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 only 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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There are 9 Comments

TOvermiller's picture

Thank you for this common sense, principled reminder. Every time I speak, my words are doing things. Bad words do bad things, and good words do good things. My words either discourage or encourage the person I address. They either damage them or build them up. I need to give more thought to what God desires to accomplish through my words, rather than freely speaking my mind carte blanche. Whether or not a possible statement is fact is only one factor to consider before I speak.

I wake up. I think thoughts. I do things. And I talk to people. That is my day. But what am I doing when I talk to people. Now that is a very important question.

Thomas Overmiller
Pastor | www.studygodsword.com
Blog & Podcast | www.shepherdthoughts.com

TylerR's picture

Editor

There does seem to be a line somewhere between being "brutally honest" and being honest, but tactful - perhaps better, being truthful without being needlessly offensive in the process. This very idea takes courage. I'm thinking of a Pastoral context. This kind of tactful honesty takes courage. In our reactionary and generally wimpy society, any amount of honest, polite but firm disagreement will usually get you into trouble. The tendency for Pastors, I believe, is to react by avoiding any potential honest disagreements.

I remember one lady at my old church, who I now suspect has never been regenerated, asked me my opinion of John "Blood Moon" Hagee's book about, well . .  blood moons. I told her that Hagee's book was blasphemous and dangerous. She was visibly shocked. She was angry. She was not happy with me. I told her the book was rife with errors, misstatements, and outright dangerous theology.

Was I being too honest without being tactful? I tried to be tactful, but at some point the tap-dancing needs to stop and the bare facts have to come out. I personally think she was angry because she wasn't really looking for a critical opinion.

Good article! I could say more (and make more comments more clear), but I must dash . . .

Tyler is a pastor in Olympia, WA and an Investigations Manager with a Washington State agency. He's the author of the book What's It Mean to Be a Baptist?

TOvermiller's picture

Tyler, I agree. Aaron's article and your comment reminded me of a two-part sermon I preached from James 3:13-19 a while ago. Today I revisited that study and posted both parts here in modified text form: Wisdom from Below and Wisdom from Above. Here's a directly related thought from the second study:

This is not the person who says, well I just speak my mind. That makes me an honest person! Well, maybe it makes you honest, but it doesn’t make you wise. Again, the point James is making here is that a wise person will not speak his mind if what is on his mind is wrong, or tainted with the wrong attitude or by the wrong behavior! Sincerity is more than just speaking your mind. That’s the best that low-level, earthly wisdom can offer in the name of honesty. But divine wisdom speaks its mind and what comes out when that happens is good things.

Thomas Overmiller
Pastor | www.studygodsword.com
Blog & Podcast | www.shepherdthoughts.com

Bert Perry's picture

I had a fun one with this with my kids last night--most of their cross country team got PRs, and I had the fun task of balancing "great job, kids" with "if everybody got a PR, then it's likely that the course wasn't just flat, but short."  What made it a lot easier is that almost everyone just ran a great race--you could just see it in their eyes.

Aspiring to be a stick in the mud.

Aaron Blumer's picture

EditorAdmin

Much depends on what your default tendencies are. I'll admit to being generally conflict-averse and preferring to avoid confrontations. As a pastor, though, this was more helpful than not. The reason is that if you stay in a ministry for a decade or more, you usually get more than one opportunity to teach someone--and it's only logical that if I'll get six times to personally chat w/this person when their interest is piqued, why should I burn all six in our first exchange? (By basically poisoning the other five)

On the other hand, if I offend someone right off the bat and have a decade... I might win back a few of the lost opportunities.

Round about way of saying:

  • If your tendency is to be reserved and peace-loving, it's easy to justify a lack of courage in the name of tact and patience
  • If your tendency is to take the bull by the horns, it's easy to justify hasty brashness in the name of courage

Whichever way you tilt, it's worth it to try to get familiar with that tilt and compensate.

I'll point this out though: there are not so many passages warning about the risks of being silent or overly tactful.

A point I may not have successfully made in this piece is that a person who says less and discloses less is not less "honest" than a person who says more. Honesty has nothing to do with the quantity of information. It has to do whether the information is true and our intent is to provide true knowledge or our intent is to deceive. This is independent of the quantity of words that pass our lips or pens or keyboards.

TylerR's picture

Editor

I'm inclined towards blunt honesty. After going through a rather bruising few years at my last Pastorate, I'm even more inclined that way. I could have saved myself some trouble if I'd not tried so hard to be a peacemaker, holding two irreconcilable factions together The die would have been cast long ago, and it would have been clear we needed to move on long before we eventually did. We could have saved everybody some trouble:

  1. my family would have been spared
  2. the unsaved "cultural Christians" in the congregation would have been happy to be rid of me, and
  3. the actual Christians could have left and found a good church sooner than they did. 

We're each shaped by our experiences. I trend towards brutal honesty anyway, and my recent experiences has only reinforced my idea that frankness and openness is the better policy all the way around. That doesn't mean I'm not polite and or tactful to a certain extent. It just means that I've (temporarily?) lost the ability and willingness to tap-dance around contentious issues.  

Tyler is a pastor in Olympia, WA and an Investigations Manager with a Washington State agency. He's the author of the book What's It Mean to Be a Baptist?

Aaron Blumer's picture

EditorAdmin

Being "post-pastoral" myself now, I've had lots of opportunity to post-mortem... about a whole lot of things. I can certainly identify with the "well, that didn't work" point of view. But in most cases I have to acknowledge that I don't really know that doing A differently or B differently would have had different results. My pastorate did not end with "church problems"--the church and everyone in it was very good to us. So the situation is different. Still, looking back always has that hazard: too quickly thinking that "if I only I'd done this or that differently" things would turned out this way rather than that way.

But alternate histories are like the future. We don't really know.

In any case, when it comes to interacting with people, results are not the only standard. They definitely matter.. edification is a result and what we do is supposed to edify. But it's not 100% about results.

There's a golden rule factor here, also. How do I want people to talk to me? What I always want to do--though don't always succeed--is convey respect (in some cases, you can convey all day but it will not be be perceived). A major factor in that is that I want people to convey that when they're talking to me.

But we're all different so there's no precise formula. Some of us are tough, thick skinned, and so we want to communicate with others as though they were as well. Others of us are sensitive and a bit thin skinned and so we ought to try to communicate with others as though they were as well. Probably the biggest offenders are the thin skinned, oversensitive types who nonetheless think everyone else should be tough as nails and take their criticism with more patience than Job!

... "rebuke" is not the main communication verb in the epistles, but it is there and has its place in our interactions. Maybe it works best when used least. (But yes, there is a space between being overly diplomatic and rebuking. Some have the gift of being simultaneously blunt and gentle. I don't know how they do it!)

Bert Perry's picture

I've never been a vocational pastor (leading a youth group doesn't quite count), but having been through a couple of bruising times when I had to leave a church for the sake of my family and my sanity, and it has also pushed me to be a little more blunt about problems.  Not trying to be rude, but I simply don't let things slide as much anymore.  

Aspiring to be a stick in the mud.

Richard Dayton's picture

It is vital to our testimony that we are honest and dependable, that our speech is factually correct. It is also important to "speak the truth in love."  My wife had an expression she shared often with those she supervised : "Think before you speak, but do not speak everything you think."  If our words do not edify, and merely release our own pressure, they are not constructive and conducive to good discussion.

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