I've come to believe that the most difficult virtue to acquire is honesty, and the hardest thing to speak is the truth.
Dishonesty in politics, religion, advertising, business, and social issues is so prevalent that we have become jaundiced and take deception for granted. Diogenes' lamp burns and still he searches for an honest man.
My dictionary defines honesty as "truthfulness, sincerity, freedom from deceit." A more in-depth look at honesty insists that honesty and dishonesty flow from one's intention.
A man could be telling the truth but if his intention is to deceive, he is dishonest. A woman could speak a falsehood but if she truly believes what she is saying and intends to tell the truth, she is nonetheless being honest.
Would it not follow then that honesty is devotion to the truth?
During his trial, Jesus told Pontius Pilate that he had come to testify to the truth. In a response jaundiced by years of military and political intrigue, Pilate asked with sarcasm, "What is truth?"
Had he been at the Last Supper, Pilate would have heard Jesus' unsettling claim, "I am the way and the truth and the life." In his defense Jesus explained, "Everyone who belongs to the truth listens to my voice."
A mystic of the Middle Ages, Meister Eckhart, proposed that "only the hand that erases can write the true thing." I think he meant that to be honest one must assess and re-assess what he says in order to convey the truth.
Poet/novelist Stephen Crane addressed the difficulty and fear that accompany one's search for the truth:
Perceiving the pathway to truth
Was struck with astonishment.
It was thickly grown with weeds.
"Ha," he said,
"I see that none has passed here
"In a long time."
Later he saw that each weed
Was a singular knife.
"Well," he mumbled at last,
"Doubtless there are other roads."
I think he recognized two things: truth is rare, and it is intimidating to pursue it.
If then I am correct that honesty is devotion to the truth, it follows that Christians can best acquire the virtue by devotion to Christ: "The truth will make you free...I am the truth...Learn from me, for I am meek and humble of heart!"
And yet our pursuit of truth, even in and with Christ, is a slow trek. Seldom is it discovered at first glance, and impatience often curtails the chase. It is easier to accept another's word as truth than it is to engage in a personal, dogged quest for it.
I suspect this failure to research the truth and make it a personal discovery accounts for the apathy and infidelity of many Christians. Catechism answers may be sufficient for children, but adults need more. Unexamined truth is seldom convincing in the face of pressure.
Fundamentalists will cry "Foul!" They will insist that one must accept a truth as true simply because an authority has said it. Fundamentalists seek security. Faith-filled people, however, wrestle with the truth --they probe it, test it, and confirm it. Faith by its very nature is risky, and it is in the investigation of truth that it becomes truly believable and binding.
Jacob wrestled with God; that is why he is called Israel. Jesus wrestled with his Father; that is why he could say, "As you will, not as I will it." Countless saints have gone into the wilderness and struggled with confusion and doubt; that is why they are saints.
The Church no longer decrees that error has no rights. It is the freedom to be wrong that leads to the assurance of truth. How many discoveries and inventions came only after long periods of trial and error.
The hero in Morris West's The Heretic put it well: "I claim no private lien on the truth, only a liberty to seek it, prove it in debate, and to be wrong a thousand times to reach a single rightness."
It is the virtue of honesty that promotes the pursuit of truth and protects the pursuer from heresy. It questions without fear because it always seeks the truth. Authority has its place in proposing truth, but no authority can absolve a rational being from being honest. Honesty imposes the obligation of probing the truth and making it one's own.
I've come to believe that honesty is the most difficult virtue to acquire, and the hardest thing to speak is the truth.