“Honesty is more than not lying. It is truth telling, truth speaking, truth living, and truth loving.” —James E. Faust
To be honest, honesty has become harder for me as I’ve grown older. In elementary school, all my teachers would say, “Honesty is the best policy.” My Sunday school teachers every year emphasized the ninth commandment: “Thou shall not bear false witness” (Exodus 20:16 KJV). This indoctrination’s effect on my childhood was to grant me permission to say what I was thinking and how I felt all the time without much regard for the person I was talking to, the tone I used, or the nature of the situation.
Since being honest in all situations was prized in these important institutions as the mark of a person with great integrity, I figured that my abrasive truth-telling—“just telling it like it is”—meant I was a good person. I wasn’t like Pinocchio! (Well, to be truthful, at least most of the time I wasn’t like Pinocchio. If I absolutely had to tell a lie or use deceit, I was thankful that my lies weren’t exposed with an involuntary reaction from my body.)
Around middle school, learning about being nice and using tact took away the bite of the unfiltered candor of my youth. I developed tact over time. I learned how to consider my words and tone, and their appropriateness for the context in which I found myself. This skill enabled me to navigate conversations with diverse groups of people, for which I feel blessed.
But alongside the blessing afforded me with this skill came a problem. The unintentional side effect of tact is its potential to blur the lines of authenticity for the sake of appeasing others. There were moments when my message got lost while being diplomatic, leaving me to wonder later, “Was that me?”
At school or at work, plenty of interactions involved pieces of authenticity being sacrificed so as not to offend another person. Other encounters encouraged me to present my best self, even if I wasn’t at my best (yet), so that people could relate to me and walk away thinking, “That’s a good person!”
So in light of my own experience, I can understand Ananias and Sapphira. Their story is found in Acts 5. This couple has been imprinted in Bible history as greedy and evil, but I think it’s too easy to caricature them in this way. We miss something important from their lives if we avoid seeing our humanity in their story. The better way to view this couple is to see them as one of us—to see ourselves as Ananias and Sapphira.
Both Ananias and Sapphira wanted to show their fellow believers their best selves—their most generous selves. Following the example set by Barnabas (Acts 4:37) and others, Ananias sold his land with the intention that he would give money from the sale to the apostles, who would then distribute it for anyone who had need. Before Ananias offered the money from the sale, there was an understanding between him and his wife, Sapphira, that part of the profit would be withheld for themselves.
While we don’t know whether this understanding was spoken or implied, we do know that Ananias went along with the pretense that his offering included all the profits he received from the sale of his land. But he only laid a portion of the profits from the sale as an offering at the apostles’ feet.
Despite Ananias’ gesture of deference, Peter called him out for his deceitfulness. Pay attention to this: Ananias wasn’t rebuked for how much he gave or withheld. Peter called Ananias out for the deceptive front he put on before the assembly. Peter reminded Ananias that nobody forced him to sell his land; he chose to do it. No one demanded that he give all his profits to the apostles; he was free to stand by his choice to withhold a portion of the profits for his household. Peter asks Ananias why he would be deceitful and informs him that he lied to God when he chose to lie to his fellow believers.
When Peter later asked Sapphira about the offering, Sapphira continued the pretense by saying that the money offered was indeed all the profits from the sale of the land.
Ananias and Sapphira each fell down and died after they were confronted with their deceit. Again, their sin was not in keeping a portion of their profits. Their sin was that they weren’t honest. They withheld honesty before God to gain approval from their peers. God, who hates deceit (Prov. 6:17), would have been honored with their honest offering even if fellow believers would have been less than impressed because they didn’t give everything. The natural desire for a favorable assessment from our peers can rob us of experiencing the freedom of being genuine before God every time we lean toward deceit.
When we lie, we die. Not literally, perhaps, but when authenticity is sacrificed a part of us is struck dead, even if we’re not caught in our deceit. The Spirit of God is quenched within us because God hates lies, even well-intentioned ones. Though there are biblical stories in which deceit seems to be interpreted in a favorable light, God—who is righteous—declares hatred toward lying. That’s part of the nature of God we all inherited, because we hate lies, too—except perhaps when they benefit us through approval or material gain.
If we’re honest, we know we need God’s grace every day to be authentic in our living. None of us wants to assume a reputation of holiness without living the reality of it. We desire honesty because honesty leads us to the truth that sets us free: You’re a mess, and so am I. Don’t be offended; I’m just telling it like it is! 1 John 1 reminds us we must be honest about ourselves. If we claim to be without fault (sin), we deceive ourselves, and the truth is not in us (v. 8).
Yet it is by grace that we are saved, and this is not from ourselves, it is the gift of God (Eph. 2:8). Thanks be to God! Through the power of the Holy Spirit, we can live honest lives and overcome the lure to aggrandize ourselves or appease others. By remaining honest about ourselves before God, we can stand firm in our authenticity before others.
If Ananias and Sapphira were honest, they would have acknowledged that their offering was what they were willing and able to give cheerfully. Their offering would still be acceptable before God and others, even if it didn’t measure up to Barnabas’ level of generosity. Their lives would not have been cut short and infamized in scandal.
Consider these words from Francesca Battistelli’s song “If We’re Honest”:
Truth is harder than a lie
The dark seems safer than the light
And everyone has a heart that loves to hide . . .
Bring your brokenness, and I’ll bring mine . . .
‘Cause love can heal what hurt divides
And mercy’s waiting on the other side
If we’re honest
If we’re honest
May we learn from Ananias and Sapphira and renew our commitment to live honestly before God and humanity.
Kayla Alphonse is pastor of Miami First Church of the Brethren in Atlantic Southeast District, a member of Annual Conference Standing Committee, and serves on the Church of the Brethren’s Compelling Vision Process Team. She and her husband, Ilexene, have also done work with L’Eglise des Freres Haitiens (the Church of the Brethren in Haiti).