“From the place of our woundedness we construct a false self. We find a few gifts that work for us, and we try to live off them. Stuart found he was good at math and science. He shut down his heart and spent all his energies perfecting his “Spock” persona. There in the academy, he was safe; he was also recognized and rewarded. Alex was good at sports and the whole macho image; he became a glass-eating animal. Stan became the nicest guy you could ever meet. “In the story of my life,” he admitted, “I want to be seen as the Nice Guy.” I became a hard-charging perfectionist; there, in my perfection, I found safety and recognition. “When I was eight,” confesses Brennan Manning, “the impostor, or false self, was born as a defense against pain. The impostor within whispered, ‘Brennan, don’t ever be your real self anymore because nobody likes you as you are. Invent a new self that everybody will admire and nobody will know.’” Notice the key phrase: “as a defense against pain,” as a way of saving himself. The impostor is our plan for salvation” – John Eldredge, Wild at Heart
Does reading that strike a chord in your heart? I know it does in mine. This describes so much of my past struggle, a struggle that God’s been faithful to help me through for the past ten years of my life, if not longer.
We’ve all heard people say that the most important thing in any conflict is to know your enemy. Whether it be a sports conflict or actual war, I’d say that’s a generally true statement. There’s probably a bit more to it than that, but for the most part if you understand your enemy you’ll find yourself in a good place. Well the same is true when we are in conflict with ourselves. As Eldredge states above, at some point in all of our lives we’ll be wounded. As we stand there in the midst of the pain the enemy visits us and presents us with the lie. The lie is simple, but oh so devastating. He tells us that all the pain we’re experiencing would leave, all of our deep unspoken desires would be fulfilled if we just became someone else. Usually we’re too young and naive to understand what’s happening so we embrace the lie. We put on someone else’s armor and present a false mask to all around us, hoping that it will save us. Unfortunately, what we believed would save us ultimately leads us into greater bondage.
Why? It’s because the false identity we create is incompatible with who we are at the core of our being; it stands in rebellion to who God created us to be and thus will never satisfy and never bring us what we desire.
This narrative permeates all aspects of media. Who’s the real person: Batman or Bruce Wayne? Our society praises those who wear masks, which is why masked heroes and the stories they are involved in continue to capture our imaginations (just look at the success of Marvel’s Daredevil on Netflix or the continual reboots of Batman and Spiderman); however, in the same breathe we also have an insatiable drive to find the man behind the mask, as if we know deep down that he’s the person who really matters. And that’s true, in fiction and in reality. We must never confuse the roles we play with who we are (more on that in my next post).
So how do we escape? If we truly are created to be someone different than who we’ve presented others for so many years how do we go back? How do we bring back the man or woman behind the mask?
First, we must acknowledge that we’re wearing a mask in the first place, which is easier said than done. Repentance (i.e., changing our mind and how we think) will only come if we understand what falsehood we believe and what the alternative truth is. This is why our second task is to ask God to reveal the difference between who we really are and who we’ve been pretending to be. He’s anxious and happy to do so. This is not a one and done event. It’s a process as God not only shows us who we’ve been pretending to be but also why we’ve been pretending to be them. This journey into the past can bring up painful memories but this is the path to restoration and healing. Finally, we must accept ourselves, our true selves. God has a glorious plan for each and every one of us and it is only by becoming who he created us to be that we’ll be able to accomplish the good works he designed for us.
Up to this point I’ve dealt mainly with the realm of ideas and principles. Now allow to me to go to the realm of experience because it is within our experience that God wants to encounter and dwell with us. I’ll do so by explaining my own experiences with the mask.
I can’t remember all of the events that led me to believe the lies that made up my personal mask, but I will try to recount them to the best of my ability. First off, I’ve spent the vast majority of my life joining preexisting communities and friendships (I’m even doing it now, as I transition to interning with Chi Alpha at UVA). Because I was always the new guy I’ve perpetually felt like an outsider, always feeling like I don’t belong. I knew many people who I got along with but I was always searching for that David/Jonathon relationship from the Bible and could never find it (to be honest, I still haven’t but I haven’t given up hope for it). On a slightly unrelated note, when I was in 5th and 6th grade I had to visit a speech therapist because I couldn’t pronounce the “r” sound correctly, especially when I got excited and started talking fast (which people tend to do when they get excited).
There are few things worse than being told you can’t talk properly (I can’t speak for everyone but it definitely tops wearing braces, which I also have experience with). In hindsight I’m extremely glad for those many, many speech lessons; however, back then they were a tremendous source of shame and actually caused me to embrace the role of outsider. I figured that as an outsider I’d interact with fewer people and thus be put in fewer embarrassing situations.
The final factor was my physical stature. I’ve never had the build that would lead someone to call me a “strapping, young lad”. From as far back as I can remember I wanted to be 6’3 and around 190 lbs, all muscle. Once I figured out that I’d never be the biggest guy on the block I knew I needed some other type of strength to give me some confidence and distinguish me from all the other guys in eyes of all the girls in the world. I settled for two things: strength of conviction and the appearance of the inner strength that comes from self-confidence (which I didn’t really have). And with that, my mask was complete.
Now, just to be clear, all of these conclusions probably took place before I turned 14 and were just continually solidified and built upon as time passed. I haven’t begun to see myself differently than this mask until this past year, and most of that growth has occurred in the past 6 months. In fact, even though I have started to see myself differently, I couldn’t have articulated what my mask was until two days ago, when God revealed it to me after I read the above quote by John Eldredge and did some journaling about it. Here’s what I wrote in those initial moments of reflection.
“The impostor, the false self, believed that strength was seen in silence, in mystery, in control. I thought that if I was aloof and mysterious people would think there was more to me than I believed at the time, that they’d take an interest in me and that girls would be attracted to me being a mild mannered man of mystery. He looks nice on the outside but is aloof enough that you imagine a danger hiding behind the surface. The truth is that there is danger, this is fight in me, but it’s not to be used for my own gain or manipulated; it’s to be used to fight for others. It doesn’t need to be flaunted. Also, what woman would trust her heart to a man whose heart she cannot see? To be fully myself, funny, warm, and endearing is to be vulnerable because it goes against everything I falsely believed girls wanted. It’s taking the mask off and saying, ‘this is me, take it or leave it,’ and then stopping there. As an introverted person I still fight the impostor sometimes, but now that I’ve identified him I have power over him and I can empower the true self, who God made me to be.”
Understanding what your mask is will not remove the temptation to wear it. Because I am such an outsider in the realm of my experience, even in this present moment, it is tempting to embrace that label as a part of my identity. As I begin my internship with Chi Alpha at UVA, I’m entering a fully formed, self-sustaining community, and a large one at that. I’m not sure what my place within this community is yet. I don’t yet know how God wants to use my gifts and talents to bless my fellow staff members and the students I’ll be ministering to. However, I know that if I embrace the identity of an outsider I will put up walls that would prevent me from caring and loving the people around me to the extent that God wants me to. So instead I reach out, I intentionally look for ways to get integrated into the community; all the while learning to be the person God created me to be at all times. It takes effort and I’m still learning but I’m enjoying the growth.
Now, again I feel clarification is needed. In my case, God provided a great deal of inner healing concerning the areas of my life that supported the mask long before I realized what mask I was wearing. That may or may not be the case for you. Perhaps God will reveal the mask you’ve been wearing and the healing will follow. Perhaps he’ll do something similar to what he did in my life and the healing will come first. Either way, he will do something because it is his desire to restore you and help you fully become the beautiful person he created you to be from the moment he conceived of you in his mind. However, don’t be mistaken: it will test you. John Eldredge writes, “In order to take a man into his wound, so that he can heal it and begin the release of the true self, God will thwart the false self. He will take away all that you’ve leaned upon to bring you life… God thwarts us to save us. We think it will destroy us, but the opposite is true—we must be saved from what really will destroy us.” At the beginning it will be messy and emotionally painful, but in the long run it will be so, so worth it.
I share my experience because I know it would be foolish to think I’m the only person who’s ever worn a mask to hide deeply rooted insecurities. Getting to where I am now wasn’t an easy process by any means and it was only by having many of my most precious goals subverted and deep desires go unfulfilled that I was able to turn to God and begin the process of seeing if the man behind the mask still existed. Fortunately, he did and God had been with him the entire time. Revelation 19:10 says that the spirit of prophecy is testimony, meaning that what God did for someone else becomes the foundation of what we believe he will do for us. Hopefully my story will fill you all with confident expectation of God’s coming work in your life to dismantle the lies of the enemy and reveal the glorious child behind the mask.