Translated by Olga Lissenkova
There is no doubt that one of the most common and ‘slight’ sins is censuring one’s neighbor. Many might even fail to realize that this quite common and seemingly insignificant sin is actually the beginning and the root for many sinful habits that are much more dangerous. At that, the confessor must keep in mind and bring home to the repentant the following things:
(1) First of all, this sin is in close association with the passion of pride that’s been discussed above. Disapproving of others’ drawbacks, a person thinks himself or herself better, cleverer, more honest and more righteous than others. That is why one is to subdue one’s passion of pride and self-importance.
(2) It is not up to a person to judge others for their actions and drawbacks. The Savior Himself commands to us, ‘Stop judging, so that you won’t be judged, because the way that you judge others will be the way that you will be judged, and you will be evaluated by the standard with which you evaluate others. Why do you see the speck in your brother’s eye but fail to notice the beam in your own eye?’ (Matthew, 7: 1-3). Apostle Paul reproaches the Romans, ‘Who are you to criticize someone else’s servant? He stands or falls before his own Lord – and stand he will, because the Lord makes him stand’ (Romans 14: 4). The final justice is divine.
(3) As to human justice, it’s the anticipation of God’s Last Judgment. Our justice can never be unprejudiced. In our judgment we are usually influenced by accidental impressions, or, which is more often, by hurt, irritation, anger, accidental ‘moods.’ It’s an important observation that usually we denounce others for the drawback we ourselves have, and we do not even notice this. One, who’s not clever but thinking oneself clever, would denounce narrow-mindedness (not to say silliness) in others. One who is vain and self-important would usually get indignant at others’ self-conceit. One who is mammonish would see in others indications of this passion, it can be wastefulness, without understanding that, being avaricious, one oneself is subject to the same passion; etc.
(4) Moreover, salving this sin one must bear in mind the following psychological aspect. It’s human nature to reason and to think, this is why one can impassively form one’s opinion of others, of their qualities, actions, behaviour. One can do this without denouncing others. It would be judgment but not censure. If one abandoned one’s ability to hold an opinion, one would abandon the ability to think and reason. It is in everyone’s nature and it is indispensable for all to sound these opinions. A teacher marks his or her pupils’ progress, a critic expresses his or her opinion of a book he or she reads, a chief assesses his or her employees’ execution. Opinions like ‘the work is slipshod,’ ‘the student is not very bright,’ ‘the verses are poor,’ are not indications of the sin of denouncing one’s neighbor, and one is not to repent of them before the confessor. But as soon as such opinions get permeated with envy, self-conceit, animosity, any kind of passion, our judgment inevitably becomes arrogant, it gets one-sided and not impartial, and so it becomes a sinful denouncement. It would be useful to point out to people who are prone to condemn others the example of the nameless Uncondemning Monk mentioned in the ‘Prologue from Ochrid’ (readings for March, 30). In spite of all his numerous drawbacks, God forgave him everything because he never denounced others’ sins. Without blaming others, he never praised himself but humbly admitted his sins and infirmities.
Among other ‘minor’ sins one has to mention lying together with gossiping and idle talk that are close to lying. Lying is so deeply rooted in the consciousness of the modern society that it’s become an integral part of life.
This sin takes many forms, from exaggeration, boasting and such, to barefaced lying. Often people are not aware that the forms of lying they think quite innocent are really sinful. They do not even notice exaggerations in a tale and ‘laying it on thick.’ They would speak of themselves trying to show themselves in a better light, and painting others’ drawbacks much blacker than they are in reality. With the help of intonation they would make others’ remarks seem offending, while their own words would sound meek, as if there were nothing blamable in them. Without even noticing it, people pervert the truth, trying to make their listeners believe it, and, what’s more dangerous, they themselves start to believe the perverted facts to be the truth. So the people grow accustomed to the false images they create, they take this lying for the truth, and imperceptibly get tangled in this thin web of lies.
Another kind of lying people think quite harmless is everyday deceit. ‘Tell them I am not in,’ when they do not want to see someone; ‘diplomatic’ indisposition instead of a sincere refusal to participate in a meeting or business; practical jokes and such. On the surface it looks harmless and innocent, but in reality it step by step corrupts honesty and truthfulness, as it teaches a person to lie easily and without pricks of conscience.
Here one can also mention lying to patients, ‘to save them the fear,’ assuring a suffering person who is very ill and can die, that there is nothing the matter with him or her. To add to this, people who have heard something in the Church Slavonic language would justify themselves with the psalm quotation, ‘lying is a horse that saves you,’ absolutely misunderstanding the real meaning of Prophet David’s words. In reality, our inaccurate translation distorts the meaning of the original quote. It’s not that lying is a horse in saving, but that a horse can be a false hope for salvation, i.e. a horse can fail the rider’s hope to get saved. In English it is ‘A horse is a false hope for victory,’ or, in another translation, ‘A horse is a vain thing for safety’ (Psalm 32: 17).
Finally, lying can be barefaced, shameless, in all its satanic dangerousness. In this case lying becomes a person’s second nature: he or she grows used to lying, lies are necessary for him or her to express his or her ideas.
Lying in the small, in the seemingly innocent exaggeration, as a witticism or for fun, gradually subdues a person so that one compromises with one’s conscience very easily even in concerns of principle. In order to save something or somebody people think it admissible to contract an alliance with fundamental lying, to compromise with anti-Christian ideas, etc., because it is supposed to alleviate somebody’s sufferings.
Compromising with one’s conscience is a typical illness of our century. As a Russian thinker puts it, mankind ‘has not gone out of its mind, it has gone out of its conscience.’
In this context, the following words by God become especially acute, ‘You belong to your father the devil, and you want to carry out the desires of your father. He was a murderer from the beginning and has never stood for truth, since there is no truth in him. Whenever he tells a lie he speaks in character, because he is a liar and the father of lies’ (John 8:44). The devil cannot give rise to anything that would not be devilish; there can be nothing good resulting from a lie, but another lie. A small or a big lie, a ‘defensible’ or an open lie, a lie for fun or for real is still a lie and nothing other than a lie. Its results can be nothing but deceitful, corrupting, and finally devilish – which means anti-Christian.
Our Lord is ‘the way, the truth, and the life’ (John 14: 6), one comes to Christ by truth, not by lying. And only Christ takes one to One’s Father. It’s only the truth that sets people free (John 8: 32).
Along with lying, distorting the truth, there is the sin of idle talk, which is unavailing, excessive and empty usage of the gift of words. Often people start with necessary words and continue with useless and aimless chatting. Words are spent needlessly, time is spent on chatter just for the sake of saying anything. For such people words are gradually losing their meaning and purpose. A word as a way of expressing thoughts becomes idle and empty. In this idle talk one loses time that could be spent in another way: for edification, for intelligent communication.
Words are no more ‘seasoned with salt’ (Colossians 4: 6), they become meaningless, and a long talk finally is of no benefit to anyone. On the whole, words become empty, with no thought behind them.
The Greek word ‘logos’ meant both ‘word’ and ‘idea.’ The word is to express some idea, to reflect the works of the mind. The word is to express some truth. Exaggerations, repetitions, meaningless expressions turn the whole talk into something senseless. A unique gift given only to humans gets spent in vain and does not differ much from the uttering words we can teach a parrot, a starling or any injudicious creature.
Piling up lots of adjectives where one, the brightest and most exact word would suffice, abuse of superlatives and such words as ‘stunning,’ ‘colossal,’ ‘exclusive,’ ‘perfect,’ ‘awfully important,’ not to mention such an absurdity as ‘infernally merry.’ All this testifies to a reduction of the meaning the word must bear.
Cultivating a good, clear and peaceful style is not only a literary whim, it signifies lucidity and soberness of mind and loyalty to the true meaning of a gift of words.
Idle talk, denounced in the prayer of St. Ephrem Sirin, and lies, denounced by the Lord Himself, grow on the same grounds. This is why the confessor must teach the repentant from their childhood to be careful with their words, truthful, and to never justify any form of lie. A child must be taught to be ready to get punished for misbehaviour but not to lie in order to evade the penalty. Sooner or later the truth will come to light, and the liar will suffer more then than he would if he told the truth at once. ‘I tell you, on the day of judgment people will give an account for every thoughtless word they have uttered, because by your words you will be acquitted, and by your words you will be condemned’ (Matthew 12: 36-37). It’s natural that a priest, teaching others, must himself remember the importance and the value of the word. He should not tolerate idle talk and even verbosity. One must remember that the word must correspond to its meaning. And it is even more important to remember that our ability to express ourselves in words, our ‘logosness’ is an indication of our rationality, and it makes us related with the hypostatic word itself, which is ‘the way, the truth, and the life.’