It’s a Lying Shame

The story of the first sin begins not with a choice, but with a lie. As much as we tend to emphasize “free-will” as the origin and dominant factor of human sin, we do well to remember the true nature of our lives. Things are much more complicated than freedom can account for. Rather, we act in the context of lies and deception, some from outside and some from within. It is only the “truth” that can set us free – that is – only reality as it is constituted by God can set us in the position of making a truly free choice. Understanding lies and the nature of deception is essential in the spiritual life.

Jesus says of Satan, “He was a murderer from the beginning, not holding to the truth, for there is no truth in him. When he lies, he speaks his native language, for he is a liar and the father of lies.” (John 8:44, NIV)

There is ever so much in this short statement. First, Christ connects “murder” to “not holding to the truth.” The act of murder is an attempt to disrupt reality itself – to destroy the existence of another. In that manner, a lie belongs to the same category of action. A lie is an attempt to reject reality as it is and to put something else in its place. A lie seeks to murder the truth.

It has been a recent subject of thought for me that toxic shame is a breeding ground for lies. Indeed, toxic shame is itself something of an “abiding lie.” The very nature of toxic shame is that it enthrones shame itself as the dominant or prominent form of the personality. When shame is internalized (often as a result of abuse or trauma) our personality lives with a filter before its face. We see the world through the lens of that internal pain (and its fear) and tend to react accordingly. Toxic shame frequently creates false identities (perfectionism, isolation and avoidance, promiscuity, etc.) including a tendency towards lying. We may discover that the version of what we say is geared towards avoiding conflict or inflating our importance/competence, etc. Indeed, it’s not unusual to realize that you’re in the middle of telling a lie and you have no idea why you’re doing it (the toxic shame is doing it).

The conversation between the Woman and the serpent in Genesis is deeply instructive about the nature of the lie.

And [the serpent] said to the woman, “Has God indeed said, ‘You shall not eat of every tree of the garden’?”  And the woman said to the serpent, “We may eat the fruit of the trees of the garden;but of the fruit of the tree which is in the midst of the garden, God has said, “You shall not eat it, nor shall you touch it, lest you die.’ ”

Then the serpent said to the woman, “You will not surely die.For God knows that in the day you eat of it your eyes will be opened, and you will be like God, knowing good and evil.”(Gen. 3:1-5)

The heart of the serpent’s lie is a subtle implication that God does not love the Woman. Instead, she is told that God has some other (non-loving) motive for witholding the fruit of the tree. Equally as diabolical is the lie, “You shall not die.” This is the false suggestion (which toxic shame itself often tells us) that we can have an existence of our own construction, that what God has given to us is insufficient or inadequate. It is another way of declaring that we are not loved.

In contrast, the heart of the gospel is that we are loved by God. We were created by love and for love, and are sustained and healed through love. St. John is so grounded in this fact that he declares, “God is love.” And this is the very nature of reality, the nature and content of truth. The healing of shame (whether toxic or otherwise) is always an action of love. It is not a love that says, “Nothing is wrong,” (for that would itself be a lie). It is a love that says, “Then neither do I condemn you.”

The devil’s dance of shame (a tune sung by so much of today’s cultural purveyors) seeks to confirm the lie, to tell us that we are not dying (or already dead), and urging us further into the make-believe world of the shame-constructs of sin. Love does not promise to change the past, nor to make the pain disappear. Rather, love makes it possible for the past to truly become the past and for the pain to become bearable.

The love of God is shown forth in the image of the Crucified Christ. We dare not reduce the Cross to a mere single action. St. Maximus the Confessor says this:

God has made himself a beggar by reason of his concern for us … suffering mystically through his tenderness to the end of time according to the measure of each one’s suffering. Mystagogia, 24 (PG 91,713)

The Cross extends through time through Christ’s union with us. When St. Paul says that He is “crucified with Christ” (Gal. 2:20), he is describing something that is ongoing and ever-present. In the Cross, a death of shame, Christ unites Himself to us in the depths of our shame, uniting us to Himself as well in His love and victory of everything that would separate from that love.

On the daily level, toxic shame is healed through the breaking of shame’s profound power of secrecy and isolation as we bring its lies into the light and allow them (and our true self) to be present in the love of God (in the mediation of the sacraments and in trustworthy individuals). Toxic shame is a lie and seeks to drag us into a false existence. As we speak the truth (made bold by the unflinching love of God), the power of shame is reduced until it becomes utterly ineffectual. After all, as a lie, it is not real.

One aspect of what we name the “ontological” approach to theology, is that we see that only what is real can be saved – indeed – being and becoming fully and truly real is the very nature of salvation itself. In the resurrection, the Reality that is Christ God utterly triumphs over the lie that is death. Shame itself is trampled down as its host of lies are swept away. The lie that was Rome’s boast of power (and every human pretense that has echoed down through the ages) was shown to be empty and of no effect.

Shame was embittered when Christ turned not His face from the spitting and the mocking. Swallowed up by love, it has been taken away. Those held in its bondage turn their faces towards the Face of Christ, who beholds them forevermore.

64 comments:

  1. Father Stephen,

    You recently made a comment about how you might counsel an adulterer to not confess his sins to his wife. The comment puzzled me deeply at the time, and especially in light of this, I find it troubling.
    Could you explain a little more?

  2. There is ever so much in this short statement. First, Christ connects “murder” to “not holding to the truth.” The act of murder is an attempt to disrupt reality itself – to destroy the existence of another. In that manner, a lie belongs to the same category of action. A lie is an attempt to reject reality as it is and to put something else in its place. A lie seeks to murder the truth.

    Matthew 5:21 “You have heard that it was said to those of old, ‘You shall not murder, and whoever murders will be in danger of the judgment.’ 22 But I say to you that whoever is angry with his brother without a cause shall be in danger of the judgment. And whoever says to his brother, ‘Raca!’ shall be in danger of the council. But whoever says, ‘You fool!’ shall be in danger of hell fire. “

  3. Father, doesn’t the first sin begin with agreeing with a voice that is not God? And followed by disobedience and then a lie?

  4. Tess,
    My only intention in that comment was to say that such situations are not just “by the book.” I’ve seen such confessions wreck a marriage in that it was not ready to bear such a naked burden. The sin needs to be repented of and confessed – but not necessarily to a spouse. That’s not a rule either. It simply depends on many things. On the other hand, that does not mean that it’s ok to lie about it. I hope that helps.

  5. Levi,
    If we parse the whole thing down to its smallest points, there’s any number of ways to see it. But, I was following St. Paul in the matter where he says, “the first woman was deceived and became a sinner.”

    It’s interesting that in the Patristic witness, particularly in the East, Adam and Eve are not portrayed as villains in the manner of some Western treatments. Indeed, they are venerated as saints, among the “righteous” in the Old Testament.

    I am (personally and as a priest) pretty much the same way towards all sinners. It is quite rare that I encounter someone who seems “evil,” or possessed of a really bad will. Instead, I encounter deception and delusion, time and again.

    It should be noted that in St. Paul’s treatment, the woman is deceived, but he specifically says that Adam was not deceived. There, the sin was greater.

  6. Then the serpent said to the woman, “You will not surely die.For God knows that in the day you eat of it your eyes will be opened, and you will be like God, knowing good and evil.”(Gen. 3:1-5)

    Forgive me, Father, I’m not actually trying to be a “devil’s advocate” (!) here. But I actually see these things as true, but misleading. Eve will still live in the colloquial sense that sinners are still living human lives. And they will come to know good and evil through this act. But it’s, of course, entirely deceiving, because he leaves out what blighted lives (with death) they will actually be living; and of course this knowing of good and evil reminds us so strongly of children exposed o abuse that gives them a knowledge that is destructive to minds not equipped to deal with such. So this kind of persuasion is… what shall we call it? Clearly akin to heresy, and a lie couched in half-truths maybe? I am sure you have more to say on this subject which I would love to hear, if you would like to say more.

    Regarding the quote from the Sermon on the Mount, above, it has always been so striking to me that Jesus likens name-calling to murder, the destruction or obliteration of personhood

  7. Janine, great comment. Your comment made me ponder more deeply what is revealed in one’s name. Thank you.

  8. Janine,
    The serpent begins with lie. “You will not surely die,” contradicts God’s statement, “In the day you eat of it you will die the death” (that’s the literal phrase). Adam and Eve certain “die the death” on the day they ate of it. Death (non-being) entered their existence at that very moment. That it was many years before the death that entered into them resulted in the separation of the soul and body is only the end of the physical process. Every human being has that same problem: we are dying. “Death is at work in us,” St. Paul says. That is the very nature of sin (sin is death). The Scriptures also tell us that “through fear of death we were in lifelong bondage to the devil.”

  9. Father Stephen,
    I suppose I can understand that nothing goes “by the book.” But it seems to me that the confession of adultery doesn’t ruin the marriage; the adultery itself does. Forgive me, but it feels a lot like when doctors used to hesitate to tell a person they were dying, because they didn’t want to trouble the patient’s last days.

    I suppose there are theoretically ways of handling this gently; as if any kind of amputation could be handled gently (and a spouse is a member of one’s body, so adultery is indeed a kind of amputation).

    I feel like you are much closer to the truth in this article, in that all lies are death dealing. The truth sets us free– and no matter the quality of the prosthetic, living under the delusion that one does not have an amputation does not seem to be freedom to me. It seems to me that if an adulterer hides such a violence forever (giving leeway in how to approach the reveal), the betrayed spouse is forced to unknowingly live with a corpse, never understanding why there is death in their own member.

    I’ve been reading Victor Frankl and Simon Wiesenthal lately, and I don’t see how an adulterer can seek forgiveness from God but not a spouse. That seems to me to be a further sin against the marriage, and a sign of incomplete repentance. If Jubilee is about making things right, how else can such a violence begin to be made right?

    And, as a side note, I think all of this applies to adultery of imagery– porn use– as well.

    Forgive me, Father, if I offend.

  10. Tess,
    There’s no offense in your thoughts. I have no policy or rules about such a thing – I am simply drawing on my experience as a confessor and a pastor. There is no doubt that there are ideal ways in which to do these things – honesty, openness, etc. My experience has been, however, that in pastoral matters, we get something less than the ideal. I have seen heroic levels of forgiveness in relationships, and I have seen quite the opposite.

    I’m curious, do you think a husband should confess every stray thought, every time he “looked at a woman with lust” to his wife? My experience as a priest has been to be cautious telling people what they “should” do (as though there were legal guidelines about such things). I hear a confession, I give what counsel I can for the healing of a soul (if it seems clear), and I give absolution. I have said any number of times that salvation is a very messy thing.

    I did not write specifically in an article on the topic of adultery and telling (or not telling) a spouse. It was something said in answer to a question in the comments (including originally, I think). It’s almost impossible to say anything that “is a rule” when it comes to pastoral matters. I’m sorry that this distraction has arisen. I do know from experience that there can be layers of complexity in these situations and that it is possible to do more harm while intending to do good. If it were straightforward and clear it would be a blessing.

    On Judgement Day, I will have to stand before God as a priest and give an account of the things I have said and taught. I do it carefully. Often, the judgement comes much sooner than that.

    There is a reason why the Church has given us sacramental confession with a priest rather than with a spouse. I appreciate Frankl and Wiesenthal’s thoughts, but neither is a Christian nor do they understand the concept of Christian forgiveness in Christ.

    I know of a famous case with an elder who (more or less) told a lie to cover the fact of a woman’s adultery from her husband. Indeed, as I recall, he told her to be sure to take communion immediately and not to put it off as would commonly be the case (an epitimia), because he knew that her husband was watching to see if she hesitated about communion (suspecting her of adultery), in which case he intended to kill her. The elder saved her life, saved her husband from murder, and, I suspect, saved their marriage (weak as it was) as well.

    The tradition is full of such things. There is wisdom and there is discretion. Hard and fast rules can sin against both.

    Please forgive me if I give offense in describing these things. But the question has been asked.

  11. This is a hard word for me, Father. I agree that wading into the territory of telling someone what they “should” do is very dangerous, so I won’t venture to tell you what is right for your ministry (Protect, O Lord, unto many years, him who blesses us and brings us Thy grace!). But I also do believe that our sexually poisonous culture thrives on secrecy. And I would also certainly differentiate between a passing fly of a thought–a logismoi– and a deliberate seeking such as porn use or adultery. The latter is a wound to the body of a marriage, and it seems to me that not letting the betrayed spouse understand the nature of their wound is to gaslight them about the nature of reality.

    It is true that Frankl and Wiesenthal aren’t Christians, but in all honesty, I’ve found their wrestling with the concept of forgiveness to be much more salutary than much of Christian thought. It seems to me that Christian forgiveness, at least in our culture, frequently takes the form of a “get out of jail free card,” often mitigating the consequences of sin for the sinner (which, to be honest, is probably not actually helpful for the sinner). In effect, the sinner gets to feel better while the victim bears the burdens, and this is true for not just adultery but all kinds of abuse.

    Of course, seen from the topsy-turvy soteriology of Orthodoxy, bearing such a burden is an opportunity to embrace the Cross and befriend Christ, so therefore a blessing a la St. Nikolai Velimirovich. So there’s that.

    My thought about your anecdote is that “saving the marriage” is pretty loosely defined, if the wife was cheating and the husband willing to murder. It puts a pretty spin on “staying together for the kids,” for sure. I admit the nature of such a sacramental union eludes me, and so I can’t really say any more.

    Thanks for your thoughts.

  12. Tess,
    There’s much that’s right and true with what you’re saying. I’ve seen some unnecessary damage done with these situations, such that I’m loathe to endorse a rule for how something must be approached. The goal in our lives is the healing of the soul in our union with Christ. It requires wisdom and discretion is my point. Again please note that my words in this came in response to a question not as an article urging a particular approach.

    The present decay of our culture, particularly in sexual matters is approaching something like an apocalyptic disaster. I can think of few things that trouble me more. May God protect us all.

  13. Hi tess,

    I think your comparison to a doctor is very applicable here in that Father Stephen’s role as priest is to treat the injury or illness, rather than insist how the patient ought to handle the relationships affected by it. That is, suppose instead of an amputation, the person had cancer. It would be up to the patient to decide whether and how to tell a spouse. Although the doctor might be able to provide counsel about that, it is not really the physician’s specialty or role.

    It sounds as though you would want absolutely to know. Hopefully, your spouse would know your preferences as well and at the very least know about your marriage and the best way to save it better than anyone else would–including Father Stephen. Someone in another marriage might prefer not to know under another set of circumstances. Hence, as Father Stephen says, a hard and fast rule is difficult.

    A priest ought only be expected to know best about his flock’s relationship with God and sin (just as the oncologist knows best about ways to treat cancer… but not when or who you need to tell).

  14. Tess, I have been married 24 years to my late wife and 13 to my current wife who was married before also. Just had an interesting discussion. She asserts that if I sinned against her like that but repented in confession, fulfilled my penance and never did it again, she would rather not know.
    We are one body, if we are restored without her formally knowing she would be quite happy. But, practically, in her case especially, it is unlikely she would not know. We agree with Fr. Stephen though that in general it is better not being confronted with it. If my repentance is real our body will be healed — why tear it up again. It be like reliving the shame and the tear in the marriage twice. I would feel the same way.
    Nevertheless your question gave us the opportunity to come even closer, so thank you.
    God is merciful and it is difficult at times to understand how deep and profound His Mercy is. Not just a feeling, but a Divine energy that transforms and transfigures me if I allow it.

  15. It is not a love that says, “Nothing is wrong,” (for that would itself be a lie). It is a love that says, “Then neither do I condemn you.”

    Thank you for this, Father. A wonderful proclamation to hear!

  16. Thank you Father. Your article has just made me realise that Peter’s denial of Christ in John’s Gospel (the quintessential shame story) conforms pretty much exactly to the pattern you suggest. When Peter says “I am not” (twice) to questions, his surface level denials are really just lies and evasions (we’re so used to thinking of it as a “denial” that maybe we miss that really it is mainly just a seemingly convenient lie.) But the particular words he uses at a deeper level (oddly enough both literally and symbolically) it is a kind of murder point to the fact that what he is really doing is denying reality. He negates the “I am”, and he negates himself in the process. His lie betrays the Truth and gives a kind of consent to its murder on the Cross. I wonder whether all lies carry with them the idea of betrayal? Peter of course must have suffered toxic shock from having his true self revealed so starkly but his healing in John21 also accords pretty much to the pattern you are suggesting. Christ does not call him to confess or atone – perhaps the shame runs too deep and they both know the truth of what happened, instead his is asked (three times) if he loves – that is all that really matters. The final act in the gospel of John is the great healing of Peter’s lies, and betrayal and surely near fatal level of shame.

    Re the discussion about adultery etc in the comments, I couldn’t help but think of the David and Bathsheba story which again pretty much conforms to your pattern. Yes it starts with hitherto virtuous middle aged David giving in to a temptation and taking Bathsheba, but in the blink of an eye turns into a story first of a widening wave of deceit and then a particularly devious murder of Uriah. (Sin, lie, murder quite literally), But weirdly David becomes so completely bound up in the whole sordid descent into this that he can’t see what he has become. It needs Nathan to (cleverly) lay it out and get him to see it. Oh the tangled webs we weave. Which is why I think you are right that each situation does need to be handled pastorally on its own terms.

  17. Father, thank you for your reply. While I see precisely what you are saying in the ontological terms of death and non-being and sin and the lie you point out. In that sense they do enter death, don’t they? I guess I still have it nagging at me that it’s important to know that half-truths are also lies, and persuasions of this type abound. But I can live with both of those things being so (and will likely have to think about this some more). Perhaps what I would like to say is that what you are saying is absolutely true, and then there is the worldly perspective which we’re “used to.” I suppose I would not know at all what Eve’s or Adam’s perspective could be. Thank you again.

  18. Dear Fr Stephen and Tess,

    It was my comment and story I believe has been referenced in your questions, Tess. I ask you both to please forgive me if I have provided distraction or confusion on the topic. What I took from Fr Stephen’s response about differing opinions on confessing to your spouse, is that it must be done very carefully, in the right degree, and at the right time (which might be never in some situations). In my personal experience, I have been struggling with this sin for decades, long before I ever met my wife. My repentance began several years ago, and I only became Orthodox at Pascha of 2022. Looking back at my journey, I truly think God knew precisely how to untangle this sin from my life, and from my marriage. I don’t know that my wife could have born my confession if we hadn’t been in the Church with the scaffolding of the services, prayers, confession and Holy Communion, and the prayers and guidance of our spiritual father. This sin has been so tangled up with other sins, wounds, shame and deception, that only the Physician could possibly have known how and when to untangle, cut and surgically heal the damage that I both suffered and inflicted. My confession to my wife led to me hearing some confessions of hers about things she struggles with. It was hard to hear, but because we both know that we are struggling together, in the grace of God in the Church, it has brought us closer together. And so even though we have both begun repenting of our sins, the damage from the past is still with us. Our bleeding wounds have been bound, bones set, surgery done, but we’ll have to keep taking our spiritual medicine and doing our spiritual “physical therapy” to hopefully correct and heal the damage. I’m still glad that I told my wife, but I take Fr Stephen’s advice seriously, and I hope that my story and comments don’t lead anyone to reveal something that isn’t ready to be revealed.

    Please forgive me, and remember me , a sinner, in your prayers. “They found him clothed and in his right mind, sitting at the feet of Jesus.”

  19. Thank you Fr, for sharing this.
    If the Church is a spiritual hospital it is vital to get the right diagnosis and the right treatment.

    Toxic shame, which as you point out, is different from a beneficial shame. Toxic shame corrodes life and can effect a whole family, who all suffers in some way, but do not know why. To heal the whole family, I believe you are right saying, that it is enough for the one who caught Toxic shame ( the illness) to confess and repent to God and then He can set about the healing for that family. After all, if God forgives why can’t we?

    Secrets and lies are very common in families, shame and fear of judgement can make it hard to be truthful.
    Love is the remedy. The love that we have wasted, O God of Love renew!

    I have also came across another mental illness of the soul. “A symptom of our time”, as explained by Metropolitan Athanasios of Limassol – he calls it “Spiritual Anorexia”. When nothing interests, touches, occupies, gladdens the person; he is completely indifferent to everything, whether things are good or bad for him, it demonstrates a lack or the absence of a spirit of gratitude.
    The remedy is to show respect for everything, even the tools we use. To be grateful for what we have rather than bemoan what we do not have.

    It sort of make sense, to me, to apply the same vocabulary for spiritual illnesses as we do for bodily illnesses. Have you got any more of those?

  20. Sorry, I should have mentioned that “Toxic Shame” is the spiritual equivalent for bodily “Sepsis”, so it is very serious indeed.

  21. Dani,
    There is not a “sin nature” in human beings in Orthodox thought. There is mortality – death working in us. But the pastor was correct in that their sin was not the result of something working inside them.

  22. Reading the comments, I am again reminded of St. Joseph’s response when he found out that Mary was pregnant (before he knew the truth); how he wanted to spare her public shame and disgrace. What a man; what a Saint.

  23. Wow. This is beautiful. Such a deep understanding of the evil that seeks to keep us blind to love. Thankyou. Many God have mercy on me. All my life has been lived in fear. Not able to embrace who I am because of the lies I was taught about my very self. ‘You will know the truth and the truth will set you free.’

  24. James, Tess, et al
    The healing of shame (and thus the restoration of the soul) is a difficult thing, requiring patience and discernment and a steadfast commitment to wholeness of the person and an unwavering commitment to love. In the case of a marriage – it is a sacrament that exists for our salvation and is a dynamic work of love. For a marriage to work rightly, there is a need for support (in so many ways). There are cases that I’ve known in which the revelation of sin at the wrong time would have resulted not just in the end of a marriage, but in a deep destruction within the souls of the persons involved. Sometimes these things cannot be avoided. But a pastor has to be constant in His prayer and reliant on God in such matters. Sometimes it’s all just more than we can handle and it falls apart in our hands. My word is actually just one of caution (as James related). The Hippocratic oath for doctors began this way: “First, do no harm.” I think it applies to the priesthood as well.

    Many, many priests are ill-equipped to do the ministry they have been given (as St. Paul said, “Who is sufficient to these things?”) So, with the awesome authority given in the priesthood, we should tread carefully and patiently. The easier route is to just have rules and apply them and let the chips fall where they may. Generally, such priests usually leave a swath of destruction behind them.

    Tess: My critique of Frankl and Wiesenthal was not to contrast them with run-of-the-mill Christians, but with Orthodox Christian theology. Neither of them understands that God has become human and that Christ Himself suffers in each of us who suffers. They do not see God as the victim – only innocent human beings and so they argue that only those victims can forgive – not God. I think it’s a way to get stuck (and much of the world is stuck precisely there). If we begin by understanding the full nature of the Cross and what it means always and everywhere, then we can begin to move forward in these things.

    I think that only if God Himself has become the Victim is there any hope for us. Beyond that, Christ has even taken into Himself the sins of the tormenter – the one who has done the evil.

  25. So, with the awesome authority given in the priesthood, we should tread carefully and patiently. The easier route is to just have rules and apply them and let the chips fall where they may. Generally, such priests usually leave a swath of destruction behind them.

    Father, I believe this is true for all of us.

  26. Fr. Stephen,

    This article is one of your best. It speaks potently to the heart of some many basic and crucially misunderstood topics: sin, death, lies and shame. In fact in a strange way it makes me start to wonder if perhaps they are all simply different limbs or attributes of the same beast, this nothingness we call evil.

  27. Drewster,
    In some of the great classic Fathers, such as St. Dionysius and the Cappadocians, there is a clear understanding that evil is “non-being,” that it is nothing, and that it only exists as a parasite. In some ways, it is root and branch of an ontological approach. That approach works throughout all of Orthodox thought, especially along with the understanding of communion and participation. It is always helpful, I find, to go back to those very basic concepts when thinking through anything. It just works.

  28. I have also came across another mental illness of the soul. “A symptom of our time”, as explained by Metropolitan Athanasios of Limassol – he calls it “Spiritual Anorexia”. When nothing interests, touches, occupies, gladdens the person; he is completely indifferent to everything, whether things are good or bad for him, it demonstrates a lack or the absence of a spirit of gratitude.

    I recently confessed this numbness and lack of prayer in my life. My Priest’s answer was to practice gratitude. This focus on gratitude recovered my will to pray and enlivened my heart again. It is wonderful advice from Metropolitan Athanasios.

  29. Byron,
    Classically, what Met. Athanasios is describing in called “Acedia.” It’s sometimes translated as “listlessness.” Also, it’s famously known as the “Noonday Devil.”

  30. I think I’ve read that, whereas we associate the sin of “sloth” with laziness, it is often more akin to Acedia. The person is not too physically lazy to work but is unmotivated because of thinking it fruitless. Some might think it sounds exactly like depression, but I think they are distinct because I don’t feel that I’ve ever struggled with true depression. Pretty sure I’ve experienced Acedia.

    Writer’s block can be an example of it.

  31. Mark,
    Yes. It’s not the same as depression. I was recently having trouble getting out of bed in the morning and experiencing lots of dark thoughts as I was lying there refusing to get myself up. One morning I began to question myself about it and came to the conclusion that it was a toxic shame issue – related to some particular traumas. So, I confronted the shame by name and found that the listlessness lifted immediately. Interesting.

  32. Father, yes. I become bored easily, even if I have much to do (I don’t bother doing it, unless I force myself). Boredom seems to be a major issue for me and produces the “listlessness” you mention. I simply end up wallowing in nothing, which is ridiculous (to me). Considering gratitude in the things of my life helps immensely.

  33. Father, it’s interesting that you say you confronted the shame by naming it. When I was in the process of converting the orthodoxy, I was struggling to make confession of some particular sins. It was eating me up, and I decided one day to simply say my confession out loud by myself next to my icons. I couldn’t do it. Not even alone. It took me days before I could finally do it and when I did, it felt like I was letting out a some dark weight from deep inside of me that I hadn’t wanted to acknowledge was there. Soon after, I was able to make confession to my spiritual father. I never really understood what was happening there, why it was so difficult to say the words out loud by myself, and why that made such a profound difference in my ability to confess to another. There have been other similar episodes in my life since then, too. I wonder if it is what you’re describing: naming the shame, and robbing it of some of its power.

  34. Nathan,
    I know what you mean. The first life confession I made, I wrote down on paper. I was completely bummed to tears. Then I said to myself, well, I guess I’m going to have to eat this. I was telling myself I have to accept the shame of what the confession revealed. But when I said this aloud, it was as though the bad stuff was on a plate, and the Lord pulled the plate aside and said, no, you don’t have to eat that, but to take my body and my blood. When I finally made the confession I wrote, it seemed the Lord stood by listening in love. Healing waters started to flood in.

    I believe Fr Stephen and other priests have said that hearing others’ confessions reveals their own sins. I think this would be true for all of us.

  35. Dee, et al,
    Another experience for me is hearing the confessions of children. The honesty and depth of transparency that many of them bring to the sacrament leaves me stripped to the bones many times. Their innocence is made manifest even when they are confessing their sins. “…in whom is no guile…”

  36. Nathan,
    Good example. The instinct of shame is to hide (which is a perfectly natural, even “healthy” response). But to heal it, it has to be brought into the light. It’s why St. Sophrony speaks of bearing a “little shame.” Your rehearsing it out loud in private helped make the shame “little enough” so that you could reveal it in confession. Confession can be a profound act of courage.

  37. Father, I have never heard “sin nature” stated this way: “There is not a “sin nature” in human beings in Orthodox thought. There is mortality – death working in us.”
    As a recovering Evangelical it is refreshing and freeing to have it stated this way. However, I am not sure I understand it. Can you suggest any further articles books of your’s or others that would help me understand it? If Adam and Eve did not posses a “sin nature”, then how were they so easily duped??

  38. Patricia,
    Imagine if God had created us with a “sin nature.” That’s an awful thought.

    Orthodox theology holds that human beings do not have a “fallen nature” in the sense that is often taught in the West. We simply, as the Scripture says, have death working in us. Human beings are essentially good – but death working in us has the consequences that we see – including that we often choose poorly, etc. But we do not tend towards evil. Quite the contrary. Most of the time, most people tend towards the good (as they understand it). This is classical Orthodox teaching.

    Suggestions for readings out there, Orthodox readers?

  39. Through some of the comments I’m reminded of what we call the TKN rule in our house. In homage to Fr Thomas Hopko (of blessed memory) TKN stands for true, kind, and necessary. Used as a filter before we speak.

  40. Patricia,
    Responding to what Fr Stephen says, indeed what he says is true and what I have been taught. I’ve been trying to find a definitive source, as Father says this is classical teaching so there are several ancient sources, including the Bible: Genesis 1:31 “Then God saw everything He had made and indeed it was very good…”.

    St John of Damascus’ “Exposition of the Orthodox Faith”, in the Chapter on Man:

    He creates with His own hands man of a visible nature and an invisible, after His own image and likeness: on the one hand man’s body He formed of earth, and on the other his reasoning and thinking soul. He bestowed upon him by His own inbreathing, and this is what we mean by after His image. For the phrase after His image clearly refers to the side of his nature which consists of mind and free will, whereas after His likeness means likeness in virtue so far as that is possible…

    God then made man without evil, upright, virtuous, free from pain and care, glorified with every virtue, adorned with all that is good, like a sort of second microcosm within the great world another angel capable of worship, compound, surveying the visible creation and initiated into the mysteries of the realm of thought, king over the things of earth, but subject to a higher king…

    But God made him by nature sinless, and endowed him with free will. By sinless, I mean not that sin could find no place in him (for that is the case with Deity alone), but that sin is the result of the free volition he enjoys rather than an integral part of his nature; that is to say, he has the power to continue and go forward in the path of goodness, by co-operating with the divine grace, and likewise to turn from good and take to wickedness, for God has conceded this by conferring freedom of will upon him. For there is no virtue in what is the result of mere force.

    St Athanasius:

    Upon them, therefore, upon men who, as animals, were essentially impermanent, He bestowed a grace which other creatures lacked namely the impress of His own Image, a share in the reasonable being of the very Word Himself, so that, reflecting Him and themselves becoming reasonable and expressing the Mind of God even as He does, though in limited degree they might continue forever in the blessed and only true life of the saints in paradise.
    [Saint Athanasius (2014-08-25T23:58:59). On the Incarnation . David Rehak. Kindle Edition.]

    For more contemporary reading, I highly recommend Fr Stephen’s book “Everywhere present” and perhaps some the other articles Fr Stephen has written.
    Metropolitan Kalistos Ware’s book on the “Orthodox Way”.

  41. Patricia, Father, Dee, et al. Thanks for your comments (and Dee for the references).

    This may not be relevant to what people are thinking or looking for, but I can’t help but think in this context to the book by Markides, “The Mountain of Silence: A Search for Orthodox Spirituality.” (Even though this is not written by a theologian but a sociologist, and I’m sure there are people who have criticisms of the book.) I read it many years ago, but I do remember it was an exposition about the notion of logismoi. This is related to the idea that we are born into a world in which we “inherit” the conditions created by sin, and of course of the first sin which opened the door for disoredered thinking and behaviors of all kinds (what Father is referring to also as death and its full effect). It is the idea which reflects ancient insights about our psychology, if you will, that from the moment we’re born we begin simply to absorb these thought patterns which are misleading, false, heretical, half-truths (and so lies), etc. etc. This is, I believe, a right description of the Orthodox sense of what it is to be “born in sins.” I have read it compared to a parent who commits murder. The children do not inherit the guilt of murder. But they do inherit the conditions created by the murder, such as a mother or father in prison or on the run, the conditions of the family as a result, and all the things which result. In a nutshell, consider that as a “first sin” and think of all the possibilities that may spread from there.

  42. PS I also tend to think of the story of the demoniac who was named “Legion.” An entire legion of demons had occupied and driven this man more or less mad — the ones who, upon entering a herd of swine, drove them to mass suicide — but the man survived to be healed by Christ, restored and in his right mind. Consider then the sheer fact of his survival and eventual healing — what was it that protected him even under such a surfeit of direct evil, and living among tombs in total isolation? Hidden in the story is a gem that tells us about human nature and the care of God.

  43. Thanks Father, I’m glad it was a good suggestion! I read it so many years ago, but it helped me to understand.

  44. Our priest preached the sermon today on the Gospel of Legion. How easy it is for we humans to get taken over by the “herd” mentality. He gave several examples begining in 16th century London and up to the present day–the 20th century was full of such things. I find it very easy to judge everybody else but become one of the herd doing that. For me after 35 years in the Church I am finally beginning to see the only solution to the Logosmoi attacking is to repent and leave the judgement up to God. It is the only activity that allows me to begin to face my shame and begin to enter into his mercy. So far to go. Forgive me, a sinner.

    Dee, thank you for your sharing. I think that you are of the Spirit of St. Herman no use to change the name.

  45. Thank you Fr. Stephen,

    The first line spoke so clearly to me, “The story of the first sin begins not with a choice, but with a lie.”.
    I am busy reading C.S. Lewis’ The Space Trilogy. Perelandra has opened my heart and mind to see things in a new light.

    Pray for me.

  46. Jp Esnouf
    Thank you for mentioning this book. The temptation of the Green Lady is so subtle, yet is displayed to the reader through Ransom’s thoughts. This book beautifully portrays an innocent world such as we have not seen, but long for.

  47. The healing of shame (whether toxic or otherwise) is always an action of love. It is not a love that says, “Nothing is wrong,” (for that would itself be a lie). It is a love that says, “Then neither do I condemn you.”

    Father I think sometimes people believe that to love means that they need to be bosom buddies and do not differentiate the meaning of like versus the meaning of love as you describe in your article above. I believe it is possible to love someone without liking them. It stresses me sometimes that I do not hold warm fuzzies toward someone who has been very damaging throughout my life. But I work to respond in love regardless. (I believe Janine has described something similar in the past.) However, I also acknowledge that it is pretty easy to fall into a habit of disparagement. I believe it is helpful to consider that such actions in the heart, such as disparagement, reflect the presence of shame and the lies that are hidden beneath the shame.

    Dear Michael, thank you so much for your kind words.

  48. Dee,
    The healing of shame (especially the toxic stuff) is very difficult and takes a lot of love and patience. In some few cases, it might even require enduring some abuse (Christ endured the Cross as part of our healing). If you take the example of a dog that has been abused – they can be healed – but you might get bit several times in the process. It requires love and a lot of safety. But safety does not mean creating a space that is not honest and true.

    That said, it also requires that someone who is providing held needs to feel safe and secure themselves. It means having enough healing within oneself to not be too triggered by what you might endure. All of this is difficult. I am grateful for those who have been of help to me personally.

  49. Father, thanks so much for the link to Fr Roman Braga’s talk. I have read some of his writing, but this has made something clear to me that is a deep answer right now. More on this later, I think. But I believe it addresses an effect of toxic shame. Shame is so isolating, and it induces a chronic loneliness, especially when it is used as a deliberate tool. Fr. Braga speaks of God always being close, always with us, a living communion. This is a powerfully loving and healing remedy for the isolation of toxic shame.

    Father and Dee, Amen.

    Michael,
    She (the Theotokos) is the one who turns no one away. I could not even begin to express how much she’s done for me. I pray frequently using the Orthodox version of the Hail Mary prayer, and these repetitions are useful for me. I am reading Mother Alexandra’s book on The Holy Angels and I find it really insightful and helpful.

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