Fifth in an ongoing series on grace in Christianity:
Perhaps the rarest of all human virtues, treasured mostly in its absence, brought into focus most sharply in its antithesis.
If you ponder the subject for a moment, you may well find it surprising that we are anything but honest — that we do less than express exactly what we think, that we are anything but open and honest about our actions and motives. There are, after all, no dishonest dogs, no lying cats (though some might differ), no roguish raccoons or shady shellfish or mendacious mammals — save man.
So why, then, do we twist and torture the truth, crafting clever stories or deft deceits to cover our shortcomings and faults, smiling warmly while telling the most audacious prevarications concerning things both weighty and trivial? Why is this so often our default behavior?
What, exactly, are we trying to hide?
The answer lies in that dark angel of shame, that inner incubus engendered from a life spent divesting endless energy in the pursuit of the empty self. For dishonesty arises from evil, from the desire to hide that which must not be seen, from the need to present ourselves to others as something other than we are. Our ruptured relationship with God produces a perverse and unnatural self-sufficiency, driven by the desperate desire to fill the vast inner chasm thus resulting with a host of destructive desires, behaviors, and obsessions.
These fevered yet futile attempts to kill the existential emptiness and primal agony of life lived unnaturally, isolated from the life-source of God, prove highly toxic, causing yet greater distraction by their inevitable consequences. Designed to give, we strive endlessly to acquire; created to love, we engender hatred, exploiting others to fill our unquenchable needs, and detesting them when they prove unable to meet them. Our relationships become, not fertile beds of true intimacy, but vast webs of manipulation, abuse, resentment, and fear, as we suck the life out of others, seeking to satiate the insatiable void in our still-empty soul.
When we use the finite and futile to fill our edacity for the infinite, the invariable outcome of this manic miasma is a deepening conviction of our own guilt and growing awareness of our intrinsic unworthiness. Yet there remains a gossamer thread still tying us to the divine, an ancient truth near forgotten, a genesis of the God-life deep within, which says this can not, this must not, be true. And thus we craft another narrative of necessity, convincing ourselves and all around us that we are something which in fact we are not.
This pervasive dishonesty is the antithesis of transparency, and if we are to approach the ideal of being truly integrated — our inner self and outer appearances drawing toward unity — then we must come face to face with our own deceitfulness. This pilgrimage toward honesty must begin with the one with whom we are most deceitful: ourselves.
In our sophistry and sophistication this self-delusion is called by many names: rationalization; minimalization; justification; denial; projection. Though we often place such concepts solidly in the realm of science and psychology, they are in fact the attributes of a soul unwilling to face its inner abyss. They are, distilled down to their sordid essence, our unwillingness, our inability, to be rigorously, ruthlessly honest with ourselves.
Such a journey to the center of the soul cannot, indeed should not, be undertaken alone. The very strongholds we wish to conquer are such that they unite in their own defense: you will reason that you do not rationalize; you will deny your denial; project your fury at yourself onto others; minimalize your own responsibility for much which ails you. The mind is a dangerous neighborhood, best visited with another.
There is much to be learned from those who have undertaken this road to rigorous honesty through the crushing collapse of all of life’s props, brought about by the slavery of addiction and alcoholism. Driven to utter depredation and despondency by the scourge of a compulsion unbeatable and hopeless, they stagger into smoke-filled halls and church basements to seek what help they may from others of their kind. There they find kindred spirits — coarse in speech and common in appearance — yet victorious over the selfsame demons which shriek within their own dissipated minds.
They hear, for the first time, a startling truth:
Those who do not recover are people who cannot or will not completely give themselves to this simple program, usually men and women who are constitutionally incapable of being honest with themselves. There are such unfortunates. They are not at fault; they seem to have been born that way. They are naturally incapable of grasping and developing a manner of living which demands rigorous honesty. Their chances are less than average.
There are those, too, who suffer from grave emotional and mental disorders, but many of them do recover if they have the capacity to be honest.
Honesty: how peculiar, how unexpected, how self-evidently foolish as the solution to a deadly losing battle against booze. Yet those who triumph are those who become most willing to expose their darkest secrets, to face their shame, to lay it open before God, and share these hidden horrors which have enslaved them with another trusted friend.
Of course, you protest, you are not at all like those people, drunks and druggies, whose lack of moral character, hedonism, and enfeebled will must depend on such extreme and ridiculous measures to overcome their moral turpitude. You, on the other hand, a faithful Christian, have seen the light, and are walking the straight and narrow, secure in your own righteousness — err, the righteousness of Christ. The truth has set you free, after all — you know Christ.
And Christ knows you, and spoke about you often: something about “whitewashed tombs” comes to mind.
The path to honesty starts — startlingly — by getting honest, first and foremost, about ourselves. The dark heart of man knows no bounds — and the Christian is no exception, no matter how righteously we present ourselves to the outside world. Our hearts are filled with greed, lust, hatred, fear, pride, and extreme selfishness. Our one great advantage is this: when we are honest about our true nature, and act on that honesty, there is grace unlimited to overcome these inner demons.
So how then should we proceed?
We should, first of all, be systematic. Recovery programs use an approach which lists resentments, fears, and harms done to others — thereby covering a vast expanse of problems in human relationships which poison the soul — relationships so often devastated by the extraordinary self-centeredness so central to addiction. Other structured formats exist, based on lists of character defects, the principles of the Sermon on the Mount, the seven deadly sins, or other moral or spiritual principles. In a subsequent post I hope to expand on the recovery model, as well as provide a list of questions as a starting point to discovering core moral failings. The key here is not to achieve some legalistic righteousness, nor to engender guilt and self-pity, but rather to bring about conviction — that painful but healing knowledge of where we have failed, which is the commencement of a journey toward breaking the control of self-centered evil over our lives.
The second point is this: we do this to share with another. We should not strive to paint a rosy picture to impress, nor fill our story with a host of justifications, or endless whining about how life and its inhabitants have done us dirty. Surely they have in many instances — but we are responsible for our own attitudes and actions, regardless of the culpability of others. If we are rigorous and honest with ourselves, we will generally find we have brought much of life’s pain upon ourselves.
And lastly, we must pray. Unaided, our souls will drift and dodge, and find a million excuses for putting off this necessary work or justifying our ill motives and evil actions. Prayer empowers us to know, and in knowing, enables us to change. “I am the Truth and the Light” — both the ideal and the means to grasp and achieve it.
Everything inside you will rebel at this task, complete with procrastination, timidity, and our insane busyness whereby we avoid facing life’s painful truths and necessary reflections.
And of course, this self-examination isn’t really necessary, after all.
Unless, of course, you want to experience grace.