The Practice of Truth


Bishop J. Richard Clarke

In the book of John, we read the famous dialogue between Pontius Pilate and Jesus of Nazareth. The Savior was an enigma to the Roman. He asked, “Art thou a king …” Jesus answered, “To this end was I born, and for this cause came I into the world, that I should bear witness unto the truth.” (John 18:37.)

Pilate turned away, asking the question of the ages, “What is truth?” (John 18:38.) He did not wait for an answer. I doubt he expected one. Pilate was aware that “truth” had been a favorite subject for debate by Roman and Greek philosophers for centuries, and remained the quest of philosophy.

It is not my purpose today to discuss truth in the abstract. I would speak of the practice of truth. It is both principle and application.

As William George Jordan taught:

“Truth … as loyalty to the right as we see it; it is courageous living of our lives in harmony with our ideals; it is always—power.

“Truth … defies full definition. Like electricity it can only be explained by noting its manifestation. It is the compass of the soul, the guardian of conscience, the final touchstone of right. Truth is the revelation of the ideal; but it is also an inspiration to realize that ideal, a constant impulse to live it.” (Power of Truth, Salt Lake City: Deseret Book Co., 1935, p. 3.)

As Latter-day Saints, we are committed to the principles of truth. We seek the truth; we believe the truth; and we know the “truth will make us free.” (See John 8:32.) To be genuine disciples, we must have harmony between the principles that we profess and the truths we practice.

We must be like the people of Ammon, who were “distinguished for their zeal towards God, and also towards men; for they were perfectly honest and upright in all things; and they were firm in the faith of Christ, even unto the end.” (Alma 27:27.)

Our souls must be more than “whited sepulchres,” which appear praiseworthy but inside are hollow chambers bereft of goodness. (See Matt. 23:27.) We must not only seem but also be what God would expect of His sons and daughters.

The practice of truth, the acid test of our commitment, is known by many terms—for example, honesty, integrity, uprightness, and probity. I especially like probity. It is taken from the Latin probus, meaning good, and probare—to prove, signifying tried and confirmed integrity. A person who has mastered probity by discipline, until it has become part of his very nature, is like a moral compass which automatically points “true north” under all circumstances. This individual strives for instinctive honesty, acting on impulse toward the right, without having to weigh the merits of advantage or disadvantage.

“[One] who makes Truth his watchword,” wrote Jordan, “is careful in his words, he seeks to be accurate, neither understating nor over-coloring. … What he says has the ring of sincerity, the hallmark of pure gold. … His promise counts for something, you accept it as being as good as his bond, you know that no matter how much it may cost him to verify and fulfil his word by his deed, he will do it.” (Power of Truth, p. 5.)

Perhaps you remember the story told by President N. Eldon Tanner. A young fellow came to him and said, “I made an agreement with a man that requires me to make certain payments each year. I am in arrears, and I can’t make those payments, for if I do, it is going to cause me to lose my home. What shall I do?”

President Tanner looked at him and said, “Keep your agreement.”

“Even if it costs me my home?” the man asked.

President Tanner replied, “I am not talking about your home. I am talking about your agreement; and I think your wife would rather have a husband who would keep his word, meet his obligations, keep his pledges or his covenants, and have to rent a home, than to have a home with a husband who will not keep his covenants and his pledges.” (In Conference Report, Oct. 1966, p. 99.)

I had an interesting experience a few years ago while attending general conference. I went to purchase some merchandise at ZCMI and to cash a check. Being from out of state, I was sent to the cashier. She asked for some identification. I reached into my wallet and took out some credit cards. Inadvertently, my temple recommend came out. The cashier said, “I’ll accept that.” I said, “You’ll accept what?” She said, “Your temple recommend. It’s current, isn’t it?” I said, “Yes, it’s current.” She said, “That will do.”

Well, I pondered that all the way home. I thought, Wouldn’t it be a great idea if we had a Mormon credit card? A card-carrying Mormon could be depended on to keep his word, to be honest with his employers, and to pay his bills as agreed. Then our professionals, tradesmen, and business people would perform without compromising their ethics for profit, each putting his signature on his work with pride; all of us striving for excellence in every way. Wouldn’t it be wonderful to be a “peculiar” people known for our honesty and the quality of our services? The Mormon standard of integrity should be the highest standard in all the world, for we are the covenant people of God. The Lord makes no special concessions for culture, race, or nationality; He expects all His Saints to live according to gospel standards.

I believe for every law of truth we keep, there is a compounding effect. Our character is a complex of coordinated support systems, just like a well-engineered bridge. Each truss, column, or girder contributes to the strength or weakness of the whole structure.

The individual of probity has integrated his virtues into a pattern of consonance, whereas one who practices selective honesty, to fit time and circumstance, is never quite balanced.

General David Shoup, former Commandant of the United States Marine Corps, felt very strongly about consistency in practicing moral values. Commenting upon marines who were untrue to their wives, he said:

“It is not the actual act of adultery that is of so great a concern to me; that’s merely the by-product, so to speak. The vital thing is this: A man who can somehow rationalize breaking the oath he gave before God and man when he repeated the marriage vows, is also a man who could, if he so desired, or when subjected to sufficient pressure, rationalize breaking the oath he took when he became a Commissioned Officer in the United States Marine Corps. A man who can betray his wife and children for lustful purposes is a man who could betray his country for his own ends.”

Brothers and sisters, we often perform below our ideals, but our aim must exceed our grasp if we would rise to a higher standard of integrity. We all have old habits to break and new ones to form. Surely it takes a long time to perfect character, and we probably won’t achieve it totally in this life. But success must be measured by effort and small improvements until we eventually reach our goals. Norman Cousins described integrity as “no luxury for the pious: it is the bread of life for the truly human … for the man who seeks not length of days, but quality of spirit.”

The love for truth and the practice of truth are best learned in the home. The Lord has laid the responsibility with parents to “teach their children to … walk uprightly before the Lord.” (D&C 68:28.) And again, “I have commanded you to bring up your children in light and truth” (D&C 93:40), for “light and truth forsake that evil one.” (D&C 93:37.)

Children gain a love for truth by watching parents practice truth; they learn to emulate noble character. They need models of consistency, not just sermons alone. I believe one of the most important lessons a parent can teach a child is that integrity and honor are not practiced without price. They usually require sacrifice, almost always inconvenience, and often embarrassment.

With the permission of President Jeffrey Holland and his lovely daughter, Mary, I’d like to share their story of several years ago. It is an example of what I have tried to say today—not truth in theory, but truth in action.

Brother Holland begins:

“One night I came home quite late from work. My nine-year-old daughter Mary seemed visibly distressed. … I asked if she felt all right; she nodded that she did; but I guessed otherwise. I waited as she got ready for bed. Sure enough, she walked softly into the living room and said, ‘Daddy, I have to talk to you.’ I held her hand and, as we walked into her bedroom, she started to cry.

“‘I was at Grand Central this morning and saw a ladies’ compact I knew Mother would love. I was sure it was quite expensive, but I picked it up just to admire it.’ More tears and struggle to get it all said: ‘It fell out of my hands onto the floor. I quickly picked it up, but Daddy, the mirror was cracked. I didn’t know what to do! I didn’t have enough money to pay for it, and I was all alone. … I put the compact back on the shelf and left the store. Oh, Daddy, I think I’ve been dishonest.’ And then she wept and wept.

“I held her in my arms as that little nine-year-old body shook with the pain of sin being expelled. She said, ‘I can’t sleep and I can’t eat and I can’t say my prayers. What will I do? I won’t ever get it out of my mind.’

“Well, Mother joined us and we talked quite a while that night. We told her that we were very, very proud of her honesty … and we would have been disappointed if she had been able to eat or sleep very well. I told her … the compact probably wouldn’t cost too much, and that we would go back to the store manager, tell him of the problem, and, between the two of us, cover the cost. If the compact was still there, [perhaps we could] buy it for Mom. That little cracked mirror could be a reminder for as long as she owned it that her little girl was unfailingly honest and spiritually sensitive. …

“The tears gradually stopped, her little body began to relax, and Mary said, ‘I think now I can say my prayers.’” (“The Excellence of the Actors,” unpublished ms., BYU faculty assembly, 1978.)

We have tried to teach our children that the practice of truth is the premier virtue. If they master that great principle, all else will fall into place.

As Jesus of Nazareth was the embodiment of truth, so should we bear witness. We may talk about our religion, we may discuss marvelous manifestations and revealed gifts and powers, we may profess high ideals and noble values; but the proof of our commitment lies in our performance in the daily transaction of our life.

Let us covenant as did Job, even in his extremity: “Till I die I will not remove mine integrity from me.

“My righteousness I hold fast, and will not let it go: my heart shall not reproach me so long as I live.” (Job 27:5–6.)

The Psalmist posed the question: “Lord, who shall abide in thy tabernacle? who shall dwell in thy holy hill?” (Ps. 15:1.)

The answer: “He that walketh uprightly, and worketh righteousness, and speaketh the truth in his heart.” (Ps 15:2.)

In the name of Jesus Christ, amen.