It can be hard to tell the truth. Sometimes no one wants to hear it, either because people have already determined a path they feel is more advantageous to them or they are more comfortable ignoring it. Sometimes, we are all those people. For those who read Flannery O’Connor, the shocking realization is not the comeuppance that truth grants her self-righteous, self-satisfied characters, but the grace that shines forth from her stories as they illuminate the dark recesses of our own souls, and we realize: I am that man or woman who has run, and perhaps is still running, from the truth.
In one of the stories in O’Connor’s A Good Man Is Hard to Find, Mr. Head, after denying knowledge of his grandson Nelson to a group of strangers on an Atlanta street,
stood appalled, judging himself with the thoroughness of God, while the action of mercy covered his pride like a flame and consumed it. He had never thought himself a great sinner before but he saw now that his true depravity had been hidden from him lest it cause him despair. He realized that he was forgiven for sins from the beginning of time, when he had conceived in his own heart the sin of Adam, until the present, when he had denied poor Nelson.
Why did Mr. Head deny his grandson? Why did the Israelite princes throw the prophet Jeremiah into a muddy well? They denied the truth because it embarrassed them or angered them, frustrated their intentions or challenged them to change their own way of thinking. The truth can make you an outcast—quite literal ly in Jeremiah’s case— put you in danger or disrupt your life. But if we are drawn to the truth, if our hearts are restless until they rest in God, why do we fight against the truth and turn from God?
As Mr. Head says, he had never thought himself a great sinner, but the truth revealed what he had hidden and what most of us want to hide from others and ourselves: we are all great sinners. Others take a different tack, not ignoring sin but reveling in it, denying its very reality, as the late Jim Carroll sang: “Nothing is true, everything is permitted.” In this vortex of sin, which permeates the cosmos and our beings, the truth was revealed in Jesus, who knew that his incarnation would create a dividing line. “Do you think that I have come to bring peace to the earth? No, I tell you, but rather division!”
In Jesus’ outline of the divisions he would create, he speaks of divisions in families, the building block of society then and now, the place where each of us belongs. He sketches a dreadful reality in which “five in one household will be divided, three against two and two against three. In families then and now, divisions grounded in sin break apart the fundamental structure of human relationship.
Jesus’ goal was not to create division, but to create acceptance of the truth that he embodies; but as long as there is sin shot through human hearts, the heart most crooked, there will be attempts to turn aside from the truth, to deny the truth and even to deny that there is truth. But there is a remedy. The author of Hebrews asks us to:
lay aside every weight and the sin that clings so closely, and let us run with perseverance the race that is set before us, looking to Jesus the pioneer and perfecter of our faith, who for the sake of the joy that was set before him endured the cross, disregarding its shame, and has taken his seat at the right hand of the throne of God. Consider him who endured such hostility against himself from sinners, so that you may not grow weary or lose heart.
In considering this reality, Mr. Head had a realization: “He saw that no sin was too monstrous for him to claim as his own, and since God loved in proportion as He forgave, he felt ready at that instant to enter paradise.” The truth is that God wants us to lay our burden down and accept the eternal invitation.