Telling the Truth

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.

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.





23 responses to “Telling the Truth”

  1. Nicole Avatar

    I wrestle with the lie by omission which silence sometimes begets. The spiritually mature Orthodox I know seek to cover another’s sins from public view, including my own. But sometimes people get hurt who are not warned about the intent or effects of another whose usual actions are being shielded and covered by these wise persons. We see that specifically in sexual predators. But there are other sorts of predators and prey. I understand the only enemy is not human and that we humans become unwitting tools and are easily deluded. But I struggle with the tension between Fr Hopko’s Speak the Truth in Love and the admonition to say nothing unless specifically asked and to pray only rather than to speak discreetly hopefully for the good of all in a situation. I am sure it is my undeveloped faith. But it is tough for me and perhaps especially now in the oca.

  2. MrsMutton Avatar

    It’s not limited specifically to the OCA! I have these same questions myself, in an everyday context as well as in church-life context, so would really appreciate your response to this seeming contradiction of speaking the truth but covering sins, even to the extent of lying (“This sin is mine,” when it isn’t — unless you take the point of view that we are all responsible for everyone’s sin).

  3. Robert Avatar

    And what about the lie that profits another, such as to save an innocent person, or to prevent damage or injustice? Do these ends justify the means, the “non-existence” of the lie is annulled? Does the failure to lie, in those cases, constitute sin and point to culpability? I would answer these questions in the affirmative.

  4. Dymphna Avatar

    This is a very enlightening post and VERY timely for me. Thank you so much!!

  5. Andrew B. Avatar
    Andrew B.

    Very well put Mrs. Mutton, Robert!

    I am not sure that such a thing can be called a lie, particularly if the premise itself has no existential base to speak of.

    What matters is the superfluity of love, agape — many who drink from this partuclar well seem to share in it’s common purpose.

  6. Andrew B. Avatar
    Andrew B.

    In fact, I’d say that all who drink from this particular well share in love’s common purpose, for who, truly, can place a boundary on that which is limitless?

    That purpose of course is nothing less than the life of God made visible –in other words, the Kingdom.

  7. Karen Avatar

    Robert, seems to me what Father is talking about here has to do first and foremost (and maybe only) with being honest within oneself. It is the lies we tell ourselves about ourselves that keep us from communion with God and from seeing anything else as clearly as we ought. It seems to me also stated here that merely keeping the moral rule not to lie, as our minds rigidly comprehend that, is inadequate (you suggest some concrete situations where that might indeed be the case).

  8. Joel Avatar

    Fr Stephen, thanks for that quote by St Athanasius. It was greatness. I actually need to read his work in full, but I am busy with “The Conferences” at the moment. I am an inquirer who just started to attend last week in Denton, so there is so much to read and so little time.

  9. fatherstephen Avatar

    A lie is unreality, and has a “sinful” or “unreal” character. Would I lie to protect an innocent child, for example. Sure. Would it have the character of sin? Sure – though it also has the character of love and this is the greater matter. There is no legalism involved. Would it be a sin to fail to protect an innocent child? Yes, a failure of love. Life in our fallen world presents us with conundrums. When in doubt – choose love – choose Christ – choose to die if need be.

  10. Michael Bauman Avatar
    Michael Bauman

    Perhaps the solution is to allow our hearts to be so confomed by the love of Christ and to the love of Christ that we simply don’t need to worry about the whole matter.

  11. Jerilyn Avatar

    Fr. Stephen, I am very disturbed by what appears to be the complicity of the Serbian Orthodox Church in the massacre of 40,000 Bosnian Muslims under Ratko Mlavic(sp?).

    THIS is pure evil, and I’m not feeling too great about calling myself “Orthodox” right now. It’s VERY disillusioning. Do you have anything to say that will make me feel better?

  12. fatherstephen Avatar

    I like the writings of Fr. Milovan Katanic (who is Serbian). He often offers truth and light on subjects that become very distorted within the international press. The Church does not deny the atrocities committed in recent years, indeed it condemned them. This is not to say that those involved in some of the killings were not also members of the Orthodox Church. But they do not represent the Church. I suggest reading this article on Fr. Katanic’s blog on the late Patriarch Pavle – an example of true Orthodoxy in a time of great trial. I hope it gives you some comfort.

  13. Michael Bauman Avatar
    Michael Bauman

    The mass killings, no matter who does them, are deplorable, but the western press has done a great job demonizing the Orthodox involvement and downplaying (or ignoring) the Muslim and Croation atrocities against the Serbs, past and present.

    A different perspective: Although I don’t remember the name of the town or the monastary it is in Kosvo. A few years ago during the middle of some of the worst fighting there, a Muslim man was told by doctors that his beloved daughter would soon die of some wasting disease that they could neither identify or treat successfully. He called up a local Orthodox monastary which had relics of a local saint renowed for their healing properties. He asked the Abbot if he could bring his daughter for a blessing. The Abbot readily agreed as Muslim’s often visit and venerate Christian holy sites and there had been a long tradition of such in this town. Fighting still going on while the UN ‘Peacekeepers’ stand around and watch…the father gets his daugher to the monastary, the abbot unveils the relics and prays for the daughter and the intercession of the saint. The daughter was healed.

    Make no mistake, there is a great deal of Cold War politics, WWII politics and Clinton’s tilt to the Muslim’s involved in all this. Just because someone claims to be Orthodox or uses Orthodox words and symbols and is identified as Orthodox by the press doesn’t mean they are Orthodox.

  14. Jerilyn Avatar

    Thank you for the replies, Fr. Stephen and Michael. I do think the media sometimes has an agenda when it comes to covering Christianity.

  15. Archcutter Avatar

    Dear Fr. Steve,
    What do you mean by non existing? Even the damned exist. I have meditated on the story of Lazerus and the “Rich Man”. He was known by name to Father Abraham. But the rich man is only referred to as “you WERE rich…” It seems to me that all this social networking internet stuff reveals that most precious of needs in us ie. the need to be named…known….loved. It is certain by this example in scripture that hell is a place of forgottonness, regretfulness, and the worst…namelessness. Non existance might be an attraction for the truly miserable. In fact the suicidal wish for it. But the horror of existance eternal in a forgotton, nameless, tormented state is a thought that should drive the thinker to grace. I know I need instruction in this. Please help me understand.

  16. fatherstephen Avatar

    You are right – even the damned exist – it is the gift of God and is never taken away from us. But there is a tendency towards non-existence in those who reject God because He is the Lord and Giver of Life. Thus ourselves, when we rebel against God, do not cease to exist, but start moving towards a relative non-existence, and it shows up in the “corruption” of which St. Paul speaks. He will sometimes speak of “death” at work in your “members.”

  17. Mrs. Mutton Avatar
    Mrs. Mutton

    My own priest noted that we wish “Memory eternal” to the deceased because there is a tradition that after the Last Judgement, those in heaven will not even remember the existence of those who are not there — because if they knew their loved ones were not in heaven they would be sad, and it’s impossible to be sad in heaven. So there’s a kick in the solar plexus for you: being forgotten by your nearest and dearest?! May we all find ourselves in eternal memory!

  18. Barbara Avatar


    These articles about the late Patriarch Pavle might be helpful as well. They were forwarded to me by Jim Forest, Director of the Orthodox Peace Fellowship, along with the introductory paragraph below.

    There is much of value in this article though it leaves out the opposition of the late Patriarch Pavle to the war as well as his many calls on former President Milosovic to resign. To refresh your memory, see:

    A chronicle on “The Church’s Role in Serbia’s Peaceful Revolution”:

    Also this article by Danny Abbot after Pavle’s death:

  19. zeitungzeid Avatar

    Mrs. Mutton (if I may),

    Eternal life, simply put is to be known (or remembered) by God.

    I think it is important to keep that distinction alive always (else we risk falling into relativsim, all too easy with our human failings).

  20. Mrs. Mutton Avatar
    Mrs. Mutton

    Zeitungszeid — I might take your point, if what I posted had not been said to me by not only an Orthodox priest, but also by an Orthodox priest whose spiritual guidance is itself guided by an Athonite elder. ‘Nuff said.

  21. zeitungzeid Avatar

    The kingdom is within Mrs. Mutton. Thus I shall keep that important distinction alive; but perhaps this is only because I am all too aware of my own failings.

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