When I was a child, I thought as a child. Sometimes I took things from another child's hand when I wanted it. Once or twice, I took candy from a store. That ended the first time my mother caught me and sent me back to confess and apologize.
It wasn't much, about a penny's worth of thievery.
But is there such a thing as a "little dishonesty"?
Recently, I left the post office with a handful of stamps. Once I had stamped all my manuscripts, I found that I'd been given eight more stamps than I paid for. When I returned to the employee who had sold me the stamps, it took a lot of explaining to make him understand why I was returning them. "Why did you bring them back? No one would've known."
"It's the right thing to do," I explained, suddenly not even sure why I'd made the effort.
But my 12–year–old daughter nodded and smiled at me.
Should we go out of our way to be honest? After all, with the post office situation, I didn't steal the stamps; it was the postal worker who made the mistake. But does my honesty depend on the actions of another?
I can be dishonest. But I choose to be honest. When it's all said and done, how much is my dignity and self–respect worth? The cost of an outdated coupon or rebate on an item I didn't purchase?
It's easy to be honest when we're afraid of getting caught or into trouble. But, if it seems like a "sure thing," it's easy to convince ourselves that we're not being dishonest, someone else just wasn't being careful enough.
Is a lie always a lie?
The best lesson I had on honesty came several years back while on vacation in Wimberley, a charming town in southern Texas. The small square was filled with antique and craft shops. After an hour of shopping, my husband and I stopped for lunch in a café; near the square. I was surprised when a woman entered the restaurant and walked over to our table.
"I'm sorry, but I shorted you on your change," she explained. Then she held out a $1 bill.
I recognized her from a candle shop we'd visited earlier. "But how did you know I'd be here?" I was flabbergasted. She had actually searched the shops to return a dollar. Honesty was very important to her.
On the other hand, a man I know returned a large television set to a department store and was given cash for his return. A month later, he noticed this amount had also been deleted from his credit card bill. He didn't bother contacting his credit card company.
Does God want me to be just a little honest? Or honest only in certain situations? Or only when someone is looking? How much dishonesty is too much? Sometimes I am the only person who knows whether I am being honest in a situation or not.
Do I keep extra change I'm given, cheat on my taxes, ignore the double credit on a credit card statement? Do I tell my daughter that a white lie is still a lie, but a few minutes later tell the police officer that my accelerator got stuck?
When did honesty become an endangered value?
Somewhere that man is proud of the $700 he cheated the department store out of and laughs about it with everyone he knows, even his daughter. Somewhere in Wimberley, Texas, there is a truly honest woman. I rejoice in sharing that story with my daughter.
If given a choice, I hope I'm the latter.
And that's the honest truth.
Kathryn Lay is a writer in Arlington, Texas.
Copyright © 2004 by the author or Christianity Today/Today's Christian magazine.
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