A friend of mine, an alcoholic in recovery, is fond of saying: “Alcoholism is only 10% about a chemical, and 90% about dishonesty. You can drink, as long as you do so honestly.” He draws a wider moral axiom from this, adding: “In fact, you can do anything, as long as you don’t have to lie about it! It’s dishonesty, living a double life, that kills the soul and kills families.”
He’s right. It’s no accident that, in scripture, Satan is called “the prince of lies”, not the prince of sex or the prince of greed. More than anything else, it’s lying that corrupts the soul, destroys relationships, and sets itself against light. Lying is darkness, the worst form of it.
This is clear in scripture. Jesus tells us that all sins can be forgiven, except one: If someone should blaspheme the Holy Spirit, he says, that would constitute an “unforgivable sin”. How does one blaspheme against the Holy Spirit? Why is this unforgivable?
The unforgivable sin against the Holy Spirit begins with lying, with rationalization, with the refusal to acknowledge the truth. But we don’t commit this sin easily, overnight, the first time we tell a lie. We commit it down the line, through a sustained series of lies, long after we first told a lie to our loved ones and began to hide important parts of our lives from them. The soul warps slowly, like an old board soaked too often in the rain. It’s not the first time it gets wet that makes the warp.
We commit the sin against the Holy Spirit when we lie for so long that we believe our own lies. If we lie long enough, eventually light begins to look like darkness and darkness begins to look like light. That’s especially true of the lie of a double life, when we are no longer honest with our loved ones. If we do that long enough, eventually our betrayals begin to look like virtue, our lies like the truth, and what our families, faith, and churches stand for begins to look like falsehood, death, darkness.
Our sin then becomes unforgivable because we no longer want to be forgiven or deem any need to be forgiven. When a sin is unforgivable it’s because we don’t want to be forgiven, not because we’ve crossed some moral line in the sand beyond which God will no longer tolerate our behaviour. The blockage is rather that what we once saw as truth (honesty, faith, family, fidelity, health through transparency) now looks like falsehood and the behaviour we once had to hide from others and lie about now seems as virtue.
We commit the unforgivable sin against the Holy Spirit when we live so long inside of a lie that our souls can no longer recognize truth or forgiveness. That’s why Martin Luther warned: “Sin honestly!”
In John’s gospel, Jesus doesn’t talk about the sin against the Holy Spirit, but gives its lesson instead in reverse. He tells us that the single condition to enter into the kingdom, to go to heaven, is to refuse to lie, even if we are weak and sinful. Thus, in Chapter 9, John tells the story of a man who comes to faith in Jesus even though he is not particularly interested in faith or religion. He comes to faith and commitment simply because he refuses to tell a lie. Because the man refused to lie, Jesus eventually found him.
About 15 years ago, a young man, still in his twenties, produced an award-winning movie, Sex, Lies, and Videotapes. The story is rather simplistic and crass at times, but overall teaches the a lesson that could be from John’s gospel: The hero of the story, a young man with a bad history in the area of sexuality, resolves to make himself better by making a vow to never again tell a lie, even a very small one. Like the man who’s born blind in John’s gospel, that vow brings him to health. He gets better, much better. He then sets up a video camera and invites people to come and tell their stories. Those who tell the truth also get better, healthier, and those who lie and hide their infidelities continue to deteriorate in both health and happiness. The truth does set us free.
In her book, Guidelines for Mystical Prayer, Ruth Burrows describes what it means to die a “happy death”. To die in a good way, she states, is not a question of whether or not death catches us in a morally good moment or a morally bad one (dying drunk in a bar as opposed to dying in a church). Rather, to die a happy death is to die in honesty, without pretence, without the need to lie about our lives.
Only a saint, she says, can afford a saint’s death. The task for the rest of us is to die in honesty, as sinners asking God to forgive us for a life of weakness.
We need too to live that way.