A young mother came to see Mahatma Gandhi one day with a single request. “Would you tell my son that sugar is bad for his health and that he should stop eating it?” The great leader replied, “This is a difficult thing that you ask me to do. Come back in a week.”
The woman returned a week later with her son. “I’m not ready to speak with him yet,” Gandhi told her. “Come back in a week.” A week later she came back. Gandhi addressed her young son. “Sugar is bad for you,” he said. “Stop eating it.”
“That didn’t seem so difficult,” the woman said. “Why couldn’t you have told him that two weeks ago?” “Because,” Gandhi replied, “two weeks ago I had not stopped eating sugar.”
In this post and the next two, I want to take up the subject of “being real.” I begin with a statement that many will find inflammatory. The most difficult context in the world in which to be real is the evangelical Christian community, and that includes the traditions to which I have related over the past thirty years, Anabaptism and Anglicanism. To our shame, the church often encourages us to pretend to be something we are not instead of inviting us to be open and honest and real.
In this regard, the Christian community is being shaped by the contemporary culture, especially that element of the culture which measures success in terms of productivity, accomplishment, acquisition, and net worth. We don’t need all the things we go into debt to acquire. We accumulate them because, in our way of looking at life, distorted and perverted as it is by the influence of the culture, they are marks of success.
In contemporary American culture, success (or at least the appearance of it) determines our value in the society. It makes us popular. It boosts our self-esteem. And if we have to live our lives pretending to be something we are not, if we have to overlook or ignore or hide what we really are in order to fit in, to be accepted, to look and act like everybody else, well so be it. It’s the price of success.
This is precisely the mindset which governs life in the evangelical Christian community. Whether we are willing to admit it or not, we are caught up in what Tony Campolo calls “the success fantasy.” Our self-worth is measured by our accomplishments, our productivity, and our jam-packed schedules. We are valued by our peers proportionate to the degree we contribute to the “success” of the church.
Too often, in order to make that contribution, we need to pretend to be something we are not. If we said what we really think, if we revealed our true emotions, if we admitted that we are not what we appear to be, that our lives are not as orderly as they seem and our relationships are not as healthy as we would like people to think, we could lose the position or the admiration or the acceptance which we value so highly.
When we fall into this trap, we become what Brennan Manning calls “impostors.” Here’s what he says in his book Abba’s Child.
Impostors are preoccupied with acceptance and approval. Because of their suffocating need to please others, they cannot say no with the same confidence with which they say yes. And so they overextend themselves in people, projects, and causes, motivated not by personal commitment but by fear of not living up to others’ expectations. … Impostors draw their identity not only from achievements but from personal relationships. They want to stand well with people of prominence because that enhances their resume and their sense of self-worth. …The sad irony is that the impostor cannot experience intimacy in any relationship. His narcissism excludes others. Incapable of intimacy with self and out of touch with his feelings, intuitions, and insight, the impostor is insensitive to the moods, needs, and dreams of others.
Why does the impostor settle for life in such a diminished form? (One reason) is plain old cowardice. As a little one I could justifiably cop a plea and claim that I was powerless and defenseless. But in the autumn of my life, strengthened by so much love and affection and seasoned by endless affirmation, I must painfully acknowledge that I still operate out of a fear-based center. I have been silent in situations of flagrant injustice, I have stifled creative thinking, denied my real feelings, allowed myself to be intimidated by others, and then rationalized my behavior by persuading myself that the Lord wants me to be an instrument of peace… But at what price?
This tendency to pretend to be something we are not while stifling and refusing to admit what we really are is not a new phenomenon. It is at least as old as Moses.
We know the story of Moses, the leader of Israel, God’s chosen instrument to lead His people out of 450 years of bondage in Egypt and back toward the land which God had promised to their ancestors Abraham, Isaac and Jacob. We have read how God called Moses to come up to meet with Him on Mt. Sinai and how God gave him the law, inscribed on two tablets of stone, which Moses was privileged to deliver to the people of Israel.
Let’s pick up the story in Exodus 34:29.
29 When Moses came down from Mount Sinai with the two tablets of the covenant law in his hands, he was not aware that his face was radiant because he had spoken with the Lord. 30 When Aaron and all the Israelites saw Moses, his face was radiant, and they were afraid to come near him. 31 But Moses called to them; so Aaron and all the leaders of the community came back to him, and he spoke to them. 32 Afterward all the Israelites came near him, and he gave them all the commands the Lord had given him on Mount Sinai.
33 When Moses finished speaking to them, he put a veil over his face. 34 But whenever he entered the Lord’s presence to speak with him, he removed the veil until he came out. And when he came out and told the Israelites what he had been commanded, 35 they saw that his face was radiant. Then Moses would put the veil back over his face until he went in to speak with the Lord.
As impressive as that narrative is, it’s not the whole story. In his second letter to the Corinthians, Paul tells us something about this episode which we don’t get from the Exodus account. Here is what he says in chapter three.
12 Therefore, since we have such a hope, we are very bold. 13 We are not like Moses, who would put a veil over his face to prevent the Israelites from seeing the end of what was passing away.
Exodus tells us that Moses put a veil over his face to prevent the people from being blinded by the shining glory of God reflected from his countenance. Paul, however, informs us that he left it there longer than necessary.
Why? We can only surmise that Moses succumbed to his humanity. He had gotten used to the privileged status he enjoyed among the people which was enhanced by the presence of the veil.
Moses had been with God, and his face shone as a result of the encounter. But eventually the glow faded. Still, Moses wore the veil. The mark of his special relationship to God was disappearing, but he didn’t want anybody to know it. So Moses did what too many Christians do today. He covered his true self with a veil, a mask, so that nobody could see what was really happening behind it. In that instance, Moses himself became an impostor.