I was driving home recently from a meeting, and Ravi Zacharias was on the radio. I do not much care for Ravi Zacharias (no offense to anyone who listens to him – we all get different things from different people, and I’m sure he’s not troubled by my opinion), so he usually doesn’t stay on my radio very long, but he was talking about how important it is to pursue moral behavior so that no one else will think that perhaps you aren’t moral.
In this context, he said (and I’m paraphrasing), “A preacher who lives a double life is engaging in his private life the very thing he denounces in public.”
You always want to be careful as a preacher when criticizing preachers, because that may come back to bite you. But that aside, it did make me think about the effort we invest in creating a public persona that we send to church.
This is the persona that shakes their head mournfully when someone shares statistics about pastors using porn. This persona confesses to their small group that they were not very kind to their spouse this week. This persona wonders aloud about the moral future of America, what with the restroom situation being what it is. This persona wants to talk to you about their lawn, how the Royals are doing, or just about anything that will keep you from talking about the person who created this persona.
The architect of this persona, when he isn’t sending his persona out as a stand-in, does not have a quiet time because they don’t want to get up that early. The architect looks at dirty pictures on the Internet. The architect has a temper problem that lashes out in bad ways with his wife and kids. The architect gets drunk watching basketball, or watching the news, or watching the wall. The architect is not sure if he believes in God, then gets scared of what God might do to him because of that. The architect must never allow anyone at church to understand that the persona is a fake – mostly because he is surrounded by their personae and mistakenly believes them to be their architects. The architect believes that real Christians can’t possibly be like him.
Clearly, the architect and the persona are very different people, and the amount of energy and anxiety involved in trying to keep up two identities will wear on a person and eventually crush them. We realize this is not good for ourselves, our loved ones, or our communities. We want the persona and the architect to be identical. So, how do we equalize and integrate them?
Assuming anyone even starts on this project, the most popular way for a Christian to attack it is to try to make the architect match the persona. The persona is the person he wishes he could be, or at the very least, is the person he believes will be acceptable to others. So, he begins to work to become a moral person, exhausting himself with prayers for God to “change his heart” and take away various sins. He throws himself into the enterprise of being the persona and chastises himself for failing.
Now, buried in all that epic failure are some good instincts. We are always to strive for greater and greater faithfulness. We tend to over-define that as personal morality and under-define it as working for new creation, but all the same, personal moral behavior is part of that and worthy of attention and work.
But there are a couple of problems with this approach.
The first problem is that this is still hypocrisy, just hypocrisy with much better intentions. Your persona is not someone trying their best to overcome sin with many failures – your persona is someone who is basically successful at overcoming sin and only slips up in the little things – in “church acceptable” ways. You are not that. I know because nobody is that. Not you, not your wife, not your dad, not your pastor. Everyone you think is this way is either in that category because of your own perceptions and assumptions that you have assigned to them or because they are actively trying to hide just like you.
The other problem is that any attempt to deal with your personal sins at an individual level is doomed to fail.
It is possible that God may miraculously take a sinful struggle away in the same way that it is possible that God may miraculously take someone’s cancer away. This, however, is atypical and it’s usually not a good idea for someone with cancer to assume this is what’s going to happen. Yes, pray. Yes, hope for a miracle. But yes, do the stuff you have to do to take care of cancer, because the overwhelming majority of the time, it’s that activity that God uses to heal.
The primary way God heals someone spiritually is not through intensive, private prayer and impassioned oaths never to do X again. The primary way God heals someone is through doing the stuff you have to do to heal spiritually, and that involves other people. It involves bringing the kingdom to bear on your situation while you are also brought to bear on everyone else’s. I’m going to say this again, it is hugely unlikely you will ever make progress with your spiritual issues as long as they stay in the confines of your private prayer times. The New Testament tells us to confess our sins one to another, not because we are judges, but because that is the mechanism through which God’s forgiveness and restoration begins to work.
And this also begins to integrate the persona and the architect, not just by bringing more light into the private life, but by bringing more darkness into the public life. The architect and the persona begin to look the same, not because the architect has achieved the level of perfection they’ve designed, but because the persona is transparent. It no longer presents something to the world that is not the architect – good, bad, screwed up, doing well – you just are who you are.
Depending on your faith community, this may be a risky proposition. It may not be wise to stand up in your congregation and announce that you have a drug problem (although I sure wish you could stand up in front of congregations and do that and receive acceptance and healing in response). You may have to start small – with that one trusted person who can get a glimpse of the architect’s world and won’t judge or recoil. But the first time you do that, healing begins. Change begins.
Rather than privately embracing what we denounce in public, how about we publicly embrace what we’ve denounced in public? How much power would sin really have if we didn’t protect it?