The Greatest Charade on Earth
I’ve been reading an outstanding book by Dr. Henry Cloud recently, Changes That Heal. In one of the final sections, Dr. Cloud discusses how healthy adults must be able to view other people as both good and bad, and view ourselves as both good and bad. We cannot live in denial of how the world is infused with both good and evil, including inside us.
Dr. Cloud spends several pages discussing how all humans perceive of themselves in two distinct “selves”: the Ideal Self and the Real Self. I hope you read this carefully:
"The ideal self is the one we can imagine and want to be. If you look at your particular abilities, you can imagine what their perfection would be like. . . . Deep down inside, we all realize the difference between our ideal self, the imagined perfection, and our real self, the one that truly is. If these two battle each other, we will be in constant conflict. What we wish were true and what really is true will war with one another. . . .We need to look at the relationship between the ideal self and the real self. If they are in conflict, there is going to be a perpetual war inside for center stage. Whenever the real self becomes apparent, the ideal self will judge it, and try to make it hide. And when we are hiding, we are not in relationship with God and others. If we demand perfection from ourselves, we are not living in the real world. The real self is not perfect—a reality we all must come to grips with."
Cloud, Henry (2009-05-26). Changes That Heal: The Four Shifts That Make Everything Better...And That Everyone Can Do (pp. 219-220, 222). Zondervan. Kindle Edition.
Unhealthy people repress the Real Self. They think being broken, having flaws, is bad or evil or weak or sinful. Perfectionists are people who have repressed their Real Selves. There are numerous reasons why a person would reject the Real Self. Read the book to discover possible reasons. It is extremely worth your time.
While I had several “Praise Jesus!” moments concerning my own life as I read the book, it was one thought that struck me most. What I'm about to say concerning the Church isn't in the book, but Dr. Cloud's vocabulary is perfect for what I’ve seen in the Church for all my life.
In my experience, the average person attending a Church in America thinks one chief thing about Church (and would not be able to articulate what I’m about to say):
Church is the place to go to impress people by pretending to be my Ideal Self.
This is why we dress up. Years ago some person gave some unmerited, false argument that we dress up “in order to give God our best.” Ridiculous nonsense. Have we never read the Bible? Do we really think God cares about our clothes? Nope. We do it because that’s what our “Ideal Self” would do. Our Ideal Self dresses up.
This is why we act phony in false handshakes and smiles: not because it’s “Christian,” but because that’s what our Ideal Self would do. Our Ideal Self would never dress relaxed, or be sad, be upset, be angry, or say something inappropriate.
It’s like almost everyone at Church acts like they’re on a first date. That’s how we behave when we’re courting someone. We put forth our Ideal Selves. We dress up, smell good, act polite, laugh, and almost bend over backwards to accommodate the other person. It’s our Ideal Selves.
And I’m convinced that nearly everyone in the Church thinks that Church is the place to go to impress people by pretending to be my Ideal Self.
This is why Jesus said that certain religious experts are like "white washed tombs." It's like they're an actor, wearing a mask, or from the Greek, that person is called a hypocrite. "Woe to you, experts in the law and you Pharisees, hypocrites! You are like whitewashed tombs that look beautiful on the outside but inside are full of the bones of the dead and of everything unclean. In the same way, on the outside you look righteous to people, but inside you are full of hypocrisy and lawlessness."(Mat 23:27-28 NET) I've never felt so much like a "expert in the law or Pharisee" in my life until now. How stupid we must look to God, all dressed up, pretending to be something we're not.
Not only those inside the Church think this, but those outside the Church too. In every poll I've seen, the top two perceptions given by nonbelievers of the Church is that Christians are (1) judgmental hypocrites and (2) not open to someone "like me" because I’m not good enough. It’s the latter one that strikes me now. Even nonbelievers think that Church is where your Ideal Self goes to be around other “perfect” people.
And this is extremely unfortunate. It’s a lie from hell. It’s false. If there should be one place on the planet that is not ever driven by the need to pretend to be the Ideal Self, it’s the Church. The Church is the place for us to be what we really are: Real Selves. Broken, flawed, sinful, grace-needing, Selves.
We need to accept what we are. We need to come before God as what we really are. We need to come to our sisters and brothers as what we really are.
We are all part of a huge charade, pretending to be a huge group of Ideal people. And pretending it is. There are no Ideal people. Ideal people don’t exist. My Ideal Self doesn't exist, no matter how much I want to be seen by others as having it all together. It’s false.
I’m convinced this is why so many people fade away from Church. They know that they’re pretending and feel guilty, and don't ever bond with others. They live however they want from Sunday afternoon until Saturday night. Sunday just feels so fake. So, they don't open up about their week. They think, "if people only knew what I really struggle with." This makes them feel terribly guilty. And worse still, they feel like everyone else is so much better than they are. Why? Because they don’t hear anyone else talking about their struggles. They don’t hear how others have sinned during the week, how they doubted during the week, or how they were so discouraged during the week. Whatever it is, the Church-leaver just couldn't relate to all these “perfect” people each Sunday morning. They tried for a while to implement the preacher’s sermons, got a little close to some people, but in the end, it wasn't good enough. They never bonded with others because we can’t bond with Ideal people. We just can’t relate.
And that's it: (1) guilt because of the huge disparity between the Real week and the pretend Ideal Sunday morning and because (2) they never bonded with others because they thought other people weren't pretending to be perfect, but really were! So, they couldn't relate, which means they never bonded.
Do we spill our guts to everyone? No. Of course we need wisdom in being Real. Of course. I’m fully—fully—aware that not everyone can be trusted. Being Real takes wisdom and risk. But whatever it takes, the risk is worth it when it's done wisely.
What do I do now? It’s time to stand up and admit that we’re not Ideal. It’s time to stop pretending—in fact, even thinking—that our Ideal Selves even exist. They don’t. It's a fairy tale. A fiction.
Jesus didn't come, preach, live, behave, die, and resurrect for your Ideal Self. He did all that for our Real Selves. God is perfectly aware that we needed saving. He did that for us. And that’s what forgiveness and grace is.
If you've been pretending to be good enough, either before or after you've become a disciple of Jesus, then now’s your time to admit the obvious: you’re not the Ideal Self you’d like to be. And if you’re painfully aware of this fact, and live a life of anxiety, guilt, and/or depression because you can’t forgive yourself of not being Ideal, then it’s time to let it go. Accept the fact that you—the Real you—has been forgiven because of what Jesus has done on your behalf.
This is gospel. And this is Real.