[Please note: ACIM passages quoted in this article reference the Foundation for Inner Peace (FIP) Edition.]
Question: Does the Course say that we should be honest in the conventional sense? I know it talks about honesty as one of the characteristics of God’s teachers, but that seems to mean something different. Since honesty is really about behavior, why would the Course be advocating particular behaviors when the whole realm of behavior is illusory?
Answer: Honesty versus deceit is actually a major theme in the Course. There are sixty references to cognates of “honest” (honest, honesty, honestly) and almost two hundred references to cognates of “deceit” and “deception.” The main focus of these references is self-honesty versus self-deception. The implication is that we are incredibly adept at lying to ourselves. Indeed, undoing all the lies we have told ourselves is the whole aim of the spiritual journey. It is all about admitting the eternal truth which deep down we know but have refused to look at.
If we are supposed to stop lying to ourselves, why should we keep lying to our brothers? Our ego lies to us so that we will unwittingly serve its goals at our expense. And let’s face it, that is why we usually lie to others. When we ponder the philosophical issue of honesty, we tend to think of exceptional examples, such as “Should I say that hard truth which may hurt the other person?” But I think that these are the exceptions. The majority of lies are about preserving our image so that our ego can continue to operate unhindered, regardless of the damage it does. We want to keep others in the dark so that they will unwittingly serve our ego’s goals (or at least stay out of the way), even if it’s at their expense. It’s not very pretty when you really look at it.
When you actually look at that passage in the Manual, it does say that honesty applies “to what you say.” But it goes much further. Let’s look at it:
Honesty does not apply only to what you say. The term actually means consistency. There is nothing you say that contradicts what you think or do; no thought opposes any other thought; no act belies your word; and no word lacks agreement with another. (M-4.II.1:4-6)
Notice that honesty does apply to “what you say,” but it “does not apply only to what you say” (my italics). It applies to so much more. This “more” is given in four segments.
First, “There is nothing you say that contradicts what you think or do.” Your words, in other words, always accurately reflect your thoughts. They also accurately describe your actions. Two places where we particularly want to fudge are honestly admitting our thoughts and honestly reporting our actions. Think about giving up all right to fudge in these respects. Can we even imagine setting the bar for ourselves this high?
Second, “no thought opposes any other.” This is a matter of internal honesty. When one of our thoughts says, “I totally believe in forgiveness,” and then a minute later another thought says, “That guy is such a bastard,” we are really engaging in a kind of dishonesty. We are not really being true to either thought, are we? The only way to stay true to all of our thoughts is for all of them to be in agreement with each other. Again, can we even imagine this?
Third, “no act belies your word.” This obviously implies that you keep your word, you do what you say you will. Otherwise, your act belies—makes a lie out of—your word. This necessarily means not only keeping specific promises—“I’ll be at your house at 8”—but also keeping more general ones—“From now on I am going to be a kind person.” How often do we fail to follow through with our specific promises and our general promises?
Fourth, “no word lacks agreement with another.” Just imagine this. Imagine that things you say at different times always agree with each other, and that things you say to different people agree with each other. You have abandoned the right to slither through tight spots by saying one thing now and another later, one thing to one person, another to somebody else. Are we ready to abandon this right?
Two things strike me about these four items. First, three of them (the first, third, and fourth) involve what you say. In other words, three of them involve plain old honesty.
Second, they leave plain old honesty in the dust. They may start there, but they certainly don’t end there. Instead, they describe what we might call a kind of ultra-integrity, in which everything we say is an honest reflection of all our thoughts, words, and deeds, in which every deed honestly reflects what we said we’d do, and in which even every thought is an honest reflection of all our other thoughts. I have heard it said many, many times that the Course doesn’t ask us to be honest. That suggests, however, that we don’t even need to measure up to conventional standards of honesty. Yet the truth is the exact opposite: the Course asks for something vastly exceeding conventional honesty.
Yes, the Course sets the bar unbelievably high. Yet however unattainable this ideal may seem, I still find it deeply inspiring. When I think about the kind of honesty the Course is talking about, I feel two things. When I think of myself actually embodying this sort of honesty, I feel extremely whole. I feel right with myself, through and through, from the outside all the way in. When I think of being around someone else who has this kind of honesty, I feel extremely safe. Isn’t the deception of others what makes us feel so unsafe around them? When someone is putting on a false front (and we all do), you just never know what you’ll discover behind the front.
In the Course, Jesus exudes the very kind of ultra-honesty he describes here. We can see this throughout, but my favorite place is in a private comment made to Bill Thetford. Bill was slated to teach a class on abnormal psychology that he didn’t want to teach. Jesus, however, was trying to convince Bill that it was a genuine assignment. Then Jesus said:
I promise to attend Myself, and you should at least credit Me with some dependability in keeping My own promises. I never make them lightly, because I know the need My brothers have for trust. (Absence from Felicity, p. 279-280)
May we all strive for such perfect honesty.