Projected and Protected Identity
We normally put our best foot forward conveniently leaving out the details we do not like. For simplicity’s sake, we can call this our projected identity. It is the personal narrative that we “want” people to know about us. Or perhaps more importantly it is the way we want people to perceive and think about us. We could think of it like painting a picture. A skilled artist paints the picture he wants his audience to see; a skilled author writes a story she wants her readers to read.
The problem is that our projected identity is not the complete story. And as such, it is not really a true story. Our projected story identity leaves out our suffering, our pain, our sin, our shame, our guilt, and so on. All the bad and the good make up the story we call “me.” But we project a different story to the public.
Intimacy or Entropy
In most cases we have no choice. Most people cannot be trusted with the deepest and darkest part of us. But we should not take this practical guardedness and use it to ignore all the junk we need to deal with. Hiding it is not healing it. If we do not take stock and begin to work on our inner fear and pain, it naturally leads to shutting out our relationships thus depriving us of intimacy. This can also naturally grow into things like defensiveness, invulnerability, and lack of authenticity. These are the things that create the growing distance in many of our relationships.
In C. S. Lewis’ story The Great Divorce he imagines hell as a dull gray town. What is interesting about the gray town (i.e. Hell) is that it is always getting bigger by growing apart. People, homes, and relationships are constantly spreading out geographically and emotionally. The distance to cross in order to connect with another is perpetually moving toward a cold and distant gray entropy. As time goes on, the journey between each other become more impossible and un-scalable. This is precisely what happens in our relationships—we put up walls of invulnerability.
Connection Through the Overlapping Story
Have you every noticed how people connect over their stories, especially similar interests and experiences? Recently I was having a conversation with a young man and it came up that I lived in the same town outside of Nashville. Then he mentioned the new mayor, who, as it turned out was my former landlord. We had some good laughs and talked about how the place has changed so much.
I had another conversation that week with a young man producing a movie he wrote for the Sundance film Festival. We connected over similar high school experiences reflected in his movie script. We both seemed to identify with that all too familiar place where we are surrounded by people but feel alone.
The Self-Defining Inner-Story
How often do we know a person who seemed to have it together and then we are shocked to find they committed suicide. Many of us are still stunned by the unexpected suicide of entertainer and comedian Robin Williams. He made us laugh, to the point of tears sometimes. Surely someone so funny and so successful must have been happy and fulfilled? Yet somehow this Hollywood success managed to be in such despair that suicide proposed itself as his only viable solution.
How does this happen? Why does this happen? Deep inside all of us there is the desire to know others and be known. We want to be valued. The protected side of our lives, the part we keep hidden, can be deeply corrosive to the soul if we do not seek healing. These are the secret things about us all that we believe everyone would reject us for if they knew. We are not entirely unjustified in this because people are generally self-righteous. We typically minimize our wrongs and exaggerate the wrongs of others. But that is not God’s way.
How Could God Love Someone Like Me?
They are also the things that we think God has already rejected us for. We say, “how could God love someone like me?” That is why we keep them hidden. We fear rejection. In many ways and most relationships we are right to. Even Jesus did not entrust himself to men because he knew how untrustworthy they are (John 2:24–25). But not with God. God already sees us and he is always extending forgiveness. God sees our broken story and desires to repair it; he desires to repair us. It is our sin, guilt, and shame for which Jesus went to the cross. He wants to lift this burden from our shoulders.
The most damaging thing for a person is to go through life thinking God will never forgive. As long as we think God will not forgive and accept us, we will not accept and forgive ourselves.
Learning to Forgive Self
Our fearful need to protect ourselves is what leads to our ever-increasing isolation like Lewis’ Gray Town. The people of the town were perpetually spreading out because they could not forgive each other. However they could not forgive each other because they could not forgive themselves. The key to forgiving others is learning to forgive ourselves—For that we need to know God’s forgiveness. When we cannot forgive ourselves, our only option is creating coping mechanisms. The usual choice is self-justification. If we cannot forgive ourselves, then it is impossible for us to admit we were wrong. So we have to perform the gymnastics of self-justifying. This leads to what the Bible calls “hardening the heart,” which is the inability to accept our wrong-doing, confess it, and ask forgiveness. (Heb. 3:7; 14; & 4:6) This is repentance. Lets look at those three principles again:
Hardening the Heart is and inability to repent of our sin and receive God’s forgiveness because:
1. We have been caught in vortex of self-justification because…
2. We cannot forgive others because…
3. We cannot forgive ourselves.
Stop now and carve out some time for some private silence and reflection. Ponder the cycle of hardening the heart for a little while; ask yourself some tough questions. Who are the people and situations your heart is stiff towards?
The Gospel story envisions a world without fear or hiding. It is a world were people are freed from not only all their suffering and pain, but also their shame and guilt. 1 John 4:18 says: “There is no fear in love, but perfect love casts out fear. For fear has to do with punishment, and he who fears is not perfected in love.” John is saying is that we are not free to love when we are bound by fear—the fear of people, of their opinions, especially the fear that God will not forgive us. The hardened heart is full of fear—the fear of being wrong, of being exposed. It is afraid of not measuring up, not being one step a head, or one step up on the stairs from everyone else.
In 1 John 4:19 he goes on to say, “We love because he first loved us.” God loves us and accepts us. That is where healing begins and hardness dissipates. The fear of others is overcome by the love of God. This is why John also says in 4:17, “In this is love perfected with us, that we may have confidence for the day of judgment.” The opposite of hardness is forgiveness. The opposite of self-confidence is confidence in God’s forgiveness.
Approaching the God of Compassion
Is there a day when God will judge all things? Yes there is. Does he want to judge us? No! The Bible also says, “The Lord is not slow about His promise, as some count slowness, but is patient toward you, not wishing for any to perish but for all to come to repentance.” (2 Pet. 3:9) He wants to give us “confidence”—confidence in his love to save us and give us a future. Jesus became man to give us a story of hope. It is not the story assembled piecemeal from our experiences by which we typically define us. In the Gospel God is giving us the story of the death, burial, and resurrection power of Christ; his story is one of victory. When our story begins to be shaped by his resurrection victory, ours becomes story of victory too.