From the Archives – Hey, I'm Just Being Honest!

We’ve all been there. Someone says something tactless, crass, slanderous—or all of the above, and the justification offered is, “Hey, I’m just being honest. Am I supposed to lie?!” No doubt, some of these “honest” folks are just posturing. But some seem to genuinely confuse the act of speaking one’s mind with the act of speaking honestly.

Yes, honesty, transparency and frankness are related. They share similarities—but so do cream of tartar, flour, and borax. Confusing similar things can have dramatic consequences.

Scripture helps us distinguish between frankness, openness, and honesty and, as a result, better distinguish right from wrong.

Speaking Your Mind

Depending on how we define it, frankness undoubtedly has its place. Miriam-Webster defines “frank” as:

marked by free, forthright, and sincere expression <a frank reply>

By this definition, frankness sounds pretty good. Who’s against forthright and sincere? But considering the matter biblically, it’s the “free” part that creates a problem. Scripture is clear that we should generally not view ourselves as “free” so say whatever we please.

I said, “I will guard my ways, that I may not sin with my tongue; I will guard my mouth with a muzzle, so long as the wicked are in my presence.” (ESV, Psalm 39:1)

A fool gives full vent to his spirit, but a wise man quietly holds it back. (Prov. 29:11)

I tell you, on the day of judgment people will give account for every careless word they speak, (Matt. 12:36)

Even in its most positive sense—speaking courageously and holding back none of what ought to be said—frankness is not the same thing as honesty. One has to do with the manner of speaking and the other has to do with the content.

Openness & Transparency

“Transparency” has taken on the status of an indisputable moral good in our culture, often with positive results. Most serious people take the term to mean something like “making no effort to hide information from those genuinely entitled to it.” Sadly, though, many who use the term seem to mean “you make no effort to hide any of the information I want to get from you,” or perhaps even worse, “I make no effort to hide all the information I think you should know.”

The latter attitude is why the term “oversharing” was invented—along with the much older term, “gossip.” The merits of full disclosure and general nonsneakiness are well known, but Scripture doesn’t encourage us to indiscriminately repeat information about other people or carelessly burden people with every bit of self-information we feel the desire to dump.

Whoever covers an offense seeks love, but he who repeats a matter separates close friends. (Prov. 17:9)

Whoever goes about slandering reveals secrets, but he who is trustworthy in spirit keeps a thing covered. (Prov. 11:13)

Even in their best form—that of diligently providing complete information to parties that ought to receive it—openness or  transparency are not the same thing as honesty. One has to do with how we handle information and the other has to do with its quality.

Communicating Truth

The full Merriam Webster definition of “honest” is worth pondering, though it does reflect some of the sloppiness of our contemporary use of the term.

1 a :  free from fraud or deception :  legitimate, truthful <an honest plea> b :  genuine, real <making honest stops at stop signs — Christian Science Monitor> c :  humble, plain <good honest food>

2 a :  reputable, respectable <honest decent people> b chiefly British :  good, worthy

3 :  creditable, praiseworthy <an honest day’s work>

4 a :  marked by integrity b :  marked by free, forthright, and sincere expression :  frank <an honest appraisal> c :  innocent, simple

The Oxford Concise English Dictionary is probably better.

1 free of deceit; truthful and sincere.

  • earned fairly through hard work: an honest living.
  • (of an action) well intentioned even if misguided: an honest mistake.

2 simple and unpretentious: good honest food with no gimmicks.

Though Scripture does not encourage unrestrained handling of information, it strongly urges us toward honesty—toward communication and conduct that does not intentionally mislead others.

You shall have just balances, just weights, a just ephah, and a just hin: I am the Lord your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt. (Lev. 19:36)

These are the things that you shall do: Speak the truth to one another; render in your gates judgments that are true and make for peace; (Zech. 8:16)

Therefore, having put away falsehood, let each one of you speak the truth with his neighbor, for we are members one of another. (Eph. 4:25)

Exceptions?

It’s true that the Bible describes a couple of occasions when God seems to have authorized someone to deceive someone else. 1 Samuel 16:2 may be the only case where God directly instructs someone in this way, as he tells Samuel what to say to Saul. Various explanations have been offered and positions taken on the passage, and the ethical implications are important. But it may be more edifying here to note something simpler: these apparent moments of sanctioned deception stand out precisely because they’re not normally how God’s servants behave. That sort of cleverness isn’t supposed to be our way of life.

In Saul’s case, perhaps the point was that he had forfeited his right to receive the truth, much as Jesus’ enemies forfeited the right to be given clear answers to their questions (Luke 20, Luke 8:9-10). In both cases, we see atypical responses to individuals seeking information.

And when his disciples asked him what this parable meant, 10 he said, “To you it has been given to know the secrets of the kingdom of God, but for others they are in parables, so that ‘seeing they may not see, and hearing they may not understand.’” (Luke 8:9–10)

Mom’s Wisdom

In the end, the ages-old wisdom of countless moms everywhere is not a bad summary of the biblical teaching: “Always tell the truth, but the truth don’t always tell.” It’s wisdom because not everybody ought to know every truth, and not every time is the right time to reveal truth.

To make an apt answer is a joy to a man, and a word in season, how good it is! (Prov. 15:23)

Our culture tends to assume that if inquiring minds want to know, they deserve to know. Many are willing to see the likes of Julian Assange and Edward Snowden as heroes. But what ought to be obvious is that desire to have information does not equal entitlement to information any more than desire for the contents of my bank account equals entitlement to empty it (such as it is!).

Determining what information is rightly shared or withheld under what conditions can be complex and difficult. Much depends on relationships, spoken and unspoken commitments, contractual obligations, and legitimate authority.

But saying whatever we happen to feel like saying, without regard for the help or harm that results, is not “just being honest.” And there’s nothing complex or difficult about that.

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