We need to take another look at biblical truthfulness.

In the ’60s, situation ethics gave us a “new morality.” Love, or the loving thing to do, became the standard by which everything could be judged. Translated into a cliché, “It’s all right as long as you don’t hurt anybody.”

But now even that’s too restrictive. We’ve come up with a new moral catchall: “It’s all right as long as you’re honest about it.”

Honesty has become the buzzword of the ’80s, the ultimate criterion of worth. Honesty can transform the most irresponsible behavior into virtue.

Adulterers tired of carrying on secret trysts finally see the light: “Why keep pretending and deceiving? We’ve got to be honest with ourselves and with others.” Solution – they dispose of their respective families and start living in an “honest and open relationship”

Everyone from male strippers to mud wrestlers tries to take comfort in the fact that, “Well, at least I’m honest about it.”

This new honesty implies that people shouldn’t repress anything. Self-control or abstinence is shunned as a form of dishonesty. Pornography thrives under the euphemistic label “sexually frank material.”

Lashing out at your spouse, screaming at your kids – a whole range of behavior previously discouraged – is now sanctified.

“Don’t hide what’s really inside you,” we are urged. “Just be honest about how you feel.”

Teenagers tell their parents, “Studying is just not me.” Women who feel tied down by toddlers suddenly face up to who they are: “I’m not cut out to be a mother.” Honesty has become an easy escape from all of life’s responsibilities.

“Just being myself” is simply a new whitened sepulcher hiding the old bones of selfishness.

The biblical idea of truthfulness stands in sharp contrast. Scripture emphasizes God’s moral claims on our lives: “Your word, O Lord, is eternal; it stands firm in the heavens” (Psa. 119:89, NIV).

The Psalms often present obedience to God’s commands as a privilege. His precepts are described as “more precious than gold” and “sweeter than honey.”

Human nature stubbornly resists these divine requirements, but they cannot be swept aside. Although the apostle Paul grew frustrated by trying to keep the law, he still acknowledged its claims:

“The commandment is holy, righteous and good” (Rom. 7:12). He refused to change God’s expectations to meet his own inadequacy.

Moments of truth in the Bible came when characters recognized their liability and refused to offer convenient excuses. The thief on the cross, for example, realized his accountability in the nick of time: “We are punished justly, for we are getting what our deeds deserve” (Lk. 23:41).

King David experienced a rude awakening when the prophet Nathan exposed his affair with Bathsheba. But David didn’t try to cover up. He openly faced God’s expectations: “Surely you desire truth in the inner parts” (Psa. 51:6).

That kind of honesty is rare today. Few are willing to stand broken before a consistent moral standard. Instead, we try to skirt our obligations and blame our circumstances.

In 1979, a large impatient crowd jammed the west gate of Cincinnati’s Riverfront Stadium. The rowdy, drugged youth waited eagerly to grab good seats for that night’s rock concert.

When the gate finally opened, the crowd surged so fiercely that many were trampled. After the press through the doors slackened, police discovered 11 dead and eight injured.

Later, a Time magazine reporter objected to those who blamed the audience. More thoughtful commentators, he said, pointed to the ticket system. There were not enough entrances and too few reserved seats, security was understaffed, etc.

The fact that a group of young people thought it necessary to trample 11 human beings to death didn’t seem an issue. Moral responsibility dissolved before the inadequacies of the ticket system.

During the reign of King Josiah, moral anarchy flourished. Judah had drifted a long way from God’s covenant. When the Book of the Law was rediscovered and read to the king, he responded with remarkable openness.

Realizing how far he and his people had fallen from God’s ideal, Josiah tore his robes, wept and “humbled himself before the Lord.”

He didn’t blame the ticket system. He didn’t make excuses like, “Look at my morally deprived environment. I can’t help the way I am. This covenant is all new to me.” Josiah accepted the law’s legitimate claims and immediately began to reform Judah.

The Bible doesn’t assume that “the real me” is necessarily true or right. The writers of Scripture were brutally frank about man’s frailty: “Who can say, ‘I have kept my heart pure; I am clean and without sin’?” (Prov. 20:9). “If we claim to be without sin, we deceive ourselves” (1 Jn. 1:8).

The author of Hebrews understood how easily men can fool themselves when “hardened by sin’s deceitfulness” (Heb. 3:13). Peter warned against the “sinful desires, which war against your soul” (1 Pet. 2:11). And Paul exposed his own struggle: “For what I want to do I do not do, but what I hate I do” (Rom. 7:15).

Without such candor, we subject ourselves to all kinds of deception. We start to see the “inner self” as a mystical reservoir of goodness. Instead, many of us could profit from a more honest dependence on the “wisdom that comes from above.”

The greatest spiritual leaders began with a humble admission of their faults. Consider Paul’s open anguish in Romans 7, Luther’s agonized climb up the staircase in Rome and Wesley’s struggle for holiness at Oxford.

Today’s emphasis on being “honest with our feelings” often results in insensitivity toward others. We become more interested in venting our “inner conflicts” than smoothing the outward ones.

Biblical writers were frank in airing their grievances. Paul didn’t pull punches. He didn’t hesitate to blast immorality. But Paul’s letters reveal an important dimension in honesty.

The apostle shared a strong bond with those to whom he wrote. His exhortations always stressed God’s graciousness: “I urge you, brothers, in view of God’s mercy, to present your bodies as living and holy sacrifices” (Rom. 12:1).

The Galatians, Philippians, Thessalonians and others knew Paul was totally committed to them. He had dedicated his life to sharing Christ; he could afford to be frank because those believers knew how much their spiritual well-being mattered to him.

“Out of our intense longing we made every effort to see you,” he wrote (1 Thes. 2:17). Sometimes, he sounded like an anxious father waiting up for his teenage daughter. “When I could stand it no longer, I sent to find out about your faith. I was afraid that in some way the tempter might have tempted you” (1 Thes. 3:5).

Paul’s happiness was bound up in the spiritual health of his people. He told the Thessalonians, “For now we really live, since you are standing firm in the Lord” (1 Thes. 3:8).

The apostle could be perfectly honest because he was completely committed. He didn’t speak just to get things off his chest.

Today, we want relationships with no strings attached. We refuse to be vulnerable and yet we insist on being “honest.”

Our Father God made Himself vulnerable to us by giving His Son into the hands of mere men. The more we immerse ourselves in His Word, the more we’ll become like Him.

Where hostility and promiscuity fester under whitewashed “honesty,” biblical truthfulness can be a potent means of healing.

Clint Ellsom, Moody, July/August, 1983


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