This weekend will mark 499 years since a young monk strolled to the university church in Wittenberg, Germany, and tacked a list of 95 statements to the door intending to start a conversation about abuses in the church.
That man – Martin Luther – had no idea the firestorm that would evolve from his simple writing.
Known as the Reformation, Luther’s ideas were fanned into a flame that spread across Europe and beyond, transforming both the church and society forever.
Luther’s life was changed, as were millions of others, because he acted in concert with his convictions. He lived true to himself.
We’ve all heard the saying “To thine own self be true.” Shakespeare put those words in the mouth of Polonius in his epic play “Hamlet.”
And while the origin of this commendable command is known, there is some disagreement on what the Bard intended it to mean. Some suggest it means we shouldn’t deceive ourselves, but that seems all too obvious to be clever.
Others suggest it underscores the need to take care of one’s self first, and then look to others. But, again, this hardly fits the context.
I offer this theory. To be true to your own self is to act in alignment with your own basic convictions, no matter the circumstances. The whole quote actually speaks about the remedy for hypocrisy as staying true to oneself.
“This above all: to thine own self be true, and it must follow, as the night the day, Thou canst not then be false to any man.”
Hypocrisy is falsehood, pretending to be something other than what you really are. When we go against what we truly believe, we are not only being false to ourselves, but to everyone who is persuaded by our façade.
There is great ethical truth to be found in these lines from Shakespeare.
First, it is important to realize the immoral nature of hypocrisy. To declare we are what we are not is to make falsehood our calling card. Ultimately, this practice is the undoing of relationships in business and society.
Integrity is to human endeavor what guardrails are on the freeway. Integrity keeps us in the lane and prevents us from going over the cliffs of chaos and anarchy.
Truth is the great safeguard of human relationship and civil society.
Second, it is essential to personal wellbeing to stay true to those foundational convictions that have always defined right and wrong.
Putting others before self, doing to others what we would want done to us, telling the truth in every situation, understanding acclaim should follow accomplishment and not precede it, and that honest, hard work is a virtue are just a few of these basic ethical norms.
Everyday situations test us, putting us in positions where we must choose either to be true to ourselves or pursue a hypocritical path for pragmatic reasons.
Here’s the deal: When we choose hypocritical pragmatism we jettison any chance of peace at the end of the day. Even if our hypocrisy allows us to win, deep down we know that we’ve lost something much more precious than we’ve gained.
On the other hand, staying true to yourself, regardless of the outcome, allows you to put your head on the pillow knowing you’ve done what was right. You have remained authentic and sincere to the watching world by refusing to bend your values under the weight of opposition. You’ve acted courageously, stayed strong, and remained true to what you believed was right.
America needs thousands, even millions, of people who will recognize the basic values that make for well-ordered society, then adopt a core ethic based on those values and refuse to abandon their convictions in uncomfortable situations.
Martin Luther stands as a model of biblical convictions lived out in ways that transformed his life and ours as well.
Above all we must to our own selves be true. We must build our lives on the truth of God, and then stand firmly and winsomely for the values that spring from it.
It is imperative for righteousness and nobility to reign in us even as we hold fast to the basics of right and wrong. If we are not true to ourselves it is a certainty no one else will be, and pragmatism will continue to make hypocrisy the rule of the day in America.
David Hegg is senior pastor of Grace Baptist Church and a Santa Clarita resident. “Ethically Speaking” runs Saturdays in The Signal. This column is an updated version of one published Oct. 27, 2013.