In Dostoyevsky’s novel, The Brothers Karamazov, Fyodor Karamazov – the father of three sons, Dimitri, Ivan and Alyosha – is a deceitful man in thought, word and deed. Early in the story, Fyodor and his three sons seek a meeting with the highly esteemed Father Zosima. The purpose is to sort out a conflict over money between Fyodor and his eldest son Dimitri. After a rather florid outburst from Fyodor, provoked by Father Zosima’s telling him, ‘do not be so ashamed of yourself, for that is at the root of it all’, Father Zosima encourages him to let go of his deceitful life. Finally, and most significantly, Father Zosima tells Fyodor: ‘Above all, don't lie to yourself’ (Fyodor Dostoyevsky, The Brothers Karamazov, translated by Constance Garnett, The Modern Library, 1950, 48).
Dostoyevsky was one of the greatest writers ever to publish a novel. What passes for good novels these days pales into insignificance alongside literature like The Brothers Karamazov. He has his characters wrestle with universal and timeless human issues, like freedom and responsibility, truth and lie. In fact, he echoes the words and teachings of Jesus as brought to us by the Gospel John.
In today’s brief Gospel text – John 3:14-21 – John has Jesus make a summary statement of human moral possibilities: “The light has come into the world, and people loved darkness rather than light because their deeds were evil. For all who do evil hate the light and do not come to the light, so that their deeds may not be exposed. But those who do what is true come to the light”. The metaphor of light, in John’s Gospel, is inseparably linked with truth and freedom and responsibility. All these moral realities are ultimately grounded and made possible in and through Jesus’ exaltation – his death on the cross. Jesus is our light – see John 1:8-9 – he is our truth – see John 14:6 – he is our freedom – see John 8:32.
Father Zosima’s advice to Fyodor Karamazov – “Don’t lie to yourself” – is a practical and accessible starting point for us to hear the teaching of Jesus. If you are feeling sad, lonely, angry or anxious or whatever – the truth is you are feeling sad, lonely, angry or anxious or whatever! Recognize the truth! Face the truth! Submit to the truth! Let the light shine in your life! Recognizing, facing and submitting to the truth, has multiple good consequences. Firstly, the fact that Jesus identified himself with truth means that each and every encounter with the truth is potentially an encounter with Jesus. Secondly, truth liberates, lies entrap. The truth of our experience – yes even the truth of our pain – holds a key to our freedom. Thirdly, light comes with truth, darkness with the lie.
It might help to remember that Jesus spoke of Satan as “the father of lies” – see John 8:44. Look around you. How much truth saying shapes our lives? A growing commitment to Jesus can be grounded in Father Zosima’s advice: “Above all, don’t lie to yourself”.