Live in reality instead of perception. Acknowledge even the painful parts of depravity, and live in freedom, knowing Jesus is redeeming you.
By Mike Leake
There’s a question preachers like to ask their congregations to inspire a bit of introspection: “What do you want people to say about you at your funeral?” Answers vary. Typically, people talk about being a good spouse, parent, friend, or disciple. They may talk about being good at their vocation. I’ve long reflected on this question in my life as well.
I’m beginning to question, though, whether or not this is a helpful question. It seems to me the way of Jesus is marked by being instead of being perceived. Wasn’t that the issue in Matthew 7:21-23? I’m sure many gave riveting remarks about this dude at his funeral about how he preached Jesus, cast out demons, and did all kinds of amazing things in the name of Jesus. And yet Jesus’s declaration is that this guy was performative and not authentic. In reality, he didn’t know Jesus.
It’s easy to skip on past this guy, assuming he’s another character in the story—and not a reflection of us. We sit on the sidelines and observe as Jesus levels indictments against the Pharisees’ hypocrisy. “You clean the outside of the cup and dish…” (Matthew 23:25, CSB).
Deception of perception
What’s alarming about this whole scene is that the Pharisees and the guy in Matthew 7 seem to be entirely oblivious to their error. Is it possible that the self-deception here is so thick because it’s baked into their culture? Were they trained to focus on the funeral speech instead of their inner world? Diane Langberg is likely correct when she says:
“Deception becomes systemic when we use our collective power to protect what we desire to be true rather than face the destruction and the pain that accompanies the actual truth. Deception functions as a narcotic in protecting us from seeing or feeling that which is painful to us.”
What happens in a community if everybody is focusing on the funeral speeches instead of true authenticity?“Deception becomes systemic when we use our collective power to protect what we desire to be true rather than face the destruction and the pain that accompanies the actual truth.” — @DianeLangberg Click To Tweet
Seen or being?
A few years ago, God opened my eyes to the difference between perception and reality. And when He brought this deep conviction, I began this intense process of change. Now I live in about as much authenticity as a human can live.
Part of that story is true. The Spirit brought deep conviction to me in this regard. I realized as I was neglecting life-giving habits and disciplines in my own family, I was more concerned with perception than reality. As long as others saw me as a good husband or father, I was content. But leaving the inside of your cup dirty has a way of impacting your whole family. Eventually, reality wins out.
I had to be confronted with uncomfortable truths about how well I was loving and nurturing my own family. It was painful to acknowledge reality. The part of the above story that isn’t true, though, is that rather than being fully transformed in this area, my obedience is incredibly awkward. I still try to hide. At times, I still clean the outside of the cup. I find the lure of the eulogy to be an enticing siren song.
Selective perception control
It’s strange. I talk about theological concepts like total depravity. I’ll preach about how the human heart is deceitful. I can talk all day about the human heart being an idol factory. But if I’m being honest, my acknowledgment of my own depravity is far too selective.
There are some areas in which it’s far too painful for me to acknowledge my depravity. I can readily acknowledge where I’m frail and finite when it comes to ministry. And I can even tell you that I stink at things like evangelism. I’ll acknowledge when I was angrier than I should have been, when I wasn’t a good friend to someone, or that I had legit pride when beating you in Fantasy Football. And I’ll even tell you that my tongue will still get me into trouble. I’ll let myself see the inside of the cup on those things. No need for deception. No need to worry about how others perceive me.“I can talk all day about the human heart being an idol factory. But if I’m being honest, my acknowledgment of my own depravity is far too selective.” — @mikeleake Click To Tweet
I can even acknowledge sin in broad terms. “Yep, every husband is a sinner—just like his wife.” “Every dad is a sinner—just like his kids.” But start getting specific. Start really putting my toes to the fire. Do I really love my wife as Christ loved the church? Worse yet, have I selfishly harmed her at points in our marriage? Have areas of neglect brought about real harm to my children? Has my acid tongue absolutely crushed someone before? Have I dropped the ball in shepherding and truly hurt someone’s relationship with Jesus?
That’s me polishing the kitchenware. Sadly, if you are able to keep the outside polished, nobody will call you on the inside. After all, it’s easier to assume the inside matches the pristine exterior.
Fig leaves and true cleansing
We can take all of this back to the garden of Eden. After Adam and Eve sinned, the first couple hid behind a bush and sewed together pairs of fig leaf underpants. It was the first moment of inauthenticity in human history. Perhaps God will see the shrubbery instead of the sin. If God thinks they are clean and everything is still OK, perhaps that’ll be enough. Perception meant more than reality.
Humanity has been repeating this cycle ever since. In his book, The Gift of Being Yourself, David Benner talks about the exchange Adam and Eve made when they rejected being made in God’s image as being enough. When we do this, he says, we end up creating a false self. This is how Benner puts it:
With the self that is created in God’s likeness rejected, our false self is the self we develop in our own likeness. This is the person we would like to be—a person of our own creation, the person we would create if we were God. But such a person cannot exist, because he or she is an illusion.
Because this person (the false self) doesn’t actually exist, it cannot relate to God. We can only relate to God as we actually are. But this is where the good news comes in. Jesus didn’t die for your false self. Jesus doesn’t love your false self. But He loves you as you actually are, with all the sin and brokenness. You don’t have to hide.“Jesus doesn’t love your false self. But He loves you as you actually are, with all the sin and brokenness. You don’t have to hide.” — @mikeleake Click To Tweet
That was also the lesson in the garden. God provided clothing for Adam and Eve. He supplies what we lack—even due to our own foolishness and rebellion. This reality is an invitation to come out from hiding. Live in reality instead of false perception. We can acknowledge even the painful parts of our depravity—and live in the freedom of knowing Jesus loves and is redeeming and transforming every bit of us.
For permission to republish this article, contact Marissa Postell Sullivan.