When does honesty become a liability?
Is manipulating language or facts different from simple deceit? Is it ever OK to intentionally warp the truth? When does honesty in business become a liability? Do people misspeak or are they lying to be politically correct?
Every day, we read about misstatements, miscues, errors in judgment, lack of candor, misinterpretations, white lies, exaggerations and spin. Especially in politics. Our society has many ways to excuse dishonesty without coming right out and naming it. How often do people use creative definitions to lie about the way they lie? How many times do people state opinions as fact, without fact-checking, or acknowledging a counter-argument exists?
Whom do you know who dances around integrity, deluding themselves into believing that honesty works better with exceptions? Is it any wonder the 20th century ended with an American president testifying under oath: “It depends on how you define ‘alone’,” and “It depends on what the meaning of the word ’is’ is.”
Yet, honesty wasn’t always the source of amusement it is today. Back in Israel’s earliest days, Moses brought a commandment not to bear false witness down from Mount Sinai. Nearly 2,400 years ago, Greek philosophers believed in the existence of absolute truth. Up until the skeptical ‘60s, the discipline and self-sacrifice of honesty helped it achieve a place as the highest of all virtues.
“I hope I shall possess firmness and virtue enough to maintain what I consider the most enviable of all titles, the character of an honest man.”
How did we fall so far from this ideal of honesty? One fib at a time. Hidden corruption unravels us with every deception we speak, every omission we tolerate and every falsehood we excuse. With each dishonest act, we fall further into the darkness, growing more agile at turning away from our own flaws than admitting them.
Honesty takes courage. To most, it is not a breath of fresh air, but a chill reminder of things better left unsaid, or their own lack of candor. Often we prefer to hide behind hundreds of ‘little white lies’, trying to convince ourselves there’s no harm done in minor insincerities. Yet there are no exceptions in Scripture regarding the size of the falsehood.
Things are not ‘basically correct’ or ‘mostly true.’ We can’t place a small amount of arsenic into a meal and claim it is ‘mostly nutritious.’
“It’s discouraging to think how many people are shocked by honesty and how few by deceit.”
— Noel Coward (Playwright, 1899-1973)
Christians believe in absolute truth. We are not free to make adjustments or omissions that serve our needs. Jesus does not recognize gray areas. He lashed out against empty flattery. From a biblical and an ethical point of view, things are either true or false. Truth can’t be stretched without compromising honesty.
Honesty is not only what we say, but also what we write, imply, omit or communicate. A written deception is a permanent branding of our dishonesty. We cannot say others have reached the wrong conclusion on their own, if we have said or withheld information that leads them down that path.
Something not said can turn the truth upside down. Denying cancer, or never speaking of it, does nothing to help heal the disease. Only when it is recognized can it be treated.
Societies advance on truth, but crumble on lies. We have traveled far from the light of honesty, but a few shining examples can still draw us back. Despite our cynicism, we still seek honesty in others. We admire the pure of heart and word, and find ourselves drawn to follow their example.
“The true measure of life is not length, but honesty.”
—John Lyly (Author, 1553-1606)
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Bruce E. Zoeller has been involved in Business and Ministry initiatives since 1996. As founder of The Christian Advantage (TCA) in March 2005, this continuing education, peer counsel, accountability and prayer program impacts a growing number of Christian business and ministry leaders and owners in and around Louisville, Kentucky. Bruce is a 1985 graduate of the University of Louisville Speed School with a degree in Business Computer Technology. He is the father to four and grandfather of five. Bruce and his wife, Kris, along with their two youngest children, live in Louisville, Kentucky.
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