When sin entered the world, it sent humanity’s first couple into hiding, both from God and one another. They hastily masked their naked vulnerability behind a handful of fig leaves. Not much has changed. Today, we still hide behind masks to protect ourselves from being rejected by the ones we love. But at what cost?
I can vividly remember one of the first times I was willing to be fully vulnerable with my wife, Cathy. We were driving home from a weekend away to celebrate our fifth anniversary. During that long car ride, we began discussing the state of our marriage, and the conversation quickly got heated. I started to feel defensive, so I did what I often do when I feel attacked: I got angry in the hopes that she would either see my perspective or just leave me alone.
It didn’t work out the way I’d hoped. Rather than making the car ride more comfortable, it only heightened the intensity. Eventually our conversation got so ugly and I got so defensive that I snapped and did the most reasonable thing I could think of in that moment: I pulled over and told her to drive home. I, in my need to avoid the tension, would walk home. Admittedly, my plan wasn’t very well thought out. I didn’t even know what county we were in and it would have been a long walk. However, my ploy did succeed in getting her to go silent, which certainly wasn’t good for our relationship, but at least it gave me a momentary break from conflict.
When we finally got home, however, we could no longer avoid the elephant in the room. I wanted to hold onto my anger. Yet, during the silence of the car ride, I’d become aware of something deeper, stirring underneath the anger, crying to be noticed. As I sat with it, I began to realize that this was the nerve that had been struck, the reason I’d instinctively put on my mask of anger. It was a feeling of inadequacy, a feeling that was dripping in shame. Unconsciously I had tried to bury it, but as I sat there on the couch I realized that hiding this feeling would only push us further apart. So in a moment of reckless abandon, I pushed my mask to the side and gave voice to the cry inside.
I said: “Cathy, I feel like a failure as a husband. After five years of marriage, I still don’t
have a clue how to love you or communicate with you in the way you want. And I’m scared I’ll never figure it out.”
As I confessed, my anger retreated and tears began to flow. It was one of the first times in our relationship that I was allowing Cathy into an area of shame and vulnerability while I was still struggling with it. Admittedly, it was terrifying to pull away the mask of anger and let her in. I was showing her the real me, the weak me who didn’t have it all together, and I was making myself vulnerable to rejection.
I’ll never forget her response. Before I opened up, she had been at the far end of the couch, with crossed arms and hardened heart, but as I brought my defenses down and came out of hiding, she softened as well. Before I knew it, she was at my side, with her arms around me. And later that evening, she told me she’d never felt closer to me than when I opened up and allowed myself to be vulnerable.
Talk about irony! From my perspective, dragging that dark pearl of shame into the light had been an embarrassing admission of weakness. I was terrified to admit it, because it might cause her to think less of me. But it elicited the opposite response from my wife. Rather than rejecting me, she actually moved toward me, since we were no longer separated by the mask I’d been hiding behind. What a liberating feeling, to know that I didn’t need to perform for my wife’s approval. What a beautiful realization that I could be loved just as I am.
God has designed us to live before Him and one another in complete intimacy, naked and unashamed, and for one shining moment I was able to drop the pretense and rest in the magnificence of His design. Sadly, a moment of intimate transparency cannot overcome a lifetime of hiding in the shadows, and eventually I reaffixed the mask over my vulnerability and went back to proving my worth.
The fact is circumstances may force us to drop our masks and step into the light from time to time, but we will never be able to scrape together enough courage to actually stay in the light on our own. So long as we perceive our true selves as unacceptable, we will be tempted to hide them. Until we can rest in the belief that we are loved, we will attempt to perform for the approval of our peers. So before we can hope to rest in the light, a fundamental shift must take place in our self-perception. We must reclaim our God-given identities. Otherwise, we will continue running back into the shadows and hiding behind our masks.