Susan Howatch's book Glittering Images tells the story of an up and coming young priest who is destined for big things in the Church of England.
The book deals with a number of complex and controversial themes—reader discretion is advised—and it is written from a religious perspective. The main fulcrum on which the story turns is the young priest's crisis of faith, and realisation of the 'glittering images' of the title—the way that we present an external mask that doesn't always reflect what's on the inside.
As a newer Christian this was radical stuff for me. I perceived that all these people around me—especially church leaders—had it all together, with happy, perfect lives, unshakable faith and non-existent doubts.
I soon discovered that people who I looked up to had their own struggles, and that often the face that we saw up the front on a Sunday was a mask for inner turmoil. There were a number of reasons for the creation of these 'glittering images', some altruistic—and some less so.
We all wear masks, sometimes
In fairness, not many of the people I encountered—unlike the main character from the book—wore these masks out of dishonesty or malevolence. I think these masks come from a sense of pressure—real or imagined—to live up to an ideal of what a 'good' Christian is.
Many Christians, especially leaders, worry that if they don't present a strong front they are somehow letting down the Church, or not being a good witness. After all, what good is a faith that doesn't solve all your problems? There is a real fear that we have to hide weakness and struggles because we don't want to damage the credibility of the Gospel message.
There is also an often unspoken feeling that if you are struggling or going through a bad time then it must be because you are being punished for something, or your faith is not strong enough.
That means it can be tempting to put on a brave face during times of trouble, so as not to be judged. This concept is taken to the extreme in the doctrine of the 'prosperity gospel' but it does unconsciously tinge the actions and beliefs of many mainstream churches, despite it being—in my opinion—explicitly contradicted by the words of Jesus in the Gospels (see Luke 13).
The hidden cost
The sad thing is that this approach does more harm than good, and not just to the individual who feels that they need to wear a mask. I know that when I saw the glittering images of people held up as role models in the Church that it didn't encourage my faith—in fact, far from it.
It made me wonder what I was doing wrong. Why wasn't my life perfect? Why did I struggle to believe in everything I read in the Bible or heard from the pulpit, or to have faith in God's promises? Why wasn't I happy all the time? These glittering images became a millstone around my neck.
So, when I encountered people who were open and honest with me about their struggles, leaders who admitted to doubts or to suffering, it didn't shake my faith, or making me think less of them, it often had the opposite effect.
Seeing people I looked up to share the same experiences was deeply reassuring, and made me feel I wasn't the failure I feared. I began to understand a vital truth about Christianity that has sustained me through some tough times.
A place for the sick, not the healthy
Australians cannot stand hypocrisy. When Christians don't live up to their beliefs, or fall short, they can be judged very harshly. There is a perception that churchgoers are meant to be perfect—a rod we have created for our own back. It's based on a flawed understanding of what the Gospel is all about, and what the Church is meant to be.
Christians are not a finished product. They are flawed, and they sin, and they often act in worse ways than people outside the Church. In fact, the only difference between a Christian and a non-Christian is that a Christian has admitted that they are broken and that they need God—and that they have fallen short.
When we act as if being in church means that you are somehow better or more holy we create unrealistic expectations and we damage the credibility of the Gospel because people constantly see us falling short.
The Church is meant to be a hospital, full of sick people wanting to be healed—not a place full of healthy people with no need for a doctor.
The truth will set you free
It can be scary being honest, and admitting that we are flawed. Some people will judge us, or think less of us. But, if we are willing to open up and be honest with one another, we will find it is possible to work through issues and doubts alongside one another. We might even find those outside the Church respect us more for being real, rather than claiming a perfection that we clearly do not live up to.
It is time to put down our glittering images, and take off the masks.
David Goodwin is the former Editor of The Salvation Army’s magazine,War Cry. He is also a cricket tragic, and an unapologetic geek.
David Goodwin archive of articles may be viewed at http://www.pressserviceinternational.org/david-goodwin.html