‘And you will know the truth, and the truth will make you free’ (John 8:32)
I have often heard these words invoked, either glibly for dramatic effect, or to underline a point made in an argument, and have more than likely used them myself for similar reasons. Yet, as with many of Jesus’ words, their full impact does not always hit home and provide the liberation intended. I am certainly not questioning the potency of the words themselves; rather I point towards a deficiency in myself, a certain dullness of spirit that requires repeated experience to drive home their reality into my mind.
I have often had experiences wherein a belief that I have long held to be true in theory makes itself known to me in a manner that is that much more real, more concrete than before, that in the same instance I have realised that perhaps I didn’t truly know it, at least not in the sense that it was part of me, and a living reality to me. C. S. Lewis wrote in a letter to Don Giovanni Calabria (26th December 1951) about having experiencing the forgiveness of sins in this way, after believing that he had believed it for many years previously, and commented that:
‘So great is the difference between mere affirmation by the intellect and that faith, fixed in the marrow and as it were palpable, which the Apostle wrote was substance*.’
Similarly, many doctrines have come home to me in this way over time. But what I have most recently experienced is in direct relation to the passage from John quoted above – namely that truth, divine truth, does indeed liberate. In trying (and failing, and trying again, etc) to keep the commandments, to live rightly, one always has a few ‘pet sins’ that keep tripping one up again, or that one just cannot let go of and keeps coming back to again and again. I am sure that I am not alone in experiencing a profound sense of fatigue and disappointment when (insert sin here) is committed for the umpteenth time – it really can be quite dispiriting. My recent discovery is of one of those very things that, as Lewis described above, I had believed that I believed for many a year, but only hard-worn experience finally brought home to me, which is that sinning doesn’t make you happy, and conversely, living in accord with God’s will does. Or, to put it another way, ‘the truth shall make you free.’ This is wisdom that recurs repeatedly throughout Scripture, is the constant teaching of the Church, and something I have read about in a hundred books, but it was not until recently that I finally sat down, dispirited and tired at making the same mistakes over and over again, and a light switched on in my head – the truth became real for me. The idea that God’s will for us is not just a set of commands issued to ‘keep us on track’ but the ideal path for human freedom and happiness, was something I had accepted in theory for a long time, but only now did the penny really drop, so to speak. It is laughable really, but sadly true, that it takes this long for eminently practical realities to awaken in our minds, but there it is. As Frank Sheed put it in his Theology and Sanity (1993, Ignatius Press, p.447):
‘Given that God made us all of nothing and continues to hold us in existence, it follows that we depend for our existence entirely upon the will of God. Sin is an effort to gain some happiness for ourselves against the will of God, against the one thing that is holding us in existence at all. What could be more ridiculous?’
True indeed. But, alas, I am pretty sure that this experience is not limited to myself, and I assume this is all part and parcel of the condition known as Original Sin. However, what is interesting to me about this particular aspect of our fallenness is the sheer silliness of our resistance to the way of life God wants for us. Maybe, in our spirit of rebellion (mostly an unconscious rebellion perhaps, but all the more insidious for that), we are simply determined to go our own way simply because it is our way – there has certainly been something of the toddler digging its heels into the ground about many of my past wrong decisions. Maybe it’s just because it’s hard to do the right thing, and easy to go with habit – there is good reason that Jesus talks about people being slaves to sin (John 8:34), and Paul says that ‘I do not do the good I want, but the evil I do not want is what I do’ (Romans 7:19). At any rate, we are all of us a stiff-necked people; but realising the futility and ridiculousness of our sin can be a step towards appreciating the richness, vitality and joy that can be ours when we allow God to set us free from it. Looking at our situation from this perspective can at least allow us to laugh a little at ourselves, and avoid the kind of anger we often experience post peccatum, which though seeming like genuine contrition, is more often than not rooted in disappointment with ourselves, not at having displeased God. Saint Francis de Sales suggests it is more fruitful to practice meekness towards ourselves:
‘For though reason requires that we should be displeased and sorry when we commit any fault, yet we must refrain from a bitter, gloomy, spiteful and passionate displeasure…In any case, angers, spites and vexations against ourselves tend to pride, and flow from no other source than self-love, which is troubled and disquieted to see ourselves imperfect…so we correct ourselves much better by calm and steady repentance than by harsh, eager and passionate repentance. The latter proceeds not according to the quality of our faults, but according to our inclinations!’
(Introduction to the Devout Life, Part III, Chapter IX)
He then goes on to recommend that ‘when, then, your heart falls, raise it up gently; humbling yourself greatly before God, and acknowledging your misery, but without being surprised at your fall…and return to the way of virtue which you had forsaken with great courage, and confidence in his mercy’ (ibid). Experiencing how foolhardy it is to depart from God’s plan for us at all, and how tragic-comic our sins are when seen in light of His fervent desire to free us from the shackles of those habits that drag us down and always (in the long run) make us miserable, has certainly given me a new outlook on things, and I hope in the future this knowledge will help me to look upon my sins in the way Saint Francis describes. Unfortunately though, however much of a breakthrough this may be for me personally, I know there are many others for whom it may well remain purely theoretical, yet to be claimed and made their own. Also, I know that for me this is only another beginning, and there is plenty more hidden amongst the treasures of the Deposit of the Faith that I have yet to apprehend and fully make my own. But, today I rejoice in the knowledge that God truly wants me to be happy and free, and that living in harmony with his will is the sure way to achieve both those things. In the words of St Irenaeus, Gloria Dei homo vivens – the glory of God is a human being fully alive!