Have you ever noticed that when people self-describe they’re almost universally wrong?
Well ok, perhaps I’m being a bit pessimistic with “almost universally.” Suppose we re-phrase that into something a little less off-puttingly negative. I’m going to take another stab at it, and this time I’ll be much more encouraging and optimistic.
Have you ever noticed that when people self-describe they’re very often wrong? (I think that was much more delicately and tactfully phrased.)
I don’t mean when people say things like, “I just finished reading a book on gardening,” (which I did, coincidentally) or “I cleaned the bathroom today,” (which I ought to have), but more when they say things like, “I’m just a really ___________ kind of person.”
This can manifest itself in anyone from the marriage counselor who’s had 4 divorces (“Seriously! I’m an expert on this! Let me offer you some life-coaching!”) down to the lovely and well-meaning woman who always brings that rather revolting casserole to church potlucks because she’s convinced that it’s her specialty. (“I just knew that everyone would be so disappointed if I didn’t bring my famous Nevada Pie with extra kidney beans!”) And then of course everyone at the potluck takes a helping because no one wants to hurt her feelings, and mothers plop a serving onto their offended childrens’ plates while shooting them That Warning Look . . . and the poor deluded woman goes home perfectly satisfied in the knowledge that her Nevada Pie is treasured and loved.
I’ll never forget the man who announced that he was the “musically gifted brother” in the congregation, and a more painful musical performance you could never hope to witness than when he struck up a tune for a special number at church, which he did with excruciating frequency. It may have only been twice, but believe you me, that was excruciating frequency. (That of course was back in the good old rollicking days of my youth when we had special numbers at church. And now that I think about it, it may actually have been the musically gifted brother who was the under-girding cause of our liturgical shift I don’t know . . . )
I’m sure you must have seen this happen a lot. The man who pontificates about how best to play a guitar is painfully average. The girl who is so sure she’s irresistibly alluring is often more funny than anything. The kid convinced he is a great scholar is often noticeably uninspired. Everyone else in the room has a very different impression of them than they have of themselves. In Christian circles perhaps the delusion can persist longer (indefinitely?) because everyone is so cautious about hurting the poor chump’s feelings.
I’m absurdly sensitive when I run across someone else who is in that awkward place of not seeing themselves the way others see them. I cringe for them. I get inordinately embarrassed. I worry that maybe I’m doing it too and no one is telling me because they’re all just so nice . . .
Talent shows can be unbearable. Someone clambers up on to the stage, clutching their hula hoop, or their trombone, and I slide a little further down into my seat. I can’t quite look at them. As the trombonist starts limbering up his lips and clucking his tongue and licking his teeth, I shuffle my feet and clear my throat and twiddle with my ring and prepare to be mortified. The suspense is awful. Is he right, or is he wrong about his tromboning prowess? After the first few bars of the tune I either cringe still further, feeling embarrassed for him with all my heart, or I look up . . . wondering . . . could it possibly be? . . . is he actually good? And then I can unclench my jaw and my calf muscles and sit up and enter into the spirit of the trombone-a-thon.
As a matter of fact I’ve begun to feel rather pessimistic about mankind’s ability to assess ourselves. It’s as if great chunks of humanity are living their entire lives like the woman who shows up to the dinner party with her best smoky evening eyes, rhinestones glistening, dress perfect, shoes expensive, hair amazing . . . except for that one curler she forgot to take out of the back. She walks into the room, confident of the impression she’s making . . . but completely oblivious of the impression she’s making.
Yes, this has gotten terribly long and rambling and strangely autobiographical, but it seems to me that the human race is peculiarly susceptible to this. We want to make a particular impression, so we think we are, in fact, making that impression. We want to possess a particular talent and so we think we do. We want to be the kind of person who is a fount of knowledge whom everyone turns to for advice, so we put instructional videos on youtube and think we’re Martha Stewart. Perhaps our American mantra of “You can be anything you want to be and don’t let anyone tell you different” is partially responsible for reinforcing the problem. But if we so readily do this with things like our appearance or our talents, how much do you think we might do this with our sins? How often do we have a sin clinging to us like that forgotten curler, but we’re so busy admiring the rest of our outfit that we fail to see how adversely that one crucial detail is affecting the rest of the picture.
Today I was reading Psalm 19 and this jumped out at me, “Who can understand his errors? Cleanse thou me from secret faults. Keep thy servant also back from presumptuous sins . . .” There seems to be a distinction between the presumptuous sins we commit – the perfectly obvious ones which we saw ahead of time and stomped our way into them anyway with a nasty belligerent look on our faces . . . and the sins that we don’t even see. The ones we miss because we’re not looking there. Who can understand his errors? Who can see that curler on the back of their own head? Well, obviously, the person who’s using one of those medicine cabinet mirrors that have two doors that open so you can look at the back of your own head, that’s who. And of course James tells us that God gives us that mirror in his Word. If you’re looking in it, you’ll see yourself truly; all the way around, secret errors and renegade stowaway curlers included.
I sometimes wonder if it might be a healthy exercise to swing out those mirrored doors from time to time and take a glance at the back of our heads. The place we haven’t looked in a while. Or, galloping bravely into another metaphor without so much as a pause, pull out the couch in our soul and take a glance at what old socks, dust-bunnies, stale remnants of PBJs and secret errors may be lurking beneath it.
What kind of person do you think you are? Say to yourself, “I’m a really __________ kind of person.” What do you instinctively put into that blank? Introverted? Outgoing? Rational? Emotional? Hospitable? Artistic? Then step back and ask yourself it that’s the whole picture.
“I’m a really organized person.” Now pull out that mirror and ask yourself if there’s any corresponding sin you missed. Such as, “I snap at my husband when he doesn’t put things back where they go and honestly sometimes he can’t see or appreciate my organization because all he can see is my petty nagging, selfishness, and lack of charity.” There you go – you’ve found your curler.
“I’m a really laid-back person.” Pull out the mirror . . . are all the positive aspects of your character (the ones that you see and like to focus on) being blurred for everyone else because of a sin you’re overlooking?
The lovely thing is, you don’t need to get morbidly introspective as I have frequently done, and you don’t have to wonder if you might have succumbed to a horrible sin that you never even knew about and never could possibly know about. We have an answer key. We have an infallible mirror. Ask God to show you your “secret faults” and He will. And He’ll cleanse you from them too . . . which is downright comforting when you think about it.