What Is Honesty?

Truth Telling

It is a short world, and it doesn’t take more brains than most of us have to figure out that honesty is a good thing if it helps business and keeps us from looking too stupid. It’s the best policy, obviously, but it isn’t usually much more than that. It’s one of those things, along with eating and dieting, taxation, religion, and loving your neighbor, that we all feel can be carried too far. Too far, that is, if the matter concerns ourselves.

"The people in your organization are certainly the most honest bunch I’ve ever seen," a woman said to a friend of mine.

"Honest? How do you mean?"

"Well, honest about each other."

We can stand a lot of honesty that concerns other people, and we jump to the defense of protesters so long as they’re protesting things for which we’re not directly responsible. But we are marvelously uncritical and generous when it comes right down to the nitty-gritty of our private lives. You won’t catch us carrying things to extremes there.

People do overeat, but it hasn’t been my problem. Dieting, on the other hand, can be carried too far and that piece of pie does look delicious. As for religion, a good thing, of course–an excellent thing if you don’t get too much of it at once. And I’m willing to pay my taxes. I understand that the country can’t run without them, but this bill, now. . . . Loving my neighbor? I do. But how far do you think a person ought to be expected to go anyhow?

At a camp where my husband worked for several summers the counselors had to grade each camper on certain character traits. Was he, for example, exceptionally, moderately, or fairly honest?

A man in Elmhurst, Illinois, found two Brinks money bags containing $183,000. He threw them, unopened, into the trunk of his car and for four days wondered what to do with them. (He mentioned later that he did not even think to tell his wife. I think she would have known what to do.)

"I didn’t know it was money," he told newsmen. "I thought it might be mail. I forgot about them until I began reading stories in the paper. Then I realized what I had. I had always daydreamed about finding a lot of money, but it became a reality and things changed. I had to call."

Asked why he didn’t break the seals on the bags he said, "You don’t break seals on people’s parcels. That would muddle things considerably. I’m an honest man within reasonable limits."

The Brinks company awarded him $18,000 for his honesty, which raises the question of whether his was, in fact, a "reasonable" honesty, for if he had been dishonest he might possibly have succeeded in keeping the $183,000 for himself, along with, at the very least, some sleepless nights.

It is a short world, and if this is the only world, we can play it like a game–fair and somewhere near square. That ought to be good enough, and a man ought to be allowed to get what he’s willing to pay for.

But what about gaining the whole world and losing your own soul? Those words apply to another world altogether, the long one, where the rules are not the same at all, where things like poverty and meekness and sorrow and hunger and purity of heart lead to happiness. Then, too, the Rule Book has things about living "honestly in all things," "providing for honest things, not only in the sight of the Lord, but also in the sight of men," and (who can stand up to this one?) about the Lord’s desiring "truth in the inward parts." It is what I would have to call an unreasonable honesty, beyond any of us, and we have to call out, "Lord’ save me!" And that is what he does.

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Recently I met a friend for lunch whom I had not seen for twenty years. As I approached the restaurant I was thinking the usual thoughts: Will she have changed much? Will I recognize her? Will we be able to find things to talk about?

I saw her as soon as I got there, and I knew that if I said, "Why, Helen, you haven’t changed a bit! " it would be a bald lie. The truth was that Helen was beautiful now. She had never been a beauty in college. The years and her experiences (some of them of a kind of suffering I knew nothing about) had given her a deep womanliness, a kind of tender strength. Her eyes glowed, there was passion about her mouth, and the lines of her face revealed a strength of character she could not have had when she was a college student. So, instead of the usual pleasantries, I simply started with the truth. I told her what I saw in her face. Of course she was taken aback, but I am sure that this unorthodox beginning did not render further conversation more difficult. We were able to get down to the real things in life, things that matter and that had changed us both, rather than spending an hour on the ages of our children, their mates and careers, and our latest diets and recipes.

We all know that the truth often hurts. We use this cliche as a defense for having hurt someone, and sometimes it is indeed necessary to tell this kind of truth. But there is truth which does not hurt–truth which encourages and surprises with delight and gratitude. What if a teacher sees that a colleague of hers has succeeded in breaking down the resistance of a pupil who has been the despair of the other teachers, the talk of the faculty lunchroom? The change in the student is noticed, a sigh of relief is heaved, but who goes to the teacher herself and says, "Thanks! You’ve done what the rest of us couldn’t do!" How many are free enough from themselves to recognize the worth of others and to speak of it honestly?

A lady who is a good many years older than I tells me often of the aunt who was a mother to her throughout her childhood. "Auntie” impressed her with the need to tell the truth–the welcome kind–and she would add emphatically, "Tell them now." My friend calls me on the telephone–sometimes to thank me for a note or a little gift, sometimes to tell me what my friendship means to her.

"You remember what Auntie always said," she will say, ”so, I’m telling you now." There would be no way for me to exaggerate how she has cheered and helped me.

I was talking with a lady who had been a missionary for forty years, and I noticed that she had exceptionally lovely hands. "Has anyone ever told you your hands are beautiful?” I asked. The dear soul was so flustered one might have thought I had committed an indecency. She looked at her hands in amazement.

"Why . . . why no. I don’t think anyone ever has!” But she saw that I meant it, and she had the grace to hear the truth. She said thank you.

"Tell it like it is," is the watchword today. But suppose it’s lovely? Suppose it’s actually beautiful? C. S. Lewis said that the most fatal of all nonconductors is embarrassment. It seems to me that life is all too short to let embarrassment deprive us and our friends of the pleasure of telling the happy truth. Suppose the boy who does your lawn does it fast, trims it perfectly, and takes care of the tools? Suppose the clerk who waits on you happens to be the most gracious one you’ve ever encountered? Suppose even that your husband–when you stop for once to look at him, to think about him as a person and as a man–seems to you to be the best man you know?

Tell them.

Tell them now.

Author: Elisabeth Elliot | Source: All That Was Ever Ours