For years I have been obsessed with the idea of finishing well. My long-term friend was a pastor and we often talked about the concept, especially when someone we knew in ministry didn’t finish well. We would try to understand what went wrong.
As a psychologist, one of my insights is that there is a lot of pressure on pastors to present themselves as a false self, both in their relationship with people in their congregation, as well as with others. It’s like living out the old Greek word persona, which means literally “stage face.” A pastor must always have his or her “stage face” on.
Let me explain. It began with Adam and Eve. Like us, they were created in the image of God. But that image hadn’t yet been affected by sin, so they lived life through what we’ll call their real self. There was a sense of oneness between them that we see clearly when God introduced Eve to Adam. Adam responded by saying, “This one is bone from my bone, and flesh from my flesh” (Genesis 2:23). He is noticing only how much Eve is like him—he’s not fixated on their differences. He felt a sense of completeness of himself in Eve as they related real self to real self.
When they related through their real selves, there was no hiding, only spontaneous love for each other. They were free with their feelings and had no need to be defensive about anything. They were caring of each other, able to play and have fun and to be productive. They had a child-like openness to life, and were vulnerable with each other. This was the reality of who they were meant to be.
Then Adam and Eve choose to abandon their real self. They fell into the temptation of creating an all-knowing, all-powerful false self. To do this, they each had to push their real self from their awareness since part of the temptation was that their real self was somehow inadequate.
When Adam and Eve disobeyed God, everything changed for them, and for us. They began living their lives out of touch with who they really were. Instead, they set in motion a pattern that has been replicated by everyone since as we spend our lives developing our false self, and burying our real self. Suddenly, the innocence they had enjoyed was lost and they began to blame each other for their problems. I’ve often wondered how it might have been different if they had each taken responsibility before God for their own actions.
When I was a college pastor, I somehow thought in order to identify with my students I had to question everything about my faith. I thought that was what was expected of me by the college group. As I went down that path, I knew I was losing myself in my questioning. I began to question just about everything—I was living a false life. I hit a crisis and knew immediately I was going to have to dig out of where I had gone. I struggled and then suddenly I realized what I had allowed into my life. At one point I made a drastic decision that I would believe until proven wrong, rather than question until proven right. It was the beginning of a lifelong commitment that I would always be a believer and not a doubter. I would never be on the fence again! It took my real self out of hiding. And it was scary. I was determined that I would “finish well.”
Pastors are expected to present a false self, especially before their congregation. We can’t be our real self because we believe it is in some way defective and must be hidden. In its place, we put forward a pastoral self that we think is what is expected of us. But it is a reactive self that has to be careful, untrusting and closed down. We worry about what the people think of us. And we don’t really believe anyone has got our back. So we end up isolated, sometimes even from our spouse. Our isolation puts distance between ourselves and others for fear they will see past our facade and expose the defective nature of who we really are. All of which makes it harder to “finish well.”
Our biggest frustration, though, comes as we attempt to relate to God through our false self. It didn’t work for Adam and Eve, and it doesn’t work for us either. God longs to relate to us and to our real self with all its strengths and its weaknesses. In order to take back our life, we must unbury our real self, face the pain of our fears and woundedness, and embrace the real me that God created. When God looks at you, he sees past the false self and longs to relate to your real self. He didn’t make a mistake when he created you as you! So join in with the voice of the psalmist when he says, “Thank you for making me so wonderfully complex! Your workmanship is marvelous—how well I know it” (Psalm 139:14). I trust you will take your life back and “finish well”!