There is an old joke about a husband and wife who were visiting a cemetery. As they placed flowers on the grave of a loved one, they noticed a marker a few feet away. Under the name of the deceased the inscription read, “A lawyer and an honest man.” The husband spoke up, “Look, Dear! Two men buried in the same grave!”
It is a sad fact that the noble practice of law has fallen into such ill repute that negative characterizations about it are now commonplace. It is sad because such characterizations or generalizations are often based in truth.
A college classmate transferred from a state university where he had enrolled to study law. In a class about legal ethics a professor taught his students that all available means should be employed to protect a client. My friend asked, “What if you know your client to be guilty? Can you refuse the case? Should you encourage your client to confess and take responsibility?” The professor responded sternly, “In the practice of law, guilt and innocence are irrelevant!” Such a philosophy was incompatible with my friend’s Christian conscience regarding honesty. He withdrew from that school and changed his career choice.
Abraham Lincoln said, “If in your judgment, you cannot be an honest lawyer, resolve to be honest without being a lawyer. Choose some other occupation rather than one in the choosing of which you do, in advance, consent to be a knave.”
This is not to suggest that it is impossible to be an honest attorney. Thankfully there are many lawyers like “Honest Abe” himself who are guardians, not only of the law, but of the truth.
My friend chose instead to enter the gospel ministry. But here too he found strong temptation to dishonesty.
Although the Bible repeatedly stresses the importance of pleasing God more than people, the pressure to please the crowd abides. Truth from the pulpit is not always welcome. The teaching of Scripture on eternal retribution, divorce and remarriage, and numerous other matters can be softened or even denied through avoidance. And who is the wiser?
There is the constant necessity to be interesting in the pulpit. Being creative and original one hundred times a year, year after year is not easy. Many times preachers embellish events or claim the experiences of others as their own. Boldfaced liars are rare in the pulpit. But a subtle disregard for the truth is, unfortunately, not uncommon.
There is the ever present temptation to pride which fathers dishonesty. For instance, the dangerous admiration of numbers may entice a pastor to overstate attendance figures. It also lures many to employ means to actually increase attendance at the expense of principle and the spiritual vitality of the congregation. Honesty demands that a church be evaluated not by shear mass but by spirit.
Few outside the pastorate appreciate the multitudinous social expectations that are placed on the minister. “Do you remember me?” a visitor asks the pastor, who has no recollection of a prior meeting. “Do you like the baby’s name?” “Did you pray for me like I asked?”
Of course, dishonesty is not limited to the practice of law or the gospel ministry. It is found in every occupation, from the merchant altering measurements and accounts, to the hourly worker falsifying his time card or not giving full effort, to the school boy cheating on a test.
One preacher appealed (without exaggeration) “Brethren be honest! Though the heavens fall, be honest!”
The Decalogue forbids bearing false witness. The Law of Moses later reinforces this prohibition, “Ye shall not steal, neither deal falsely, neither lie one to another.” (Lev. 19:11) The New Testament commands, “Speak every man truth with his neighbor.” (Eph. 4:25) There is no such thing as “a little white lie.” As followers of Christ Who said of Himself, “I am the truth,” of all people, Christians, in every occupation, in every situation, ought to be honest.