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Book Jacket

Trade Paperback
192 pages
Sep 2004
InterVarsity Press

Relational Masks

by Russell Willingham

Review  |   Author Bio  |  Read an Excerpt



The story is told of a child psychologist who liked doing repairs on his home. One Saturday he was putting the finishing touches on a driveway. The concrete was still wet as he gently smoothed it with his trowel. A few feet away stood a neighborhood boy, watching him as he worked.

Across the street was a neighbor mowing his lawn. For years this neighbor had listened as the doctor went on and on about how he loved working with kids. He kept his eye on the doctor and the little boy, wondering if there might be trouble. Sure enough, as soon as the doctor finished his work and stood back to admire it, the boy made his move. He jumped into the cement and ran tromping up one side and down the other.

When the boy jumped out the doctor grabbed him and began swatting his behind. The man across the street was quite amazed at the doctor’s response. As the boy ran home crying and dripping wet cement, the neighbor called across the street, “Hey, I thought you loved kids, Henry.”

“I do love kids,” the doctor replied, “but in the abstract, not in the concrete.”

Now, before you tell me to call Child Protective Services, consider the point of the story. The good doctor is like many of us. He makes many claims about what he believes, but his interactions with others don’t match what he says.

I spend my days counseling Christians from all walks of life who struggle with different issues. One thing is consistent: the biblical beliefs they hold are quite different from the way they do relationships. I see pastors who are unkind to their spouse and kids; women who lead wonderful Bible studies but are verbally abusive to their husbands; people on church staffs who bicker and fight with each other; men and women who secretly indulge in everything from pornography to out-of-control eating or spending.

Why do we do this stuff? Are we hypocrites? Is it because we’re not really saved? Is it because we haven’t prayed or read as we should? Here is the answer: We don’t really know ourselves. Hidden beliefs and relational masks hamper our ability to be intimate. Relational masks aren’t just “phony fronts.” They are styles of relating that we often construct in childhood to protect us from pain. They are a complex grouping of attitudes and behaviors unique to each of us. These relational masks now serve as walls in our adult lives, cutting us off from deeper levels of knowing and being known.

Relational masks are difficult to see in ourselves because, as far as we’re concerned, the way we relate is “just the way we are.” We either don’t see anything wrong with it or we work to change some other areas of our lives that leave the masks intact. We read another book, go to another conference or promise God we’ll do better next time, yet our relational masks remain.

Many of us have a robust evangelical theology but have problems being intimate with God, self and others. Avoiders and Aggressors rarely deal with anything, but often go after someone else to take the heat off themselves. Self-Blamers are quick to hate all their failures and weaknesses but rarely do anything effective to deal with them.

Though I am experienced working with people and understanding their issues, even that isn’t my qualification. My qualification for speaking on this subject comes from my own failure, struggle and confusion. I have served God for years in all kinds of ministry settings, all the while having an awful time relating in my marriage, struggling with my self-image or fighting a variety of fears and doubts.

Yet Jesus has been very gracious to me. He has been showing me what is at work in my own heart that keeps dumping me onto the floor. It has been (and sometimes still is) a painful journey, but I have seen God strip away layer after layer of unbelief, rebellion and pain. As I am learning about how wonderful, yet deceptive, my own heart can be, I’ve begun seeing similar things in others. As I’ve shared these thoughts with open-minded Christians, I’ve seen phenomenal changes happen in their lives.

Some may have no interest in what this book offers. They may believe they are fine as they are or that it’s too late for them to change. Neither is true. God has an amazing plan for what you can become and accomplish. You can be like the majority of Jesus’ followers and focus on theology or on living a respectable lifestyle. Or you can join those who are determined to let Jesus reveal, fill and own every part of them, no matter what the cost.

I invite you to come with me and learn more about Jesus and about yourself. The road may get bumpy and scary, but it’s the right one. Everyone who plants his feet on this trail eventually makes it home. If you choose that other path you’ll have lots of company, but you won’t like where it takes you. If you’re ready for some answers, you will find them on the road ahead.




I’ve discovered something after years of working with people: Almost every Christian struggles with dishonesty at some level. The scary thing is, we can see it clearly in others but miss it in ourselves.

Yet Scripture assumes that each of us is fighting her own battles with telling the truth:

    The heart is deceitful above all things and beyond cure. Who can understand it? (Jeremiah 17:9)

    Do not lie to each other, since you have taken off your old self with its practices and have put on the new self, which is being renewed in knowledge in the image of its Creator. (Colossians 3:9-10)

    Therefore each of you must put off falsehood and speak truthfully to his neighbor, for we are all members of one body. (Ephesians 4:25)

Genuine Christians care deeply about truth, and most of us would never want to lie. But what if lying was so tricky and so clever that you indulged in it all the time without even knowing it? What if you found out that you were lying even when you thought you were the paragon of Christian virtue? What if, like many, you are falling into lying without even realizing it? Would you want to know?

This whole issue of the truth is a big one to our Lord. He even claims the word truth as one of his names (see John 14:6). Additionally he says that the only thing that can give us freedom is the truth (see John 8:32). Most of us know the basics of evangelical faith and don’t waver on those too much. But I’ve found that lots of solid, Bible-believing people do have blind spots that keep them from seeing some of their thoughts and behaviors clearly. Could it be that a major reason for our lack of freedom and power in the Christian life is that we are largely unaware of these strongholds in ourselves?


The group I lead each week is composed of women and men who are struggling to change compulsive thoughts or behaviors in their lives. Some of them are compulsive about sex; some about getting everyone else’s approval. Still others have problems with money, eating disorders or power struggles. One thing all of them have in common is relational masks.

As I finished teaching one night I opened the floor to questions and comments. Darrell immediately jumped in. “Russell, you failed to mention that ‘Greater is he that is in me than he that is in the world.’ Life is tough but I—and we—can do all things through him who strengthens us.”

Darrell is a likable guy, but he is never forthright about what he feels. He overuses Bible verses or catchy phrases to solve every problem without ever dealing with it honestly. Darrell is a Spiritualizer. Across the room I spotted Bill rolling his eyes. “Bill, is there something you’d like to say?” I asked. He jerked his head in surprise, unaware that I was watching.

“Oh, no,” Bill replied. “I’m just listening.” Bill did a lot of stuff like that. He also did it to his wife. She was so tired of his sleepwalking through life. He ate, watched TV and went to bed. The only way Bill would spring into action is if his pants were on fire. Bill is an Avoider.

“I think Bill did have something to say!” Margaret charged. Margaret is the Aggressor in the group. “Why can’t you ever be honest, Bill? You sit here while other people pour out their guts, but you never take any risks. What’s wrong with you!”

I affirmed Margaret’s frustration, but I encouraged her to bring it down a notch. Thomas felt he needed to help me. “Whoa! No more coffee for you, sister!” he said with a grin. Then in a perfect Bill Clinton voice he said, “Can’t we all just get along?” Everyone laughed (even Margaret), but this is how Thomas dealt with everything in life: with a joke. Thomas is a Deflector.

At this point Patty spoke up: “You guys can laugh all you want, but I think Bill needs to be understood. The few times he has spoken up you’ve made fun of him.” She turned to face Bill and said with genuine warmth, “Bill, I think you’re feeling a lot of pain. Could we pray for you?”

Bill shrugged with an if-you-want-to look on his face. I thanked Patty for her concern and reminded her that we would pray as a group momentarily. Patty was a wonderful woman, but she was always trying to “fix” people. Patty is a Savior.

The people in my group are very typical. They are a microcosm of the body of Christ and the world. You may have a boss who is an Aggressor: he constantly runs roughshod over your feelings and never sees your good points. You may be married to a Deflector: she jokes her way through life without really dealing with anything. She may also deflect her issues onto you when you attempt to confront her about something.

You may know a Self-Blamer: his self-image is so low that he brings a negative tone into everything he does. He is expert at cutting himself to ribbons but never doing anything to change (he is so “worthless” after all—why bother?). You probably know an Avoider: she frustrates you to no end because she will never lift a finger to grow or confront the tough stuff in her life.

You certainly know a Spiritualizer: he is holy, deep and wonderful. Some people are in awe of him (those who don’t know him well). And others, who’ve seen him up close and personal, resent him for his hypocrisy and blindness. Spiritualizers know their Bible and have a ready answer for every problem. What they don’t have is authenticity.

You probably also know some Saviors: they are involved in ten different ministries and help every unfortunate soul they meet. Saviors have a God-given compassion, but they allow it to run amuck. They take care of everyone but themselves, to their own hurt.

Avoider, Aggressor, Deflector, Self-Blamer, Spiritualizer or Savior— any of these might be you.


Everyone has idiosyncrasies, right? What’s the problem if I’m a little pushy (like the Aggressor)? What’s wrong with making people feel good and brightening this dismal world of ours (like the Deflector)? The problem is each of these relational masks is a perversion of a God-given strength. As we take a look in the pages ahead at these ways of interacting with each other, we will see that there are real problems with each one.

So many of us who hunger desperately to follow Jesus in all areas of our lives are tripping over our own feet. We may not smoke, drink or cuss, but these unresolved relating styles cause us to hurt the people around us. They keep us at a safe distance from God, and they cause us to fall into sins big and small if they aren’t dealt with.

A great many of us have mastered the basic mindset and socially acceptable behaviors of a Christian, but we secretly wonder why there is no adventure in our relationship with God. We wonder why we aren’t closer to the ones we love. And we wonder in the privacy of our hearts, What’s wrong with me? Why do I keep doing this?

You are about to meet Saviors, Self-Blamers, Avoiders, Deflectors, Aggressors and Spiritualizers. They are not evil people; they are broken people. You will see how the coping mechanisms they learned in childhood hardened into a way of relating to others as adults. You will see how and why this causes problems for them and those they relate to. And, most important, you will see how Jesus heals the person who is disordered in his very being.


As a new Christian in the seventies, I saw my share of strange teachings. One of them was on the subject of strongholds. Big-name evangelists would tell us that each geographical area had a unique satanic power base of lust or witchcraft. Our job, we were told, was to ask the Lord to identify the specifics of these strongholds and then to “pull them down.”

We traveled to San Francisco or Washington to pray over the strongholds of homosexuality or liberal politics. We in the charismatic movement felt pretty important being on the inside track and having the goods on Satan. We believed that this insight enabled us to bring down his kingdom around his ears and, therefore, to advance the gospel. We based our teaching loosely on some texts in 2 Corinthians and Daniel. Missionaries instructed us further, based on information they had gathered from shamans and witch doctors from various Third World countries.

At special prayer meetings we would put on the whole armor of God, piece by piece, in elaborate rituals that guaranteed we’d be invincible against the devil. Yes, we were declaring all-out war on Satan! Unfortunately after church we were having affairs, mistreating our families or leading lives characterized by questionable ethics. The world was not impressed by our spirituality.

I don’t believe we were mistaken about the importance of strongholds; I believe we were mistaken about what strongholds are. A close look at this biblical teaching shows that strongholds are not about demons at all; they are about us. Let me quote Paul and highlight the three things that he says strongholds are:

    The weapons we fight with are not the weapons of the world. On the contrary, they have divine power to demolish strongholds. We demolish arguments and every pretension that sets itself up against the knowledge of God, and we take captive every thought to make it obedient to Christ. (2 Corinthians 10:4-5, emphasis added)

Arguments, pretensions, thoughts—these are the mental and emotional stuff of our daily struggles. Though Satan has a hand in their origin and maintenance, we are the primary caretakers of this fortress. Paul paints the picture of a mighty castle consisting of beliefs and relational masks that we’ve developed over a lifetime. Our loving God is trying (many times in vain) to move these walls out of the way.

He persistently cries out to us, hoping we will help him take downthe bricks. Our response determines how freely Jesus is allowed to interact with our hearts.

God’s task—and ours—is made more difficult because many of us don’t even see these strongholds. They are invisible to us, but a discerning person who gets to know us will be able to identify what they are. He could watch our behavior and monitor our emotions and get a pretty good fix on what our individual strongholds look like.

Paul tells us that these strongholds are the interior chalkboard on which the world writes its messages. He calls strongholds the “standards of this world” and says they are worldly wars and worldly weapons (2 Corinthians 10:2-4). That’s why he says these worldly ideas and norms set themselves “up against the knowledge of God.” They literally form a barrier against God’s truth coming into our hearts.

In Romans 12:2 Paul says the same thing. He pleads with us not to “conform any longer to the pattern of this world.” This “pattern of this world” is like the “standards of this world” in 2 Corinthians. Further he tells us to renew our minds. In other words, we must change our beliefs. If we attack the worldly beliefs still lurking in our hearts, we will be transformed, according to Paul. So you see, 2 Corinthians 10:2-4 and Romans 12:2 are complementary; they are saying the same thing.

What the Scriptures call strongholds, I am calling relational masks. If our relational masks form the walls, our core beliefs make up the bricks. Beliefs such as “If I am honest I will be abandoned” or “I must do everything perfectly or I am worthless” are the raw materials of our relational masks. To understand the Spiritualizer, the Deflector, the Savior, the Aggressor, the Self-Blamer and the Avoider, you will have to understand the beliefs that fuel them. That is the subject of our next chapter.