No Pretense

No Pretense

. . . Speaking the truth in love, we will in all things grow up into him who is the Head, that is, Christ. From him the whole body, joined and held together by every supporting ligament, grows and builds itself up in love, as each part does its work. —Ephesians 4:15-16

Jesus was completely willing to say what he thought and what he felt. He refused to play mind games. There is no pretense in the Jesus of the New Testament. A few examples:

  1. When it was appropriate, Jesus told the religious leaders of his day, to their faces, that they were hypocrites and very far from the center of God’s will.
  2. He did whatever he felt was right and appropriate, with no thought for whether it was popular or even acceptable according to the customs of his day: He gathered food on the sabbath, he touched lepers, he took children seriously, he dealt with women equally as with men (he even traveled with women!). He hobnobbed with prostitutes and extortionists and urban guerillas.
  3. Even when it meant that large numbers of his followers would leave him, Jesus taught them some very challenging and off-putting truths (cf. John 6:53-66).
  4. He didn’t hesitate to express his own needs: At a well in Samaria, when he was utterly exhausted and alone, he asked a strange woman—and a hated Samaritan at that—if she would get some water for him from the well. He wasn’t embarrassed to receive significant amounts of his daily support from women (a scandal for that culture). And, on the night before he was executed, he tried again and again to get his closest friends to stay awake with him and pray, because he needed their support.

We are called to be like Jesus. One aspect of his life in which we fall woefully short is his practice of being totally straightforward in word and deed.

I want to introduce a useful term to you: “To have a face.” From C. S. Lewis’s novel, Till We Have Faces, it means having no pretense. It means being truthful and transparent in speech and in action. It means practicing neither self-deception nor deception of others.

Till We Have Faces is about a woman who convinced herself that she was doing what was best for others, especially for her beloved sister. Yet she unwittingly created enormous pain and destruction, because for decades she refused to admit to herself that, in the depths of her heart, she was jealous of her sister. She refused to bare her face as well as her innermost feelings to others and even to herself (the phrase relates to this woman’s decision to cover her face so that no one could see it).

You and I are called to “have a face” not only with God but also with each other and with ourselves—to see ourselves as we truly are, and to let others see us as we truly are.


Having a face with God

We can’t have a face with each other until we do so with God. That’s not as easy as it may sound. Most of us play mind games with God as readily as we do with each other. As one of my seminary professors claimed, “You haven’t really met God till you’ve met him as your enemy.” And that’s terrifying (at least at the beginning).

God delights in our legitimate dreams, but not those that enslave us

You see, God is indeed your enemy, if we define “you” as your sovereign, independent, willful self who is “only human.” God loves you so much that Jesus died to redeem you from all that! God is the archenemy of all your unredeemed ambitions, self-images, desires, dreams, accomplishments, talents, and abilities. PLEASE note the word unredeemed in the previous sentence! God is not against our desires, our dreams, etc. He isn’t an ogre in the sky who aims to distance us from all our legitimate yearnings. He adores us, and wants our happiness, and wants to help us fulfill our legitimate longings as much as possible. What he opposes are those unredeemed, of-this-broken-age lusts that inherently replace God in our hearts, for he knows that those ambitions, self-images, desires, etc., lead only to death.

Many things to which we look for fulfillment are in fact snares that seduce us into hiding from the face of God. For it is God’s intention to make us into creatures altogether different from what we can experience as citizens who are comfortable/satisfied with the goodies of this fallen world. His aim is to make us like Jesus. His goal is an entirely new creation, not just an improvement on the old. And the route to that new creation passes through the death of all that we cling to in this fallen world. God stands over against our ambitions, our self-image, our desires, our dreams, our accomplishments, to the extent that such things lead us to a life that has no need of God. He has something better for us: our ambitions as renewed and enhanced by his ambitions, our self-image as renewed and repaired by his image of us, our desires as renewed and transformed by his desires, our dreams as renewed and enriched by his dreams, our accomplishments as renewed and empowered by his accomplishments.

I repeat once again what I am not saying: I do not imply that our own desires, talents, tastes, sources of pleasure, creativity, etc., are bad and must be denied or eliminated in favor of our becoming entities whose personalities are dictated by God. No—he delights in our desires, talents, tastes, creativity, etc., just as I delighted in my young daughter’s love of dance or my toddler son’s love of trucks. That is, in fact, one of the major themes of the creation narrative—God took delight in creating beings who were very much like him, who could have their own ideas, their own creative designs, etc. That is in large part the entire purpose of our existence! But God knows that looking to ourselves as sovereign arbiters of ourselves leads eventually to disappointment and death. Rather, God desires that we give ourselves to him so that he can gradually purge from our desires, our talents, our tastes, our creativity, etc., those aspects that are tied to this world’s Darkness, so that he can empower our inner beings with his Light and his Life. For example:

Not my love of theater replaced by a totally new personality that may have nothing to do with theater—rather, my love of theater transformed by his living presence into a more life-giving, more joyful, more creative love of theater.


God requires only one thing of us

God never forces us to obey. His hands are tied in his desire to make us like Jesus, until we become willing to engage him in a completely honest way—until we decide to “have a face” with him.

Isn’t that what the story of Job was about?

Job was severely afflicted. He stood his theological ground against interminable assaults from people who seemed to care for him but who expressed their concern by spouting theological platitudes. Job had the theological high ground. He maintained an incredibly strong trust in God in the midst of circumstances that would make the vast majority of humankind question God’s goodness or even his existence. But in the end, all that was beside the point!

In the end, the real action began when Job turned his face directly toward God and was willing to bare his soul to God, with no pretense, no mind games: “This is how I feel, God. This is the way it seems to me, and I’m really pissed!”

And that is when God was able to intervene! “Now that you’re finally willing to talk to me face-to-face, Job, we can get down to business. . .”

It’s amazing how adept we are at avoiding face-to-face relationships with God. We’re so successful, in fact, that it tends to be part of our very being, and we don’t even realize we’re avoiding him.

Here are a few random examples of statements we may say to ourselves—and by extrapolation we say them to God, although we rarely take our thoughts to that logical extension. In our heart of hearts, however, we often know these statements are not true. That is, if God were to confront us directly, stare into our eyes, and ask us, “Come now, do you really believe that?!” we would have to say, “Well, no. . .”

Have you ever had any of the following thoughts? If so, how would they hold up to the naked gaze of your Creator? I’ll let you fill in the blanks.

* I’m not really a slave to ______ (food, alcohol, sexual pleasure, using the internet, using Twitter, being entertained, texting, listening to music, being liked and respected, having my talents appreciated, being fulfilled in my employment, being permitted to minister in the way I want [for ministry is one of the fiercest slave masters]).

* I’m not gossiping: The only reason I’m telling you about ______ is so that so you can pray for him.

* I didn’t really mean to hurt ______ when I said that.

* I’m not really jealous of ______

* I’m doing this only for ______’s own good.

* I’m not angry at God that my life hasn’t turned out the way I wanted.

* I know that amount of money could save the lives of three hundred starving children, but gosh, with all the stress in my life I need that ______ (boat, second television, new iPhone, high-end music system, expensive car, meal at an expensive restaurant, vacation, etc.) in order to continue functioning well. Life is so stressful, a guy’s gotta have some opportunity to unwind!

* Of course I’ve forgiven ______ but I can’t forget what she did.

* I’m so busy, I just don’t have time to write or call ______ (my parents, my child, my sick friend, etc.) every week.

* Oh I love ______ but I just don’t like her.

* I don’t have a lot of time to pray. 

* Yes, the supermarket computer undercharged me for this item, but they can afford it. I don’t really need to tell them that I owe them more money.

* I know ______ seems very lonely, and doesn’t have many friends, but in large part it’s because she’s so surly; she probably doesn’t even like me. I’m sure she wouldn’t want me to call and ask if we can get together for lunch.

* I can’t report ______’s problem with (drugs, thoughts about suicide, possible criminal involvement), because that would make me a snitch, and we all know that snitching isn’t right. 

* I’m not hurting anyone besides myself, so there’s nothing really wrong with ______ (using tobacco, following a poor diet, using pornography, smoking dope, disobeying traffic laws, etc.).

The key question is whether we can bring these statements before God, in a face-to-face encounter, and still believe them. But that is precisely what God wants us to do. It is primarily when we are willing to have a face with God that we give him the opportunity to begin working seriously in our lives, transforming us into the people he created us to be.

I might spend years and years praying for a very real need—e.g., a healing, or resolution of a painful family conflict. But during all those years of praying, serving my church, studying the Bible, etc., I never really get around to having a face with God, to looking him clear in the eyes, being willing to hear whatever he has to say. When I finally do that, what might I hear? Perhaps something like, “I’m quite willing to deal with that family conflict, but I can’t do that till we’ve dealt with a much greater problem: You still haven’t forgiven your father for what he did all those years ago. Yes, you say you’ve forgiven him, and on one level you may even believe that you’ve forgiven him, but in your heart you know you haven’t. That’s the biggest problem at this point in your life, not the conflict you’ve been focusing on for so many years. Let’s work on the forgiveness now. . .”

I don’t know what God might say to you when you turn your face toward him. You may already be doing so. But chances are, most of us have areas of our lives that we keep hidden from God as well as from ourselves—areas that are locked tightly, with a large “Do not enter” sign posted on the door.

It’s time for us to open those doors to the Holy Spirit, and to have a face-to-face relationship with God. It’s important not just for our own wholeness, but for that of the entire body of Christ. Remember, we Christians are an intimate fellowship. We are interdependent. I can’t receive the fullest measure of God’s blessings until you have a face with God. And you can’t receive the fullest measure of God’s blessings until I do.

We complicate matters when it comes to having our lives transformed. Most of us realize that God wants to make us like Jesus. And to accomplish that goal we try to pray more, to discipline ourselves in various ways, to get rid of various bad habits, to devote our lives to serving others, to spend more time studying scripture, etc.

But sometimes those activities are little more than distractions, because in fact we can’t change ourselves (cf. Romans 7:14-23). We aren’t even capable of surrendering our wills and letting God change us!

In one sense, God doesn’t even ask or expect us to surrender, or to try to be more like Jesus, or even to seek him more than we’re already seeking him—for he knows that we are incapable of doing those things. We’re unable to relinquish our own wills and let the Holy Spirit accomplish God’s will in our lives.

I often find myself completely helpless in my desire to obey God. 

But happily, in one sense, that’s not what God asks me to do. All he asks of me is one simple act of my will—not to obey, not to worship, not even to have faith, but simply to turn my face toward him.

Through an act of my will, I cannot obey him, I cannot trust him, I cannot relinquish my life to him. But by an act of my will there is one simple thing I can do—I can turn my face to him, wearing no mask, having no pretense. That’s what he wants. And when I do that, the fireworks begin—for when I have a face with God, he has me where he wants me!


Having a face with each other

But it’s not just God with whom I am called to have a face. It’s you, my brothers and sisters. What an incredible thing it would be—what power there would be—if we as God’s people were totally, graciously honest with each other. No pretense, no mind games. This is the goal toward which we should be working: that God wants us to exist as a family in which there is no pretense. That’s is a scary picture for most of us.

In the ideal Christian fellowship, for example, I will be completely willing to share my needs with you. If I’m hurting emotionally, or if I’m broke, or if I’m enslaved by a particular sin, or if I’m having family problems, I won’t hesitate to tell you what the problem is.

Many, many people I’ve prayed with over the years have said, even in tears, something like the following: “I’m desperate! I have a horrible problem I’d rather not talk about because it’s very private—would you please pray for me?” I’m always happy to pray for people, but prayers in these situations appear to be much less effective than prayers for people who are open about their problems.

When people keep their problems to themselves, what does that reveal? It reveals that they don’t trust me, they’re not sure I will give them grace. They feel perhaps that I would condemn them if I were to learn the horrible truth, or that I would gossip. No doubt much of this dilemma is my fault. Some people presumably are hesitant to confide in me because they’re not sure I’m trustworthy—I haven’t sufficiently demonstrated my love and commitment to them.

Let’s be honest, however. A large part of our motivation when we refuse to share our deepest realities with each other is our pride. And we need to get over that.

The first prerequisite of a fellowship in which the members have a face with each other is that we so demonstrably love each other, we so demonstrably extend grace to each other, that I know I can say anything whatsoever to an individual or even to the entire fellowship, and I will be met only with love and graciousness. No gossiping, no wide eyes (“You did what?!”), no clucking of tongues.

I should be able to confess to you that I’ve been selling cocaine for the past ten years, and be confident that your response would be one of forgiveness, with an attitude of “Now that you’ve brought this out into the light, let’s work together to help you get victory over this horrible thing through the power of the Holy Spirit.” If I confess that I’m an alcoholic and that I smoke dope every night, and I’ve been violently beating my wife, your reaction should be, “Praise God that you’re finally willing to bring this out into the open. Let’s work together to help you get victory over this through the power of the Holy Spirit. How can we help you?”

To give each other the kind of grace that God has given all of us, we must be unshockable.

Saying what you mean

We should be incapable of being offended by each other’s opinions, actions, or words. We are to speak the truth in love, Paul says. I must not be afraid of the truth, or even of what you believe is the truth. I may think you’re wrong or even missing a screw somewhere, but you must be able to say freely what you believe to be true. In order for a Christian fellowship to be capable of accepting the fullness of God’s blessing, it must be vulnerable to hearing (1) whatever God says to them as well as (2) whatever the members of that fellowship, correctly or not, think God is saying, or simply (3) what they think is true, even if others believe they’re out of their minds. And they must be vulnerable to hearing confession of any sin, any addiction, any kind of darkness, without condemnation.

For decades I have been part of a group called Fellowship of the Way of Christ. Even though there are many things wrong with the group, the characteristic that most blesses me is the general willingness to give grace to each other. Very dear friends on more than one occasion have said (and meant!), after I expressed a theological opinion, “That is just about the stupidest thing I have ever heard.” But it would be followed by a passionate hug. I know these people love me to death. In no other fellowship can I be myself, not having to watch what I say, as completely as I can in that group.

People may be wrong in what they think God is saying or in what they believe is true, but that’s OK. Whether or not I like what you say, I must give you the grace to say it. Christians are often offended, for example, when someone speaks a prophetic word that has even the slightest appearance of being a correction or a rebuke. But if I am going to have a face with God as well as with you, you must be able to come to me in private and say, “Brian, I believe what you did the other day was wrong, and Jesus is calling you to repent because you were not acting in love.” You must be able to say that to me! And I should respond with something like this: “Wow, that hurts. But thanks for that message. I’ll pray about it. If I decide you’re right, I’ll repent and act accordingly. And if I decide that I still believe what I did was appropriate, I’ll let you know that too, so we can go together to someone who can help us sort this out.”

Likewise, whether your sin is seemingly trivial or is a class-X felony, you must be able to come to me in complete trust and confess your deep brokenness; I must listen to your confession with grace and deep love; and I must be able to respond by offering forgiveness and support and endless grace.

Ditto for my telling you about the dragons locked within my psyche and my history.

The ideal is a fellowship in which every individual exhibits no pretense toward and gives grace to every other individual, realizing that God has already forgiven us immeasurably more than we will ever be called upon to forgive each other. Whatever you say, whatever you do, I forgive you, I love you, I’m on your side. I want to work with you in helping you submit to God and become like Jesus, and I trust that you feel the same about me.

Much more important than sharing negative feelings, of course, is the opportunity to share positive feelings. If we are truly as open with each other as God created us to be, we’ll spend a lot more time telling each other how much we love each other and appreciate each other, and we won’t be so shy about engaging in a lot of hugging.

In that kind of open, honest fellowship, God can work miracles like you’ve never dreamed.

Let me give an example of a practical, every-day situation where complete honesty can be very helpful: My wife and I have tried to make all our friends understand that we will be straightforward with them. For example, if they’re at our house and it’s getting late and we need to go to bed or perhaps just do something else, we might say, “You guys can stay here and talk, but we’re going to bed now.” Or if someone drops by the house for a visit and it’s really not good for us to take time away from what we’re doing, we’ll say, “I’m sorry, we just don’t have time to visit now.” This is a very liberating approach. The typical practice in our culture is not to be honest—to grit your teeth and entertain your guests, all the time hoping they’ll go away. The result is that you dread that knock on your door. And your friends dread knocking on your door, because they’re afraid they’ll impose on you and you’ll resent them for it. Our friends, however, know they cannot impose on us—we won’t let them! We’re honest with them. One wonderful result is that they know they can drop by at any time. They know we won’t let them impose on us—we’ll just say “Go away” (politely of course!). The net result is that we get to see our friends MORE than we would if we weren’t straightforward with them and they had to wonder, “Maybe I shouldn’t drop by now, because they might be busy.” It gives us deep pleasure when friends drop by unannounced, in part because we know they trust us to be honest with them. It’s a great feeling to be trusted!

Speaking the truth in love liberates both you and the person to whom you’re speaking.

Cautionary note: I’m NOT suggesting that we simply blurt out every thought! We must let the Holy Spirit exercise sovereignty in our having a face with each other. Otherwise, our actions can degenerate into rudeness.

If we are to be the people God has called us to be, it is imperative that we have a face with God, and that we have a face with each other. Jesus is the pioneer of this kind of open relationship with the Father and with other people, because he never failed to speak the truth, and to act the truth, in love. May we follow his example.