Masks are nothing new
See if you’ve ever witnessed this. James Smith met a new student at the college where he worked as a chaplain. Sandy wore beach clothes, carried a skateboard, and sounded like she just came from southern California beach with her surfer-ese lingo. She was loud and proud, funny, and fellow students quickly took a liking to her.
Sandy joined a weekly student fellowship group and, little by little, began opening up about herself, her past, and her anxieties. In the midst of one of the weekly discussions, a subtle change took place, and only for a moment. Almost imperceptibly, in the middle of a sentence, Sandy’s voice changed from happy surfer-ese to a more natural sound, not so amped up. Her vocabulary shifted to normal speech. She was like a completely different person.
When James saw her a few days later, he spoke up. “Sandy, can I ask you a question?” “Sure, dude, like, yeah,” Sandy answered. James continued, “The other day you seemed to change during our discussion for just a moment. This may not be my place to ask, but it made me wonder if the whole cheerleader-surfer persona is really you, or just someone you invented.”
Sandy’s smile vanished. She quietly replied, “It is a character I invented. I had to. I hated who I was inside, and I was afraid people would reject me.” She went on to explain that she had been abused by a relative, tossed from place to place, and repeatedly told how ugly and unlovable she was in words too cruel to be repeated.
She created a character as a defense, thinking that if people still rejected her, it wouldn’t be her they were rejecting, but the character. “If I let people see the real me they might reject me, and then, where would I be?,” she asked. “The real me is all I have, and if they reject that, I have nowhere to go.”
James Bryan Smith, Embracing the Love of God, pp.24-26
Will you reject me?
Sandy gave voice to one of our greatest fears—and that is rejection. We are hard-wired for relationships, but people disappoint. People make promises but then break them. We have expectations but then others don’t meet them. So one of the ways we move forward is by masking up.
In this strange season when masks are a good thing, this is a good time to talk about unmasking so that we can get close to God and begin to get close to one another.
Rejection is real, and it really hurts. Whether it stems from internal messages that are running through your mind, or it comes from things that people have said to you about you, rejection cuts deeply, and it holds us back from experiencing the life to the full that Jesus came to impart.
For Sandy, it was a whole series of wrongs that were said and done to her, that pushed her to create a façade, a whole false persona to hide behind. But it was that small group and then that first hard conversation with James that cracked the door open for Sandy to begin to understand and accept what God declares about her. And over the next three years, that college student’s false character faded into the background and the real Sandy come to the forefront. That deep, slow change came from learning to see herself as God sees her—that her identity is not based on how she feels (which can change on a whim), but rather, her identity comes from who God says she is.
Who this series is for
And that is what we’re going to unpack this week. Welcome to week 2 in our series on Living Out of God’s Love. Let me tell you who this series is for:
- If you ever feel tired of trying and trying and trying to be the kind of person you think God wants you to be, then this series is for you.
- If Christianity ever feels like an overbearing list of do’s and don’ts, this series is for you.
- If you believe God loves the world, but you’re not so sure he loves you or likes you, this series is for you.
We began last week with a talk titled Jesus Loves You, This I Know. That message is wrapped around the New Testament Scriptures that boldly declare three timeless truths:
- God has always loved us first.
- There’s something about us that God finds deeply lovable.
- Nothing can rip us away from God’s love found in Jesus.
God’s love is no something you have to try to earn or win. There’s something about you that God finds very lovable. And God, seeing and knowing your sinfulness in all its manifestations, still there is nothing that can tear you away from God’s love to be found in Jesus.
If you haven’t watched or listened to that message, I invite you to do so at y-church.com, because that’s the starting point for living out of God’s love. This week builds on that foundation.
Shame, rejection, & condemnation
Let’s talk this week about shame, let’s talk about the truth of who we are, and let’s talk about how to deal with feelings of shame, condemnation, or rejection.
All three of those—shame, condemnation, and rejection—come with living in a world that is fallen in sin. The New Testament portrays sin not only as a personal choice but also as a power that is at work in the world today. Jesus will destroy that power when he returns. But until he does, we find ourselves living in a world where the price tags have been switched. A lot of what God honors is debased, and a lot of what the world esteems is of no value in God’s estimation.
And so to live in the world, as it is with sin distorting what matters most, shame, condemnation, and rejection come with the turf. You’re valued only if you have oodles of money, tons of power, and you’re outstandingly physically attractive. And so we get caught up in the unending chase after wealth, status, and beauty.
And we feel ashamed, condemned, or rejected when our wealth doesn’t stack up compared to the neighbors; when you hear the messages that you’re too fat or too thin; when your job title doesn’t sound impressive enough, or you don’t drive the newest car or live in the nicest neighborhood. It’s inescapable because there’s always someone richer, more impressive, or more attractive than you can become.
How do people typically deal with shame, rejection, & condemnation?
How do we deal with that? One of three ways: by either puffing up, trying to be good or acting out. Each of those is attempts to run from shame, condemnation, and fear of rejection. Sandy puffed up with a false character, a way of masking her true self.
In the church realm, it’s tempting to put on a hyper-spiritual mask and hide behind that.
Still, others try to get approval by acting out, looking for the tribe that will accept them as they are.
Well, whether shame, condemnation, or fear of rejection, the antidote begins where it did with Sandy: understanding and accepting who God says we are.
If I may speak personally, this gave me a breakthrough when I began to grasp it. I was trying to honor God but felt I never measured up. And so my deep hope and prayer for you are that this message and this series will do for you what that conversation with Sandy did—kick the door open to breaking free from false feelings of shame, condemnation, and fear of rejection. And from that fresh restart, I’m believing God to begin forming a deeper, genuine community among us at yChurch as we relaunch in-person in the Fishers YMCA this Fall. It’s only when you understand and accept who God says you are that you can let shame, condemnation, and fear of rejection lose their power.
If you want to take notes, I have just two clear and timeless truths for the balance of our time today. Here’s the first…
The truth about who we are according to God himself
1. The truth is that we’re a loved mess.
We are loved. And we are a mess: we are both at the same time. And you don’t have to beat yourself up about being a mess.
There’s the true story of the Roman Catholic priest who was beating himself up over his sin. You would think a priest of all people would be holy and would feel holy. Not this one. He was painfully aware of how he fell short of loving God and people. He kept returning to confession again and again, but still suffered under a deep sense of guilt. What finally brought a breakthrough is when another priest admonished, “Martin, stop looking at your sin and start looking at Jesus!”
That Martin was Martin Luther, who went on to rock the 16th-century church once he shifted his focus his sin to the Savior, to Jesus. The Holy Spirit turned the lights on, and Martin Luther was able to understand from Scripture that God sees us as a loved mess. Luther used the Latin term simul Justus et peccator, but I’m updating it for the 21st century. God sees us as a loved mess.
Everyone has opinions about human nature: born innately good but influenced by upbringing, born bent toward sin from the beginning, etc. Genuine Christianity embraces the paradox that we are all a loved mess. We’re a hot mess. And God loves us. It’s both at the same time. Luke captures a parable about this, writing…
Then Jesus told this story to some who had great confidence in their own righteousness and scorned everyone else: “Two men went to the Temple to pray. One was a Pharisee, and the other was a despised tax collector. The Pharisee stood by himself and prayed this prayer: ‘I thank you, God, that I am not like other people—cheaters, sinners, adulterers. I’m certainly not like that tax collector! I fast twice a week, and I give you a tenth of my income.’
“But the tax collector stood at a distance and dared not even lift his eyes to heaven as he prayed. Instead, he beat his chest in sorrow, saying, ‘O God, be merciful to me, for I am a sinner.’ I tell you, this sinner, not the Pharisee, returned home justified before God. For those who exalt themselves will be humbled, and those who humble themselves will be exalted.”
“I have not come to call the righteous, but sinners.” – Matthew 9:13
Put John 3:16 alongside this parable and here’s what you get: if you insist you’re fine and don’t need God, you’re completely missing the point. Jesus did not come for people who pretend they have it all together. God sent his Son for those who admit we’re a mess.
Those are the ones who go home justified before God—not the self-justified, but those who humble themselves and then God declares them right with him. Again, the one who gets affirmed by God is not the arrogant religious person who thinks they’re all that great or at least better than the next guy. The one who gets affirmed by God is the one who owns up to his or her need.
You don’t need to pretend you’re better than you are. That’s not Christianity. That’s virtue signaling; it’s being a modern-day Pharisee. God is looking for people who get humbly honest about our need for the Savior, and not just once but daily. We admit before God that we’re a mess, and then we discover that we’re also loved. This is why Jesus came!
Just because it’s a mess doesn’t mean it’s not loved & treasured
Jesus’ parable reminds me of Colleen Dyckman on Long Island, who cooked Sunday dinner but then realized she had accidentally thrown out her wedding and engagement rings with the food scraps. That wasn’t the big problem. The big problem was that Colleen realized they were missing after the garbage truck had picked up their trash the next morning.
She and her husband jumped into their car and went looking for the truck, eventually finding it already at the town dump, already emptied. They begged the town employees to let them search through the trash. Eight employees joined in, combing through six tons of all kinds of trash looking for the rings.
Even after they found trash that’s contents were from their home and went through it, the rings were nowhere to be found. Town employee Kim Weathers wasn’t satisfied. Four hours in, she went back through the bag until she found the rings. And Colleen was thrilled.
Her rings were a mess, and they were loved. Treasured. Valued. Wanted. Just. Like. You. And me. We get big-time gunked up by sin along the way, and we are highly valuable in God’s eyes.
Again, to be a Christian is to openly, fully accept the paradox that I am a loved mess. I don’t have to deny that. I don’t need to pretend otherwise. I don’t need to puff myself up, I don’t need to put on a mask trying to act like I’m better than I am, I don’t need to act out in order to find a tribe that will accept me.
Wisdom from one who climbed & then crashed
Fear of rejection is a huge power against embracing what God declares about us. Paul Westphal speaks to this. Paul made it way up the food chain in professional basketball. He won an NBA championship. He was a five-time All-Star selection. He went on to coach the Phoenix Suns to the NBA finals. And then…they fired him.
From the heights of NBA fame, Paul found himself kicked down the stairs to coaching college basketball: far less fame and far less money, but here’s Paul’s take on the whole experience. This is what he said in an interview at that time:
“Being a Christian is not an ego thing. A lot of people accuse Christians of claiming salvation and then thinking that makes them better than somebody else. You know, it’s actually just the opposite. We simply know that we have a sin problem, and we know who can fix it.”
There it is, the good news! We know that we have a sin problem—like the man in that parable who humbly admits his need—and we know who can fix it! Your trust no longer has to be in keeping up appearances or keeping up with the Joneses (who have their own struggles). You can accept and live in the truth of what God says about you—that you are a mess, yes, and you. Are. Loved!
It all comes down to which one in the parable you choose to be: you can choose to be the one who constantly compares yourself to others, masking up and pretending but with all the insecurities right there beneath the surface, or you can choose to be the one who humbles him or herself and agrees with God about who we are, who he declares us to be.
What accepting the truth about ourselves can do to our relationships
And it gets better. Accepting that we’re a loved mess not only sets us right with God. It also cracks the door open toward builder a deeper community within the church. The local church should be the least masked place you know! Because we understand human nature in all its potential for good and our potential for evil.
I’m so very thankful that yChurch is a place where you can come honest to God and honest to one another. We have no huge egos that can barely fit through the door. We have no big power plays going on. There aren’t a bunch of hyper-spiritual mask-wearers.
We’re simply a group of men and women who humbly admit we have a sin problem, and we are trusting the Savior from sin, Jesus. And so what God declares about us, we accept about ourselves—we’re a loved mess. And accepting this truth about ourselves, we can accept one another. This is the crucial first step toward creating a deeper community.
Let’s keep moving. I said we’re going to talk about shame, condemnation, and rejection—we have, unpacking how common they are in this fallen world. We’ve unpacked the good news that accepting what God declares about us is the first step toward a relationship with him and it’s the first step toward building a deeper community with one another.
Let’s conclude with how to deal with feelings of shame, condemnation, and rejection when they roar up. If you’re taking notes, here’s the timeless truth:
2. Shame, condemnation, rejection? God is greater than them all.
Hear what the apostle John declares: 6
“This is how we know that we belong to the truthand how we set our hearts at rest in his presence:If our hearts condemn us,we know that God is greater than our hearts,and he knows everything.”
1 John 3:19-20
When your heart condemns you; when you feel like, “God doesn’t love me, look at what I do,” stake your claim in this Scripture: If our hearts condemn us, we know that God is greater than our hearts, and he knows everything. God who knows everything is greater than your feelings. When God looks at us, he sees people who are valuable and wicked, both at the same time. We are the wedding ring set that’s been run through a bunch of trash: dirtied but still valued and loved.That’s the truth. And for those who accept the Savior who cleanses of sin, God’s embrace is sure. He is greater than your worried heart.
What God declares takes priority over how I feel
This is the way to shut down debilitating self-criticism. You may feel deep shame, and you may condemn yourself mercilessly. But God does not. Jesus’ death on the cross is enough. If you are trusting in Jesus as your Savior, God’s wrath against your sin has been satisfied. On the cross, justice and mercy have met, have kissed.
So if God doesn’t condemn you, why on earth should you accept condemning yourself? Maybe a parent or someone else whose opinion you care about has scarred you with shame or condemnation or rejection. God is greater than their opinion. So it doesn’t matter if a thousand people reject you. God accepts you. And his declaration matters more, his covenant.
Heaven’s paid-in-full receipt for you
Let me give you one final picture of what it looks like to live out of what God declares about you. My daughter and I went clothes shopping recently, and you know how on your way out you have to walk through theft detectors. When Meghan went through recently, the theft alarm sounded. She wasn’t guilty, but it would be easy at that moment to feel guilty.
So it is for those who are trusting in Jesus and daily seeking to follow him as Lord. For you, Jesus’ death and resurrection is like a permanent receipt proving God’s acceptance, the forgiveness of sin, adoption into God’s family, and eternal inheritance to come. It’s yours. Christ has paid your debt in full.
So now, when feelings of shame, guilt, or condemnation put a hand in your face as you walk through life and start to interrogate you and accuse you, take out your receipt and push back, declaring, “My debt had been paid in full. Don’t bother me. If you have a problem with me, take it up with my Savior.” Then go your way, head held high. Don’t accept, don’t live in false feelings of shame, guilt, or condemnation.
The death, burial, and resurrection of Jesus is a giant receipt, stamped across history for all people to see, a receipt to assure you that your future is certain if you trust in and daily seek to follow Jesus Christ.
Adapted from Tim Keller
From one loved mess to another, rest in who God declares you to be, and rest in God who is greater than our hearts. Allow me to pray for you now, would you?
Our Father in heaven, we need to know that you are greater than our hearts. At times we are hard-hearted, other times our hearts condemn us. We readily admit our bent toward sin. And we praise you that you love us. Holy Spirit, I ask you to convince these friends of these truths declared in your Word. Awaken each one to both their sin, and the power and love of the Savior. Empower us to live from the love of God, I ask. I pray for these friends what the apostle Paul prayed for his friends in Ephesus:
“I pray that out of [God the Father’s] unlimited resources he may strengthen you with power through his Spirit in your inner being, so that Christ may dwell in your hearts through faith. And I pray that you, being rooted and established in love, may have power, together with all the Lord’s holy people, to grasp how wide and long and high and deep is the love of Christ, and [that you may] know this love that surpasses knowledge—that you may be filled to the measure of all the fullness of God.” Amen! May this become your experience!