My recent writings have caused me to want to offer this reprint. Truth-telling is not a moral activity, but an activity of true existence. It is a simple command: ‘Do not lie,’ but it is tantamount to saying ‘Exist!’
Abba Poemen said, “Teach your mouth to say that which is in your heart.”
Speaking the truth is as fundamental as the Ten Commandments. It also receives a great deal of attention within the pages of the New Testament.
Do not lie to one another since you have put off the old man with his deeds, and have put on the new man who is renewed in knowledge according to the image of Him who created him (Col. 3:9)
It is very easy to think of lying and telling the truth as simple “moral” issues. We do not lie because it is wrong, and we tell the truth because it is right. The weakness of such morality is its failure to understand either the nature of sin or the nature of the life to which we have been called as Christians.
Within a purely moral context, the question could be asked: “If you were able to tell a lie, and no one was hurt by it and no one but yourself knew it, where would be the wrong?” The answer would come back in a purely moral form that would involve the breaking of a commandment and the righteous judgment of God. Christianity as a moral system is Christianity misunderstood.
I have stated before that Christ did not die to make bad men good – He died to make dead men live. Christ’s teachings on the Kingdom of God, when measured by a moral yardstick, often seem to ask too much or to push Christians beyond the boundaries of morality. Thus the moralizers of Christianity have often described the Sermon on the Mount as an “interim ethic,” a teaching that only makes sense if the end of the world is but a short time away.
In various times and places the “Christian” moral teaching has been largely indistinguishable from the accepted morality of society at large – thus making the Church the underwriter of culture. A number of denominations are in serious difficulties today as the culture around them is undergoing serious moral changes. Those who have had the deepest investment in underwriting the dominant culture have largely been the first to find reasons to change their moral teaching to continue their cultural position.
The problem with morality (as we popularly understand the term) is that it misses the point of Christian teaching. Christian “moral” teaching frequently does an injustice to the faith by corrupting the nature of the Church’s life and the purpose of its teaching.
Truth is not a matter of morality – it is a matter of existence and non-existence.
This is the fundamental insight and teaching of St. Athanasius in his classical work, On the Incarnation.
For the transgression of the commandment was making them [humanity] turn back again according to their nature; and as they had at the beginning come into being out of non-existence, so were they now on the way to returning, through corruption, to non-existence again. The presence and love of the Word had called them into being; inevitably, therefore when they lost the knowledge of God, they lost existence with it; for it is God alone Who exists, evil is non-being, the negation and antithesis of good (De Incarnatione, 1.4).
As St. Paul would observe, “The wages of sin is death” (Romans 6:23). Right and wrong are not measured by abstract laws but by their relationship to existence. That which is wrong has about it – the nature of death.
This is the reason that Scripture gives such a priority to telling the truth. The nature of a lie is found precisely in its non-existence. Thus the devil is characterized in his rebellion against God as “a liar and the father of lies.” Evil has no existence, but in the malevolence of the wicked one, it seeks to draw everything that has existence into non-existence.
The Christian life is an acceptance of the true life in Christ – a life which is nothing other than communion with the true and living God. In this alone do we have true and authentic existence. In this alone do we have eternal life.
The various lies and distortions of the truth which we utter or in which we participate are enemies of our own existence. We give consent to corruption which is our non-existence when we give voice to a lie. The life of salvation is a constant movement towards the Truth, being conformed to the image of Truth.
We have the added difficulty that the truth is often opaque for us. We do not see it clearly. This is a manifestation of the state of our heart, our inner disposition. The admonition “to say what is in your heart” is an encouragement to move towards an authentic existence. It may be that “what is in your heart” is darkness. That darkness needs to be brought into the light. In Orthodox practice, this is normatively done in the mystery of confession. We reveal the darkness of our hearts and bring them before the Truth of Christ. In that healing light, we receive the forgiveness of our sins – we receive the life of Christ Himself.
Of course the Law, or rules, are not without benefit. They serve as a “tutor” in the language of St. Paul, to point us to Christ. They teach our heart that the process of healing might begin in us even at an early age.
But the clarity that comes with the light of Christ begins to remove the opacity of our vision and allows us to live without delusion and to see the Truth. “Blessed are the pure in heart, for they shall see God.”
The admonition “to say what is in your heart” is not a call to say aloud every dark thought that infects us and to spew the darkness wherever we go. But there can be no integrity within us until our hearts and our lips are united. We cannot say one thing and mean another and remain in the light.
“The Light shines in the darkness and the darkness has not overcome it.” God give us grace to speak the truth. May He drive the darkness from our hearts.