To be a good person, do you have to always be truthful?
The Baha’i teachings suggest that no matter what those around us do, every individual has the responsibility to take charge of their own spiritual wellness:
Each human creature has individual endowment, power and responsibility in the creative plan of God. Therefore, depend upon your own reason and judgment and adhere to the outcome of your own investigation; otherwise, you will be utterly submerged in the sea of ignorance and deprived of all the bounties of God. – Abdu’l-Baha, The Promulgation of Universal Peace, p. 292.
Trying to be an honest person in a culture that increasingly accepts lying as a natural or necessary part of human behavior might seem idealistic. People question why someone would even try to be honest when so many around them lie. But in taking care of our spiritual selves, the Baha’i writings assert that telling the truth supports all of our development:
Truthfulness is the foundation of all human virtues. Without truthfulness progress and success, in all the worlds of God, are impossible for any soul. When this holy attribute is established in man, all the divine qualities will also be acquired. – Abdu’l-Baha, quoted by Shoghi Effendi in The Advent of Divine Justice, p. 22.
When I first read that quote I wondered, why? What makes truthfulness so much more important than being generous, kind, creative, humble, or any of the other praiseworthy things that so many people strive for? As I reflected more deeply on honesty and truthfulness, I began to realize at least three important reasons why truthfulness precedes all other beautiful human qualities.
1. A Foundation Strengthens What We Build on It
We all know people who aren’t always truthful, although they may have other really great qualities. Some might be compassionate, and lie in an effort to protect the feelings of others. Others may be extremely generous but struggle with confrontation, and lie to avoid conflict.
Without a strong foundation, any building risks crumbling to the ground. Every building – and everyone – needs a strong base to maintain its integrity.
2. Without Truth, We Compromise Other Virtues
Dishonesty taints almost any virtue. A few examples:
If I am generous but not truthful, I might offer generosity with a hidden agenda. If I only give because I hope I will receive something in return, is it true generosity?
If I am kind but not truthful, I might show an unhealthy and unproductive semblance of love – especially when I don’t know how to be kind when someone offends me, does something wrong, or asks me something uncomfortable. Is it true kindness if I can’t navigate hard conversations while also showing real love for another person?
If I am disciplined but not truthful, I might focus on pursuing my own goals and deceive others in the process. If I practice dishonest discipline, I could easily wind up hurting people around me.
3. Love Requires Truthful Communication
The Baha’i teachings say that “In the world of existence there is indeed no greater power than the power of love.” – Abdu’l-Baha, Paris Talks, p. 179.
The love that weaves the fabric of our society together comprises an action, and not just a feeling. True love demands honesty with ourselves and with one another. When we lie to ourselves, we put ourselves in potentially harmful situations, ignoring our intuition. When we lie to the people we love, we shatter trust. They don’t know what part of us is reliable and genuine and which is not. This creates insecurity, stifles joy, and pulls us apart. When we lie, we don’t give others a chance to see us as vulnerable, imperfect, and relatable beings. We rob each other of the opportunity to forgive and to practice empathy.
To love one another properly and act as a force of good in each others’ lives, we might have to learn how to be honest even when it seems hard. To develop the muscle of honesty, practice truthfulness in the small actions of everyday life. Rather than dismissing small white lies as acceptable, we can learn how to be tactful while also staying truthful. If we do this, then we will probably find it a lot easier to be truthful, even in the face of high stakes.