by Matt Russell
I have been wrestling with a reality that exists for folks who open up to the spiritual life; it’s a reality that has haunted me for a long time. The reality is this: There is the life I want (the emotional depth, the spiritual sensitivity, the integrated authenticity, all that stuff ) and the life I am living. There is the life I am hungry for (the life that only God can produce in me) and the life that I show up here with, that gets played out in my friendships and family. There is a gap that exists between the life we strive for and the one we are living.
I don’t know when you first noticed the gap. It could have been when folks at church started talking about all the great spiritual stuff that is happening and less and less of their life’s struggles are mentioned. You may have caught on that to be a part of this culture you need to get their lingo down and keep the level of sharing up towards the surface. It could have been in meetings as folks gained your respect and you wanted to earn theirs, and so your degree of honesty went down and you started to “fake it till you make it” so much and so well that now you’re just pretty much faking it. Then one day you wake up and notice this gap between who you are and who you pretend to be, and it feels a little shameful, a little awkward. There are a lot of “shoulds” and “ought to’s” attached, and we just don’t know what to do about the gap.
I have noticed that what starts to happen is gap management, which encompasses all the crazy things that we do to cover up the gap, deny the gap, and keep people away from the gap. A lot of us have poured a good amount of our physical, emotional, and spiritual resources into gap management. What I have discovered is that the gap, the reality of your life, the real stuff that you and I struggle with, is the place where God can meet us. God is utterly committed to meeting us in the reality of our lives as they are right now—not as we want them to be. So whatever it means to be spiritually, deeply, and authentically open to God and to transformation, that openness will come not from gap management, but from life in the gap.
The spirituality that comes from life in the gap isn’t perfect, and it isn’t pretty. It’s a messy spirituality. It is not a formula or a test; it is a relationship. So think, “relationship-messy.” At its core, messy spirituality is not about competence or information or skill sets; it is about intimacy. Messy spirituality is not about perfection, but connection and a longing for wholeness. That is why the entrance to messy spirituality doesn’t start with all the paper promises we make to ourselves and to other people about how we are going to be different or how we are going to change, but with accepting the present state of our lives on a daily basis.
The deeply spiritual film, Monty Python’s Search for the Holy Grail, has a scene where King Arthur is met by the Black Knight, whom he mud duels in order to complete his quest. Arthur cuts the Black Knight’s arm off, expecting to be let by, but the Black Knight exclaims, “It’s merely a flesh wound.” After systematically dismantling (literally) this poor fellow, Arthur makes passage while the Knight is yelling, “Come back here! I’ll bite your knee caps off!” Some of us live our one and only life denying the present state of our lives: we are dismantled, disconnected, and dismembered. Entrance into a life deeply connected to God, though, starts with accepting the present state of our lives.
If that doesn’t get down in our bones, if we don’t open up the mess factor, if we start to think that it is up to us to manage the gap between the life God promises and the life we are living, we will spend our one and only life talking about things we have not experienced, creating a lingo of spiritual verbiage that we hide behind, celebrating things we have never done. What we will have invested in is a nice, tidy, balanced, spiritual life that is absolutely impotent to produce the life we are hungry for. We will devote our lives to some crappy form of image management, where we pour a lot of our resources into keeping people away from the issues we struggle with, from the reality of our lives, from the depth of our mess. I’ve lived there, and I can’t imagine going back. I have discovered that, for gap dwellers, there is a flow of God’s spirit that is available to ordinary people like you and me all the time. Jesus said it like this: “Come to me and out of your belly will flow rivers of living water” ( John 7:8). We must realize that our job is not to produce or control the flow, but to notice patterns and behaviors and beliefs in our lives that either keep us in that flow or keep us away from it. The most dangerous flow stopper—the deal that will keep us away from the authentic, deep, and liberating messy life of God—is a force that compels us to invest in a formula-oriented, cheap imitation of the life that God offers you: secrets. We all live with secrets. You have them, and I have them. They come in a lot of different forms, with many different price tags.
It’s the mom who gets so angry with her small children she could scream (and often she does). She is sometimes so filled with rage that her children’s eyes are full of fear when they look at her. She reads stories in the papers about moms who hurt their children and wonders if she’s capable of doing that. She feels so ashamed of herself, but she doesn’t tell anybody.
It’s the well-known couple adored by pretty much everybody in their social circle for their good life and happy marriage. But they have been hiding that they’ve been sleeping in separate bedrooms for months. Their conversations with each other range from polite to brittle, from superficial to cold contempt. Every week they show up here; they sit in the same place. They smile and nod at the same people. They convince everybody that they’re the model couple, but the truth is they are isolated and lonely.
It’s the recovering addict who attends meetings regularly and keeps in touch with his sponsor but is no longer being rigorously honest. He conveniently forgets to mention the things he’s been up to; his triggers that still exist don’t get brought up. He tells himself that he ought to be farther down the road, not still struggling with this stuff.
It’s the kid who is feeling so much pressure to perform from her parents and her teachers that the fear, anxiety, and worry is eating her up inside.
It’s the traveling man who keeps promising himself that this time he won’t watch the adult channel. He won’t surf the Internet for porn. He keeps breaking his promise but doesn’t tell anybody. Perhaps he feels ashamed.
We all have secrets, and we’re sort of trained to keep them, aren’t we? We wear masks with each other. We get very good at hiding. Our greatest fear is that we might be exposed. And so we duck-and-cover, bury our tracks, and become masters at throwing people off of our scent. We are so afraid of being found out, but being found out is not the worst thing that could happen to us. In all actuality, it may be the best thing! The worst that could happen is that no one will ever find out, that the truth will never come to light, and you will go to your grave and meet God having lived a lie that enslaved you your whole life long. These secrets keep us from a life in the gap.
I’ve come to discover a truth about humankind: we were made to know and be known. Out of all the desires that run around inside of you, one of the deepest, most foundational desires is that someone would know you. It’s embedded in our DNA. And it’s absolutely essential that we invest in ways of knowing and being known if we are going to be gap dwellers. My children have re-introduced me to a game that I have spent literally hours playing with each of them: peek-a-boo. I know. The rules to this game are very simple: first you peek, then you boo. But have you noticed that adults don’t usually play this game with other adults? It’s pretty rare for one couple to call another couple up and say, “Why don’t you come on over Friday night? Bring the wife, we’ll play peek-a-boo for awhile.” It hardly ever happens. But we play it with our children, and they will play it all the time and never get tired of it. I could see the joy in my son Miguel’s face the day he understood: First, I hide myself. I conceal my eyes and find that I exist even when you— big, powerful you—can’t see me. I’m independent. I’m a person. And then, presto, I reveal myself. I disclose myself to you. Developmental psychologists say this little game is very important so that children will know that they are their own individual person. They learn that they’re an independent creature that can reveal themselves, that can both know and be known. There’s a tension in this game: I hide myself. Are you still there? I don’t know. I hope so. It’s actually kind of a delicate game. If you stare a little too much, you will freak the infant out! An infant will turn away or try to break eye contact. If you quit looking altogether, if you never look, the baby will get distressed and cry and frantically try to get your gaze back. Psychologists say that if a young child is consistently denied eye contact—being seen—they will sink into a kind of depression and not even seek contact anymore. Parents play this silly game with their children because they can watch the beginning of the child learning, “I’m seen. I’m known. I’m loved.”
The Bible teaches that we were created with the hunger to know and be known. No matter what else you do with your life, no matter how high you climb, how much you achieve, or what experiences you collect, nothing else will satisfy that hunger—nothing else. There’s a very interesting statement in the book of Genesis where the writer talks about Adam and Eve. This is before humanity rebelled against God and matters changed. The statement is this: “The man and the woman were naked and they were not ashamed” (Genesis 2:25). Why does the writer say, “They were naked and not ashamed”? It’s not because they had abs and buns of steel and 0% body fat. This is not a fashion statement; it’s a relational statement. There was no hiddenness between these two human beings. Okay, so they had only existed for a matter of days, and she never existed without him . . . so there’s that in their favor . . . but the point is, there was no concealing. There were no guilty secrets to separate them. There were no dark memories that one of them might wake up with at two in the morning and wish they could do it all over again. They were two human beings married to each other and without shame. They could freely reveal everything they had ever done, said, thought, or felt. They were fully known and fully loved. And then came the fall, and that’s where the “s” word happened. Their eyes were opened to shame. God came to be with them, and they hid themselves because they were ashamed and afraid. We’ve been hiding ourselves ever since, from both God and one another. To know and be known, a human being’s greatest desire, was now our greatest fear as well. It’s both, and in the gap we have to deal with our shame.
Since then, the story of the human race has been about people learning how to come out of hiding and into the open, out of image management and back into reality, into the gap. If we are going to become the kind of community that God wants us to be, if we are going to authentically reflect who God has called us to be, then we are going to have to increase both the mess factor and the intimacy factor. I am absolutely convinced that a lot of our pathologies, a lot of the habitual crap we struggle with, come from sitting on stuff, from hiding stuff that we are intended to share continually in deep relationships. We hide in a thousand different ways. We get busy, we isolate, we avoid, we medicate, we perform—anything to keep distant from the truth of our everyday lives. One of the ways I hide is by seeking the approval of others. I notice this when my family comes in town. I find myself working hard, as subtly as I can, to try and manage what someone is thinking of me. Especially if I admire their opinion or if I think they are an important person. I’ll find myself—just by default, not even consciously!—emphasizing opinions that I think they might agree with, or silencing my opinions where I think they might disagree. I might tell stories that make me sound smarter, stronger, more successful, more courageous, or more caring than I really am. It’s just another form of hiding!
In the New Testament, Paul writes that one of the promises of living in connection with God is that we can live with “unveiled faces.” That’s the goal, to live with unveiled faces—no concealing, no masks, no hiding. Some people wear masks well. They cover up their hearts and lives and become experts at figuring out what other people want from them, and then they deliver it. If you perfect the art of projecting just the right kind of image, you may impress a lot of people. But you’ll die a little every day. You may impress a lot of people, but you won’t enter into deeper and deeper friendships where you know and are being known. Because, ironically enough, when people are looking for friends, they’re not really looking for folks who are impressive. They’re just looking for somebody who’s real. The irony is, we wear veils to manage what other people think of us, but everybody is drawn to people who live with unveiled faces. I heard someone say once that the reason they like little kids is that kids have not learned to manage their faces yet. Come to my house when the ice cream truck goes by, or go with me to Herman Park where the little train pulls us, and watch my son Miguel’s face. His face reveals his heart, and it’s so beautiful.
As we get older, we learn to manage our faces. We learn by modeling, and we model concealment to others. We teach kids to smile when they’re not really happy, to look compassionate when they don’t understand enough to even care, and to project the image we want other people to have of us even if it is not the truth about how we act, believe, or think. We learn to manage our faces, but we are also put off by falseness. We’re not drawn to deception, but to truth; we are attracted to people who live unveiled.
Do you have anybody in your life who knows everything about you? Everybody carries a few deep secrets. Maybe they involve things you’ve done that you’re desperately ashamed of, whether they are choices that you’ve made, abuses that happened to you or someone in your family, or that one time you said that thing you couldn’t take back. You know the time. You try to not even think about these things, but life triggers them and they come up. Our secrets haunt us, our bodies react, and we get panicky when things we like to keep settled are triggered. We start feeling flush and sweaty, and we may even feel like covering our tracks with the first lie that surfaces, which is not typically the most believable lie! (Maybe you can get lucky on the first one. I usually do not.) We will go to great lengths to keep from reliving past traumas, from unveiling the shames we carry inside us. We try and try to protect ourselves from feeling them, and oddly, the manner we choose is to safely wrap and bury them deep within us, hoping they won’t hurt us and that no one will find them to use against us. It feels like our life depends on keeping these things safely hidden. This long-running habit of humankind is painful, and we get it exactly wrong, because our life depends on being found, being known.
There’s no healing in hiding. Pain avoidance, maybe, but no healing. Secrets keep you from fully experiencing love, because even when somebody tells you they love you, a little voice inside you says, “If you knew the whole truth about me you would not say what you say now.” It’s so important to understand that we cannot be fully loved if we are not fully known. That’s why there’s such a connection between knowing and being known, loving and being loved. You can only be loved to the extent that you are known. To disclose ourselves at this level—at the core of who we are, we know we need to get some stuff off our chests—is messy, embarrassing, risky, costly, painful, and scary. So let’s breathe for 48 Living transparently a minute. Let that inner voice guide you to what is restraining you from knowing or being known. Take a step. Talk to an older-but-wiser person you have seen modeling intimacy and transparency and ask about his or her experience. My gut feeling is that they will tell you the gift of transparency is the greatest gift they have ever given or received. However you hide, whatever excuses you use to build a barrier, and no matter how much belief you put into these things, they are not on your side, regardless of how much it feels like it. God promises to accept you fully, to forgive you utterly. Living transparently is hard work. It requires past work and current work, and it repeats on a daily basis! But this is life in the gap. It isn’t perfect, it isn’t always pretty, but God meets us here in ways that will transform us one day at a time
Source: Recovering Faith: Words for the Way. Volume 2 [Kelly Hall, ed]