who turned in a purse she had found complete with $1,000 in cash. Not a single school official in the city's educational system would congratulate her on her virtue. "If I come from a position of what is right and wrong," explained her teacher, "then I am not [my students'] counselor."

Oh, yes. We have a problem. We have a serious problem. We don't want to affirm the biblical principles taught in unambiguous texts. For example, how long since you have read Proverbs 6:16-19 and thought about the fact that three of the seven things God hates relate directly to dishonesty?

There are six things the LORD hates,
seven that are detestable to him:
haughty eyes,
a lying tongue,
hands that shed innocent blood,
a heart that devises wicked schemes,
feet that are quick to rush into evil,
a false witness who pours out lies
and a man who stirs up dissension among brothers.
The message in the New Testament is the same. "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" (Col. 3:9).

Honesty With Words

One of my favorite proverbs about truth-telling, honesty, and personal integrity is this one: "The wicked man flees though no one pursues, but the righteous are as bold as a lion" (Prov. 28:1). What does it mean? It means that people with something to hide, hide and cringe; people who live in truth and integrity hold up their heads and move on. It means that lying is hard and complicates your life; it's hard to remember what you told each person, to keep your story straight, and to keep the people to whom you've lied away from one another. It means that telling the truth is simpler and more practical; you never have to cover your trail and can simply be open and transparent with others.

There is no release from the moral duty of truth-telling because someone has lied about you. It is still unethical to lie to a liar, to deceive a deceiver, to fight fire with fire. When that is the strategy you choose, all that will be left at the end of the day are the ashes of your personal integrity.

Some people understand what I have called openness and transparency in unhealthyways. You don't need to share more information than someone actually needs. There is no call for you to become an exhibitionist. And there is certainly no virtue in inflicting pain on someone by telling a truth that crushes and hurts another person to no good purpose. Some people simply vent and dump on others all in the name of honesty. No, that's boorishness and sometimes verbal abuse.

There are some things people have no right to know about you and that you have to right to pry to learn about them. My mother told me never to ask these three questions: How old are you? How much do you weigh? How much did that cost? And the principle behind those questions that it is wrong to pry into another's life is right. Unless you are entitled to information for your own moral or spiritual protection, don't go snooping into another person's life. You may find things that will cause you too much pain and anguish. Enough of those things will come to you without being sought to fill your life and occupy your energies.

Honesty With Life

Honesty with words is only one component of total-life honesty before the Lord. When Jesus challenged the Samaritan woman he met at Jacob's well to worship God "in spirit and in truth," that's what he was asking for from her (John 4:24). Do you remember where their conversation started? After the Son of Man had asked her for a drink of water and engaged her in conversation, he said, "Go, call your husband and come back." She said, "I have no husband." Then a most interesting thing happened.

Jesus said to her, "You are right when you say you have no husband. The fact is, you have had five husbands, and the man you now have is not your husband. What you have just said is quite true."

"Sir," the woman said, "I can see that you are a prophet. Our fathers worshiped on this mountain, but you Jews claim that the place where we must worship is in Jerusalem" (John 4:17-20).
The forgiving and gracious Son of God was trying to lead this woman divorced five times already and choosing now to live with a man without bothering to marry into the light of salvation. Before he could save her, she had to be willing to be totally honest about just how messed up and miserable she was. So Jesus led her right to the edge not of Jacob's well but of heaven's Living Water and invited her to drink. He let her know the cat was out of the bag about her confused and guilt-ridden life. Would she drink? No! She wanted to change the subject from salvation to church! That is, she threw out the old Samaritan-Jew debate about the location and manner of worship as an alternative topic to her need for a Savior.

That's when Jesus bored in on the real issue. "Dear lady, won't you get past these fascinating diversions so we can talk about your real needs?" he was asking. "Won't you see that worship is a matter of spirit (i.e., your heart linked to God's heart) and truth (i.e., your brokenness acknowledged in total honesty) rather than hill and house?"

What is the church supposed to be? How are we supposed to function? How do we learn to care about one another? The answer is probably best summed up in this old adage: misery loves company. In leper colonies around the world, racial and caste divisions that otherwise would be significant are set aside. In AIDS clinics and support groups for recovering drug addicts, bank presidents and school dropouts become friends. Spoiled kids and neglected elderly people come together to help one another. The same thing happens in a church where the Spirit of Christ is allowed to work.

The pain caused by sin creates a "fellowship of the huddled-together." People who have been washed clean by Christ's blood are bound together in his restoring grace. The fellowship of daily encouragement creates not only togetherness but oneness. Whores, drunks, preachers, liars, people with AIDS, gossips, Bible scholars, illiterates all are giving loving support to each other. They don't judge each other. They don't check up on one another. They don't really care what the other person once did out there in hell. All they care about is helping one another get glimpses of the Father's smile and to get healthy. That's very hard for outsiders to understand. It only happens where people get honest, walk in the light, and begin to heal.

Are you hurting? Pray. Do you feel great? Sing. Are you sick? Call the church leaders together to pray and anoint you with oil in the name of the Master. Believing-prayer will heal you, and Jesus will put you on you feet. And if you've sinned, you'll be forgiven healed inside and out.

Make this your common practice: Confess your sins to each other and pray for each other so that you can live together whole and healed. The prayer of a person living right with God is something powerful and to be reckoned with (James 5:13-16, The Message).
Conclusion

Dr. Perry Buffington, a licensed psychologist and author, claims that research in his field has found there are at least three situations when we tend not to be ourselves. First, the average person will "put on airs" when he or she visits the lobby of a fancy and expensive hotel. Second, the typical man or woman will try to hide her emotions if not her face when she steps onto a car lot or into a new-car showroom. And, third, we try to fake out one another and maybe God too when we walk in and take our seats in church.

Of all the places where honesty isn't just the best policy for our words but must be the hallmark of our personal integrity as needy sinners, an authentic experience of Christ will not permit pretense and phoniness. When church is really church, it is only because we have dared to be honest in our whole lives with God and one another.

That was Paul on the Damascus Road and among the people of Corinth. And it can be you and me as well.


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