I was raised under the notion that transparency was a virtuous character trait. I don’t know if my parents ever formally tried to instill that idea into my psyche, or if it just came about out of the example they set through their regular interactions, but that’s the conclusion I ended up coming to. The idea that it could be acceptable to act one way in public and then another behind closed doors was foreign to me. For better or for worse, when you interacted with my kin, what you saw was what you got.
And that isn’t to say that my family was one of those mushy-gushy “let’s sit in a circle and share our feelings” type of families, because that really wasn’t the case at all. But my folks were genuine. I grew up assuming (correctly) that anyone who knew my parents or brothers had come to know the same version of that person that I knew. Because there was no other version of that person.
It made perfect sense when people would say to me, “I really respect your dad.” Or, “Your mom is really friendly, isn’t she?” Or, “Seth, you’re overly opinionated and kind of a jerk.” That was just people calling a spade a spade. Why would they think anything different?
I didn’t grasp that social honesty wasn’t a universally shared Christian concept until I was well into my twenties. I mean, I wasn’t expecting everyone I met inside the doors of a church to bare their soul at the drop of a hat, or anything. I did take it for granted though, that what I was seeing and hearing from others was a fair representation of what was actually going on in their hearts and minds.
Yeah, I know, for most anyone reading this, that last sentence probably epitomized the height of naivety, but that’s what I’d thought. The idea that a large proportion of church-folk are taking part in a life-long, well-intentioned masquerade was something of an awkward revelation to me, like when Toto pulled back the curtain on the Wizard of Oz.
It was like when I was working at a summer camp and saw one of my friends without make-up for the first time. Apparently, she had always done a good job with her foundation and whatnot, because I hadn’t even noticed that she was wearing anything until she wasn’t: “Wait… what happened to your face? Did you get a sunburn, or something?” (I am a very tactful person.)
And not that make-up is a bad thing. That’s not the point I’m trying to make. If a lady wants to wear some Mary Kay, I really don’t care. I’m just saying it was an odd realization for me at the time that I hadn’t actually been looking at my friend’s face in the whole month that I had been around her. I had only been seeing the version of herself that she wanted people to see; a version that had thicker eye lashes, less freckles, and smoother skin than she actually had.
And, to be clear, before I get accused of “body shaming,” or whatever, I’ll go on record and say that I think this friend was pretty with or without the make-up. All I’m saying is that her make-up drastically changed her appearance. I’d known someone for months and not actually known what her face looked like. And that seemed weird.
What I’ve come to understand over the last decade is that this is the norm in many Christian circles. People are afraid to let others see what they really look like.* They work hard to project a “better” image of themselves out to the world. They don’t let people see them in their actual state, because they are afraid they will be dubbed “ugly,” be made fun of, or looked down on. This is especially true of many missionaries.
Missionaries, by and large, are afraid of being open and honest with their supporters and sending churches. Many hide the personal difficulties they are having, afraid that if they were to talk of discouragement or struggles without the token “but we see God working through our trials!” then they would be rejected by those who sent them.
I get it. I feel the outside pressure – some probably imagined, some definitely real** – of people who want to see their missionary be an unfailing success story. They want to hear that their player is an all-star. They want to stand behind a winner.
But I also feel pressure from another direction – some from my upbringing, and some from (I think) the Spirit – that says “Hey, don’t feed into the disingenuous portrayal of the Christian life that is being propagated by your Christian sub-culture. You are not perfect, and it is not helping anyone for you encourage others in their delusions that you are, or that they should be. Let the world see that you struggle. Let them see My grace in action.”
As we kick off this new year, maybe we could encourage one another to refuse to hide where we are in our walks with the Lord, in our relationships with each other, and in our Christian life experience.
Physical beauty is totally subjective and immaterial. If you want to cover a real-life pock mark with some sort of cosmetic, all the power to you. Whether or not you let people see that you have a physical divot in your physical face is inconsequential. But when it comes to interacting with the people God has put in your life, let’s stop pushing a narrative that encourages insecurity among ourselves and our peers. Get out the cleansing wipes and let them see your freckles.
*In case it wasn’t obvious, we’re back to the interpersonal stuff now.
**I had a lady I’d never met write a long letter to me once, telling me that my kids were getting sick because I wasn’t praying for them faithfully enough, and that I needed to leave the mission field until I got a clue. It was a huge encouragement to us as our 4-year old struggled with pneumonia.