Removing the Mask

"I feel I can be myself with them: I don't have to be something I'm not." A Christian friend said this to me about his friendships with non-Christians. I'm sure many of us would identify with his feelings, at least to some extent. The pressure of seeking to "live up" to what we think is expected of us as Christians can be tremendous. In particular, we might feel unable to share our deepest thoughts and desires with other Christians, and therefore the Christian life often seems to be a mask hiding our insecurities and fears. In fact, I often use a poem called "The Mask" at speaking engagements. It was written anonymously, but I wonder if the writer fully realises its impact on people. Many Christians ask me for a copy, saying.... "That poem you read - it was just like me!" The author talks about wearing "a thousand masks... that I'm afraid to take off. And none of them are me. Pretending is an art that is second nature with me..."

I find a desire amongst many I meet to remove the masks and be honest or "real" with others, although sadly the fear of rejection makes this seem almost impossible. The author of the poem has recognised this fear and continues... "So I play my game, my desperate pretending game. With a facade of assurance without and a trembling child within. And so begins a parade of masks, the glittering but empty parade of masks, and my life becomes a front..."

So with our masks on, what do we make of the "truth which sets us free...? The truth of God's love for us in Christ sets us free, of course, to experience the reality of His eternal forgiveness. God is the only one who knows the complete truth behind the mask, more even than we know ourselves. His love should therefore be setting us free to come out from behind our masks - to understand (know) ourselves, and to recognise and accept our true identity. 'Acceptance' is not the same as saying something is right or wrong, but simply, "that's the way it is." If God is gracious enough to accept us, without of course affirming sin, how dare we refuse to do so ourselves!

However, the wonderful mystery of our redemption means our identity is not simply 'who we are or how we feel' now, but what we will one day be with Jesus Christ in Heaven. The 'mystery' is mainly in the sense that our minds are incapable of fully understanding this, so instead we just have to accept it. Scripture says, 'we are In Christ' and the wonderful truth of our real identity is uniquely with Christ forever. This is what incarnational reality is all about - it is the truth of God's presence within us at all times, and His ongoing sovereignty in our unique stories.

Because God is the only one who fully knows and understands us, surely if the Holy Spirit is living within us, we should be more in touch with the reality of our feelings and desires than anyone else? Just as importantly, we should be aware of God's love in all that happens to us, affirming our value in the very uniqueness of our feelings. Sadly, we can be tempted to think our feelings only have value when they are good or 'Godly'. But do we say the same about different events in Scripture - surely God speaks to us through all of them, good and bad? Learning to accept all our feelings doesn't mean we become apathetic and stop seeking to become more like Jesus. Instead, our feelings become a valuable part of our growth process, helping us to better understand ourselves and others. At the same time we discover that our value is in the very uniqueness of our stories, and that God not only speaks to us through our stories, but to others also.

What about the feelings my friend describes, when he feels more "himself" with non-Christians? We need to ask what is really happening in this situation? Firstly, of all inner feelings, sexual ones are usually the most difficult to share with others, especially Christians. Secondly, our sexuality is the product of very many past experiences which help to form our sense of identity, or "being". Therefore we feel a sense of identity with people we believe share the same sexual feelings, especially if the environment seems safe enough to make these known. Thirdly, there may be a lack of expectation from these people in contrast to what we sometimes feel from Christians. Finally, if there is some excitement and titillation in the situation and an environment, which seems comfortable, friendly and safe - it's hardly surprising that we say "I feel I am being myself." But is that really the truth of the situation for a Christian not seeking to follow a gay lifestyle? The answer must be a resounding NO! It was mentioned earlier that our real identity is within the body of Christ, and because we are not with fellow members (literally functioning body parts) of that body we cannot therefore be truly "at home".

We also need to recognise that, although Christians often don't face up to the truth about themselves, neither do a great many non-Christians. Rather than wearing one set of masks which are Christian, they have simply put on another set to cover different fears and insecurities. Furthermore, although we may believe that non-Christians will identify with us if they are homosexual, the truth is that if they know how we feel about our sexuality and Christianity, it is unlikely they would really understand, because it hasn't been part of their own experience.

Finally, we are called to share the truth about our value, as shown by God's love, with others. Jesus says "Love one another as I have loved you." (John 15:12). There will be difficult times when we perhaps don't 'feel' His love and the last thing we want to do is share our stories with others. At such times we need to be honest with ourselves and 'believe in' or receive His love, whatever our feelings. In other words, we let our feelings tell us about ourselves and direct us to the 'Truth' of God's love. We know God loves us because His word tells us, not because we necessarily feel it. In doing this we become secure enough to be open and 'real' with Christian friends, because we recognise the story we are sharing is of unique value, 'warts and all'. We will also be trusting others to respond in the way we have learnt God responds. If we are experiencing this level of sharing and response with close Christian friends, we should feel much more "at home" and comfortable with them than non-Christians. This is not judgmental - simply the fact of our real identity, ideals and feelings.

So we seek to work with God in establishing a solid sense of identity and "being", based on the truth of His love and understanding. The truth about our past and present sets us free to be whole - comfortable with ourselves and with others. It is an ongoing process of growth towards more truth and more freedom.

by Martin Hallett