You are as sick as your sickest secret!

That’s a popular aphorism in recovery circles and it speaks a deep truth. If we have to hide something then we aren’t well, at least if the blemishes we are hiding are moral rather than physical. A recovering alcoholic once told me: “Sobriety is only 10% about alcohol or a drug; it’s 90% about honesty. You can drink, if you can do it honestly.” Indeed you can do anything, if you can do it honestly.

That’s an interesting moral principle: You can do anything if you don’t have to lie about it.

There are exceptions to this of course if people have hardened their spirits or are otherwise so morally insensitive that they are not ashamed to openly admit or even flaunt duplicity. But the principle is sufficient as a moral guide for basically anyone walking in grace. Simply put, you can do anything as long as you can be honest about it.

But that covers a lot of ground. Could you cheat someone, be sexually unfaithful, slander someone, or commit a sin of any kind and feel comfortable in sharing that openly with those who are closest to you? The need to hide some action from others is a strong moral nudging. If we are walking (at least essentially) in grace we don’t need any other commandment: We can do anything as long as we don’t have to lie about it.

And there is another insight in this. When we do something wrong and then cover it up and lie, it is not so much the particular thing that we did wrong that harms us, it’s the lying about it afterwards that does the real damage. We are all weak, we all fall, we all commit sin. God understands this and it is not so much the sin itself that harms us. What causes the real harm is lying, covering up, sneaking around, not being transparent, living a double life. Why? Because the human spirit is not made to live in dishonesty and duplicity. When we do wrong, we either have to stop doing what we are doing or, at least in honesty and contrition own our weakness, or our spirits will automatically begin to harden and to warp. Such is the anatomy of the soul; it can not tolerate moral duplicity for long without hardening and warping.

Indeed that is how the unforgivable sin against the Holy Spirit, the one infamous sin that cannot be forgiven, can happen. It begins with lying, rationalization, cover-up, and dishonesty. When we sustain a lie for any length of time, we begin to warp our own insides and the sin can become unforgivable not because God doesn’t want to forgive but because we no longer see any need to be forgiven. Lying, especially to ourselves, hardens and corrupts the spirit. That’s why Satan is called the prince of lies rather than the prince of weakness. That’s also what is contained in Martin Luther’s famous axiom: Sin bravely! The invitation, in Luther, is not that we should have the courage to sin without flinching, but that, if we do sin, we should have the courage of honesty so as not to lie or rationalize about it after the fact.

One of the qualities that endeared Henri Nouwen to the world was precisely his honesty about his own weaknesses and his refusal to pretend he was anything other than what he was: a sincere, weak man struggling to live his life in honesty. For example, there were seasons in his life when he wouldn’t go on the road alone to give talks and conferences. Partly his reason for this had to do with his sense of community and his desire to bring a core member from his community along with him. Part of his reason though was more humble. He was also honest enough not to always fully trust himself to travel alone. The presence of family and community around us can be a powerful moral watchdog on our behavior. Nouwen was humble and honest enough to admit that sometimes he needed this in his life. Too often we lack that kind of humility and honesty and consequently have things to hide, little or big secrets which we keep hidden and which keep us from full moral health.

When he was falsely accused of sexual abuse, Cardinal Joseph Bernardin was able to stand before the world and say, with credibility: “Everyone who knows me also knows that this accusation is false because my life is an open book.” Everyone who knew him believed him precisely because of the transparency evident in his life, the radical sobriety manifest in his person.

Sobriety is ultimately not about alcohol or some drug. It’s about honesty and transparency. And, like honesty and transparency, it is not all or nothing, but has degrees. We are all sober according to more or less, according to the degree that our lives are an open book with nothing hidden in the closet.