In my experience of life on the streets, honesty is a precious commodity seldom found in the world or in the church. Like an alcoholic who denies he has a drinking problem, many of us have been deluding ourselves for so long that dishonesty and self-deception have become not only acceptable but a necessary way of life.
Esse quam videri,—the coat-of-arms of early church father Gregory Nazianzen, translated, “to be rather than appear to be”—has become so convoluted that appearing to be has become the common denominator of daily behavior; sham and pretense comprise enough to get by, and as Carl Jung said, “Neurosis is always an inadequate substitute for suffering.”
Anyone who walks in alcoholic bones is no stranger to self-deception. In my days of sour wine and withered roses, when I was stashing vodka bottles in the bathroom cabinet, the glove
compartment, and the geranium pot, I assumed that no one suspected, and that the One who knows how to play twenty questions was having lunch in Nairobi.
The mind plays tricks. Sober or inebriated, self-deception is a cunning, powerful, and baffling enemy of integrity. I have found not simple solutions for living in ruthless honesty, but I pause at noon and eventide to examine my attitude in relationships and my unhealthy introversion and self-absorption—I shall not ask how the jackass got into the ditch but simply work to get him out.
Since childhood, I have been hooked on two drugs—alcohol and approval. Each feeds the other, and one is as lethal as the other. Craving the approbation withheld in childhood, I stagger into each new day seeking affirmation, attention, approval, and praise. What psychologists call the “King-Baby Syndrome,” the emotional programming which seeks to compensate for the power deficiency we experienced as infants or youngsters, has plagued my personal life and ministry.
Dishonesty disowns my true identity as Abba’s child and allows my false self, the impostor who is the slick, sick, and sinister impersonator of my true self, to engage life on a fraudulent basis. I have lionized my accomplishments in ministry with self-deprecating humor to create the impression that I am humble; I have vaunted my gift of discernment, insisting with false modesty that the gift must be attributed to others; I have manifested extraordinary pseudoserenity in the face of adversity, and meekly protested about the burdens of leadership. Each ploy is designed to fasten attention on myself.
Dishonesty is elusive. It may go undetected and therefore unchallenged. Clues to my recreant life of illusion came from several incidents: I grew fearful when a more gifted writer swiped my baton; I grew cynical when feedback was negative, paranoid when threatened, worried when worried, fitful when challenged, and distraught when defeated. This Christian, successful in the crooked game of self-deception, lived a hollow life with considerable attainment on the outside, but desolate, unloving and anxiety-ridden on the inside. King-Baby sought to master God rather than be mastered by him.
Was there any solution? Yes.
I unplugged the jug. Alcohol and approval feed each other.
Personal dishonesty has devastated my marriage. While marital infidelity has never been an issue on either side, fear that conflict would destroy our marriage turned me into a wimp. As Roslyn put it, I refused to “fight fair” and punished her by taking offense rather than giving offense. I sulked, pouted, and withdrew. Silence reigned for days. Moreover, I caved in on every issue and gave Roslyn total control of our finances and social life. I was dishonest in dialogue, concealed relapses with alcohol, stuffed my feelings, and became a shell within which a husband once lived. The man Roslyn fell in love with no longer existed.
Of course, feelings that are not expressed cannot be fixed. Repressed anger leads to resentment; resentment induces guilt; and guilt leads to depression. Repressed persons are often depressed persons. I started taking the anti-depressant Effexor. The denial, displacement, or repression of feelings is blatant dishonesty and leads to a loss of integrity.
Understandably, we hide our true feelings from God in prayer. We presume that he cannot deal with our divided hearts, the way we carefully distribute ourselves between flesh and spirit with a watchful eye on both. Can God cope with my primitive sexual urges, with the bald facts that I am benevolent and malevolent, chaste and randy, compassionate and vindictive, selfless and selfish; that beneath my cool exterior lives a frightened child; that I dabble in spirituality and pornography; that I have blackened a friend’s character, betrayed trust, violated a confidence; that I am tolerant and thoughtful and equally a bigot and a blowhard; and that I really hate the music in the Catholic church? I concluded that he cannot, and thus I withhold from Jesus what is most in need of his healing touch.
The greatest fear of all is that if I expose the impostor and lay bare my true self, I will be abandoned by my friends and ridiculed by my enemies.
The person who cannot admit that he/she is wrong is desperately insecure. At root we do not feel accepted, and so we repress our guilt and cover our tracks. Thus the paradox: confession of fault requires a healthy self-image; repression of fault means an unhealthy self-image.
Prayer is the process in which the unrestricted love of God gradually transforms us. The Holy Spirit pierces our illusions about ourselves, frees us from the damnable bondage of approval, exposes the projection of our hateful feelings toward ourselves onto God as the worship of a nonexistent god, and leads us into the thrilling awareness that this very moment we are being seen by God with a gaze of infinite tenderness.
Breakdowns often lead to breakthroughs. The breakdown into honesty on the journey happens when we come to value the approval of God more than the approval of people. Our spoken and written words become simple and direct. Our prayer becomes silent and listening, as we let ourselves be loved by God in our tawdry hubris, dishonesty, and brokenness. Feelings are expressed without inhibition and anxiety, and our hearts relax in the wisdom of accepted tenderness.
Jesus’ freedom from public opinion and the nagging concern about what others think enabled him to vent his emotions with honesty and spontaneity. “He was moved with the deepest emotions” (John 11:33). In Matthew his anger erupts:“You hypocrites! It was you Isaiah meant when he prophesied: ‘This people honor me only with lip service. The worship they offer me is worthless.’” When he saw the widow of Nain, he felt sorry for her. “Don’t cry,” he said. There is more than a hint of irritation when Mary of Bethany anoints him. “Leave her alone,” he says.“Why are you upsetting her?” And unmitigated rage in “Get behind me, Satan! You are an obstacle in my path.” (Matthew 16:23)
The gospel portrait of Jesus is that of an utterly honest man exquisitely attuned to his emotions and uninhibited in expressing them. His feelings were sensitive emotional antennae to which he listened carefully and through which he perceived the will of his Father for congruent speech and action.
In the words of William Penn, “to be like Christ is to be a Christian.”
Brennan is a friend of mine. I asked him to write this article. I’d like to respond to it.
The abrupt ending reflects Brennan’s holy impatience with prolonged explanation. He’s suffered enough and failed enough to grow weary with sweet words and feigned discernment. For Brennan, life, if we’re ready to live it, requires us to admit we’re scared. lonely, weak, and empty. Pretense sustained by too much talking has no place.
And that’s a good thing. The gospel cuts to the chase; it’s for sick people, ragamuffins, (to use Brennan’s word), not pretenders. If we find the courage to get honest—and Brennan models that courage in this article—we put ourselves in line to experience, not just talk about Jesus’ extravagant love. The result? We become like Christ—honest, spontaneous, abandoned to the Father, centered in grace, willing to suffer, and able to love, even with nails in our hands. To be like Christ is to be a Christian.