Sin is Enacted Falsehood

I woke up Saturday morning thinking about sin. I know, I know: it sounds sick. But it wasn’t morbid, or anything. I wasn’t regretting my manifold wickednesses. No, I was enjoying the odd, synchronistic confluence in my intellectual life of inputs from several disparate sources, that each illumined the same issue of sin from slightly different perspectives, in such a way as to provide me as I woke with an increase in cerebral economy, otherwise known as an insight: the discovery of a connection between several ideas, that harmonized and integrated them.

In a post the other day at one of his several useful blogs, Bruce Charlton suggested that habitual lying, such as that in which the slaves of political correctness indulge themselves, deforms the circuitry of the brain in such a way as to cripple the ability to think. I have thought something of the sort for decades, ever since I read William Powers’ pellucid, masterful, amiable and penetrating Behavior: the Control of Perception.[1] The basic idea I derived from Powers, as implicit in his explication of the logical structure of the nervous system under the terms of control system theory, is that in lying, superordinate circuits override the truthful output signals arising from subordinate circuits, either damping them, or masking them altogether. In effect, one control system of the brain disagrees with another, and insists that it get its own way. But, therein lies the rub; for, there is never any free lunch.

Say that a control system C in Joe’s brain reports to its superordinate control system S in the hierarchy of control systems H that the value of the system state variable V it is dedicated to control is x. Suppose, that is to say, that the output signal of C has the intensity x. Suppose further that, for reasons of its own (or of some other subordinate control systems), S lies to H about x. To lie about x is easy for S. All it needs to do is add some product of its own to the output of C. Perhaps it could obtain that output by rounding to the nearest axonal threshold from the product of a function on inputs from its other subordinate control systems, some of them urgently signaling in their own right. Or, perhaps S is just set up to apply a smoothing function to its outputs, along with its other logical operations. Either way, the signal from C might be swamped, or masked. Whatever the calculus of its production, the effect of that noisy intervention would be to push the net output signal from S to H toward 0.

Now, that would be the normal, restful state of affairs for S, and for its reports to H, its preferred ground or target state, with V – and all other variables under the control of systems subordinate to S – within their target range of values, so that C and its counterparts – and, ergo, S – were all quiet.[2] Only when there was a problem – this being signified by a system state value such as V wandering away from its target range of values – would S be reporting anything at all to H. In the nervous system, as in all other information processing systems that seek some telos, no news is good news. When S is quiet, that tells H that all the control circuits subordinate to S are quiet, too; i.e., that all the systems subordinate to S are A-OK. Higher-order control systems may therefore safely turn their attention to other systems that are reporting problems they cannot themselves resolve, given their current architecture.

So if S is telling H that everything in its domain is peachy, S will get no attention, no repair or reconfiguration, from higher order levels.[3]

This artificial, false addition of S to the natural, truthful signal of C – which, again, might be due to nothing more than a rounding error or a smoothing function that, most of the time, operated to the overall advantage of the organism (this being the only reason it existed in the first place) – requires increasing the thermodynamic work that C and S together must perform in order to propagate their false net signal to H, over what they would have had to put out, had S refrained from lying. That extra thermodynamic work is a precise measure of the noise S introduces to H by the lie.

What is more, this extra work must continue throughout the period during which the lie is maintained. This is because C is engineered to keep telling the truth about V until H responds in such a way as to move the system as a whole to a state of affairs in which V is back in its target range, at which point C can go back to sleep. So long as S keeps lying about the fact of x, C will keep screaming “x!” And C will scream louder and louder, the longer its signals are apparently ignored. So the work of maintaining that one lie about x will increase over time.

Furthermore, the lie of S about x will prevent H from responding properly to the fact of x so as to keep Joe safe and healthy. The problem of x, whatever it is, will continue to hamper or injure Joe. The problem in Joe’s orientation to the world (or for that matter in Joe – in his pancreas, say) that pushed V out of its target range may then compound, increasing x.

It gets worse. Because the world is coherent, information about the world is also coherent; or rather, vice versa. Either way, information is coherent (noise – the negative of information – is not[4]). If one part of Joe is lying to the rest of him, the lie is propagated throughout Joe’s system. Once a lie about x is introduced to the system, then all the other control systems of H proceed merrily along their way, blithely ignorant of the problem over at C. And this introduces more errors of proper fit of the organism to its environment, in control systems that may be quite remote from C, either spatially or functionally. You can’t deform part of your map of the world – which is recorded, encoded, embodied in and as H – without affecting other parts, and each such deformation will introduce its own noise into your map, disagreements with other parts of the map itself, and disagreements with the world. More and more control systems will start screaming about errors in the factors under their control.

The maintenance of a small lie sooner or later entails the introduction of another, supporting lie, and this procedure replicates. It’s like a Ponzi scheme. Sooner or later the whole edifice falls over, for lack of support from the real world. Until it does, until the collapse arrives, the cost of doing business goes up and up with the cost of compensating and masking for more and more noise introduced by more and more lies.

The worst state of affairs, however, is not systemic collapse. Systemic collapse is bad, but at least it necessarily prompts a radical reorganization of the system in terms of a more accurate recognition of reality – also known as honesty, truth, righteousness. That can be a most salutary process. But there is always a danger that a sufficiently intelligent, complex and ramified system will evolve around the persistent problem at C so as to hobble along in spite of it. In that case, H will perform less efficiently than it might if there had never been a lie, but because C’s signal is obscured, H will have the impression that everything is just fine.

Control systems whose output signals are permanently masked are effectually dead. So in lying, the brain begins to kill itself, to take huge portions of its circuitry offline. In the limit, C will be abandoned and then metabolized as useless, or else repurposed – this, for the sake of greater efficiency – and the system will no longer be able to control for V at all. It will be blind to V.

This effect, of gradually increasing blindness, can likewise spread in the system. As the errors introduced by a lie propagate through H, it is not unlikely that more and more control system output signals will be more or less permanently masked, so that H becomes blind to more and more state variables, more and more incapacitated, more and more diseased, and less and less aware of its diseases.

In social organisms, the noise in one brain propagates out to other brains. The effect on the social system is analogous to the effect on the brain. In fact, you could interpret this whole post up to this point as a description of the effects of deceit on a society of men, rather than of neurons.

As anyone who has used computers knows, a powerful computational engine can limp along for a long time, even when its logical processors and memory are largely cannibalized by stub routines, viruses, derelict memory registers, and the like. Liberate those system resources, and the machine flies along.

Likewise, when a man stops lying to himself, he wakes up. He spends less and less time accounting for all the lies, keeping track of them and editing his thoughts. He sees things in new ways; he sees things that he has never noticed, or has forgotten since boyhood. He is more alive.

Anyone who has found a way out of PC has experienced this awakening. In the androsphere, they call it “taking the red pill,” after the scene in The Matrix, where the protagonist takes a red pill that awakens him from the matrix’s dream, to reality. Orthospherean Daniel recounted his story of a similar awakening in an essay at VFR.

But the same sort of cleansing of the doors of perception is a recurrent trope of mystics in all cultures. Metanoia, as they have long called it – newness of mind – is the beginning of our awakening, our enlightenment, our Resurrection from the Body of Death. To leave behind the lies is to leave behind our sins, by which those lies were implemented in history, and in our brains.

For, the brain is formed by its doing. What we posit, is our position. And sin is always the enaction of a falsehood. To do a bad thing is to act as if it were true that a bad thing is good to do.

In order to sin, we have to convince ourselves that the sin is OK, is not a problem. But because the world and its information are coherent, this can be done only by a disagreement with reality. It can be done only by an inward assertion that the world is so made, that therefore we are so made, that sinning is the proper and appropriate thing to do. To sin, we must think, “It is right for people to sin in circumstances such as these.” And this is to argue that the sin is not a sin at all. The sin itself is the implementation of this argument.

We may of course come by such false propositions honestly. We may honestly err, like a boy misled and deformed by someone he trusts. But most of the time, when we undertake to sin, we know perfectly well what we are doing – the sinner is, after all, a procedure of that same moral, causal and economic reality in and by which sin is pervasively abhorred – yet we find it easier to sin, than not. When we make our tendentious assertion about the sin, we are in bad faith with that portion of moral reality that is our own being, indeed with our very bodies.

Say that I decide to gamble (I use this example because gambling is one of the few vicious acts that has for me no allure whatsoever; so that my analysis is more likely to be objective). To do this at all – as I have indeed done, when I was younger and found myself for other reasons in Las Vegas, with time to kill, and curious about the whole phenomenon – one must suppress one’s knowledge that the game is rigged, and therefore doubly foolish. Gambling even when the odds are even is silly to begin with, as a waste of time that, absent any other more profitable or edifying activities, could at least be spent in prayer, or contemplating the sky. Gambling when one knows perfectly well that the game is rigged in favor of the house is actively stupid. To do it with full consciousness of the meaning of the act, one must intend poverty, intend self-destruction. And most people don’t much want those things. They must then gamble without full consciousness of the meaning of the act. They must do it, that is to say, in ignorance of the strident protests of the control systems in charge of such state variables as evaluation of their personal wealth.[5] And this ignorance, this bad faith with their own brains, they must somehow actively perform. All acts of omission are acts of commission.

Still, sin is usually less difficult and more immediately pleasant than virtue – there is no other reason to give in to it, after all. It is simply easier to let go of the cliff and relax into the Fall than to keep climbing. As the wonderful song from Crazy Heart has it, “… funny how falling feels like flying … for a little while.” But few people hate themselves so much that they consciously desire to die. The only way they can get moving with something like gambling, then, the only way they can begin to let go of the cliff, is to lie to themselves about what they are doing. This is, precisely, to dull their consciousness of what they are doing. And as we have seen, this is tantamount to a marginal bit of suicide, even though it feels good.

Sin just is self-murder. Sin a little, and you kill yourself a little; sin a lot, and you destroy yourself altogether. And the death you thus suffer is not somewhere out in the distant future, at the Day of Judgement, but immediate. When we sin, we kill part of ourselves, right away. And while sin may be forgiven and redeemed, the diminishment of our ontological capacity it inflicts is permanent, and irrecoverable. What we do is done forever.

Arakawa, a blogger and a frequent commenter over at Bruce’s sites, discussed this notion in a recent comment here at Orthosphere, in connection with an analysis of the effect of sin on the Resurrection Body that first inherits everlasting life:

I have an unfortunately presumptuous essay that pictures the child who undergoes spiritual death as remaining trapped in the back of the unconscious mind, as though someone behind the wheel of an out-of-control bulldozer he does not know how to drive safely, or as someone who has drunk strong wine and proven that he cannot be trusted with alcohol.

This is exceedingly threadbare as theology, but it is a picture of sin as spiritual death all the same, which at the very least shows a link between Resurrection and the spiritual renewal that comes from repenting our sins during this life. In this picture our soul dies as a consequence of sin; not just in the form of the general fact of physical death coming into the world as a consequence of original sin, but of a particular instance of sin leading to immediate (if partial) death of the soul in that very instant, through diminution of its future capacity for good.

One possible objection is that, in this view, sin has no consequence and thus the war against evil is entirely illusory; but I would point out that, on the contrary, we are put into this world to become this, that, or the other thing, and we are given a finite amount of time to do so. Any time we spend in sin (whether that involves conquering the world and causing pain to others, or merely wasting our days in hedonism and dissipation) is time spent thwarting God’s attempts to make us into someone far better than that. Thus whatever ‘inner child’ is salvaged (or not — really, the universalism is the smallest issue here) from the wreck of the sinner after death, that is indeed merely salvage that must be compared against the loss of a much better person who was effectively never created.

Arakawa has more on lying at his site, and it is very good; this was what I had been reading there on Friday evening, shortly after I had read Bruce’s post suggesting that lying makes us stupid, and whose confluence with the notions I learned from Powers joined to produce Saturday’s gratified integration:

One minute of absolute honesty is better than ten conversations with divine sages.

The first great lie is that I have no beliefs on a matter. Observing how I have acted shows me very well what I believe.

The second great lie is that I may believe one thing, and yet appear otherwise. Then the I that believes, and the I that appears, are at irrevocable war.

The sacrament of confession and reconciliation – reconciliation to the Church, to the Body of the Lord, to Reality – involves the penitent in a renunciation of vicious acts, and a repudiation of the falsehoods they enact. To confess is to agree that the bad things one has done, and in so doing has effectually promoted as good, and properly to be done, to be implemented and propagated in the world, are indeed bad, and to be abhorred. To confess is to profess agreement with things as they are. Properly effected, it is a radical reorientation, a liberation, a ritual cleansing of the doors, a simplification and relaxation of the organs of the mind, and a renewal of the child’s flexibility, wonder and openness – not just his glad engagement with novelty, but the spaciousness of his future.

Verily I say unto you, Except ye be converted, and become as little children, ye shall not enter into the kingdom of heaven. Whosoever therefore shall humble himself as this little child, the same is greatest in the kingdom of heaven.

Matthew 18:3-4

[1] Highly recommended: even after Plato, Aristotle, Aquinas, Anselm, and Augustine, it is one of the ten most important books I have read.

[2] The target ranges of system state variables being the values that form the homeostatic strange attractors – i.e., the final causes – that the brain’s control systems are engineered to seek

[3] You know how that works. You perform such reconfigurations all the time. Whatever else it is, consciousness is the engine of neural reorganization, also known as learning. Whatever we attend to consciously is reorganized thereby, if only in the same way that it had already been organized. Try it. Walking is unconscious, right? You never think about how you are doing it. But when you were first learning how to walk, you thought about it very hard indeed. Try walking while paying conscious attention to the procedure. You’ll stumble, or at least you’ll be clumsier than usual. That’s because your conscious attention is deforming the control systems that manage your walking.

Thinking and deliberation are procedures that reorder the brain’s circuitry; when we arrive at a conclusion, we have implemented a new neural organization. Meditation is salutary because it directs the attention at no particular part of the nervous system, and thus at every part of it. The whole system thereby comes under the acid of reorganization, at the margin. Petitive prayer, likewise, reorders the CNS toward the object of the petition.

[4] Information *about* noise, by contrast, is coherent. That’s how the coherence of the world is conserved from one moment to the next, despite the noise that pervades it.

[5] I heard their baying when I proposed to myself that I should try the slots, and mollified them with the assurance that I would stop the experiment the moment I lost $5. Thankfully, I kept that commitment (about ten minutes later). Fortuitously, and fortunately for me, that keeping was easy: I found gambling intensely boring.

21 thoughts on “Sin is Enacted Falsehood

  1. This makes sense for sins against oneself, sins that are self destructive or degrading, and for sins against others that are sooner or later likely to be detected and have dire consequences.

    But what about highly successful sins against others, sins against others that are safe and profitable? Surely these are likely to sharpen the mind, like a cat’s hunt for mice, rather than dull it.

    • In a coherent world, nothing is in the final analysis ever undetected, or therefore uncompensated, somehow or other. The Law of Compensation is clad in iron. God is not mocked; and because God is the King of the Universe, neither is anything in his Kingdom ever finally mocked.

      The villain may, to be sure, appear to escape unscathed. He may clap himself on the back, and laugh all the way to the bank. He has nevertheless ruined his chances for the lovely, good life he might otherwise have led. When push comes to shove, it’s a lot nicer to be a good and virtuous man than to be an asshole. The only way to feel really, truly good, through and through, is to *be* really, truly good. That’s why all of us, deep down, long so terribly to be rid of our sins and weaknesses.

    • @James

      This question is difficult to address outside of specific examples… but here is my attempt.

      My impression is that, in general, major examples of predatory behaviour (= engaging in ‘safe and profitable’ sin) are rooted in a faulty or mendacious conception of the in-group and its moral needs.

      The moral appeal of ‘predator’ behaviour depends entirely on the in-group/out-group notion. We have certain allegiances to a naturally formed in-group, such that if the in-group’s needs are judged to conflict with the out-group, the former take priority. This may justify ‘catching mice’ in limited cases, as you put it; it is not ideal morality, but rather its adaptation to the circumstances of a fallen (imperfect) world.

      (Sidenote: A greater degree of spiritual virtue/holiness decreases the likelihood that in-group and out-group will significantly conflict, allowing better treatment of the outgroup; thus Saints generally don’t bother to divide the people they encounter into in/out-group even though ordinary mortals are well advised to do so. This leads to the general temptation to fake holiness by throwing the in-group under the bus, in order to display more magnanimity towards the out-group than one’s level of virtue actually allows.)

      Thus it is easy to stomach calculated lying to a dictatorship (for instance) if that means your family stays out of the gulag, although the result is that you may eventually have to lie to them some more, and then even more, and potentially the deception will extend beyond your ability to maintain. It’s far more difficult to imagine what kind of in-group allegiance might lead one to engage, say, in a concerted and unprovoked campaign of deception to accomplish some ‘positive’ result, on the other hand.

      It would either be allegiance to an in-group which is itself intrinsically evil, or an in-group which consists of one person (perhaps enslaved to an abstract idea). It’s obvious why the former is wrong, while the latter can be understood either as the sin of Pride, or simply a psychological abnormality. Normal human behaviour is to form an in-group, deal honestly with it, and depend on it; a healthy in-group will have mechanisms to detect pathologically selfish people and metaphorically push them off the ice-floe (to use a… charming Inuit notion), and since no one can really accomplish much of significance alone, the only options for a pathologically selfish person are:

      – to join an in-group that is healthy, i.e. enforces honest dealing at least internally, and is therefore led to practice a minimal degree of honest dealing externally. This certainly limits the person’s ability to practice mice-catching; they will perform honest behaviour out of expedience even if they’re not spiritually inclined to it already.
      – to join an in-group that is somehow unhealthy, which means it will have a corrupting influence on the person no matter how clever they are individually about lying and cheating within the system it sets up.

      Thus the kind of people who see themselves as cats catching mice wind up coalescing into Communist Parties, corrupt scientific communities, badly run corporations with good government connections, &c. You should be familiar with the general expectation that if you hang around in one of these places, your brain gradually melts due to the exponential accumulation of mendacity, and then you’re thrown under a bus once your presence is no longer convenient to the other careerists.

      So, no matter how smart you are about catching mice, it can’t really be said sharpen your brain if your choice to *become* a mice-catcher in the first place is founded on stupid premises.

      The missing element of my argument is a sense that an in-group that practices honest dealing internally must necessarily maintain a certain standard of honour in its external dealing, which precludes it functioning in the manner of one of the abovementioned institutions. I am not sure what your understanding is on this question, but my own limited experience seems to bear this out.

    • You skip the Theology of Sin, which indicates (as we see in the Fall of Adam and Eve) that each sin we commit removes us from under God’s umbrella of protective grace and puts us under the reach of the devil.
      Any sin can lead to demonic possession, the graver the sin, the higher the chances of becoming possessed. Since possession is not something to be desired nor good at all, it turns out that there is no sin that has a positive outcome or results in a net gain.
      Finally, it is to be reminded that in order for the sinner to enter to Heaven, he/she must have a perfect contrition. A single unrepentant sin means eternal damnation. And as St. Alphonsus of Liguori explains, God only allows a finite number of sins in each of us after which he drops the hammer. That sin that goes apparently unpunished could be the seal of perdition of the sinner. Of what profit is to win the world if you lose your soul?

  2. Kristor, here’s a question: If sin is always enacted lying, what about people who love to do evil because it is evil? What about a torturer of the innocent, for example? He isn’t saying that torturing is “the appropriate thing to do under the circumstances.” He’s torturing because it _isn’t_ the appropriate thing to do, and because he loves the perversion. Some people love perversion for being perverse–love to read the universe backwards. I take this to be the essence of the demonic, if the demonic can be said to have an essence. Since we can imagine such a thing as a demonic will which truly adheres to evil for evil’s sake, it seems that this must be possible, and indeed (more’s the pity) we do know of monstrously evil human beings who have enacted the demonic will in our mundane world.

    This is an especially important question, it has always seemed to me. I’d be a long step closer to being convinced that there is an a priori argument (or nearly a priori argument) for the existence of an omnibenevolent God if I didn’t have a rather vivid sense of the possibility of an extremely powerful (all-powerful?) but truly evil will.

    • Ugh. That’s a really tough question. I mean, it’s about fifteen tough questions. Thanks! I think …

      I do have a response. But it’s too long for a comment. So, I’ll post it as a new entry.

    • “Kristor, here’s a question: If sin is always enacted lying, what about people who love to do evil because it is evil?”

      Fr. Chad Ripperger explains, quoting St. Thomas Aquinas, that it is impossible for a human being to choose evil for the sake of evil. What evil people do is choosing a lesser good as if it was a higher good. For example: the thief chooses to steal because he believes that his wellbeing is more important than the wellbeing of the neighbor, and/or that the neighbor will not suffer as much from being stolen as he would suffer if he did not steal.

  3. Pingback: The Etiology of Evil | The Orthosphere

  4. Pingback: The Thinking Housewife › Why Sin Makes People Stupid

  5. Thank you for the post, Kristor. I’m in my own mortal combat with sin, and it got me thinking:

    Lying to himself about reality makes a man a sinner. What makes him into a Pharisee? I wonder if reality:sinner :: desire:Pharisee.

    You wrote,

    Gambling even when the odds are even is silly to begin with, as a waste of time…
    Still, sin is usually less difficult and more immediately pleasant than virtue – there is no other reason to give in to it, after all.

    Your analysis implies that people sin for the sake of pleasure, but doesn’t that beg the question a bit? Isn’t it more exact to say that people sin because they don’t know a better way to attain their desires?

    There are two false ways to respond to this ignorance: the false way of the sinner–act only according to what you yourself want and to hell with the (external, i.e. real) consequences–which you very ably discuss; but there is also the false way of the Pharisee–act only according to man-made external consequences and to hell with what you want (which has internal consequences)–which you do not discuss. But this pharisaical way too is sin, right?

    Now, I know that Pharisees are usually accused of denying God’s law in favor of their own, not their own desires (Jesus Himself says so in Matthew 15:6). But how would they have known until Jesus told them?

    You take it as a given that the sinner knows when he lies that he knows he is denying the truth. Presumably, as a Catholic, you would say he should have listened to the Church and tradition if nothing else to tell him the truth. And that’s true.

    But to whom should the Pharisee (or today’s Church and guardians of tradition) have listened to tell him the truth? I find it difficult to believe his conscience was bothering him. The typical legalist/Pharisee is *very* conscientious. It’s the sinner who is known for ignoring his conscience, not the Pharisee. The Pharisee/legalist/busy-body church lady is known for ignoring his desires, not his conscience.

    Your analysis of sin is from the systematizer’s point of view. You analyze the error of the lawless from the perspective of the lawful. But sin is also found, as the existence of the Pharisees amply demonstrates, in the error of the lawmaker, to whom the wild, unpredictable, unsystemizable (for us humans, anyway) Person of Jesus was and remains an intolerable offense.

    It seems the Way of Righteousness is even narrower than mere system and law.

    • Thanks for a searching comment, Bartholomew. I’ll try to respond, but I’m not sure my response will be truly apposite to your inquiry, on account of the fact that you seem to me to be approaching these questions from an angle I find unfamiliar, and that I don’t feel I quite understand. This is good! It means you have something to teach me.

      You write:

      Isn’t it more exact to say that people sin because they don’t know a better way to attain their desires?

      I think this is often true for the first few sins in a career of sin, or for the first few innocent iterations of a wholly novel sin that we don’t yet understand as such. Indeed, I have written a fair bit about how the Fall must have been due to ignorance on the part of Satan, and then of Adam and Eve. Most of it is over at Joseph of Arimathea’s site, in a long conversation Joseph and I conducted in a series of posts. We began with his post Orthodoxy and Evolution.

      I feel fairly confident in that account of the Fall. Much more troublesome to me is understanding the innate concupiscence of our Fallen state: our adversion to sin even when we know damned well what we are doing. That was the problem I was working on in the post above. To sum up the explanation, the reason we deceive ourselves about what is good right now is that our moral computers are deformed in their operation by prior sins that have gone uncorrected, as perhaps, even, undetected. The computational capacity of the engines of our moral understanding, and our knowledge of the effects of our acts, are both limited to begin with. Any sin – even any corrected sin – damages them further; this is what is meant by saying that sin makes us stupid, for sin makes us stupid *about sin.* The practical result is that our moral reasoning is crippled by noise. And noise disproportionately obscures our understanding – our apprehension, our *feeling* – of the less proximal, less concrete, less vivid effects or meanings of our proposed actions, so that nearby, short-term and intense rewards easily and wrongly outweigh them as factors of our moral calculus.

      It is in this state of moral befuddlement that we say to ourselves such things as, “this is wrong, to be sure, and could someday come back to haunt me – but that’s a long way off: all sorts of things could happen in the meantime, that will provide me an opportunity to compensate for this thing I now propose to do.” The confused moral engine discounts the future too much (this is almost the same thing as saying that it disregards what our proposals mean sub specie aeternitatis – what God thinks of them, who sees the whole future, and how his Law therefore treats them). Perpetrators of Ponzi schemes always start out this way – impelled by factors near at hand, and determined to set their investors right “very soon.” Eventually they discover that the hole they have dug for themselves is mathematically impossible for them ever to fill. At that point they abandon themselves to their sin.

      What then of the Pharisee, of the righteous investment advisor who would never even have considered cutting a corner in his business or personal dealings, a man of unimpeachable honesty and integrity? Let us suppose even, contra your supposition about his disregard of his own internal health, that our Pharisee has achieved the Aristotelian ideal of moderation, balance and prudence with respect to all his appetites, so that he is the very epitome of perfect human order. Nothing has he done that is untoward his proper purposes, in any respect.

      Well, obviously it is not his righteousness, as such, that is for him a spiritual stumbling block. Rather, it is his pride. The Pharisee, I have always thought, is like the elder brother in the parable of the Prodigal Son (Luke 15:11-32), who has ever stood by his father and done his daily duty by his father’s household, only to see his misbegotten little black sheep of a brother welcomed home from his revolting sojourn in the dens of iniquity and the stys of the swine as if he were a conquering hero home from the wars. Or the Pharisee is like the laborer who has worked diligently in the vinyard from cock’s first crow, only to see the wastrels hired at the last moment of the waning light rewarded with the same day’s wages as he (Matthew 20:1-16). The laborer faithful to his task from sun-up and the elder brother ever loyal to his House are like the Pharisees. They resent the upstarts, the inveterate, dedicated sinners whom the LORD welcomes to his wedding feast as honored guests.

      What is the sin of the righteous Pharisee, the tzaddik who has never erred or strayed from the path of propriety as if he were some stupid sheep, and whose moral and intellectual faculties are therefore free of any depravations due to sin; who has from birth loved his LORD and the Law of his LORD‘s house with all his being? It is that he has failed at the Second Great Commandment, to love his neighbour as himself. Having failed at this commandment, he has failed the whole of the Torah.

      Though I speak with the tongues of men and of angels, but have not love, I have become sounding brass or a clanging cymbal. And though I have the gift of prophecy, and understand all mysteries and all knowledge, and though I have all faith, so that I could remove mountains, but have not love, I am nothing. And though I bestow all my goods to feed the poor, and though I give my body to be burned, but have not love, it profits me nothing.

      — 1 Corinthians 13:1-3

      I’m not sure that any of this either agrees or disagrees with what you have said.

  6. Hello Kristor,

    Thanks for the in-depth reply. I had to work all weekend, and was away from my computer Friday night and Saturday. I’m sorry for the delay in responding to you.

    I originally wrote,

    “The typical legalist/Pharisee is *very* conscientious. It’s the sinner who is known for ignoring his conscience, not the Pharisee. The Pharisee/legalist/busy-body church lady is known for ignoring his desires, not his conscience.”

    And you wrote,

    “[The Pharisee] has failed at the Second Great Commandment, to love his neighbour as himself. Having failed at this commandment, he has failed the whole of the Torah.”

    In other words, you’re saying that the Pharisee’s sin is not in denying his desires, nor against his conscience (the first commandment?), but in denying his neighbor (the second).

    I think I get what you’re saying. I agree the typical Pharisee isn’t the nicest guy to live around. I’m not sure that’s why he stands condemned.

    I still wonder if the Pharisee fails to follow not only the first but the second commandment too. If we read the elder brother of the prodigal as a stand-in for the typical Pharisee, then I think there’s good evidence for this.

    You wrote,

    “Well, obviously it is not his righteousness, as such, that is for [the Pharisee] a spiritual stumbling block. Rather, it is his pride. The Pharisee, I have always thought, is like the elder brother in the parable of the Prodigal Son (Luke 15:11-32), who has ever stood by his father and done his daily duty by his father’s household…”

    See, that’s the part that isn’t so obvious to me. Isn’t the Pharisee’s/elder brother’s “righteousness” (i.e. his way of acting/thinking which seems right in his own eyes) ultimately what causes him to refuse to enter the Father’s banquet, i.e. separates him from the Father? What good is that kind of righteousness? That sounds more like sin, doesn’t it?

    You wrote, “[The Pharisee] resent[s] the upstarts, the inveterate, dedicated sinners whom the LORD welcomes to his wedding feast as honored guests.”

    Yes, but *why*? Whence the resentment? I don’t know how we can separate his resentment from his righteousness. Surely, he feels his resentment is justified. And surely his sense of justice/righteousness informs his justification. So his sense of justice, his reasoning must be off, at least not in line with his father’s. It doesn’t seem to me that this “offness” is covered by your mechanism of sin as a system of truth-denial. I don’t think the Pharisee is denying any truth that is available to him. Is the justice of God really a truth we’re privy to know?

    Here’s my account of the elder brother’s “offness”, i.e. sin, and I think I can establish that his righteousness *is* the ultimate source of his bitterness, and I think the elder brother even admits it in the passage:

    When the father comes outside (!) to the elder brother to convince him to come in, the elder brother replies,

    ” Lo, these many years do I serve thee, neither transgressed I at any time thy commandment: and yet thou never gavest me a kid, that I might make merry with my friends: But as soon as this thy son was come, which hath devoured thy living with harlots, thou hast killed for him the fatted calf.” Luke 15:29-30.

    1.) The elder brother’s/Pharisee’s violates the first commandment here: You’re right that the elder brother/Pharisee is resentful, though not primarily toward his younger brother. Just look at whom he accuses. He says, “Lo these many years do I serve THEE…and yet THOU never gavest me a kid…” (emphasis mine) He’s accusing, and therefore resents, his *father*, not his brother. That’s a violation against the first commandment.

    2.) The elder brother/Pharisee resents his father/God because he resents his own practice of God’s commandments. You may be right that the Pharisee has “ever stood by his father and done his daily duty”, but I don’t think this means the Pharisee actually *likes* doing it (i.e. desires it). The elder brother in the parable certainly didn’t. He says plainly what he would have rather been doing: “mak[ing] merry with my friends”. That word “never” (thou never gavest me…) just reeks of long-standing resentment. When a kid tells his father, You NEVER let me go do X, you can be sure this isn’t the first time the kid has wanted to do X; it had been bubbling underneath the surface for a while. Yes, the Pharisee did what he was told; but God loves a cheerful giver, i.e. one who is *satisfied* by his giving, one who *desires*/*wants* to give.

    which means,
    3.) Denial/repression of one’s desires causes resentment toward the one for whom you’re denying them. The Pharisee’s says, I will do X things God wants me to do now (e.g. work in the field) so that I can do Y things I want to do later (party with my friends). He sees the sinner’s logic–I can do Y things I want to do now and whatever about later–and scoffs. Doesn’t that sinner know that you do what you’re supposed to *now* so that you get to the good stuff *later*? Idiot.

    It’s not the scoffing (resentment of the sinner) that’s the problem–that’s not why the elder brother’s father rebukes him. It’s his logic, his sense of righteousness itself for which he stands condemned, because it’s that sense of righteousness that keeps him indignantly and defiantly planted firmly outside his father’s banquet hall. The Pharisee’s righteousness ends up causing him to defy God. Apparently his righteousness =/= true righteousness, which I guess is why no one can be saved by keeping the Law.

    Wow, how did all this happen? Like I staid in my first post, I think desire is to the Pharisee what reality is to the sinner, though maybe not exactly so. The Pharisee denies his desires just like the sinner denies reality, though maybe for different reasons (the Pharisee usually likes his desires; he just doesn’t trust them). In the end, a lie has the same effect regardless of what it’s lying about or why. The Pharisee never dealt with his inner party animal. He based his entire faith on *denying his inner party animal*. Therefore, when someone who did NOT deny his inner party animal gets into Heaven after all, the Pharisee’s denial-of-desire-based-faith is shown to be fraudulent.This throws him into a paroxysm of rage, which in turns casts him right out of Heaven.

    OK, hit me; what am I missing? 🙂

  7. Kristor,

    I think my response to your post was overly long. Sorry about that. I should have posted first a brief, bullet-point summary and responded in detail if you asked.

    If you’ll indulge me one more crack at this, I am posting here a brief bullet-point summary of what I’ve posted above for your reading convenience. I appreciate very much, sir, the attention you’ve given my argument. I’ve always considered you second only to the late Mr. Auster in

    Here goes:
    What you say:
    1.) The summary of your argument is in your post: Sin is enacted falsehood.
    2.) You define sin as the denial (falsification) of reality, i.e. a lie.
    3.) Therefore, the sinner denies reality.

    What I’m adding (not taking away from what you say at all, just building on it):
    4.) The denial of our own desires (how we’d like reality to be) is also a lie, i.e. sin.
    5.) Therefore, one who denies his desires also sins.

    As an example, I cite the elder brother in the parable of the prodigal son:
    6.) The elder brother denies his desires (“making merry with my friends”) in order to follow his father’s (“slaves away” in the field).
    7.) Therefore, the elder brother’s desired way =/= his father’s way.
    8.) The elder brother has done his father’s way, hated it, all along has still wanted his own way more but, denying it, stays discontentedly at this father’s.
    9.) The younger brother has done his own way, hated it, now wants his father’s way more and, admitting the truth, comes back hopefully to his father’s.
    10.) To the younger brother, the father’s welcome party looks like forgiveness for his own hateful and disgusting ways, in which there was nothing good and desirable. He has been inoculated to their charms for good, i.e. they were their own effective punishment.
    11.) To the elder brother, the father’s welcome party looks like indulgence of his younger brother’s ways, in which there is something he wished he would have had with his own friends, i.e. good and desirable. He is still enticed by his own way; his “righteousness” was ineffective.
    12.) The father’s “indulgence” of the younger brother’s sin, but refusal to indulge his own turns the elder brother’s discontent into resentment. The elder brother removes himself from his father’s house, i.e. damns himself.

    If the elder brother = the Pharisee, then
    13.) The Pharisee damns himself by denying his desires.

    • We need to define terms: Sin is any want of conformity unto, or transgression of, the law of God.

      By this definition, denying our own desires can only be a sin if we, by denying our desires, transgress, or fail to conform to, God’s law. This is seldom the case.

      The idea that denying our own desires is a sin is a thoroughly modern notion, and is utterly unbiblical.

      • “Sin is any transgression of the law of God.”
        True. Jesus said that all of the law and the prophets hang on these two commandments, that we love the Lord our God with all our heart, soul, mind, and strength and that we love our neighbor as ourselves.

        When the Bible speaks of the “heart”, it means our “desires” or “want to”. The root problem, to be most precise, is not the denial of the desire but the desire itself, which the denial covers up. Denial, whether of reality or of desire or of anything else that is *true*, constitutes a lie. Lies have consequences, namely they prevent you from dealing with the truth.

        That’s not a “modern notion”, and it’s certainly not “utterly unbiblical”. You should be more careful of what you anathematize.

        I think what you mean to say is that moderns elevate their own desires above God’s, and think it’s somehow holy to “follow your heart” regardless of what God thinks about it. Of course that’s unbiblical. I challenge you to find a single sentence in my statement above that advocates anything remotely like that.

      • I think what you mean to say is that moderns elevate their own desires above God’s, and think it’s somehow holy to “follow your heart” regardless of what God thinks about it. Of course that’s unbiblical. I challenge you to find a single sentence in my statement above that advocates anything remotely like that.


        The denial of our own desires (how we’d like reality to be) is also a lie, i.e. sin.

        Now, perhaps you meant something else, but it seems that the easiest reading here is that denying desire is sinful.

        Having said that, I agree with your clarification, for the most part. I do not agree that the denial of our desires is necessarily sinful. An example may clarify this.

        Imagine a man who sees a woman not his wife and lusts for her. Should he follow this desire, or deny it, i.e., not give in to it? Clearly, the denial of the desire is the better path; prayer and repentance better yet.

        Our desires are often the source of sinful behavior, and it is only the willing subjugation of those desires and the attempt to bring our desires into line with what God wants us to do that we can be free of those desires and their attendant sins.

        We will be slaves in this life. We can be slaves to our sins and desires—lust, greed, gluttony, etc.—or we can enslave ourselves to God. It is only in accepting God’s desires for us as superior to our own, it is only in submitting to Him, that we find freedom.

    • Thanks to Mr. Lewis for his succinct statement, with which I agree.

      Thanks also to Bartholomew for the kind compliment, but more for his engagement with this topic, and with my post.

      Bartholomew is it seems to me mostly concerned with trying to understand the nature of the righteous Pharisee’s sin. I think he’s right that the Pharisaical quashing of desires is problematic. The Pharisee is engaging in neurosis: his superego is at war with his id, as in all of us, and (as in few of us) has successfully repressed it. Of this feat he is, not unreasonably, rather proud, and self-righteous, and judgemental. But his is a horribly costly strategy, involving great internal conflict and suffering. It is not a healthy way to live.

      While quashing disordered desires may enable us to attain an outward conformity with the Law – in itself a good thing – it leaves the desires themselves untouched, unreformed. The root of the sinner’s problem is that his heart, his desires, are not yet converted, even though his cerebral cortex and the motor circuits under their control may be on board with the program of righteousness. The fundamental disorder of the sinner is in the improper desires of his heart. And it is this disorder that Pharisaical righteousness in outward act, produced by heroic self-denial, fails to heal. Outwardly, the Pharisee is clean. Inwardly, he is a mess. Cf. Luke 11:39. This is why he resents the Lord’s forgiveness of the sinner, as in Bartholomew’s point 11.

      But the damnation of the Pharisee is not due to the fact that he has succeeded in washing the outside of the bowl – in , that is to say, denying the reality of his disordered desires – but that he has failed to re-order those desires to their proper ends.

      Bottom line: if we find that we need to keep quashing our desires, we are Pharisees. Our hearts are not yet wholly converted. And as I have elsewhere written, we simply can’t win the battle with Satan on our own. Quashing is a doomed strategy. Our only hope is in the Lord.

  8. The statement “denying desire is sinful” does not imply that following desire is righteous. I said the former; you are falsely imputing to me the latter.

    So what are you supposed to do with a desire that you should neither deny nor follow? Acknowledge it. That simple step is what the elder brother/the Pharisee refuses to do because it would harm his reputation of “righteousness”. It’s this self-deceit that separates him from God’s righteousness, and by extension, God, and is therefore his sin. Denial of desire is sin. QED.

    In your example, you say the lustful man should pray and repent of his lust. But of what should he repent? A desire he’s still denying that he has? Why would he do that?

    The first commandment is to love the Lord your God with all of your *heart*, soul, mind and strength (Luke 10:27), not just your mind, and not just your strength/body. If your heart, i.e. your desire, is not in it, then you have still failed the whole of the Law and are doomed.

  9. Pingback: Sin is Enacted Atheism | The Orthosphere

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