At a party I attended, a new Christian and I were talking, asking each other the usual get-acquainted questions. He asked me if any of my extended family members were believers. I replied that I had grown up in a pastorís home, and we were all Christians. He was interested to find out I was a pastorís kid and probed deeper into my upbringing. Reluctantly I told him about a sibling who was struggling with a drug addiction. I mentioned how sad and angry I was feeling. His face broke into a huge smile, and he said, ďThatís great!Ē I was shocked by his response and asked him what he meant. He said, ďIím so glad you know what itís like to have problems!Ē
Discounting the insensitivity of his response, he had a point. Too often we Christians hide our pain, sins and weaknesses from each other. We hope that if we publicly mouth the right words, pray impressive prayers, sing with gusto, and show up at committee meetings, we can fake it a little longer. Faking it can become a way of life rather than an occasional attempt to get through a difficult moment. I know because pretending all was well with my soul when it wasnít led me to a mental breakdown.
The Pastorís Daughter
When I was growing up, my dad pastored churches all over California. I liked being the pastorís daughter because of the attention and special privileges I received. Sometimes my ďexaltedĒ position got me into trouble. When I was 5 years old, I practiced fancy walking on a brick retaining wall that bordered the church driveway. One of the deacons, trying to save me from a concussion, asked me to get down. With great haughtiness, I looked down at him, a mere church member, and said, ďI donít have to! My dadís the pastor!Ē Of course, that remark made its way to my parentsí ears, and my little bottom was spanked soundly! Being the pastorís daughter also came with extra responsibility--no sassing the deacons!
Not all my early experiences were so amusing. When I was very small, a church memberís son molested me. I told no one initially, choosing to keep the shame and brokenness I felt a secret. Eventually, I put the molestation out of my mind completely, or so I thought. My understanding of God and how He felt about my sexuality became increasingly distorted. I became a people pleaser. To make my parents happy and to have the respect of others was a very important goal in my life. I wanted to feel God's love for me, but often I felt instead that He was only interested in how well I could keep His rules. I loved Him with a fierce love, but I wasnít certain He felt the same about me.
Throughout my teenage years I was confused, frightened, and disgusted by some of the temptations I gave in to. I dreaded how my parents and youth leaders would react if they knew what I was really like. I wanted my life to count for God, but a couple of behaviors threatened my self-worth and my belief that He could ever use me in a significant way.
Outwardly, I kept the rules and did everything a good Christian woman should do. It wasnít a total sham because I truly loved God, and my lapses only made me more aware of how unworthy to be His child I felt. Somehow I muddled through, loving God and disliking myself. I thought if I kept all the external rules and regulations of Christianity, no one would ever know about the broken places in my soul. No way in the world was I going to confide my struggles.
What would other people think?
This refrain became the theme of my life. Year after year I added new ways to look good on the outside while being driven by fear and confusion on the inside. During my college years I became convinced that I was too worldly, so I stopped using nail polish and makeup (a scary act for a natural blond). I vowed to never wear shorts or a swimsuit in public again. When my fiancťe, Rick, wanted to buy me a diamond engagement ring, we argued for weeks over his ďcarnalĒ inclinations to buy jewelry! In my mind, a plain gold band was sufficient for godly girls.
Hiding Our Pain
Rick and I got married and quickly began our descent into marital hell. Having lived the first 21 years of my life in the prison of trying to fool others into thinking I was the perfect Christian, I was scared to death to realize that I couldnít hide from my new husband. He saw me not only at my best but also at my worst. You canít live with an other person 24 hours a day and not see her flaws and sins and weaknesses. I was terrified that Rick wouldnít love me anymore once he knew the real me: a woman who struggled almost daily with depression and hopelessness, a woman who flew into hysterical rages when overwhelmed emotionally, a woman consumed with guilt and shame over past sins. How could he love someone like me? My feelings of inadequacy grew when I saw the shock and dismay on his face as I screamed and cried during our frequent arguments. He thought he had married a gentle, quiet, docile young woman when, in reality, he had married a cleverly disguised volcano!
Perhaps the saddest part of the story is that I felt that I had nowhere to go for help. No one would understand. While we were close to both sets of parents, we felt embarrassed to talk so personally with them about our marriage troubles. Rick was on staff as a youth pastor, and we definitely felt we couldnít let anyone in our church know of our pain. What would they think of us? We were the ďperfect couple.Ē Counseling didnít seem like an option because counseling was for ďloonies,Ē and we werenít loony. We believed that if we just loved God enough, our problems would eventually go away. We hid our pain, our misery, and our unraveling marriage for two years. We felt trapped, cheated, and mad at God. Then the bottom fell out for me.
I was commuting to college in Los Angeles and had to role-play a family scene about conflict resolution in a sociology class. When my turn came, I burst into tears and ran out of the classroom sobbing. I drove the 60 miles to our home, crying the whole way. I didnít know why I was crying. Was I losing my mind? Who but a crazy person would sob uncontrollably for 60 miles without knowing why?
Rick was experiencing severe physical symptoms from the stress of our deteriorating relationship. Between my emotional breakdown and his physical breakdown, we were at the end of our rope. God was finally able to break through our resistance to admitting we were imperfect people. We began to see a compassionate Christian counselor who taught us how to communicate and how two imperfect, sinful individuals could build a strong marriage.
At last I was ready to acknowledge what I had tried to deny my whole life: I was just a human being! I was not a super Christian, not a superwoman, and certainly not a super wife. I was just an ordinary woman who had a lot of broken places that needed the healing grace of God. Soon after that I felt God's love for me for the first time. I had known all my life that God loved me. I was confident of it. But I canít say that I had ever felt it at an emotional level before.
One night after our counseling session, I was overwhelmed by the certainty that God loved every part of me Ė the good girl, the bad girl, and even the ugly girl who looked good on the outside but was full of filth on the inside. Again I wept uncontrollably, but this time I cried tears of relief, release, and joy. The God who made heaven and earth, who flung the stars into space, who holds it all together by His smallest word ... this perfect God loved imperfect me. Amazing!
I determined that night Iíd never return to the emotional prison where hiding, pretense, and faking it are the norm. If necessary, I would stand on the roof of our church building and shout to anyone who would listen, ďIím just like you! Iím a person who hurts and cries and has arguments. I have days when I donít love my husband, let alone love God!Ē A new way of life began for me that night--a life that was more open and vulnerable.
A few years later Rick and I started Saddleback Valley Community church. We intentionally built it on the principles we had learned through those dark days. From the very beginning of Saddleback, we have talked openly about our marriage struggles--and not just the ones from our early years. When we teach, we often use the disagreement we had yesterday to show we still donít have it all together! We share our fears, our inadequacies, our mistakes, our doubts, and our questions, as well as our victories and triumphs. No one can look at us and say, ďYouíre perfect, and your family is perfect. What do you know about real life and where Iím hurting today?Ē We are committed to being real, vulnerable, and authentic. Through this, weíve learned our strengths donít encourage others nearly as much as our weaknesses.
Living in Authentic Vulnerability
God never meant for us to live our lives dreading that others would see us for who we truly are. We werenít designed for the stress of pretending, hiding, and covering up our sins. Instead, He planned for us to live in authentic vulnerability, free to confess our weaknesses and sins, and free to find acceptance and encouragement to grow. First John 1:7 (TLB) says, ďBut if we are living in the light of God's presence, just as Christ does, then we have wonderful fellowship and joy with each other, and the blood of Jesus his son cleanses us from every sin.Ē
That Scripture says we have a choice: we can live in the light, or we can live in the darkness. When we hide our true selves, pretending that all is right within us, we walk in darkness. Many choose to walk in darkness because itís within us, we walk in darkness. Many choose to walk in darkness because itís easy to hide flaws and blemishes in the dark. We can protect ourselves. Others canít see the truth about us because weíve cloaked it in pretense. On the other hand, a light exposes everything, and sometimes what it reveals isnít pretty. Just like picking up a rock exposes the ugly, crawly things that cling to the underside of the rock, when we allow God's light of truth to expose the ugly, crawly things about us, we can no longer hide. He gives us the chance to admit the ugliness and to receive forgiveness.
Walking in the light of God's truth--being honest--keeps us from faking it. Faking it takes an incredible toll on relationships; it kills intimacy. It keeps us from ever being close to another person--even from being close to God. God desires that we form friendships that accurately represent His idea of fellowship--fellowship that sees the truth about you but loves you too much to leave you that way.
The early days of marriage are behind me, but the lessons about authenticity born in that painful time grow truer each year. Deciding to live with authenticity has revolutionized my relationships.
Iím not afraid to be close to God because I know Iím secure in His love. I canít do anything to make Him stop loving me. He knows the real me, inside and out, and still chooses to call me His child.
My husband and I have become best friends. He too, knows all there is to know about me and accepts me anyway. He even likes me! As much as I would like for my kids to see me as a perfect mom, thereís no chance of that! They figured out my weaknesses long ago.
As a pastorís wife, I refuse to cave in to the pressure of playing a role, pretending I can walk on water. I canít. I donít even try anymore. Iím just Kay--nothing more, nothing less.
Worrying about what other people thought, covering up personal sin, hiding struggles behind proper behavior, trying to be perfect--these decisions nearly crippled me. Some of you know this story. If you changed a few of the details, it could be your story. Youíve invested a huge amount of your emotional, physical, and spiritual energy in becoming a master of denial, a pro at pretense. You may feel the stark terror I felt--that your whole world will come crashing down if you let someone else know the full extent of your imperfection.
Being real about your weaknesses and struggles can be risky. Not all Christians are ready to be accepting and vulnerable in return. But the risk is worth taking. Authenticity is the path to freedom to be who God created you to be, to more satisfying, loving relationships, and to profound intimacy with God.
Take the first step by coming clean with God. You canít keep a secret from God, so you may as well confess what He already knows. Let His healing grace flood your soul with forgiveness.
The next step is to tell one trustworthy person what youíve been afraid to admit. Ask that friend to pray for you to have the courage to begin sharing your story with other people. After youíve grown comfortable with being open about your weaknesses and struggles, others will know you are a safe person to be vulnerable with. You will have the incredible privilege of offering the same unconditional love and mercy to them God offered to you the day you decided to live with authenticity.
Article by Kay Warren
Kay Warren is a homemaker, pastorís wife, writer, and speaker from Trabuco Canyon, Calif. She and her husband, Rick, have three children, Amy, Josh, and Matthew. Kay is an integral ingredient of Saddleback's growth.