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Honesty—the best policy?

It is better to be poor and honest than rich and crooked. — Proverbs 28:6

“Honesty is the best policy” is a well-known aphorism. But it does not convey what Richard Whately, the Archbishop of Dublin, actually meant. The complete quotation is as follows: “Honesty is the best policy; but he who is governed by that maxim is not an honest man.” In the Archbishop’s mind, to say “Honesty is the best policy” is to speak from a purely pragmatic point of view, not necessarily to be guided by the principle that honesty is intrinsically right and dishonesty is innately wrong!

It is true that “honesty is the best policy” can be nothing more than a hard-nosed, calculating conclusion. The person who believes it may not be making a moral statement at all, and he may even be ready to engage in dishonest behavior if he thinks it will pay dividends. That is how a fundamentally dishonest man can subscribe to the idea that “honesty is the best policy.”

Proverbs says, “It is better to be poor and honest than rich and crooked” (Proverbs 28:6). This is not to suggest that all the poor are honest or that all the rich are crooked. But, all things being equal, being crooked has been known to lead to economic advantage, and being honest has at times been a financial disadvantage.

The point at issue, however, is that the advantages gained by dishonesty demand a heavy price from the dishonest man. That price is the disturbance of conscience, the fear of disclosure, the compounding of the problem by cover-up and further lies, and the ultimate accounting to God. The honest man pays no such price; while he may be financially impoverished, he is morally rich.

Dishonesty in financial dealings is robbery, and dishonesty in business is arrogance. What could be more arrogant than the attitude of the liar who lies to gain advantage and says, in effect, “You do not deserve the truth and I am the one who determines what you deserve”?

Dishonesty in the marriage bond, though, is destruction. The adulterer uses the body of his paramour without thought for her person and destroys her self-esteem. He abuses the love of his wife without thought for her heartbreak and destroys her ability to trust. It is fundamentally wrong!

The honest man will pay his taxes and be poorer, will deal fairly in business and may miss a deal, and will be true to his wife and never taste forbidden fruit. But he will know that in the eyes of his God he did right, that he did not contribute to the “moral rot” (28:2) of his society, and he did not lead “the upright into sin” (28:10). For him, it is not a matter of pragmatic policy; it is a matter of spiritual integrity.

For further study: Proverbs 28:1-13

Content taken from The One Year Book of Devotions for Men by Stuart Briscoe. Copyright ©2000. Used by permission of Tyndale House Publishers. All rights reserved.