Behind the Mask
By Sandy Sheppard
“I’m great at putting on my ‘everything is wonderful’ mask when I'm all torn up on the inside,” Roxann confided over lunch. “
People think I have it all together, but I don’t. I have a hard time talking about my struggles.”
Roxann is not alone. Many Christians have become experts at hiding behind a facade of serenity when in truth they are masking a jumble of emotions: anger, hurt, fear, and bitterness.
In 1 Cor. 12:25-26, Paul describes how the body of Christ should function: “There should be no division in the body, but .. its parts should have equal concern for each other. If one part suffers, every part suffers with it.” In light of his instructions to share each other’s pain, why are so many of us determined to suffer alone?
Why We Wear Masks
We cling to our masks for several reasons.
We think people won’t love us if they know what we’re really like.
Childhood experience conditions us to fear rejection as adults. If our parents make us feel loved even when we aren’t perfect little angels, we may grow up confident that other adults will accept us in spite of our faults. On the other hand, if we feel our parents’ love is conditional, we might carry into our adult relationships the fear that others will reject us if they find out we are “unworthy.”
We’re afraid people will think we’re not “good Christians.”
“If I tell my non-Christian friends, they will wonder how I can be a Christian and still have serious struggles. I’m afraid they will think I’m a hypocrite,” Roxann explained. “And how can I tell my Christian friends who never seem to have any problems of their own? They might think I’m not as good a Christian as they are.”
We think people don’t care.
When people ask, “How are you doing?” we perceive they are asking out of politeness and not because they want to know. So we smile and answer, “Fine,” and we go on our way. We have trouble believing anyone is really interested in how we are.
We’re afraid of gossip.
Gossip at one time or another has probably affected all of us. We know there are certain people we can’t confide in because they might broadcast details of our private lives everywhere. As a result, we are reluctant to confide in anyone.
Reasons to Unmask
Life is difficult enough without the added stress of frantically camouflaging our weaknesses. But why is it so important to be honest with each other? There are several good reasons for us to unmask.
We are called to honesty in our relationships.
The Scriptures are full of references to dealing with each other truthfully. Leviticus 19:11 admonishes us not to “deceive one another,” and Zech. 8:16 instructs us to “speak the truth to each other.” Paul, in Col. 3:9-10, outlines some rules for holy living, including, “Do not lie to each other, since you have taken off your old self with its practices and have put on the new self, which is being renewed in knowledge in the image of its Creator.”
To Paul, deceit is incompatible with the Christian walk. His honesty leads him to confess his failings to entire groups, while many of us have trouble confessing similar problems to even one person! He admits to the Corinthians that he came to them “in weakness and fear” (1 Cor. 2:3), and he writes to the Romans an amazingly candid passage about his continuing struggle with sin (Rom. 7:7-25). Paul demonstrates in his own life the honesty he recommends to others.
We can’t receive help if others don’t know we need it.
The New Testament offers a variety of instructions about how Christians are to treat each other. We are to “bear with each other” (Col. 3:13); “encourage one another and build each other up” (1 Thess. 5:11); “love one another deeply, from the heart” (1 Pet. 1:22); “accept one another” (Rom. 15:7); and “instruct one another” (Rom. 15:14). But how can people support us if we mask our pain and pretend to be just fine?
A few years ago, I discovered the benefits of “unmasking” my struggles. My husband, Rick, suffers from a chronic illness affecting every area of our family life. During an especially difficult week, I pushed my grocery cart through the aisle of our local supermarket and met Deb, a woman from another church. She asked how things were going. Surprising myself, I responded, “Not too well.”
She questioned me further, and I told her about our struggles with Rick’s illness. Stepping closer to me, she asked, “May I pray for you right now?” Speechless, I nodded, and she took my hand. She prayed for us right in the aisle as I wept silently. I had been a ministry wife for 19 years, and I couldn’t remember anyone doing this for me before.
Deb asked if she could tell her prayer group about our problems, and the following week the entire group stopped by our house to pray for our family. After they left, Rick and I hugged each other with tears, overwhelmed by their care and concern. Because I had allowed myself to be vulnerable with one person, God brought a whole group of Christians to pray for us.
Our honesty frees others to be honest.
If we admit that we grapple with questions of faith, we give others permission to do the same.
In Celebration of Discipline, Richard Foster addresses this issue.
Confession is a difficult discipline for us because we all too often view the believing community as a fellowship of saints before we see it as a fellowship of sinners.... We imagine that we are the only ones who have not stepped onto the high road to heaven.... But if we know that the people of God are first a fellowship of sinners, we are freed to hear the unconditional call of God’s love and to confess our needs openly before our brothers and sisters.
Our honesty gives God the glory.
In 2 Cor. 12:7, Paul admits that he has a “thorn in [the] flesh.” He confesses that he pleaded with God for deliverance, but that the Lord answered, “My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness” (v. 9, emphasis mine).
Paul’s pride could have gotten in the way of his honesty. He could have boasted about how God sought him out in a unique way or about how he was chosen to be God’s instrument to preach to the Gentiles and their kings (Acts 9:1-19). But he refrained “so no one will think more of me than is warranted by what I do or say” (2 Cor. 12:6). Instead, he boasted about his weaknesses, “so that Christ’s power may rest on me” (v. 9).
God is glorified by our admission of weakness and our full dependence on His sufficient grace.
Freed to Be Family
Years ago my husband and I discovered the amazing results of honesty in the body of Christ.
Rick was transferred from a large-city church, where he served as associate pastor, to a small-town church as solo pastor. During our first eight months, we had difficulty adjusting to the new congregation, and they had difficulty accepting us. Then during one Sunday sermon, Rick told the story of our seven-year struggle with infertility and how we had learned to trust God through it. Suddenly, in the eyes of the church members we became real people with real problems. Our relationship with them changed. They cried with us, prayed for us, and rejoiced with us when our first child was born.
Because of our honesty and vulnerability, the congregation became our family, and together we shared our sorrow and joy.
Many of us go through life hiding behind masks, but God calls His followers to honesty. Honesty brings about transformation. And transformation ultimately results in peace. Unmasking can free us from the pain of pretense and lead us to the blessing of deeper fellowship with God's people.