Mercifully Stripped of All Pretense

Is there anyone left who still doubts that there is a very real – often dangerous – disparity between how we present ourselves and who we really are? Certainly we have all met people who make the claim, “What you see is what you get!” And while it may be true that an individual really does make a concerted effort to present herself as she really is, there is still the very real possibility that any individual seeking to live a transparent life is – in one or more ways – self-deceived (Jeremiah 17:9).

For example, this guy over here may truly believe that he is a Christian, and hope somehow that his life is hid with Christ in God (Colossians 3:3). But after years of operating independently – outside of faithful Christian community – he has so twisted Scripture (and deluded himself) that he has somehow “arrived” at a point where he feels perfectly comfortable attending church services with his latest mistress.

“Who are you…really?”

The mere fact that we ever need to add a “really” to the end of that question demonstrates that we are well aware of the human tendency to “wear masks,” put up a good show for the church people, be somewhat chameleon-like in our ability to adapt to differing social surroundings and keep our less-attractive traits and weaknesses safely hidden from public scrutiny.

No one is immune from this; we are all desperate to tidy up our images any way we can.

Which is just one of innumerable reasons why the gospel of Jesus Christ holds out so much hope for you and me. Jesus knows us thoroughly, top to bottom, and He loves us anyway. Alone in the entire universe, we have one supreme Advocate Who is well aware of the myriad ways in which we have defiled ourselves and others, and yet He continually holds out His hand to welcome us into His eternal kingdom. His one requirement? That we confess openly who we are and are prepared to acknowledge our life-or-death need of His mercy and grace.

One of my personal favorite accounts in all of Scripture takes place in Genesis 32. Jacob is on his way to a confrontation with his elder twin brother Esau, knowing full well that he has finally run out of options, and is therefore rightly fearful that he and all his loved ones may soon be killed in the service of Esau’s revenge. Having spent all of his life as a liar, manipulator and deceiver, Jacob now stares imminent death in the face and has at last come to the point where he knows he cannot “manage” the people and events around him. In simple terms, it takes an escalating fear of violent death to get Jacob to stop paying lip service to God and allow himself to be confronted.

Genesis 32:22-32 (ESV, emphasis added)
Jacob Wrestles with God
The same night he arose and took his two wives, his two female servants, and his eleven children, and crossed the ford of the Jabbok. He took them and sent them across the stream, and everything else that he had. And Jacob was left alone. And a man wrestled with him until the breaking of the day. When the man saw that he did not prevail against Jacob, he touched his hip socket, and Jacob’s hip was put out of joint as he wrestled with him. Then he said, “Let me go, for the day has broken.” But Jacob said, “I will not let you go unless you bless me.” And he said to him, “What is your name?” And he said, “Jacob.” Then he said, “Your name shall no longer be called Jacob, but Israel, for you have striven with God and with men, and have prevailed.” Then Jacob asked him, “Please tell me your name.” But he said, “Why is it that you ask my name?” And there he blessed him. So Jacob called the name of the place Peniel, saying, “For I have seen God face to face, and yet my life has been delivered.” The sun rose upon him as he passed Penuel, limping because of his hip. Therefore to this day the people of Israel do not eat the sinew of the thigh that is on the hip socket, because he touched the socket of Jacob’s hip on the sinew of the thigh.

The Word of the Lord is infinitely powerful in its ability to reveal the human heart (Hebrews 4:12), so I’m going to guess that there are literally hundreds of lessons that can be gleaned from this passage – particularly true were one reading through the entire account of Jacob’s life – but I think there are a few obvious lessons that leap right from the page:

  • Dying men tell the truth. Convinced of his imminent appointment with death at the hands of his older brother, Jacob is finally willing to set aside all pretense, to be stripped of all honor and privilege, and to count himself lucky to make it through the day with only his heartbeat intact. It goes without saying, of course, that Jacob had been given multiple opportunities to be honest with himself (and with others) in the days of his life leading up to the encounter with God at Jabbok, yet a false belief in his own intelligence and abilities had prevented him from feeling his need to be completely honest. His need had always been critical; the only thing that changed was Jacob’s realization of his true condition. So it was God’s great mercy to bring the threat of death into Jacob’s life, and to give him a lifelong limp by which he would always recall that encounter.
  • Naming our sins frees us from them. By confessing his real name to God – Jacob means “deceiver” or “supplanter” – God blessed an undeserving Jacob richly and even gave him a new name, Israel (“God rules” or “God judges”). I am convinced that the thoroughly-biblical principle of naming one’s sins retains all of its power today. For example, I have attended several classes, seminars and lectures wherein the key speaker walked right up to the microphone and introduced himself as “a recovering porn addict,” “sexually broken,” “alcoholic,” “sinner,” “approval junkie,” and much, much worse. This kind of no-nonsense assent and gut-level honesty as to the core of one’s sin and weaknesses frees a person to witness powerfully to others; emulating the Apostle Paul is, as far as I can tell, one of the more powerful means we have been given to break the back of sin (1 Timothy 1:15) and walk “above ground” as freed and redeemed men and women in Christ (Colossians 1:13-14).
  • Any authentic encounter with God is forever life-changing. I have met many people who claimed to have had a spiritual encounter with the living God and yet were seemingly quite content to go right on making provision for their flesh (Romans 13:14) and indulge the various appetites of their fallen hearts. In those instances I would boldly suggest no such “real” encounter has actually occurred. Jacob’s meeting with God at Jabbok suggests that we can never walk away from an authentic encounter with Him and live our lives just as we were doing previously. I am not for a moment suggesting that anyone will walk “100% sin-free” after meeting with the Lord; no one is able to do that, obviously. However, I am saying that an authentic encounter will change us, the effect will be sanctifying, and it may very well leave us limping afterward.
  • God does not allow us to go on kidding ourselves. In His great mercy, God “broke” Jacob at the river Jabbok and contended with him to be truthful to the point of his own death. “What is your name?” was God’s way of asking “Who are you…really?” and is a question that echoes down through the ages and reaches into the hearts and minds of God’s people even today.

Blinded by sin and pride, we often wish to be self-deluded about our true condition and our status before the judgment of an all-knowing, omnipotent God, but the Bible guarantees that the day is coming when all truth will be known (Luke 8:17). There will be no hidden sexual dalliances, no secret bank accounts, no password-protected data files on our computers. All will be made known, and all will be brought to account. The Christian, if he or she has eyes to see, simply prepares for that inevitable day in the here and now, uncovering sin and exposing dark deeds to the light. Call it “transparency practice” if you must, but freedom – true freedom – is found only when God’s Spirit enables us to cry out in desperation and confess to God, to ourselves and to others who we really are.

May the Lord speed the day in your heart and mine.

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