Why honesty actually is the best policy

Warm-Up: Matthew 5:33-37

This post on honesty is part of a series about living as Salt and Light and based on the Sermon on the Mount. See other posts in the series in How to be a Light in the World.

If you’ve been tracking this series, you’ve probably noticed a pattern:

  1. Jesus identifies an Old Testament law,
  2. He explains the modern interpretation of that law,
  3. Jesus reveals that our understanding of the law is shallow and exists to make us feel better about our sin,
  4. He explains the heart of the law, thus revealing how far short we are of it’s true standards,
  5. Jesus calls us to live to a higher standard, according to the heart of the law, empowered through his grace.

The Problem with Oaths

The 10 Commandments speak against both using the Lord’s name in vain and bearing false witness (lying). In the days of Jesus, people took countless oaths. “I swear in the name of God” or “I swear upon the Holy city of Jerusalem” or “I swear by the hairs of my own head.”

Most people agreed that you should speak truthfully when swearing to God, because He might curse you if you went against the oath. The pharisees, however, had a long list of oaths you could make that weren’t as important to speak honestly. For instance, if you swore on Jerusalem and broke the oath, no big deal, city walls can’t hurt you.

Jesus, however, reminds us of two things: First, because God created all things and owns all things (including his city, Jerusalem, as well as the hairs on our head), all oaths are still before God. We shouldn’t break any of them.

Secondly, however, he reminds us to “Let what you say be simply ‘Yes’ or ‘No’; anything more than this comes from evil.” In other words, the only reason you would need to make an oath is because people can’t trust you. People know your “yes” doesn’t always mean “yes,” and so they require an oath to God or something else you hold special. Furthermore, if you don’t make an oath you might be tempted to not be honest, which is a problem.

The Destructive Force of Poor Integrity

There is a commonly held belief in the corporate world that you can “stretch the truth” in order to get ahead. Claim someone else’s work as your own, take credit for an idea, hide a little bit of loss for a few months, etc. If you want to be successful, you’ve got to do what you’ve got to do, right?

Well, no.

When businesses, organizations, or governments demonstrate poor integrity, everyone connected suffers. While it may temporarily get you ahead, ultimately it can cause your demise and hurt others significantly.

The classic example of this is Enron. I was in middle school when the scandal erupted, and even though I was a bit young to understand what was going on, I knew it was bad.

Basically, Enron was one of the largest and most successful corporations on the planet – at least that is what everyone thought. Turns out, they had been hiding their losses for several years and pretending to turn profits when they were actually losing money. When the truth came out, their stock value dropped from $90.56 to $0.26 in a few months.

enron photo

Photo by hanneorla

The executives, of course, had cashed out their stock before the drop while employees were not allowed to sell out of their retirement funds. Countless employees lost their retirement savings, while the people who were responsible for the collapse kept theirs – that is, until the criminal investigations started. Executives and others involved in the fraud were convicted and sentenced to jail time and in some cases were forced to pay the employees who lost everything.

In the end, stretching the truth destroyed the company, sent several people to jail, and cost thousands of people their jobs and savings.

How Integrity/Honesty Propel things forward

If you truly want to propel things forward as a society and grow in your career, then “Let what you say be simply ‘Yes’ or ‘No’.” Here are a few benefits to living a life of integrity:

  1. People can and will rely on you – no one wants to give a task to someone who won’t deliver, but if you’re known for your integrity, then others won’t hesitate to ask for your help or ownership on a job or task.
  2. Things will happen more quickly – when there is no need to make 7 different types of oaths and vows before something gets started, things happen more quickly. “Dave, do you agree to do this?” “Yes.” “Great. Let’s go!”
  3. It costs less – When you can’t trust people, the cost of doing business is much higher. I heard a story about an organic milk farmer in England. He simply had a fridge with milk and you showed up and paid into the honesty box. A dishonest person might take all the milk and money from the honesty box and think they won, but in the long run they’d lose. The milk farmer would have to hire a salesperson and security and that would drive the cost of the milk up, and in the long run it would cost more for everyone (including the thief).milk photo
  4. It supports teamwork – ever tried working with someone you don’t trust? It’s not easy. Honesty, however, builds strong teams who work together to achieve results that individuals cannot.
  5. It’s less work – When I proposed marriage to my wife, I wanted it to be a surprise. I had a huge web of lies going, and it was super stressful and difficult. Keeping your lies straight is hard work – honesty is simply easier!
  6. It brings light into dark places – one of my favorite compliments in my career has been about having integrity. Honesty is not as common as you think in the workplace, and when you demonstrate total integrity, people will notice and be encouraged. Some may seek to take advantage of you, but ultimately, they’ll lose like the Enron executives or the milk thief.

In the end, most people think honesty and integrity are good things. However, we are all tempted to lie or stretch the truth in order to get personal gains. But Jesus reminds us of the standard – we are commanded to tell the truth (and nothing but the truth!).

The truth allows us to be a light in dark places, helps prevent bad things happening to ourselves and others, and propels society forward. So let’s be honest with ourselves, with others, and with God.

Photo by thinkpublic

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