“Above All — Don’t Lie”

“Above All — Don’t Lie”
Brian Zahnd

Lately I’ve been thinking about the seductive nature and ruinous consequence of embracing lies. I’m alarmed by what seems to be a deliberate move toward a post-truth society. Euphemistic language is eroding veracity. Lies are sold as “alternative facts” while uncomfortable truth is dismissed as “fake news.” Political tribalism requires adherence to an approved “version of the truth.” Propaganda and conspiracy theories have become the mind-addling narcotics of groupthink. The Information Age is swiftly devolving into the Disinformation Age. So I need to say something: With all my heart I urge you to resist being swept away in a current of lies. There are few things, if any, as destructive to the soul as embracing untruth. As the Proverb says, “Buy the truth, and sell it not.” Above all — don’t lie.

If God is the Logos, then the devil is the Lie. Jesus says as much when he tells us that the devil is a liar and the father of lies. (John 8: 44) Truth is that which is the case; a lie is that which is not. To live in lies is to move toward nonbeing. If we play along with lies, we run the risk of becoming so disoriented that we lose our way altogether. This is what it means to be spiritually lost. The price for trafficking in lies is a perverse deformity of the soul. Perhaps no addiction is more absolute and more corrosive than habituated lying. The great danger in lying is that we become a lie — and a lie is that which is not. When a human being becomes a lie, what can Jesus say to such a person other than, “Depart from me, I don’t know who you are.”? Liars have their part in the lake of nonbeing. We can hold to a Pauline hope for all to be saved, but for some it may be a very long and arduous journey. So above all — don’t lie.

Two days ago I was reminded of a particular passage in The Brothers Karamazov when theologian Miroslav Volf tweeted about it. The Brothers Karamazov is almost my other canonical text. I’ve read the entire novel four times, but there are certain passages I return to over and over again, and this is one of them. In Book II, Chapter 2, “The Old Buffoon,” Fyodor Karamazov — the wicked father of the three Karamazov brothers and often described as a buffoon — visits the wise and saintly Elder Zosima at his monastery. During their conversation, in a display of typical theatrical buffoonery, the old man falls to his knees and asks Zosima, “What shall I do to inherit eternal life?” Despite the disingenuous nature of Karamazov’s question, Zosima responds sincerely, exhorting him to a life of moral reformation and concludes by saying, “Above all — don’t lie.” When Karamazov asks what he means by that, Zosima says,

“Above everything else — do not lie. Above all, do not lie to yourself. A man who lies to himself and listens to his own lie comes to a point where he does not discern any truth either in himself or anywhere around him, and thus falls into disrespect towards himself and others. Not respecting anyone, he ceases to love, and having no love, he gives himself up to passions and coarse pleasures, in order to occupy and amuse himself, and in his vices reaches complete bestiality, and it all comes from lying continually to others and to himself.”

I love Elder Zosima. Though Zosima is a fictional character, I prefer to think of him as my favorite theologian. (Zosima is largely based on two monks from whom Dostoevsky received spiritual counsel following the death of a child.) In the above passage Zosima warns the old buffoon that the greatest danger in the practice of deceit is that we eventually believe our own lies. We become the victim of our own duplicity. Once we have fallen into the abyss of self-deception, it is nearly impossible to escape. In such cases it seems the only way back to truth and salvation is by a path of deep suffering — as I’m sure Zosima would agree.

(Those of you familiar with The Brothers Karamazov may remember that in the same scene at the monastery, Elder Zosima bows before Dmitri. Zosima later explains to Alyosha that he bowed to “his great future suffering” — a suffering that Zosima foresees as a necessary part of Dmitri’s path to redemption.)

In his exhortation to the old buffoon, Zosima connects self-deceit with an inability to love — which is clearly an echo of the Apostle John who says that those who hate others are first of all liars. (See 1 John 4.) Later in The Brothers Karamazov, Elder Zosima associates hell with a fundamental inability to love. In Book VI, chapter 3, “Talks and Homilies,” Zosima says, “I ask myself: ‘What is hell? And I answer thus: ‘The suffering of being no longer able to love.’” The road to hell is not paved with good intentions — it’s paved with lies. We lie to others, then we lie to our self, eventually we believe our lie, finally we become a lie — a lie incapable of love. This is the road to hell.

And this is why a well-crafted liturgy of prayer is so important in the proper formation of the soul. A truthful liturgy forces us to tell the truth about God and about ourselves. Every morning I employ the honest language of the psalms and liturgy to tell the truth about myself — that I am a sinner; that I am still only beginning to learn how to love well; and that I stand in constant need of the grace and mercy of God. If I begin my day by telling the truth in the presence of God, I place myself on a trajectory to tell the truth to myself and others as I go about my day.

There may not be all that much that truly warrants our hatred — but lies is surely one of them. We hate lies because we seek to love the truth. Indeed, as Jesus taught us, it is only the truth that can make us free.


(The artwork is a lithograph by Fritz Eichenberg (1901–1990) in an illustrated edition of The Brothers Karamazov. It is entitled The Old Buffoon.)