Honest to God

I was in the final phase of training before deployment to the Balkans. It was eight years ago and major hostilities had quietened to a tense and unstable peace. That day had been spent in practice scenarios full of snipers, flaming buildings, wounded civilians and antipersonnel mines. After such dramas the calm thinking of the lecture theatre came as a welcome relief.

Our tutor was a senior instructor from the military academy. He arrived and began to deliver a background briefing on the complexities of Balkan politics and history, who were the bad guys and why, and how we as peacekeepers should act even-handedly. We were also given advice on practical measures such as how to handle the fiery hospitality of a proffered slivovic (home distilled plum brandy) and how to react if taken hostage by one of the disparate warring factions.

Political and security sensitivities were clearly at work behind the scenes and limited what our tutor could say to us publicly. To overcome these limitations he developed what we initially believed was merely an odd mannerism. We soon cottoned-on it was really a coded message to his audience: Whenever he said something he was required to say but didn’t personally believe, he placed his hand in an exaggerated manner upon the top of his head. He soon had us in fits of laughter but also delivered a rewardingly honest teaching session which we benefited from immensely.

I have occasionally wondered, if this convention were adopted more widely, what sort of behaviour it might lead to? We have all witnessed spokespersons being interviewed on TV and seen them uncomfortably retreating to take refuge behind clouds of words. Wouldn’t it be simpler if they gave the straightforward response demanded by their commercial or political masters, whilst the hand upon their head admitted the obscured truth? It would surely be a refreshing addition to the sales pitch of the shop assistant ‘You look wonderful sir, they’re a perfect fit’ whilst the hand on their head admitted that any fool could see these trousers were at least two sizes too small.

Honesty, however it emerges, can be refreshing. A friend of mine with whom I was in public disagreement recently did me the honour of welcoming my honestly expressed comments even though he remained fundamentally opposed to every single one of them!

We should in particular consider with great care the words we say to or about God. The confessions of faith we utter should not be made casually or unthinkingly, our words of repentance should not be empty
and shallow, nor should our intercessions be like Santa’s shopping list
but rather a reflection of the deepest hunger of our souls. Christ adjured his disciples not to ‘heap up empty phrases’.

So think twice before singing ‘Take my soul’, declaring ‘I believe’ or acknowledging your ‘manifold sins’. If we don’t speak the truth to God before whom ‘all hearts are open and all desires known’ the only person we are really fooling is ourselves.


Jeff Cuttell



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