A family is driving 55 mph down a sunlit country road, swerving now and then. It is cold enough outside that the windows are fogging up from the warmth inside the vehicle. The kids are pestering each other, kicking and hitting one another in the back seat, saying all sorts of awful things. Mom finally turns around and curses at them to stop, that they are almost at the church building so it's time to quiet down. As the minivan pulls under the awning and comes to a stop, the bickering children grow silent and politely file out in single file through the glass double doors, through the foyer and into the auditorium. Here there is no fidgeting. There is no cursing. There is no kicking. They are perfect.
After the service, the children meet up with their friends, and their parents do the same. They speak kindly and respectfully to their Christian brothers and sisters, and everything is clean and neat and predictable and safe. After lunch plans have played out and the children return home, mom and dad begin shedding the layers. Dad strips off his belt and his tie, and mom hangs her overcoat in the closet and kicks off her shoes clumsily into the corner. Before long they are talking about money and begin to argue about the money wasted on Dad's hunting trips and Mom's hair appointments. They raise their voices to each other as if it was what their voices were made for.
And the children watch and listen...and follow suit. The youngsters begin to bicker and bother and whine. Fast forward to evening worship. Perfection. Home...chaos. Wednesday Bible study. Tranquility. Home...a battlefield. There are some obvious dysfunctions in the story. Should the parents fight and treat each other with hatred and pride? No. Should the children follow their lead and spiral downward into immaturity? No.
But the saddest effect is that the children begin to think that around the church, they must be perfect. At home, they can "be themselves." Their parents were convinced of this long ago. At home, the primary mode of communication is argument and complaint. In the worship setting, it is edification and flattery. When at home, problems are obvious and glaring. In the assembly, they are hidden, we are all perfect and sparkling. At home, we see behind the mask. In the church house, we are marble statues of purity.
I have often heard that the church is a hospital, not a museum, but I never understood that we were the patients and that Jesus was the Great Physician. I thought that I was there as a sterile surgeon, or at least a nurse, conducting an open heart surgery and dumping in the word of God. I got it all wrong.
It is easy to see the problem but the solution demands a great measure of grace, mercy and transparency with God and with others. And it is a solution that requires growth and time. We are in great need of a savior. No one was "raised in the church." No one was born into salvation. We all are at some point lost in need of a savior and separated from God. The churched heathen is no more saved or alive than an unchurched heathen, and vice versa.
The problems that Jesus came to heal in us are not a joke, but those problems are not our identity. For a short time, we wear a mask. We operate with the assumption that everyone can see and the prayer that no one can see. We protect our egos and our self-images with the pretense of perfection, though we are all hypocrites. The reason there are hypocrites in the church is that no one is perfect, but you know what? I would rather be sick in a hospital than contaminate everyone and everything around me. Christ heals and purifies and cauterizes our wounds. He purges with hyssop. It hurts big time, but remember, we are always on the Potter's wheel. We are always being chiseled and sharpened.
Some of us have seen the insides of prison cells, padded rooms and police cars. Some of us have pasts that would shock almost any congregation. But they shouldn't. The porn-addicted preacher is just as lost as the prostitute. The merciless mother is just as lost as the murderer. The wrathful railer is just as lost as the rapist. And the liar is just as lost as the looter . What reconciles? What unites? What cleanses?
GOD, the chief surgeon (Ps 51).
Some of our favorite Bible characters lived Behind the Mask every once in a while. We read of Adam, the taker; Noah, the drunkard; Abraham, the liar; Sarah, the mocker; Moses, the doubter; Rahab, the harlot; David, the adulterer, fornicator and murderer; Matthew, the thief; Peter, the racist ; and Paul, the persecutor. God honors the faith of the sinner-seeker who hungers and thirsts for what he needs most (Mt5:6). We are all sinners (Romans 3:23). It is important that parents allow their children to see them figuring things out: to see the struggle to victory that is achieved through faith in Christ. For when we seek God first (Mt 6:33), we become identified with him, and there is no need for the mask.
I have had the embarrassing experience in the past of hearing leaders in the church refer to "family problems," of which I had personally suffered. We should not treat sinners as lepers but as people who need healing. Spiritual healing will eventually subsume the physical and the psychological, but we should consider the amount of damage that sin can cause on the instinct, the intellect and the integrity of the new Christian to assist in healing alongside them. Perhaps the most significant wound that new believers could experience is that of Judgment, yes from the world, but also from their brothers and sisters in Christ.
We are all in remission. We have all worn masks. We have all hidden. We have all taken. We have all lied. We have blasphemed. Yet, we are all forgiven. We are resurrected (Rom 6:3-4).
1 Therefore if you have been raised up with Christ, keep seeking the things above, where Christ is, seated at the right hand of God. 2 Set your mind on the things above, not on the things that are on earth. 3 For you have died and your life is hidden with Christ in God. 4 When Christ, who is our life, is revealed, then you also will be revealed with Him in glory. (Colossians 3:1-4)
When we put on Christ, we have no need for the mask. We are hidden with Christ, in God. He is our rock, our shelter, our fortress and our sheild (Ps 144:1-2). We need not be ashamed of our past because it is the glory of God's forgiveness revealed, for which we owe him all our love (Lk 7:36-50). May your love, life and mercy be abundant (Jn 10:10).