“Therefore each of you must put off falsehood and speak truthfully to your neighbor, for we are all members of one body.” Ephesians 4:25
Growing up, I always heard the principle “honesty is the best policy.” Made sense to me, yet when I think about it, the phrase suggests that there might be other policies which are not “best” but are acceptable. Something like honesty is the “only” policy might make more sense, but then again, that’s not what the phrase is.
So, what is honesty? Basically, it’s when a person is truthful – when he or she tells the truth. An honest person is a truth teller. Interesting that in our courts of law in the United States, you are sworn to tell the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth.
The book The Day that America Told the Truth reports that 91 percent of us lie regularly. “Of the people interviewed, 92 percent said the main reason for their lying was to save face, and 98 percent said the reason they told lies was so as not to offend people.”
A survey by George Gallup indicates that “church attendance makes little difference in people’s ethical views and behavior with respect to lying, cheating, pilferage, and not reporting theft”.
Based on a 2014 study done at Virginia Tech, we prefer to be truthful, even if lying is beneficial. Lying, of course, is not telling the truth. The study was based on determining the difference between honesty and self-interest. The researches asked the question: “What’s the price on your integrity? Tell the truth; everyone has a tipping point. We all want to be honest, but at some point, we’ll lie if the benefit is great enough.”
I have only to think about the recent stories coming out of Syria where eleven Christian workers were brutally tortured and killed in Aleppo because they refused to recant their Christianity. The ISIS terrorists actually cut off the fingers of the son of one of the workers one by one trying to get his father to convert to Islam. He refused – he was put in a position of lying to save his son and himself but he refused which had lethal consequences for both. What would I have done? What would you have said? For most of us, we don’t have to face that question. It speaks to me, however, as to how strong my Christian commitment is in the relative safety of a world outside of Syria.
As I thought about that real life anecdote from Aleppo and this topic, I initially thought honesty would be a simple value and virtue to discuss. Basically, the message is “just do it.” On further reflection and looking at research, it’s more complicated. I think anyone would say that they are “honest”. Studies, however, show, that on average, a person tells eleven lies a week.
We sometimes call them little “white lies” although I have no idea where that came from. These are statements that are intentionally deceptive but have good intentions – it might be your answer to a question of “How do I look?” where you don’t want to say anything hurtful or harmful. That type of answer is a far cry from an answer demanded by a terrorist upon which your very life is at risk.
Or, suppose you post something on social media – something that the millennials and next generation are fond of. This is a generation that celebrates authenticity, yet Tim Elmore, another futurist who studies millennials, suggests that much of what is posted is not authentic: “We Photoshop. We exaggerate. We edit. We touch up. Viewers begin to feel like the only one struggling while everyone is doing “awesome.” In essence, we lie.”
In other arenas, the exaggeration can include inflated resumes that include achievements and degrees designed to get a job but which are false. In the past couple of years, a number of high level leaders in business and education in America have lost jobs because of “inflated” resumes and their careers have crashed in spectacular and very public ways.
Having hung out with a futurist like Ralph Ennis for that past 25 years, I have listened to his descriptions of the trends of our culture. Not all of them are good, by the way. In a 30,000-foot view of the issue, every culture in the world that didn’t go through the Reformation has never adopted truth as a high cultural value. That includes all of Asia, the countries in the former Soviet Union and the middle east and most of Africa.
Their cultural values are shame based (which means avoiding loss of face at all costs) and therefore honesty is not a high cultural value. Ralph has been telling me for several years that the next generation – the millennials – are increasingly Asian in outlook. That means, of course, that the value of honesty and truth has declined. Their answer to questions are now based on something relative, not necessarily on the truth.
A recent study confirmed that view noting that honesty varies from country to country, and most of those scoring in the lowest levels of honesty include China, Japan and countries in the middle east (in fact, Turkey scored the lowest).
A 2013 study conducted by Honest Tea showed that Washington DC was the least honest place in America. In his report, journalist Eric Pfeffer wrote “For the second year in a row, residents of our nation’s capital have proven themselves the most likely to steal a dollar from your pocket.”
A 2016 study from the University of London looks at the effect of frequent dishonesty on the brain and concludes that frequent dishonesty actually desensitizes that portion of the brain that would keep us honest. Telling lies leads to a slippery slope leading to yet more and often bigger untruths. Ouch!
Translated, the more your lie, the more likely you will not tell the truth in the future because you have trained your brain the wrong way.
Older studies show that not telling the truth is stressful. In fact, that’s how a polygraph works – the machine that is used and called a “lie detector”. It measures the bodies reaction and small stresses to determine whether or not an answer is true. Studies also show that honesty leads to better health.
Honesty actually has two aspects: One is being honest with yourself, and the other is being honest with others. Being brutally honest about yourself is hard, no doubt about it. We are wired to either overlook our faults (that’s what I call a blind spot), or we proceed regardless of what we know is a fault.
It’s really self-deception. I call those two aspects omission and commission. Omission is the blind spot – the fault we cannot see by ourselves. Commission is proceeding in life with the knowledge of your imperfection and weaknesses to your detriment. You chose to ignore the fault. Either one often results in disaster. A study of 20,000 middle and high school students indicated that although 73 percent of them admitted lying to their parents in the previous year, 91 percent of the respondents indicated that they “were satisfied with their own ethics and behavior.”
Over my 45-year law career when I interviewed candidates for a job, one of the questions I always asked was “what are your weaknesses?” In reality, we all have weaknesses, but whether we are honest about them is another matter. If the candidate couldn’t think of any, that was a tell-tale moment for me that the person was not being honest about themselves. My view is that success in life is often a function of how we conquer our weaknesses, and if we are unwilling to deal with them, life gets a lot harder.
So how does a Christian navigate in these increasingly murky waters and in a culture that is becoming increasingly Asian. The answer is actually pretty simple. If you have integrity, then your answer is that you remain honest no matter what the circumstances. Honesty is a component of integrity.
You look to the one who is the ultimate truth teller – Jesus, and follow His example. It’s that simple. Not complicated. You model it for others. I used to tell my clients, for example, that they were paying me for my professional opinion which may not be what they wanted to hear, but at least it was my honest assessment as to a recommended course of action based on my years of professional experience.
That’s what a mentor does, too. He is distanced from the results of a given plan of action of his mentee. He doesn’t have to live with the consequences or the outcome, but his viewpoint and guidance is based on his honest assessment of what is best for the mentee based on his own life experiences. A mentor is not always perfect – no one is. But wisdom gained from life experiences is a valuable resource for the next generation to tap into.
My challenge is for you to consider being a “truth teller” in someone else’s life as a mentor. It’s what Jesus did with His disciples – he modeled it for them. You can do the same for the next generation of leaders who desperately want guidance from someone who has life experiences – both good and bad – which provide a basis for giving honest counsel and input to help the mentee become the best he can be. You can help a mentee conquer his weaknesses which are likely an obstacle in his becoming the best that he can be. Do it today.
FURTHER STUDY: The price of honesty – the Virginia Tech 2014 research: http://research.vtc.vt.edu/news/2014/sep/02/price-honesty/
For the study showing how honesty varies by country: http://phys.org/news/2015-11-honesty-varies-significantly-countries.html
For the connection of honesty and health: http://naturalsociety.com/honesty-is-the-best-policy-better-health/
WORSHIP: Join Chris Tomlin as he sings Amazing Grace (My Chains are Gone) https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Jbe7OruLk8I
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