Walk into any church and you’re bound to find people who look happy, secure, and at peace. But inwardly, they’re confused, frustrated, frightened, guilty, and ashamed to reveal themselves to others—secretly crying out for someone to love them as they are. Seldom does a person have the courage to expose his or her deep needs before a seemingly self-sufficient church gathering. And that’s a crying shame!
Why has this sort of pretending become common among Christians? Are we so blind that we cannot see how putting on airs drains every ounce of our integrity? When will we finally acknowledge that Jesus insists on meeting us where we are, not where we pretend to be?
For me, it took a guy named Mike, who came crashing into my life at just the right time.
Because God knows me and perfectly understands what makes me tick, He knew I’d never discover a more nurturing way to live until I had a clear picture of how I was really living. And because God loves me beyond comprehension, He arranged for Mike to enter my life.
From the moment we met, Mike was unlike any man I had ever encountered. To be honest, I didn’t always enjoy being with him. Sometimes he scared me. There were times when he intimidated me. I often felt a restless unease when we were together. By the time we met, Mike had been living authentically long enough to recognize that I had lived most my life as an impostor. He saw the reality behind the image I often projected—and called my bluff.
We had our first significant encounter when a mutual friend invited us to join a few other men on a retreat. Being in a roomful of men is always a risky thing. Competition is usually in the air, so the potential for conflict is always close at hand. Strutting and jockeying for position are common, too.
Accepting the reality of our broken, flawed lives is the starting point of living in Christ, but because we can then stop seeking perfection.
Mike and I were assigned to stay in a room together. On the first morning, I joined the other men for breakfast. Since Mike never showed up, I returned to the room to check on him before our session began. Opening the door, I found him sitting on the side of his bed. He was bent forward with his head in his hands. Suddenly, with his hair a wild mess, he squinted at me and said, “You know, I’ve always heard that it takes a crook to catch a crook. Anderson, I’ve already got you pegged. You and I are much more alike than it appears. The only difference is this: I’ve quit trying to look like my life’s all put together, but you’re still desperately trying.” Then with a tender smile, he added, “Fil, I’m looking forward to knowing the real you.”
The group continued meeting annually, and as groups often do, we thought some kind of name or label would be good—something to call ourselves. We wrestled awhile but couldn’t agree on anything. Then one year when we were checking into a retreat facility, the host at the front desk asked the name of our group, and one of the guys blurted out, “The Notorious Sinners.” It stuck.
Because we adopted the moniker, you could assume these were men with whom I could safely be authentic. Yet, my default was to pretend, to project an image of myself as stable and neatly packaged. One year, on the night prior to my departure for our annual retreat, I engaged in a heated conflict with one of my teenagers. Sadly, my profane and venomous rage was grossly out of proportion with the provocation. Nonetheless, when I called to explain my absence to the group, I presented myself as heroic and self-sacrificing, dutiful even, for choosing to remain at home.
A few months later, when Mike and I were together, he demonstrated the skill of a surgeon as he laid me open, exposing the truth that I believed had remained hidden. “Dude, when you bailed out on the retreat, you missed an extraordinary opportunity to finally receive what you have always wanted. I know why you didn’t come, and it was not because your family needed you. It was your shame and arrogant pride. You knew that if you remained at home, it would appear that your family crisis was solely about them and that they needed you to fix it. Man, you may have fooled them, but not me. Your life’s a stinking mess!” It was all I could do to keep my terror-driven rage in check. I was about to lash out when I noticed the tears in Mike’s eyes and the quivering of his lips as he rose from his seat and made his way toward me. Sitting down next to me, he asked with tender kindness, “Fil, what will it take for you to stop being controlled by the fear of being yourself? Won’t you please come out of hiding, tell the truth, and let yourself be known? When you let others see the real you, then and only then will you experience the love for which you’ve always yearned.”
His effect on me was like a defibrillator on an all-but-dead heart. When we first met, my heart was shut down, but Mike’s seemed wide open, and never more than when he shared it with God. Mike was convinced that anything he held back from Jesus would end up hurting him. For that reason, he appeared fearless and free to tell the Lord everything. There was never any editing in his relationship. I especially cherish the memory of those stunning times when he unflinchingly revealed the darkness of his heart, asking Jesus to shine His light inside its shadowy recesses.
Mike’s was a prophetic voice, unconventionally and bravely challenging misguided believers like me to examine their relationships—with Jesus and others—in an open and candid way. In his experience, unlike that of many Christians, God wasn’t far off somewhere, controlling the universe, but was always nearer to Mike than his next breath. Deep within his quickened heart was the assurance that there was never anything in God’s heart but love for him.
Accepting the reality of our broken, flawed lives is the starting point of living in Christ, not because our life in Christ immediately mends all of our brokenness, but because we can then stop seeking perfection. Instead, we seek Jesus, the One who is present in the brokenness of our lives. It’s not until we discover our real self with all of our desperate neediness that we discover who Jesus really is: a loving, accepting, kind, and forgiving Savior, Redeemer, and Friend.
Recalling that day, I know that Mike loved me in a way few others ever had. He saw my vulnerable and unlovable parts, but he embraced them all and assured me that Jesus, who has always seen me as I really am, was eager to do the same. Before our visit ended, he recalled these words that Jesus spoke: “He who has found his life will lose it, and he who has lost his life for My sake will find it” (Matt. 10:39).
Acknowledging the fragmentation of my life is the single most painful and difficult admission I’ve ever made. It’s also the most freeing and hopeful thing I’ve ever spoken about myself. Discovering the need for authenticity has led me to develop trusting relationships with friends who are willing to ask probing questions that invite who I really am to come out of hiding.
Today, I am convinced that God loves everyone with unimaginable depth, persistence, and intensity. I’m utterly confident that there is no way to exaggerate the immensity of His love. It knows no limits; it has no breaking point. Overflowing any limitations we might try to place on it, God’s love is, in a nutshell, like none other in this world.
It’s for this reason that we can declare with rare theological certainty that God loves us as we are and not as we should be. Do you believe this? I’m not asking, Do you believe in love? That’s theoretical and inconsequential ideology. What I am asking is, Can you say with conviction what the apostle John wrote in his first letter: “We have come to know and have believed in the love which God has for us”? (4:16). God’s love is the content of our faith and a magnificent summary of all that we must believe. It establishes our true identity and brings peace, joy, and contentment the world cannot give.
Jesus offers Himself to each of us as a companion on life’s journey—a friend who is patient with us, kind, gracious, quick to forgive, and whose love keeps no score of wrongs. He says, “No longer do I call you slaves . . . but I have called you friends” (John 15:15). Now think about how Augustine defined that term: “A friend is someone who knows everything about you and still accepts you.” Jesus is the fulfillment of this dream that we all share.
Authentic discipleship requires knowing three things: our self as deeply loved, our self as deeply sinful, and our self engaged in a lifelong process of being restored. Confronting these essential truths makes it possible for us, “Notorious Sinners” all, to know ourselves as we are known and accepted by God.