The other day, I introduced Wilkie Au and Noreen Cannon Au’s eight movements of growth, as one framework through which we can explore what authentic spiritual growth looks like. Today, I’d like to look into the first of the eight movements they describe: “the movement away from facades, from a pretended self that we are not.”
Any talk about ‘being yourself’ in a Christian context needs a lot of unpacking. There is in the deep structure of our faith an assumption that not all is right within us. We are called to “die to self, to “take up our cross daily,” and to be “born again.” So, we have a built-in suspicion of the idea of the ‘self’ and being ‘ourselves’.
But at the same time, there is also a strong pull in the Scriptures towards authenticity. Jesus taught that “there is nothing concealed that will not be disclosed, or hidden that will not be made known” (Luke 8.17, cf. Matthew 10.26, Mark 4.22). And, one of Jesus’ major frustrations with the religious leaders of his own day was their hypocrisy. He railed against those who present one thing in public but act differently when the spotlight is off, and really, the Jesus we meet in the Gospels is generally suspicious of any kind of public performance of piety for fear of this disconnect between action and heart.
So, when it comes to ‘being ourselves’, we need to balance these two tendencies within our tradition. Or rather, we need to find a way of affirming both tendencies, even and especially where they might be in tension. We are definitely called to be ourselves and to let go of facades, but we must also question just who it is we are and what our authentic self actually is.
As Christians, we believe that we were all “fearfully and wonderfully made,” that each of us — through the joint miracle of biology and providence — exists to express what it means to be human in our own unique way. But, because we live in a world polluted by sin, we are unable to fully live out this potential. We are like good seeds planted in depleted soil, hindered by weeds and stones, and watered by acid rains: We struggle to grow and to bear the good fruit our deepest selves long to produce. To make matters worse, the same world that breaks us shames us for being broken. The world that bruises and scars us rejects us for our marred faces. The world that hinders us from bearing good fruit ridicules us for our poor harvest. And this is where facades come in: We hide, lest our brokenness and scars be seen. Lest we be seen as we are.
These facades can take all kinds of shapes. Some of us hide behind conformity and people-pleasing, which we’ll look at in subsequent posts; but others hide behind rebellion, drama, finger-pointing, and pot-stirring. Some hide behind alcohol and drugs or sex. Some hide behind power or achievement, or carefully curated social media brands. For most of us, it’s some combination of many of these.
In light of all this, the call of this movement of growth is to step out from behind these facades and to step into the full light of day, bruised and broken as we may be.
This isn’t easy, and the world doesn’t like it. But it is good.
There’s a strange idea that pervades our culture that goodness is boring and that sin is exciting. But, as any priest who has heard confession will tell you, sin is boring and uncreative: There are very few ways to sin. It is goodness, it is holiness, that opens us up to our uniqueness and genuine creativity. One thing I love about reading about more recent Saints is that their lives shine out in all their particularity and aren’t subsumed into the tropes and archetypes of earlier Lives. Alongside the more traditional cast of martyrs and monks and nuns, you have women like St. Olga of Kwethluk, a midwife and clothesmaker in a small Alaskan village, and St. Maria Skobtsova, a chain-smoking divorcee who hung out with all the wrong people. These were women who stepped out from facades and truly lived authentic lives. They shone with the light of God and thereby shone themselves all the brighter. And this is our calling too.
Again, this isn’t easy. It takes so much courage and vulnerability to let down the masks and be who we really were created to be. But, as Jesus said, “No one puts a lit lamp under a jar or under the bed; no, they put it on a stand for everyone to see.” The movement away from facades spurs us to do just this, to “Let your light shine before others.”
This movement of growth is also a movement of faith. Why? Because dropping facades is the absolute best way we can begin to show up for ourselves, for others, and for God. No true community or communion is possible without authenticity. If we are hiding behind facades, we are not bringing our whole self to our relationships. If we are trying to perform something in the world that is not who we really are, so much energy that could be put to use in enjoyment or in service to others is wasted worrying about how we are being perceived. But more than that, if we are hiding our true self, not just from others, but from ourselves or even God, we are not really even ever truly present, and our very self-talk and prayer become lies and acts of delusion instead of understanding. This is precisely why repentance and confession have such an important place in Christian practice. These acts are not about feeling badly about ourselves, and far less about self-flagellation; rather they are about seeing and telling the truth, acts of stepping out from behind facades and lies and into the true, authentic self.
Before I wrap this post up, I would be remiss if I didn’t mention how this movement applies to communities. Because of the fractal nature of our faith, our communities — families, churches, and societies — must also move away from facades and into authenticity. One of the biggest reasons why Millennials and Gen Xers have left the Church in huge numbers is a perceived lack of authenticity. All too often Christians put up a pious mask over selfish and uncaring hearts and in so doing hide the Gospel of God’s love, grace, and compassion behind a cold and even cruel facade. If we believe the Gospel, we must live the Gospel. Full stop. And on a broader social level, so much of our present political wrangling over historical images lies on this line of development: Is history about facades — national myths that make us feel good about ourselves and our ancestors — or is it an opportunity to tell hard truths about the past in order to forge a better future? This movement of growth reminds us that repentance and confession are not just needed on an individual level, but are for communities too.
And so, as we move through life, as persons and as communities, let us be truth-tellers. Let us drop our masks and step out from behind our facades. And let us let our light shine before others, that they may see our good works and glorify our Father in heaven.