We might not often think of it this way, but honesty has two sides – an “outside” and an “inside.” Honesty isn’t just about what we tell others, it is also about what we tell ourselves. In other words, full honesty is not only speaking the truth to others, but also speaking the truth to oneself.
Psychologists know that these are separate activities. We can deceive others while not deceiving ourselves in some situations, but we can also deceive ourselves (while not always deceiving others) at other times. The Bible contains many verses based on this truth. We tend to notice and remember those scriptures which speak about telling the truth on the “outside” – as when the apostle Paul wrote: “… each of you must put off falsehood and speak truthfully to your neighbor …” (Ephesians 4:25), but we may not always notice the distinction when scriptures talk about telling the truth on the “inside.”
Consider an example from the Old Testament. In Psalm 15 David asks the question, “Who can dwell with God?” and begins his answer by saying: “He who walks blamelessly and does what is right and speaks truth in his heart” (Psalm 15:2, emphasis added here and throughout). Although the New International Version translates the final part of this verse as “who speaks the truth from their heart,” the preposition used in the Hebrew Bible means “in,” and this translation is followed by almost all other modern versions (ESV, NKJV, HCSB, NASB, NET, ISV, etc.). The International Standard Version translates this verse with particular clarity: “The one who lives with integrity, who does righteous deeds, and who speaks truth to himself.”
This need to speak truth on the inside is the underlying meaning behind many other scriptures in the Old Testament, such as Psalm 51:6: “Behold, You desire truth in the innermost being …” and Proverbs 23:7: “For as he thinks in his heart, so is he...” (NKJV). But how do we speak honestly to ourselves, or perhaps more precisely, how do we not speak dishonestly on the inside? Here are four points we should keep in mind:
1) Know yourself. We may know it intellectually, but we must continually remind ourselves that the Bible clearly teaches that the mind and its underlying human nature is not intrinsically good (Jeremiah 17:9, etc.). Our first reactions are so often wrong ones, and then our minds may take over to justify them. Speaking truth within ourselves begins with understanding ourselves (Lamentations 3:40, Psalm 19:12).
2) Don’t avoid inner conversations you need to have. We have all heard the words “I don’t want to talk about it” or “I don’t want to think about it,” but speaking truth to ourselves often means not allowing ourselves to avoid the inner working-through we need to do regarding problems we do not want to face. As Christians we know that God often directs our “conscience” through his Spirit (John 16:13), but we cannot speak truth to ourselves or follow the Spirit’s guidance if we are avoiding truthful “conversations” that should occur.
3) Don’t allow divisions between what you say outwardly and inwardly. Whenever we find we are thinking something different from what we are saying out loud, we need to stop and assess the situation carefully. Most of us are deceiving ourselves in small ways every day, and we can only overcome this pattern through constant vigilance. Divisions between what we say and think – outside and inside honesty – create psychological dissonance and put us in the position of being what the Bible calls a “double minded” person (James 1:8; 4:8).
4) Police your personal narrative. We have to separate ourselves from the narrative we construct about why we do what we do if we are to speak to ourselves truthfully and be able to grow and overcome our own nature. This involves not only being conscious of what we’re doing, but also asking ourselves why we’re doing it. Most of us have internalized a number of rationalizations about various aspects of our behavior, but anytime we find ourselves feeling that we are too old, too busy, too sick, too poor, too tired, or anything else that stops us doing what we know we should do, we need to “pull over” our own attitude and examine our own excuses. Likewise, whenever we do what is not right because we feel we owe it to ourselves, others are doing it, it’s only a small sin, we are just weak, or whatever, we need to police ourselves also. Perhaps the greatest part of spiritual growth involves assessing, and if necessary rejecting, our own rationalizations.
Ultimately, learning to speak the truth to ourselves is a never-ceasing process that underlies spiritual growth itself. Being honest with ourselves is a daily, hourly, and even minute-by-minute endeavor, but don’t let that fact ever discourage you – it just means that being honest with ourselves reaps constant, ongoing benefits and rewards.