To Tell the Truth

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.

About Fr. Stephen Freeman

Fr. Stephen is a retired Archpriest of the Orthodox Church in America, Pastor Emeritus of St. Anne Orthodox Church in Oak Ridge, Tennessee. He is also author of Everywhere Present: Christianity in a One-Storey Universe, and Face to Face: Knowing God Beyond Our Shame, as well as the Glory to God podcast series on Ancient Faith Radio.





17 responses to “To Tell the Truth”

  1. […] This post was mentioned on Twitter by Fabio Leite, Ζωντανό Ιστολόγιο. Ζωντανό Ιστολόγιο said: To Tell the Truth: Abba Poemen said, “Teach your mouth to say that which is in your heart. Speaking the truth is a… […]

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  3. […] This piece post by Fr. Stephen titled To Tell the Truth says some things I’ve thought about, and so much more. Please take the time to read this one. It is well worth it. […]

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  5. Steve Avatar

    I always enjoy reading your posts. They are thoughtful and well written and I appreciate the amount of time that must go in to each of your articles on this blog. It does seem that we often try and reduce the Gospel to a “morality” document and it is obviously so much more. It seems to me that this type of thinking often leads the church to perceive its role in the world as the “morality police”, which falls far short of what we are supposed to be doing.

  6. Jeremiah Avatar

    This is another reminder of how I need to be reminded of the true nature of Life in Christ. I have been reflecting on how I really missed the point of the Incarnation as a Protestant. Jesus didn’t come to make sinner moral, He came to give them life, and that more abundantly.

    I also appreciate what you had to say about confession being a bringing of the darkness in my heart into the light. I have been listening to Fr George Morelli’s reflections on being able to properly evaluate yourself, situations, others etc, and how this comes into play during Confession. As a catechumen, I have been participating in a pre-sacramental confession practice. I want to be truly prepared for Sacramental Confession. The thought of bringing my darkness to the light is terrifying. I feel like no one can be worse than myself. I think I am starting to understand that it will be a greater relief to bring my darkness to light, and receive absolution, than to be tormented by darkness that remains in secret.

  7. David Di Giacomo Avatar
    David Di Giacomo

    Father Stephen, I have a question about this, a question that has been bothering me for a while. It is not uncommon to read, in various spiritual writings such as the Desert Fathers, that “pretending for the sake of salvation” or “using deception to safeguard your solitude”, or other similar things, is not sinful. We see this exemplified in the lives of various saints. Now, I have a serious problem with this and I have not really heard a satisfactory answer yet. I thought (perhaps I was taught) that telling the truth (in love) was paramount, and that if you can’t tell the truth it’s better to remain silent. How am I supposed to understand this? I have a very, very hard time conceiving that telling a lie, or being willfully misleading, can ever be right.

  8. Jeremiah Avatar

    Forgive me for being presumptuous and answering a question directed to Fr Stephen. I happen to think of a few Old Testament examples of lying being acceptable, and even the outcome of that lie being blessed by God. First would be the Midwives in Exodus who refused to killed the babies at birth, but told Pharaoh that the Hebrew women gave birth too fast. The other example is found in Joshua, where Rahab lies to the men of Jericho, when they are search for the Hebrew spies whom she hid in the thatching of her roof. In Judges, Ehud uses deceit to get into the audience of Israel’s oppressor, and by slaying him, sets the nation free.
    I have to admit that I have not heard of this practice among the saints. It would be interesting to hear the answer given for this practice.

  9. Mrs. Mutton Avatar
    Mrs. Mutton

    Just leaving a coment so I can follow this discussion. Jeremiah and David have raised a question I have often wondered about.

  10. fatherstephen Avatar

    There are cases, particularly those of “holy fools”, who seem to fall outside the bounds. It is not normal, nor exemplary, it’s just there. Holiness takes this particular turn at some times. As for us. Tell the truth.

    The cases you cite are not driven by any darkness of the heart but by a desire for God.

    The question you have phrased is more or less one of what is “forensically” right or wrong. We should not ignore the question, but it does not go to the heart of the question. There is in certain cases a kind of latitude for the sake of salvation. But it is not based in a casuistry – rather it’s based in a charism and is subject to spiritual obedience.

  11. Alice C. Linsley Avatar

    Another one of your excellent quotable statements, Father:

    “Truth is not a matter of morality – it is a matter of existence and non-existence.”

    So true! The Christian Faith ultimately is not about morality, but about Truth who has entered the world to save sinners such as me.

  12. David Di Giacomo Avatar
    David Di Giacomo

    Jeremiah, I have to admit that even the scriptural examples of deception being acceptable have always made me squirm. They still do.

    Father Stephen, I understand (I think) what you are saying, but I can’t say it really satisfies me as an answer. In all likelihood this says more about me than it does about your answer. Lord have mercy!

    Thank you for answering my question.

  13. Collator Avatar

    There are quite a few examples of (A.D.) saints telling lies. St. Gerasimos of Cephalonia (if I remember correctly) once hid a murderer in his monastery when the authorities were chasing him, and denied that he had seen him when they passed that way. The man, overhearing the conversation from his hiding place, was moved to repentance when he realized from the exchange that the one he had murdered was the brother of the saint!

    A saying in the Desert Fathers justifies this particular example explicitly. A monk goes to an elder and says, “Father, what shall I do with my tongue, for I cannot stop lying?” The elder replies that if one does not tell a lie, one might fall into sin. He uses the example of hiding a murderer and leaving his judgment in the hands of God [although not having the added twist of the murder being one’s brother, as with St. Gerasimos].

    Interestingly, in these cases — esp. in the latter, where the elder says specifically to leave judgment in God’s hands rather than, one understands, the civil authorities — the whole reaction to the situation goes against accepted cultural morality, with which Fr. Stephen dealt in his post. From my reading, it seems that the ethic of the Desert Fathers placed a great emphasis on “not judging” than did other Church Fathers — e.g. St. John Chrysostom, who often emphasizes the need for civil and ecclesiastical authority to rein in human evils. So with regard to various questions of lying, judgment, morality, etc. you may get varying answers from different Fathers.

  14. Darlene Avatar

    As regards the recent dialogue here, I think “context” is of the utmost importance when trying to understand such matters. I think of the Christians who hid Jewish people during Nazi Germany. Much stealth and deception was required to do this without the notice of the authorities. But history has shown that what these Christians did was honorable and pleasing to God.

    On the other hand, I once was a member of a Christian sect that encouraged teens to lie to their parents when they came around to our fellowship. When the parents of one of the teens restricted him from coming to our Bible studies, our fellowship kidnapped him and had him sent off to a fellowship house in another city and state. We used Scriptures where lying was done for the better good to defend our actions. I look back on that situation and cannot in any way condone it or defend it from Scripture, history, or the lives of the saints.

  15. Karen Avatar

    Darlene, very good concrete examples.

  16. Collator Avatar

    I’ll second Karen on Darlene’s examples. The freedom of the Spirit, not the slavery of the letter. But without the letter of the law as a tutor in the Spirit, we will abuse that freedom or a pseudo-freedom that we think is spiritual, as the Corinthians to whom St. Paul was writing were doing.

  17. Fran Glaros-Sharp Avatar
    Fran Glaros-Sharp

    Having just read the 34 oages of the St. Gerasimos life story, no where did I see where he hid someine and then lied and said he did not know where the person was. His was one story I did not want to put down until finished. He was a most devout human being. We need more priests like him to bring the people of this natiin back to God.

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