I’ve been reading a great book recently called In Defense of Faith by David Brog. He’s a practicing Jew who outlines just how much the ethic of love has impacted Western Civilization. In it he presents three examples of who he considers great teachers whose ethical teachings are the foundation of modern Judaism and traditional Christianity. Two are famous rabbis, Hillel (circa 10 A.D.) and Akiva (circa 100 A.D.). They both presented what they considered the essence of their faith thus: Don’t do to others what you don’t want done to yourself. Brog presents these rabbis right next to Jesus, who gave us what’s commonly called “The Golden Rule”: “Do to others what you would have them do to you.” In Brog’s mind, these are basically the same command.
I love the book, but do you see the difference between these three? The rabbis he cites give a negative morality: Don’t do X to others if you wouldn’t want X done to you. In contrast, our Lord gives a positive command. Not that the rabbis are totally wrong, but it seems to me a lot easier to avoid doing something bad to someone else as opposed to doing positive good for them. If I see someone in need and don’t do anything for them, I could be following the rabbis’ command to the letter. But Jesus tells me I have to go out of my way to do what I can for them.
Why do I bring this up, and what does it have to do with honesty? Because we tend to think of honesty in terms of negative morality instead of positive responsibilities. If I don’t lie to someone, is that all God requires? Um, no.
Look at today’s passage. We're to “put off falsehood,” in other words stop lying. But we're also supposed to take the next step and “speak truthfully” to our neighbor. That means I don’t leave out something that he needs to know. That means I don’t leave him with a misunderstanding in my favor. That means I don’t “forget” to mention the parts which make me look bad or which undermine the case I’m trying to make.
Before we go further, let me clarify some things. This doesn’t mean that we can’t use tact. We don’t necessarily have to tell everyone everything with no consideration of their feelings. Or if someone tells me something in confidence, then I have to respect that. There also might be hypothetical or extreme cases in which the person asking me something is not deserving of the entire truth, like a Nazi soldier asking me if there are Jews hiding in my house. But in 99.999999999% of the cases, that's not what’s happening. Most of the time I’m leaving something out because it makes me look better to do so.
This virtue of honesty shouldn’t just be in what we say but in how we act. Once again we’re expected to move beyond negative morality to positive action. No, we’re not supposed to steal anymore. Hopefully, it’s just a given that Christians don’t shoplift, or pick pockets, or break into homes and steal peoples’ stuff.
But my Savior wants more from me. It’s not enough that I don’t steal from anyone. I’m supposed to make an honest living in order to help other people.
Quite frankly, I wish sometimes that God’s expectations were lower. It’s hard to go out of my way to help someone else. I don’t usually lie outright, but can I say that I make sure to “speak truthfully”? Hmmmmmm. Something I need to pray about.
Lord Jesus, you are the Truth Incarnate. What do you say? Does my speech and life reflect you? I belong to you. Can everyone see that?