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.