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Many Christian women today are wearing masks. From an early age, we are taught that to be valuable we need to do more, to be more. To feel worthy, we learn to hide behind the masks of our accomplishments, physical appearance, intelligence, education, relationships—even our work in the church. But those masks separate us from God, from other people, and from our true selves. Thankfully, there is hope. We can remove our masks and trust Christ to see us as we really are . . . but it takes humility. To examine our ...
Many Christian women today are wearing masks. From an early age, we are taught that to be valuable we need to do more, to be more. To feel worthy, we learn to hide behind the masks of our accomplishments, physical appearance, intelligence, education, relationships—even our work in the church. But those masks separate us from God, from other people, and from our true selves. Thankfully, there is hope. We can remove our masks and trust Christ to see us as we really are . . . but it takes humility. To examine our hearts, motives, and past experiences requires honesty and confession. But beyond the masquerade, Christ can heal and transform our lives, freeing us from bondage. Tyndale House Publishers
Perhaps your morning was like mine. I reluctantly rolled out of bed, feeling the impact of a late night. After stumbling into the bathroom, I groped for the light switch and was rewarded with a brightness that was far too intense for Monday morning. I splashed water on my face and began to brush my teeth. While brushing, I stared at the dark circles under my eyes, chuckled at my wayward hair, and noticed a large red pimple forming on the left side of my nose. Next, I stripped off my clothes, turned on the shower, and stepped on the scale. Not too bad given my weekend indulgences, I thought. How a number can determine the tone of my day!
After showering, the real work began. Deodorant, baby powder, mouthwash, and perfume to control offensive odors. Blow-dryer, comb, and styling gel to tame my hair. The face-now that was the ultimate challenge. Since this would be a workday involving human interaction with others beyond my children, I decided on the "medium-level makeover." I started by spreading moisturizer on my face and neck and tweezing stray eyebrow hairs. Next, I applied under-eye concealer, blemish concealer, blush, and powder. I carefully employed eyeliner and mascara to highlight my sunken brown eyes. With a lippencil, I outlined my bottom lip, literally drew an upper lip since I have none, and then filled it all in with glittering ruby lipstick. After trying on three pairs of dress slacks, I found one that fit comfortably, projected casual professionalism, and matched an ironed blouse. I looked at myself in the mirror and declared myself presentable.
Amazing what it takes to get ready to face the world. Imagine going to church, work, or lunch with a friend simply as you are-no shower, hair matted, no makeup or deodorant. I've had those days-have you? Running late with no time or energy for personal hygiene? Even if it's a quick trip to the grocery store, I'm acutely aware of my disheveled appearance, and I feel completely unprepared for personal interaction.
My 30-minute morning routine is well worth the time and effort. In its natural state, my body stinks, my breath reeks, my skin is blotchy, I have bushy eyebrows and hairy underarms, my lips are too small, and my stomach is too flabby. Wrinkles, gray hair, and varicose veins are just starting to appear, foreshadowing my future decline. Frankly, in this world I need all the cosmetic help I can get.
Although I may not be aware of it, I usually put even more effort, time, and energy into making myself emotionally and relationally presentable. Facing others without covering my psychological blemishes is actually more terrifying than going out into the world without a shower or makeup. Far more offensive than body odor are my fears, malicious thoughts, insecurities, shame, and pride.
Imagine if everyone could see through your smile, scripted words, and confident appearance. What if your boss, your friends, your neighbors, your relatives, the grocery clerk, and your children could peer into your soul and know the depth of who you really are-the good, the bad, and the ugly? Perhaps even more threatening, what if you lived with the daily, moment-to-moment awareness of your own deepest pain, shame, and insecurity? Such intimacy, such honesty, such nakedness, such consciousness would be paralyzing. Have you ever felt it? Who has the strength and courage to live so genuinely? Is it even possible?
To Be Human Is to Be Hiding
The Phantom of the Opera is one of Broadway's greatest musicals. The play tells the story of a brilliant composer with terrible facial deformities. Throughout his childhood, he was mocked and rejected. As an adult, he developed his genius as a musician and an architect, posing as a ghost who haunts an opera theater. When the Phantom falls in love with one of the young opera singers, the only way he knows how to win her affection is through hypnosis, intimidation, and manipulation. As the story of unrequited love unfolds, the Phantom reveals his life of loneliness and agony. His first piece of clothing as an infant was a mask to hide his horrendous appearance. He was born to be hidden.
Can you relate to the Phantom? When were you first fitted for a mask? Although you may have been loved and adored as a baby, it probably didn't take long before your "deformities" entered the scene. Do you remember when you were first aware of not being okay, when you first realized that just being you wasn't enough? At what point did the stains of human sin and shame become your reality?
When Kendra was only two, her mother abandoned her. Kendra lived with her father, who soon remarried and had three more children with Kendra's stepmother. Although they loved Kendra, she always felt like the odd one out. She was the child who had been rejected by her own mother.
Because Kendra's family was poor, she drew taunts and slurs from classmates at school. As a result, she began to care about her appearance and went to great lengths to play the part of a popular, normal child. She dreamed of the day when she could leave her history behind and build a life that others would respect.
Years later, as an established professional, Kendra came to counseling complaining about the emptiness of her life. A successful businesswoman and active church member, Kendra knows how to impress others with her credentials and vivacious personality. Yet she still has nights when she sobs into her pillow, asking God, "Why didn't my mother love me?"
Even her closest friends don't know about the inadequacies that have haunted Kendra throughout her life. How can she risk further rejection by admitting the humiliation of her past? Instead of dwelling on these fears and heartaches, Kendra forges ahead in her strengths, the acceptable version of who she has become.
You don't have to have a dark secret or a tragedy in your past, like Kendra, to feel the sting of shame and a fragile self-image. If you've experienced such rejection, you are simply more in touch with the true human condition. Regardless of your heritage and history, you were destined to wear a mask since the day of your birth. You entered this world with deep needs that could never be fully met because you were created for a relationship that was severed through sin. Although God designed you for fellowship with Him, you were born on the Enemy's turf, alienated from the very purpose of your being. You bear the image of a righteous Creator but fail at every level to participate in the fellowship and the glory for which He designed you.
And so, as a young child, you learned to survive by wearing masks. This is the way of the world: You must do something great, be friendly, follow the rules, make others laugh, have a quiver full of children, be extremely talented, be highly educated, or look beautiful in order to be a person of value.
Based on your background, natural talents, and personality, you created a mask that seems to fit you so perfectly that most of the time you aren't even aware of its presence. Seldom, if ever, have you realized how drastically it cripples your fellowship with God or your intimacy with others. Your mask feels as much a part of you as your own skin. It is simply who you've become.
In the 1980s, a film called The Breakfast Club captured the attention of pop culture. Although the movie earned an R rating, youth workers within prominent churches and Christian organizations were urged to see it because of its effective portrayal of humanity. The story takes place at a suburban high school on a Saturday during detention. The film brilliantly captures the struggle for identity among five students who serve the daylong detention together. The cheerleader, the jock, the punk, the rebel, and the geek begin the morning at odds and with nothing in common. But as they share throughout the day, they learn how similar they truly are. As the day wears on, they in turn divulge their fears, pain, and feelings of rejection. The rebel tells about his abusive father, and the jock explains his pressure to succeed. They are each fighting for a place in a lonely, callous world. Each has assumed an identity-a mask-for survival.
Perhaps you remember this vivid struggle for identity as a teenager. It was probably during these tumultuous years that you settled on how you would define yourself. Was it based on looks? Boyfriends? Grades? Sports? Parties? Money? Clothes? Talents? Or did you leave high school still lost? Perhaps you defined yourself not by what you could do but by what you couldn't do. Stupid. Ugly. Rejected. Ordinary.
Although you probably no longer feel that raw insecurity of adolescence, the pain and the questions may lurk just below your "mature" adult identity. Adulthood feels more secure only because you've grown more comfortable and confident in your mask.
Nothing holds both the potential to heal us more completely or wound us more deeply than simply being genuine. The hope of healing awakens the deep desire to be fully known and valued. This longing sometimes triumphs over fear and prompts us to take risks, to be vulnerable. But that honesty and nakedness alerts us to real dangers. Only when we're truly ourselves can we be utterly rejected.
All of us have experienced the hurt of sharing too much and having our trust met with betrayal. Yet we also know the loneliness of tucking away secrets and stuffing feelings. Our lives hang in the balance of this choice: to risk being known or to hide behind the safety of a role, a facade, an identity. So goes the struggle of who we are, who we pretend to be, and how we hide. You may hide so well that you aren't even aware of what you're doing. But since the fall of Eve, to be human is to be hiding.
What's Available at the Costume Shop
I have heard of your paintings too, well enough; God has given you one face, and you make yourselves another. -William Shakespeare, Hamlet
Perhaps a quick browse through common masks will help you recognize how deeply entrenched our culture is in this masquerade. Here are several that women hide behind:
Jamie is protected by her armor of accomplishments, possessions, and power. Her travel schedule, luxury car, Palm Pilot, and never-silent cell phone proclaim her importance. People are impressed when they find out how quickly she has risen in the business world. Few ever think to look behind her success and get to know the real Jamie. Kate is the neighborhood's supermom. Kids are always playing at her house. Her minivan sports her children's honor-roll stickers. Kate's schedule is packed with sporting events, Moms In Touch, field trips, homework, cooking, laundry, and cleaning. As long as her children are developing well, Kate is assured that her life is meaningful. What could be more important than building the next generation? Shauna hides on her college campus. Gone are her insecure high-school days; she has grown in her confidence. She's earning a 3.6 GPA at a prestigious university and is surrounded by friends and male admirers. Seldom does Shauna give voice to the loneliness of her soul. If you have a problem, call Karen. She's the best friend a woman could ever have. Karen never says no and would do anything for someone in need. She lives to be needed. Who she is beyond that, not even Karen knows. Vicky is one tough lady. She knows how to get things done, but don't get in her way. Vicky has no qualms about telling you exactly what she thinks. Her motto is "If the truth hurts, too bad." Vicky's aggressive and blunt style serves to keep others at arm's length. No one dares to get close enough to know the real Vicky. Are you throwing a party? Kelly should be first on your list. If Kelly can't make it, reschedule, because she's the queen of fun. Always armed with entertaining jokes and stories, Kelly is a blast to be around. She's loud, friendly, and can make even the shyest person feel welcomed. Her charisma and charm will make you forget that although you've known her for years, you still have no idea who she is.
Where do you fit in? How have you crafted your life into an identity? Are you a perfectionist, a peacemaker, a know-it-all, a socialite, a beauty queen, an introvert, or a helpless victim? Do you realize how powerfully your struggle for acceptance and meaning defines you? Your days are packed with work, relationships, duties, and leisure. But to what end?
But wait, you may be thinking. Maybe what you're talking about is just my personality. How do I know if I'm wearing a mask or if I'm just being myself?
Heather was always eager to volunteer for projects at church and her children's school. Although her husband sometimes complained that the family was overcommitted, Heather genuinely believed that her service was an expression of her personality rather than a mask. However, as she delved deeper into the issue of self-esteem, she began to realize that being available and helpful were primarily her way of gaining attention and friendship. Her insecurities faded into the background as others applauded her servant heart.
After praying about this for a couple of weeks, Heather decided to "fast" from volunteering for six months. She was amazed at how difficult it was to say no and let other people down. She began to feel useless and doubted her worth in the body of Christ. She wondered if people would still appreciate and value her as a person rather than as someone who could be trusted to complete a task. In the absence of busyness, she discovered how threatening it felt to call a friend just to have coffee with her. Without a mutual project to work on, what would they talk about? How much of herself would she have to reveal?
Like Heather's, your mask likely emanates from your personality traits, strengths, and past experiences. God created you with a unique temperament and approach to the world. Don't confuse that uniqueness with your mask, although they may appear to overlap. A genuine characteristic becomes a mask when you use it to hide or protect yourself rather than to express the real you. Authenticity displays who you truly are while masks manipulate that truth, presenting a more favorable or guarded image.
Your mask is the established pattern for how you interact with the world. It filters how you see yourself, understand others, and solve problems. Most likely this coping style is productive, and even helpful, in many life circumstances. However, the protection your mask provides comes with a steep price, one you may not even know you're paying!
The Going Price of a Mask
The price of your mask may be evident only when something goes wrong-a divorce, the loss of your job, the death of a loved one, a financial crisis, the rejection of a close friend, infertility, a threatening illness, a wayward child. When your mask cracks, you realize how empty life feels, how vulnerable your very existence is. Like the man who built his house upon the sand, the waves and the wind erode the foundation of who you are. Only then are you aware of how compromised your life has become by hiding.
Your Mask Prevents You from Experiencing Intimacy with God Our relationship with God is absolutely dependent upon how we understand ourselves before Him. Throughout Scripture we see examples of people approaching God on their own terms, comfortable in their masks. Perhaps in that moment of awareness, their motives felt pure and their desires seemed to be set on pleasing God. Only as third-person observers can we see how lost they were in their pursuits.
Certainly the most obvious example of these kinds of people were the religious leaders of Jesus' time. The Pharisees had tremendous authority and were treated with great respect in their community. They were the most educated and came from the most prestigious Jewish families. When Jesus came onto the scene, He threatened their masks by inviting sinners and common people to serve God. He exposed the Pharisees' facade of righteousness by pointing out the evil in their hearts. Even under the guise of spiritual leadership, they worshiped their masks rather than recognizing the true God. They chose to kill the source of truth in order to preserve the illusion of their righteousness.
If you're a student of the New Testament, you probably view the Pharisees as the bad guys of the Bible. Less obvious is the fact that we, too, are in danger of sharing their foolishness. The lesson of the Pharisees is that we must never approach God based on our strengths. Our talents, good behavior, knowledge of Scripture, and devotion to God cannot make us worthy in God's eyes. We're strong only when we're willing to be weak. We will embrace God only when we're truly humble, dependent, and childlike before Him. We desperately need Him!
Excerpted from Beyond the Masquerade by Julianna Slattery Copyright © 2007 by Julianna Slattery, Psy.D.. Excerpted by permission.
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