“Make yourself an honest man, and then you will be sure there is one rascal less in the world.”
Today I would like to share with you two stories about honesty. I found them in Benjamin Unseth’s “Little Book of Virtues,” titled “Honesty” (1995). They illustrate how challenging this virtue can be for all of us.
The first story took place in the life of Corrie ten Boom during World War II. Early in the Nazi occupation of Holland, the citizens were ordered to turn in all of their radios. Realizing it would look strange if her household produced none at all, Corrie’s family decided to turn in their portable radio but hid the larger, more powerful one under the old twisting staircase.
Corrie’s nephew, Peter, installed the table radio in the stairs and expertly replaced the old boards, while she carried the smaller one down to a large department store where the collection was being made. The army clerk looked at her across the counter and asked the question, “Is this the only radio you own?”
Corrie had known from childhood that the earth opened and the heavens rained fire upon liars, but she met his gaze. “Yes.”
Only as she walked out of the building did she begin to tremble. Not because for the first time in her life she had told a conscious lie, but because it had been so dreadfully easy.
Now we move to China, where the virtue of honesty is illustrated by an old Chinese folktale. Once upon a time there was a boy named Ping. He loved flowers, and every seed he planted grew into a gorgeous flower. The old emperor loved flowers too.
When the time came to choose his successor, he decided to let the flowers make the choice. He invited all the children to come to his palace to receive a special seed. After one year, the child with the most beautiful flower would be chosen to be the next emperor. Ping came with the great crowd of children, and he burst as the emperor handed him a seed.
Ping filled a beautiful pot with the very best soil and carefully planted his seed. He watered it faithfully, but nothing grew. He waited, but nothing grew. He changed the pot, but nothing grew. He tried new soil, but nothing grew. A year passed.
All the children put on their finest clothes and walked to the palace with their beautiful flowers. Ping was ashamed. Other children would laugh at him. His father encouraged him to take his empty pot, for Ping had tried his very best.
When Ping arrived at the palace, the emperor was examining all the incredible flowers, but he was frowning. Ping was embarrassed when the emperor asked him, “Why did you bring me an empty pot?” Through tears Ping answered, “I tried my best.”
The king smiled. “I cooked all your seeds!” he called to the children. “It was impossible for them to grow! This child is the only one worthy of becoming emperor.”
Philosophers debate whether or not we must always tell the truth. These two stories illustrate the challenge. I have often heard that in matters of life and death, the primary value of honoring life overrules the secondary value of telling the truth. May none of us ever have to make that decision, but if I did, I would honor life like Corrie did.
Unfortunately, it is all too easy to alter the truth because the truth is awkward, not because life is at stake.
Then there is the idiom “to be honest with you” or “to be perfectly honest.” When people say that it makes me think they are finally being honest. I don’t think that is usually meant; it just sort of sounds that way.
Emily Dickenson said, “Truth is such a rare thing, it is delightful to tell it.”
Think about it.
Dr. Don Meyer is President of Valley Forge Christian College, Phoenixville, PA
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