“Remember who you are. Don’t compromise for anyone, for any reason. You are a child of the Almighty God. Live that truth.”
– Lysa Terkeurst
I have an odd trait about me. I call it my “secret identity.” When I go into certain lighting, my dirty-blonde hair turns red. It is not just a slight red. It looks like I am ginger! In fact, some people have mistaken me for a redhead.
Joking about my secret, ginger identity is fun. However, this leads me to point out something serious…
Deeper than my hair color, deeper than my scalp, is someone I have kept hidden. In fact, we all keep someone hidden. We have been trained to bury what others consider less desirable. We will do anything to keep that trait, that look, that interest, that quirk about us hidden in order to please those around us. We learn this as a small child as we find our acceptance in our families and in our communities at school. Even in our churches, we are formed into people-pleasers.
The Mask I Wear
My name is Stephen. I was born with a birth defect called Spina Bifida. I walk with a limp and need to wear leg braces. I have bathroom issues involving bodily control.
Yet, everyday I wake up ready to fool you that it even exists. I’ve mastered my craft so well that people who need to believe I have a disability have seriously questioned it demanding a doctor’s note.
From a young age, I learned to keep it hidden. Wear long pants to hide the braces, take shorter steps so the limp isn’t noticeable, hide my bathroom supplies in ways no one would suspect a thing. If an accident did happen or I had to stay home from school, I became the world’s best liar as to why something happened. I had to throw everyone off the trail of discovering who I am. Why? Who wants to bring shame and embarrassment to their family and friends? The less people knew; the better.
As I grew older, my interests and personality became a concern. My family became embarrassed of me. As each morning came, another mask came on to not be a burden. The more less desirable traits or interests in my life came up, the more masks I wore. There were days I wore layers of masks. Each stare, each invitation, each new friend became someone or something to be careful of. What would happen if they found out?
The inner burden of mask-wearing broke me. It led to my darkest day. March 2020, I drove down the wrong way on a busy road hoping I could relieve others of the burden and embarrassment I was.
What About God?
How many times did I ask my parents, “Why did God make me like this?” Their response, “We do not know, but God has a purpose.” Usually, their remark was followed up by Psalm 139:14. The answer never settled well with me.
If God created me with a disability, then what was his purpose? I don’t think a day passed where I could only see my purpose as being a burden or the butt of a joke. So each day, the mask came on to hide what was there. Maybe God would heal me. Maybe he would give me a great purpose. Instead, I saw only the shame I brought to my family. I saw the shame I brought to myself.
Who was God? In reality, I did not have a correct view of God. I saw him like my father treated me: out-perform my disability in order to be seen as normal as possible and to bring the family pride from being their ideal Stephen. God was not loving. He was transcendent, holy, and without error; just like my father made himself appear. If I stepped out of line, consequences. If I embarrassed anyone in the family for doing something quirky or weird, punishment. Even when I was a small child, as I was still getting a grip on my bathroom needs and having accidents, my father rubbed my nose in a soiled pull-up to train me. God became sculpted in the same image.
God wasn’t pleased with me unless I could overcome everything. All the world became a stage, and I its greatest actor. Performing for reviews became my life. I endeavored to be their ideal; rather than something more personal.
God gifted me masks to cover up the curse of the Fall which scarred my body.
Having Eyes, But Not Seeing
A lot of masks have eye-holes to see out of. Yet, the ones I wore had eyes prepared for me on how I should see the world: cruel, bullies, suspicious, hurtful, and only wanting to humiliate me.
It wasn’t until I began cutting away at those fake eyes that I realized something. God isn’t how I perceived him. I made him into an image I knew. I did not allow him to reveal himself to me as the loving God. It took till I was almost 30 years-old to see the God of the Bible- the Creator who loves every bit of me, who isn’t embarrassed by me, and sent Jesus to redeem me to a purpose greater than myself.
For so long I yearned to know God and studied God, but who knew God could be encountered just simply in his Word and through a worship service? Once I could cut away the eyes of an image, I could see what is reality – God is love, he loves all of me, he made all of me, and he desires a deep relationship with me based, not on my performance, but on faith and love.
Eyes of an image only see what the image wants you to see. Eyes of reality allow you to see the world and its Creator.
Removing The Layers
30 years of layering mask after mask after mask. The glue clings to my skin like another layer of skin. I attempt to remove the first mask. Some of the outer layers are easier to pull off. But, as I get closer to my real self, the masks get tougher and more painful to remove. Yet, I cannot continue living with them on.
How do I remove them?
First, I need to admit I wear masks. I need to admit the many layers of masks glued to the face God gave me. I wear a lot. I hide and I lie in order to avoid people knowing the real me I was created to be.
Second, as each mask comes off, I need to forgive the person who gave me the mask. God never gifted me a mask. His gift to me was me. It still is me. So, I need to forgive those who acted in the place of God to give me masks to hide myself.
To Bob Jones University, you taught me I was not good enough unless I fit your image. Through you, I learned to hate myself. I learned I could not be a good Christian, leader, or person in ministry unless I had conquered my struggles. It was your spiritual abuse which led me to March 2020 wanting to end my own life. To the counselors I had, to the four ministerial peers I looked up to, and to friends I went to for advice, you hurt me. You taught me to hate myself, to beat myself up spiritually until I was good enough. I forgive you.
To dad, mom, and my siblings. You place on me the burden of the family scapegoat. You taught me to hide myself, to be ashamed of myself, and to become a man grown up in your ideal. You blame me for the family tensions and why our family had and still have issues. You rejected me for opening up deep, personal issues in my life. You hurt me. However, I forgive you.
This is how the hardest glue comes off… forgiveness.
The Hidden Me
My name is Stephen. I am disabled. I am quirky. I am weird. I enjoy books, stuffed animals, and the theatrical-arts. I love research and studying. I love studying languages, and (for the first time) I love who I am. God made me this way.
God did not decide to fate me all the bad stuff. It is when I make room for what I perceive as the “bad stuff” in my life that I begin to accept and grow into the person God made me to become. That is what potential is.
What is good about me? Because of being disabled, struggling with same-sex attraction, and going through what I have endured, I am a great teacher. Everyday, I get to teach social-emotional skills to my students. I understand pain, rejection, being marginalized, and being the weird one attempting to make sense of his life. My co-teachers bring the gold out of me each time we chat on the playground or at lunch. They see the gold that I was meant to bring and give to my students.
However, it is not easy living as my true self daily. The temptation to glue the masks back on can be as strong as a beast within me. How do I fight that? I need to remember I have friends who love all of me, who are not embarrassed or burdened by me, and I need to accept their love for me. Mask wearing causes me to be suspicious and cautious of accepting love that penetrates all layers. Instead, I need to lean into and submit to their love. Receiving love is to admit their love is real and what they see in me is real, and to begin living out their gift of sight of who I am.
But, most importantly, my personal narrative with God needs to change. I crush the image I made of God, and I submit to what his Word says about him. It is much more beautiful as he reveals himself and I encounter him in real life. My learned theology can be a noose to hang myself on or it can be a catalyst into seeing God truly as he is as he works in and through me.
Revealing what we’ve hidden behind masks is so daunting. It is like killing a character in a story. But, that’s really what it is. Revealing ourselves is killing the imposter we penned into God’s novel, because we were not happy with the character he authored us to be.
Am I that real person now? Has the final chapter been written? A character changes and grows through his novel. I guess I am at the part where I am growing into who God authored me to be as I work to kill the characters I thought would be better to tell my story of redemption than the real me.
It is time to be me. It is who God created me to be in the first place. Submit to his narrative; not the lies I was told for years. It will take time, but it is better to bring the hidden me of divine design to light than to suffocate behind a mask of human design