Thinking and writing about human virtues is a time-honored tradition.1 Plato suggested that every human being ought to possess the four cardinal virtues of prudence, temperance, courage, and justice. Buddha embraced the need to renounce the world. Various Bible writers also listed virtues that God’s followers should manifest in their lives. For example, Paul urged the Corinthians to seek the virtues of faith, hope, and, above all else, love.
History has demonstrated, however, that humans are not content with virtue lists from the past. What Plato and Paul urged as central virtues in their respective days may not necessarily be the primary values held by people today. In some societies, temperance may be replaced by self-expression, courage may lose ground to tolerance, and faith may even be seen as evidence of childishness rather than virtue.
During my lifetime, it seems that sincerity is one of the virtues gaining in global popularity. According to the dictionary, a sincere person possesses “honesty of mind or intention” and a “freedom from hypocrisy.”2 There is a growing consensus that thoughtful, loving people should not get caught up in needless debates over differing beliefs and views of truth. “After all, because we will never agree, why bother?” many would say. “What really counts is that we are sincere about what we believe.”
I noticed this pattern of thought as a pastor, and I continue to see evidence of it among the students in the Christian university where I teach.
Recently, the reality of this “sincerity” trend was illustrated by an informal survey I distributed to students in two of my religion classes. I provided them with a list of four qualities: purity, orthodoxy, sincerity, and faith. Then, I asked students to rank those qualities based on what they thought God would most want to see in us. The response was overwhelming. Students believed that God valued sincerity more than He desired purity or orthodoxy.3
I would agree that there is something comforting about the notion that belief and purity of life do not matter as long as one shows sincerity. Such a view sounds open-minded, inclusive, and even kind. But is it safe, prudent, or wise to believe this about sincerity? Is this virtue really that virtuous? And if not, how might a pastor dialogue with someone who has elevated sincerity to the top of his or her virtue rankings? I would suggest initiating a conversation that explores at least four truths regarding sincerity.
God wants us to be sincere
First of all, while we may question the elevation of sincerity as a chief virtue, the Bible clearly teaches sincerity (or wholeheartedness) is a trait God highly prizes. In 1 Chronicles 28:9, David urged his son, Solomon, to “ ‘acknowledge the God of your father, and serve him with wholehearted devotion.’ ”4 Luke describes the earliest believers in Jesus as meeting and eating together “with glad and sincere hearts” (Acts 2:46). In 1 Timothy 3:8, Paul lists sincerity as one of the necessary requirements for church leaders. In James 3:17, wisdom from heaven is described as “impartial and sincere.” Beyond these explicit references, the authors filled the Bible with stories that demonstrate the value of sincerity and an undivided heart before God. One of Jesus’ greatest criticisms of the religious leaders of His day was that they were hypocrites and lacked sincerity (see, e.g., Matt. 23:13, 15, 23, 25, 27, 28).
Clearly then, sincerity is indeed an admirable quality that God would desire of all of us. God can save sincere people who may be ignorant or confused about what is right and true. But can we appropriately elevate sincerity to the point that we could conclude that what we believe does not matter as long as we are sincere?
Sincerity is elusive
From my perspective, true sincerity is much more difficult to achieve than we may at first suppose. The appeal to sincerity rather than correct belief is not a movement away from ambiguity to peaceful confidence. Instead of making things simpler or easier, the call to sincerity is an incredibly high standard that poses a problem for us.
According to Jeremiah 17:9, “The heart is deceitful above all things and beyond cure. Who can understand it?” If the sinful human heart is so deceitful, perhaps retreating from debates over “beliefs” and “truth” to the safety of sincerity may not be safe at all. Even if sincerity was all that mattered, how could we know whether or not we were fully sincere? It is a sort of slippery virtue; one that we find difficult to fully and consistently possess or even define.
How many times have we thought we were sincere about something, only to realize later that we had deceived ourselves and that our motives were not as pure as we had first believed? Marriages, for example, typically begin with two people who honestly feel that they have found a soul mate. The husbands and wives willingly take vows of fidelity and pledge faithfulness to each other for the rest of their lives. They are sincere. However, if we were to visit those couples a few years later, we would find that some of the marriages had already ended. Further conversation would bring about a confession from many that, in hindsight, they now recognize that they got married, at least partly, to please parents, ease loneliness, satisfy their desire for physical intimacy, avoid problems at home, or perhaps to enjoy financial security. If someone had suggested this to them at the wedding, they would have vehemently—and sincerely—denied that this was the case. Their mixed motivations were present yet subconscious, so, at the time, they could not even see that their vows were less than totally sincere. Clearly, our human judgments about sincerity are not very trustworthy.
Sincerity isn’t good when it stands alone
The view that beliefs don’t really matter as long as I am sincere may also arise from the assumption that sincerity stands alone as a quality that can exist as a virtue on its own. Actually, this is not the case at all.
Bible authors demonstrate this reality in a number of biblical passages that use the word sincere. Paul, writing to believers in Corinth, confesses that he fears that their “minds may somehow be led astray from your sincere and pure devotion to Christ” (2 Cor. 11:3).5 Notice that sincerity has an object—Christ. In 2 Timothy 1:5, Paul describes sincerity as “sincere faith”; in 1 Peter 1:22, Peter depicts sincerity as “sincere love for your brothers.” In each case, sincerity has a worthwhile focus. “Sincere and pure devotion to Christ” is virtuous, but sincere and pure devotion to Caesar, alcohol, or violence, is not. If we remove the worthwhile focus, sincerity ceases to be a virtue.
Missiologist K. P. Yohannan tells the story of a trader who landed on one of the islands of the Pacific for the first time. As this merchant began to talk with the chief of the island, he noticed a Bible in the chief’s home and realized that missionaries had already visited the island. In disgust, the merchant mocked the chief, saying, “What a shame . . . that you have listened to this foolish nonsense of the missionaries.” The chief faced the trader and said,
Do you see the large white stone over there? That is a stone where just a few years ago we used to smash the heads of our victims to get at their brains. Do you see that large oven over there? That is the oven where just a few years ago we used to bake the bodies of our victims before we feasted upon them. Had we not listened to what you call the nonsense of those missionaries, I assure you that your head would already be smashed on that rock and your body would be baking in that oven.6
What made the difference for the chief? I suspect we would agree that there was a powerful and positive change in the chief’s life, but that change did not involve a movement from hypocrisy to sincerity. Instead, the difference came when the chief decided to believe sincerely something new, something different, and something better. In short, sincerity must be focused on something or someone good in order for it to remain a virtue. So, to the person who says, “I am sincere,” we might gently ask, “Sincere about what?”
Sincerity is not a substitute for belief
Those who elevate sincerity as a supreme virtue likely do so in an attempt to avoid the petty, divisive battles over differing beliefs—battles that often destroy community. We hope that if we are all sincere, then all will be well. I believe this impulse is a good one. The problem, however, is that pressing this point can lead down a path that common sense cannot follow.
Instead, common sense suggests that beliefs do matter because what we know and believe guide our behavior. The connection between belief and behavior—and the importance of that connection—can be illustrated by an almost unlimited number of examples.
On April 26, 1986, the Chernobyl nuclear reactor in the Soviet Union released radiation that killed more than 4,000 people and disabled more than 70,000 others. The cause of the disaster was not a lack of sincerity on the part of the Soviet nuclear experts. Instead, they were testing one of Chernobyl’s four reactors and honestly, wholeheartedly, believed they would be able to control the rate of fission. They were wrong. An uncontrolled chain reaction took place and the reactor exploded. We should recognize the importance of noting that these experts were not evil people. They were not trying to poison the environment and kill their families and the townspeople living nearby. They were sincere. But their sincerity did not protect them from the drastic consequences of their misguided belief that eight boron-carbide rods would be enough to control the nuclear chain reaction.7
Those acquainted with medical history are aware that, even into the first half of the nineteenth century, well-meaning doctors in much of the world regularly examined and treated multiple patients without washing their hands. They used instruments that had not been sterilized and wore the same surgical gowns throughout the day despite the buildup of blood and pus from prior procedures. These doctors were sincere in their desire to help patients, but they did not know how infections were transmitted. It was not surprising, then, that deadly infections spread wildly among those who had undergone surgery. Amputations had a mortality rate of between 40 to 45 percent. Puerperal fever (an infection of the uterus at the time of childbirth) killed nearly one in five new mothers in some hospitals.8
How many of us today would want one of those surgeons operating on us? How many of us would say, “Well, as long as the doctor is sincere, I don’t care what they believe about the transmission of infection—or what they know about human anatomy, even. What they believe doesn’t matter!” Would we say the same thing about pilots: “It doesn’t matter if they believe the air traffic controller, as long as they sincerely want to fly me back home”? How about a teacher, politician, or accountant? We certainly want them to be sincere, but we also want something more.
In our daily lives, we expect people around us to be aware of the knowledge available to them. In short, we expect them to know and believe that which is reasonable and then sincerely live in harmony with those beliefs. To do otherwise is irresponsible—even foolish.
One need not look far to find people today who are fervently and sincerely devoted to a religious ideology. Their sincerity is admirable, but their beliefs may lead them to actions such as strapping explosives onto their bodies and then detonating those explosives in the middle of unsuspecting crowds. Jesus Himself warned against blind religious passion when He told His disciples that the day would come “ ‘when anyone who kills you will think he is offering a service to God’ ” (John 16:2). Sincerity certainly is not enough. What we believe matters.
An appeal for godly sincerity
Throughout the Bible, we see God’s efforts to instruct carefully His children on the best way to live. As the psalmist said, “I will never forget your precepts, for by them you have preserved my life,” and “Your word is a lamp to my feet and a light for my path” (Ps. 119:93, 105). It may not always be easy to understand God’s guidance. Believers will not always agree on every point of doctrine, but we are expected to search the Scriptures prayerfully and humbly so that each of us can stand as one who “does not need to be ashamed and who correctly handles the word of truth” (2 Tim. 2:15). Abandoning this task as unnecessary while trumpeting the virtue of sincerity does not offer a solution. The struggle to understand rightfully God’s guidance, and then sincerely follow it, is a high and noble calling.
In 1 Peter 1:21, 22, the importance of belief, obedience, and sincerity are drawn together in beautiful unity. There the apostle writes to the church, reminding them that, through Christ, “you believe in God.” Peter then continues, “Now that you have purified yourselves by obeying the truth so that you have sincere love for your brothers, love one another deeply, from the heart.”
I believe Peter would make the same appeal to us. May our belief in God lead to obedience, which will then be expressed in sincere, heartfelt love for others. If we lived like this, we would be happier, better people. The world would be a happier, better place too. I believe that sincerely.
1 This article draws heavily from a chapter I wrote in Always Prepared: Answers to Questions About Our Faith, eds. Humberto M. Rasi and Nancy J. Vyhmeister (Nampa, ID: Pacific Press Pub. Assn., 2012). That chapter was entitled “Does It Really Matter What I Believe as Long as I Am Sincere?”
2 New Webster’s Dictionary, 2003 ed., s.v. “sincerity.”
3 The two classes surveyed included a lower division course with 40 completed surveys and an upper division course with 43 completed surveys. Of the 83 returned surveys, 71 students ranked sincerity either in first or second place. Only nine students ranked purity in first or second place, and only six placed orthodoxy in first or second place. The survey was taken in Feb. 2010.
4 All Scripture quotations are from the New International Version of the Bible.
5 In all cases, italics are supplied for emphasis.
6 K. P. Yohannan, Revolution in World Missions (Carrollton, TX: GFA Books, 2003), 111, 112.
7 Judith Newman, “20 of the Greatest Blunders in Science in the Last 20 Years,” Discover, Oct. 1, 2000, accessed Apr. 9, 2010, http://discovermagazine.com/2000/oct/featblunders.
8 Discoveries in Medicine, “Antisepsis,” accessed June 28, 2012, http://www.discoveriesinmedicine.com/A-An/Antisepsis.html#b.