We pretend hidden agendas are just for politicians, but we all have them. We're phony and afraid, and it's killing us and hurting those we love. In Hidden Agendas: Dropping the Masks that Keep Us Apart, Steve Brown invites us to drop our masks and discover how God's love propels us into the real relationships we thought we'd never have.
Why do Christians hide behind masks? While they may begin their walk with Christ basking in the light of forgiveness and redemption, they soon feel the sting of judgment when they fall short, whether from their own guilt or the criticism of others. As a survival mechanism, they hide their failings to avoid pain and accomplish their personal goals, lying to themselves, others and even God.
Q: Why are we so afraid people will discover the truth about us?
However, it isn't just rejection. It is the attendant inability to accomplish our agendas, to receive approval and praise, and to be a part of the "in" group. Acceptance opens all sorts of doors, but as Mark Twain said, we "pay too much for our whistles."
C.S. Lewis wrote a wonderful essay in The Weight of Glory titled "The Inner Ring," in which he suggests we sell our souls to be accepted. In the third book of his science fiction/space trilogy, That Hideous Strength, Lewis illustrates it with a story showing how much of our souls we are willing to sell to be accepted.
If we're willing to risk taking off our masks, the truth, to our surprise, is that the response will more often than not be, "You too?"
Q: You say as you get older, the need for you to hide seems to grow smaller. Why do you think that is?
There are probably a number of reasons. One is that we have less to lose. Another is that we become wiser about human failings and sins. When one is as old as I am, there is very little that surprises them. I'm a cynical, old preacher who has cleaned up after more suicides than I can remember, stood beside more deathbeds than I can count, buried more babies than I want to remember, and listened to more confessions than a DA in a Washington scandal.
Those confessions have enabled me to see my own sin ("Good heavens, that's me," or "It could have been me") and to be more aware of the humanness from which we all suffer. Henri Nouwen, in his book The Return of the Prodigal, writes about the father in the parable. Most sermons and books concentrate on the prodigal, the one who left, and the one who stayed, but Nouwen has a wonderful section on the prodigal's father. He says that those of us who are older should be like that father, offering grace to the young among us. Only old guys can do that well because we've "been there, done that and have the T-shirt."
Q: Where did most of us learn to try and manipulate how others perceive us?
It's in our mothers' milk. It's a part of the human DNA. The socialization process we all go through includes training in wearing masks, with being careful, never telling our secrets and working the system. Throughout our lives we learn by trial and error to watch our backsides. My mother told her Sunday school class—not unkindly and in a humorous way—"I've spent my whole life trying to keep the family secrets, and I have a son out telling the whole world."
And then, so often the teaching we receive in Christian books and sermons (I've been a part of that and repent) has been geared to the lie that you can be all you were created to be, you can make your life count and you are called to change the world. When reality sets in, we either get honest, run or fake it.
Q: For the sake of propriety shouldn't we all wear some kind of mask from time to time? Are there healthy masks?
Of course. Billy Sunday said that a sinner can repent, but stupid is forever. I teach seminary students to be authentic and honest, but I also tell them to be careful about talking about things over which they could lose their jobs. There is a proper time and place to tell one's secrets. One doesn't take off one's clothes, metaphorically speaking, in the wrong place. Everyone should have someone with whom masks are not necessary, but one must be very careful in finding that person.
A healthy mask is one about which we are aware. Jesus told his disciples at the Last Supper that there were things He couldn't tell them then but would later. Sometimes our secrets are nobody's business except God's and ours ... and a very few others who are trusted. Those who are trusted are generally those who have taken off their masks in our presence. It's a kind of trade-off that can be quite freeing.
Q: What advice do you have for determining the proper time and place to remove a mask? Can it ever be dangerous?
It's almost always dangerous to take off one's mask in front of others. It's worth it because the risk involved has great rewards of freedom and joy. Jim Bakker, after his time in prison, told me he was free. He said, "I can go anywhere, say anything and be who I am because everybody now knows me in ways that I didn't plan."
Timing, propriety and necessity are all important considerations in removing one's mask. Sometimes the time isn't right, and for various reasons there needs to be a longer time of relationship before some masks can be removed. There are some masks that the discussion of which in public just isn't done. And while Christian leaders and pastors have to be careful, a part of their necessary calling is to create soft and safe places for God's people. It's a part of their calling and a necessary one.
Q: If there is so much risk involved in being open and honest with others, why do it?
It's worth the risk so we can, as it were, dance without always looking at our feet. Christians miss so much of the freedom that has been promised with our refusal to take off the mask. Besides that, it takes a great deal of effort to keep the mask thing going. "Oh, what a tangled web we weave when first we practice to deceive."
The amazing message of the Gospel is that we are valuable to God no matter where we've gone, who we've hurt, what we've thought, what we've done or what we've smoked or drunk. Knowing that truth deeply is the only workable path to faithfulness. The most powerful witness Christians have to give to the world isn't our goodness; it's our sin. We should never waste our sin. Being open and honest about who we are, with, of course, a degree of propriety, and taking off our masks grants us an incredible freedom and joy that can't be bought anywhere else.
Try it; you'll like it!
Q: In our narcissistic culture, it's easy to feel like no secrets are left untold and nothing is sacred. How is what you're proposing different?
The most sacred thing a Christian can do is to offer the world his or her authenticity. Henri Nouwen wrote, "I am deeply convinced that the Christian leader of the future is called to be completely irrelevant and to stand in this world with nothing to offer but his or her own vulnerable self." That's something quite different than the narcissism of "I've got to be me, and you have to deal with it."
But with that being said, social media, hidden cameras around every corner and emails being public, if someone cares enough to check, can all be a severe mercy for all of us. A good place to start is with the truth because the truth makes us free.
Still in our postmodern culture there are great dangers when all we are is known without the biblical teaching of what we would like to be. Narcissism says, "I will be what I will be, and everything is good." Biblical authenticity says, "This is me. I don't like it any more than you do, but Jesus isn't finished with me yet."
Q: What should someone do if a friend or loved one confesses a sin to him or her? How does he or she balance showing grace and not condoning sin?
I suspect this thing about condoning sin is a "red herring." It's like, "We must love the sinner and hate the sin." No more idiotic statement has ever been made. The fact of confession presupposes the awareness of sin and the recognition of its destruction. Frankly, I've never met a real Christian who didn't want to be better than he or she was. That desire comes from an acute awareness of our need and the pain we are feeling. When sin is confessed to us, more often than not our response is condemnation, as in "How could you ... after all that Jesus has done for you?" or "Do you realize the people you've hurt?" or "You're probably not even saved." Sometimes a hug is more important than a kick in the posterior. A hug is not an affirmation of sin. It is a proclamation of the Gospel.
We are constrained by the love of Christ, not by other sinners' condemnation of our sin.