Whoever wants to see the form of his naked
soul should make wisdom his mirror.
“Mirror, Mirror, on the wall, who’s the fairest of them all?”
Who wouldn’t like to be called the fairest or the bravest or the strongest or the kindest or the wisest of them all? Who wouldn’t want to wake up every morning and have the mirror give compliments?
Too bad that only happens in fairy tales.
In real life, mirrors don’t praise us, they reveal the truth about us. They don’t flatter us, they unveil us. There’s nothing like looking into a mirror to shock us back to reality. Because mirrors don’t lie. They show the warts and the wrinkles, the gray hair and the varicose veins, the bags under our eyes and the extra baggage around our waists, the scars and the pimples and the receding hairlines.
Mirrors remind us we’re not as flawless as we like to think we are. Plato once said, “Truth is removal of the veil.”1 That’s what mirrors do for our bodies: they remove the veil and show us the truth. And that’s what God’s Word does for our hearts. It removes the veil of excuses and illusions and lies and rationalizations and shows us what we really are: “For the word of God is full of living power. It is sharper than the sharpest knife, cutting deep into our innermost thoughts and desires. It exposes us for what we really are” (Hebrews 4:12).
The pathway to becoming real begins in God’s operating room, where we lie down before him, bare our souls to him, and let him wield his scalpel of truth.
And believe me, it hurts. (I know. I’ve been through his surgery more than once.)
It hurts to feel God’s Word pierce our lives. It hurts to have our dishonesty and duplicity sliced away. It hurts to expose our hearts to God and to see ourselves for what we really are.
That’s why most of us don’t do it. We don’t look into God’s mirror, because it’s too painful. Too much is at stake for our egos. As the saying goes, “The truth hurts.”
Yet it’s a healing hurt and a helpful pain. For when God’s Word has pierced us, when his truth has operated on our souls, we emerge from surgery free from the cancer of our own self-love. Only then are we able to live honestly and humbly and transparently—when we come to terms with who we really are.
Deep down, I think we do yearn for the truth. Philosopher Peter Kreeft puts it this way: “Truth (our head’s food) and happiness (our heart’s food) are the two things everyone wants, and not in crumbs but in great loaves; not in raindrops but in waves.”2
We all want happiness and truth, but we hide the fact that we don’t have them. We give people the impression that we’re almost always right and almost always happy, but we’re neither. It’s all an illusion. Smoke and mirrors.
When we finally admit that we’re not as happy or as right as we’d like, God can begin to point us toward the ultimate happiness and truth for which we were created. Honesty is the first step.
Nine out of ten HIV-positive individuals don’t know they’re infected.3 The Center for Disease Control estimates that 25 percent of those who get AIDS tests (about 10,000 people each year) never come back for the results.4 Why not? Traffic patterns? No. Prior commitments? I doubt it. They don’t come back for the results because they don’t want to know the results. They don’t want to know the truth. Because if they knew the truth, they’d have to deal with it. They’d have to come to terms with their lives. And most of us prefer just about anything to that.
Whether it’s the truth about AIDS, cancer, bad breath, cholesterol, foot odor, or our percentage of body fat, we’d rather tell ourselves that we’re probably OK—or better than most people, or doing alright for our age—than have the truth hit us squarely between the eyes. That’s why we don’t like to step on the scale. Because it tells us the truth about what we weigh, and the truth isn’t always easy to swallow.
The last thing an ego wants to do is look closely into a mirror. Instead, it paints flattering portraits of itself and hangs them everywhere in the chambers of the heart. It tries to convince itself that every portrait is really a mirror. “Ah, I’m so beautiful,” it says. “Look at me! Look at me!”
As long as we live for accolades or applause, we’re in trouble. As Dag Hammarskjöld, former United Nations secretary-general and winner of the 1961 Nobel Peace Prize, wrote, “I pity the man who falls in love with his image as it is drawn by public opinion during the honeymoon of publicity.”5
I used to work as a wilderness guide for at-risk youth. We took ten to twelve delinquent teens on twenty-eight-day wilderness trips to teach them about choices, consequences, and responsibility. These students were some of the most troubled teenagers in the state of Illinois. For many of them, our course was their last chance before going to juvenile prison. Part of the process was to force those teenagers to peel away their excuses, get past their rationalizations, pull down their defenses, and confront themselves.
The ones who refused to be real didn’t change. Those who wouldn’t go through the tough process of admitting who they really were and what they’d really done stayed the same and kept falling into the same traps.
Jesus would have done well leading one of those trips. After all, he was a master at unmasking people. He did it to the Pharisees when he pinpointed their pride. He pulled off Judas’s disguise when he whispered to him, “Friend, do you betray me with a kiss?” Jesus never let people hide from him.
Jesus acted like a mirror to the Pharisees, reflecting the true state of their souls. And he acted like a window to the people who knew they were hopeless, revealing the frontiers of God’s grace. To the one he gave clarity, to the other comfort.
He exposed the sin of some and showed the way to heaven for others. He had a way of uncovering people’s inner motives and true intentions. And it either brought them close to him or turned them off completely.
And Jesus has the same effect today.
Some folks just don’t like the idea of being real, of looking closely at the truth. They hide their dark and secret thoughts where they think no one will find them. They hide their true selves and think that if they can only hold out the image of having it together long enough, everything will be OK. Everyone will like them. They’re so used to hiding that they refuse to step out and be found.
Some of us spend our whole lives hiding, avoiding spiritual surgery. After all, those who think they’re fine won’t ever enter the operating room. Jesus knew our world would be like this. He told Nicodemus, “The light from heaven came into the world, but they loved the darkness more than the light, for their actions were evil” (John 3:19). People prefer hating Jesus to loving him because they prefer hiding in the darkness to standing in the light.
When our actions (or thoughts) are evil, we don’t want them exposed. And the light always exposes reality. It reveals things for what they really are. It reveals us for what we really are.
In God’s light we finally see the truth: “For with you is the fountain of life; in your light we see light” (Psalm 36:9 NIV). All of us commit deeds that are evil, and until we desire truth more than comfort, we’ll stay in the darkness. Truth is brutal and naked and raw and exposes us to a reality we’d rather avoid.
That’s why so few people find the narrow road. Most people prefer the easy pathway of illusion to the soul-awakening and lie-shattering words of truth. It’s much easier to coast than to climb. So those who walk the easy way have lots of company, and those who choose the narrow path have lots of challenges.
But truth is always brighter than illusion, and it melts through our lies like sunlight cutting through the rising mists of early dawn.
God knows who we really are. The tricky thing is revealing it to us. Most of the time we’d rather do almost anything than admit the truth about ourselves. Our egos dread the mirror.
François de Salignac de la Mothe Fénelon, a seventeenth-century French theologian, observed:
As long as the least bit of self-love remains in the secret parts of your heart, God will hunt it down, and, by some infinitely merciful blow, force your selfishness and jealousy out of hiding. The poison then becomes the cure. Self-love, exposed to the light, sees itself in horror. The flattering lifelong illusions you have held of yourself are forced to die. God lets you see who you really worship: yourself. You cannot help but see yourself. And you can no longer hide your true self from others, either.6
We’re good at deceiving ourselves and hiding from God. But why?
Well, because honesty hurts.
When I was in graduate school, I had three of my wisdom teeth taken out. After the oral surgeon injected a syringeful of medication into my jaw to kill the pain, he handed me a prescription for some pretty powerful painkillers.
“Now, be sure you fill this right away,” he said. “You don’t want those drugs to wear off.”
I was feeling pretty good about then. I think I saw two or three doctors handing me that prescription. “OK,” I said as best I could, with no feeling from my neck up. I deposited a pint and a half of drool onto my shirt with that one word.
When my wife, Liesl, picked me up, she asked if I needed anything.
I shook my head no.
“Are you sure? We could stop by the pharmacy on the way home.”
I shook my head again. I wasn’t in any pain. Why would we need to stop at the pharmacy? I just wanted to lie down and rest.
Finally, she shrugged. “OK. But don’t say I didn’t warn you.”
We drove home, I laid down, and everything felt fine.
Until about an hour later when the painkillers began to wear off.
That’s when I remembered my doctor’s advice. “Be sure you fill this right away.”
Since I was still too medicated to drive, I drooled my way over to my wife and handed her the prescription form. She smiled and herded the kids into the car.
Five minutes later I thought I was going to die.
The pain began as a dull throb in the back of my throat. With every breath, I felt like a lowland gorilla was trying to strangle me, slowly, with its bare hands. I considered not breathing for a few hours. It seemed like a reasonable alternative at the time.
Then the pain began to radiate across my shoulders. I lurched through the house, trying to get to the couch to lie down. As I stumbled forward, knocking over furniture, sharp blasts of agony shot through my skull.
It can’t get any worse, I thought. It can’t get any worse!
I was wrong.
Because that’s when my mouth began to hurt.
Although the word hurt doesn’t really do justice to what I was experiencing.
Each tooth felt like it was exploding, one at a time, like miniature grenades embedded in my gums. I tried to scream, but all that came out was another gallon of drool. I knew I would die any moment.
Or at least I could only hope.
Then the door opened and my wife appeared. (Insert Hallelujahs! and heavenly sounding music.) Actually, several wives appeared, and I wasn’t sure which one to take the medication from. I tried grabbing it from all of them and fell on the floor writhing and moaning, slobbering great waves onto the carpet.
My two daughters watched me quietly.
“I think Daddy’s mouth hurts,” said the youngest. At least I think she did. I was fading in and out of consciousness by then.
“Hmm, the medicine is starting to wear off, is it?” Liesl said as she melodramatically unscrewed the bottle cap.
Finally, as I took the medicine, all the wives merged into one. “Waited a little long before sending me to the pharmacy, huh?” she said.
Why does she always have to be right?
Sometimes it’s a gift to deaden the pain, and sometimes it’s a curse. It all depends on what’s causing the pain and what we use to deaden it.
The pain that wells up in our souls is the sharpest pain of all. Many people spend their whole lives trying to deaden it. Some turn to drugs or drinking. Others to eating more than they should. Still others to careerism. Or to an affair. Or religion. All means of escape. Ways to deaden the pain.
The pain in our hearts shows us that something is wrong in our souls. We know that. But we prefer to deaden, deny, or distract ourselves from the pain rather than confront it head on.
Some of us try to fill our lives with one relationship after another, like the woman Jesus met at the well (see John 4:1–42). She couldn’t relieve her loneliness with her string of affairs. No one except God could fill her deepest longings.
Truth and happiness. We want them. We long for them. We’re so desperate for them that we’ll look almost anywhere—anywhere that promises fulfillment or deliverance or joy.
Anywhere but the place we need to look: into the eyes of Jesus.
Most of us spend too much time trying to direct the spotlight of every conversation and situation on ourselves. We verbally maneuver our way into looking good. We pat ourselves on the back, and we jockey for position by comparing ourselves with those who are less fortunate or successful than we are. And all of these ploys are part of the lifelong struggle to get people to like us, to make ourselves look good, and to get ourselves to feel good about whom?
The first step on the road to becoming real is being honest with ourselves. And that means admitting those things about our lives that fly in the face of all the warm, fuzzy little lies that feed our egos. It means refusing to conceal ourselves from ourselves.
But it’s gonna hurt. It’s going to take courage to admit that some of the things we typically take for granted are, really, illusions.
Becoming real requires that we ask ourselves questions we typically avoid.
I did that recently and found these twelve attitudes lurking in my heart. As you read these admissions, search your own soul. Look in the mirror. Study your reflection. See which of them are true about you too.
1. I sometimes stretch the truth to serve my own needs and to protect my reputation. By doing this I prove I’d rather have people think well of me than live in a way consistent with those thoughts. I’d rather deceive them into thinking I’m good than actually be good, regardless of what they think.
2. I’m quick to tell other people I’m not all that great, but I’d be horrified if they actually believed me. When it seems they do believe me, I find myself manipulating circumstances and conversations to make them like me more. Because I want to be wanted. I love to be loved. And I can’t stand the thought that people might not respect and admire me, even though I tell them I don’t deserve either their respect or their admiration.
3. Even though I don’t like to admit it, I prefer others’ approval and honor to God’s. I prove this when I spend more time and effort massaging my reputation than pursuing his will. I prefer the illusion of integrity to the real thing.
4. Even though I’m both weak and vulnerable, just like everyone else, I put on a show of strength and resolve so I don’t appear either weak or vulnerable in front of anyone. And so I show that protecting my reputation is more important to me than avoiding hypocrisy.
5. I get really defensive when people criticize me, probably because I’m more concerned with defending myself and my actions than with knowing the truth about who I am, how I’ve acted, and how I may have hurt them in the first place.
6. I would rather people think I’m not a hypocrite than stop being one. I prove this by pretending to be happy and to have all the answers and to be “filled with joy” even when I’m not. I want people to think that as a Christian these things are all true about me, even though, all too often, I’m scared, lonely, hurting, and sad instead.
7. I’d rather argue with someone to prove I’m right than accept that I might not be. I argue even if it hurts others’ feelings because it’s vitally important to me that everyone believes I never make a mistake, lose an argument, or have a prejudiced opinion—even though all of these things are true about me every day.
8. I put on a show when I’m at church because I want people to think I have my act together, even when I don’t. I want them to think I’m dealing with life at least as well as (if not better than) they are. Even when I’m not.
9. I become upset and depressed when I find out someone is disappointed in me, even if that disappointment is justified by my behavior. And so I show that my image matters more to me than virtuous living. What someone thinks I am matters more to me than what I really am.
10. I want everyone to like and respect me. When someone doesn’t, I feel deeply hurt or attacked, even though there are many people I don’t like or respect. Then I hide this hypocrisy from myself because I hate to admit that I have double standards that always favor me.
11. I’m quick to notice the faults in others and slow to notice my own. I conveniently overlook my own shortcomings—except for those someone else catches me in. And when that happens, I do all I can to polish my tarnished reputation.
12. When I accomplish something significant, it’s important to me that people notice. When they don’t, I get offended and hurt and feel slighted and resentful. I fish for compliments because I want them to join me in patting myself on the back. I just love feeling important! By doing all these things, I show that my heart is centered on myself rather than on God and that I long for praise more than humility.
Whew. It’s rough to admit some of that stuff. But it’s also freeing. It’s like cleaning your glasses. Suddenly everything becomes more clear.
In one of the most insightful passages I’ve ever read, Blaise Pascal, the seventeenth-century mathematician and philosopher, delved into the duplicity of our lives. Look at how he described the nature of self-love as it reveals itself in each of our lives:
He devotes all his attention to hiding his faults both from others and from himself, and he cannot endure either that others should point them out to him, or that they should see them. . . .
We ought not to be angry at their knowing our faults and despising us; it is but right that they should know us for what we are and should despise us, if we are contemptible. . . . For is it not true that we hate truth and those who tell it [to] us, and that we like them to be deceived in our favour? . . . Human life is thus only a perpetual illusion; men deceive and flatter each other. No one speaks of us in our presence as he does of us in our absence. Human society is founded on mutual deceit. . . .
Man is, then, only disguise, falsehood, and hypocrisy, both in himself and in regard to others. He does not wish any one to tell him the truth; he avoids telling it to others, and all these dispositions, so removed from justice and reason, have a natural root in his heart.7
Pascal was saying that we crave esteem and want others to think well of us. We want respect, acclaim, fame, glory, honor, and a good reputation. Most of us would rather have people admire us than know the truth about us. We value reputation over integrity. In fact, we do all we can to hide the truth of who we really are and what we’re really like so we can make a good impression. But that good impression is only the result of a false impression—one caused by deceit.
We prefer the salve of self-love to peeling back the bandage and seeing the extent of our disease. Rationalization is always easier than something radical, like repentance.
But we must peel off these excuses, rationalizations, and comparisons one layer at a time, or we will never experience true intimacy with God.
As Russian novelist and Nobel laureate Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn wrote after spending eight years in Soviet prison camps, “If only there were evil people somewhere insidiously committing evil deeds and it were necessary only to separate them from the rest of us and destroy them. But the line dividing good and evil cuts through the heart of every human being. And who is willing to destroy a piece of his own heart?”8
We refuse to look in the mirror, gazing instead at our own flattering portraits.
But there’s good news. If you’ve read this far, you’ve shown that you’re willing to pull down the self-portraits and face the truth. Even if it hurts.
Becoming real means we’ll have to agree with God about who he is and who we are. We’ll need to admit that we’re not as good as we’d like to believe. Only then can we accept ourselves just as he does and let his acceptance and forgiveness begin to set us free.
Camouflage means “concealment by means of disguise.” And though we can hide ourselves pretty well from other people, we cannot hide from God. We can’t impress him with our accomplishments, and we can’t distract him from our imperfections, no matter how religious or clever we may be. All of us stand naked and exposed before the Almighty. The Danish philosopher Sören Kierkegaard wrote, “The sooner I realize that I stand naked before God, the more authentic I will become. . . . To see yourself is to die, to die to all illusions and all hypocrisy. It takes great courage to dare to look at yourself—something which can take place only in the mirror of the Word.”9
There’s no way to camouflage our souls. God’s Word is our souls’ mirror, and when we look deeply into it, we won’t find flattering praise but reality and truth. As the apostle Paul noted, “No one will be declared righteous in his sight by observing the law; rather, through the law we become conscious of sin” (Romans 3:20 NIV).
God’s laws and commands were not given to show us the road map to heaven so we can find our own way there; they were given to prove to us that we really are lost.
Yet God has the power both to show us our chains and to set us free. As John Bunyan, author of The Pilgrim’s Progress, wrote:
“Run, John, run,” the Law commands,
But gives us neither feet nor hands.
Far better news the Gospel brings,
That bids us fly and gives us wings!
That’s what the truth will do. That’s the road we need to walk.
If you want to know yourself, don’t look at yourself. Look at Jesus. He’ll show you the true condition of your soul, and he’ll reveal the full extent of God’s love. The best way to get to know yourself is to get to know him.
A friend of mine who was serving as a youth pastor once told me about a discussion he’d had with one of the students in his youth group.
The student said, “I just told God today that I like pornography. I don’t want to like it. I want him to help me stop. But I finally told him today that I really like it.”
My friend looked at me and shook his head. “That was the most honest thing I’ve ever heard anyone say. I wasn’t surprised at what that teenager said, but I was surprised he was honest enough to say it.”
Most people aren’t honest enough to say it. To God. To a pastor. To a friend or a spouse or anyone. We tell ourselves we’re not as bad as most people—that we’re only human after all. That we have good intentions, and that’s what matters most anyway.
And all the while, God desires our honesty.
Jesus saved his harshest words for the people who refused to be honest with God: “These people honor me with their lips, but their hearts are far away. Their worship is a farce” (Mark 7:7).
I think Jesus wants us to tell him about our struggles with pornography or gossiping or envy or jealousy or speeding or prejudice or anger or whatever, because honesty with God paves the way to true spiritual freedom.
Take a minute right now. Pause and reflect on where you are spiritually. Tell God what you need to. Open up to him. Be honest. Ask him to reveal himself—and yourself—to you. Ask him to help you become more real. You may even want to pray something like this:
my, how i like to play these games
at least i tell myself i like to play them,
but down deep
i know i’ve hidden long enough
behind my carefully constructed life
and my carefully crafted image.
right now, today, Lord, i ask that you would uncover me.
all of me.
reveal yourself to me.
reveal myself to me.
touch me where i hurt the most,
find me where i hide most often.
pull back the covers and see me trembling
and hold me.
because i’m afraid,
both of being real by letting you love me
and of hiding any longer.
find me and hold me.
here i am.