Recently I was listening to the first episode of the podcast Bel Folks Stuff when out of the blue I was struck by this one thought: how fractured my life has become. Bel and Syl were discussing their online personas as compared to who they were in real life, both drawing the conclusion that who they were in the virtual space more or less matched who they were outside of it. I cannot say the same for myself.
Rippling beneath the surface— a tiny pebble in a pond of fear— is an ever present concern for how others perceive me. Early and instinctively I learned to mimic the people around me—to follow their speech patterns, to express admiration for their interests as if they were my own, and to conceal anything about myself that was contrary to my present company. That has carried on into adulthood and as a result I think nothing of being one person in MMO games and in social media, another at work, and still another at home and at my church.
Why I’ve given the world such authority over my life is beyond me, but this survival instinct is tattooed into the very flesh of my identity and it’s not going away anytime soon. This is problematic for forming relationships because the people in my life, whom I hold at arm’s length anyway, are never really seeing the full Monty as it were, but rather the elements I wish to have seen. This isn’t a calculated con, but a semi-subconscious act of self-preservation, honed to perfection during the tumultuous and formative years of junior high. During unexpected or emotionally charged moments this polished shell will of course crack revealing the arid bones beneath whitewashed tombs, but by and large I keep a tight seal on what I present of myself, and I chastise every momentary lapse or indiscretion. I feel close to very few people as a result.
Practically speaking, what this means is my coworkers know nothing of my hobby as an MMO gamer and very little if anything of how important Jesus Christ is to me. Those who know me in the virtual space as Weakness are unaware of what I do professionally, my family, or of my heartfelt religious convictions. I am most openly myself at home and at church, but even so I keep secrets. While I know my church friends well enough to believe they would not judge me for being an MMO enthusiast, I cannot help but feel they would think less of me. Perhaps the reason they don’t already is because I only let them see the best parts.
Ironic, isn’t it? The behavioral pattern I’ve cultivated over the years of presenting myself in augmented fragments rather than the tarnished whole that actually constitutes my “self” is the very thing that prevents me from loving and being loved by those from whom I seek approval. Here is the bittersweet reality that forms a ravine between where I stand and friendship: if you do not risk rejection, you cannot truly be known. And if you aren’t known you can’t be loved, not really.
However I didn’t learn all of this for the first time from Bell Folks Stuff (though the podcast did serve as a reminder), but rather from scripture; more specifically, the gospel. This is the critical linchpin of Christianity that nevertheless eluded me for years. From my youth as a cross-carrying, bible-believing Methodist I approached God in the same way I approached other people. He was someone with affection that I wanted and I used the morality present in the Bible as an instruction manual for eliciting his favor. When I felt I was righteous in my thought life and actions, I was certain God was pleased with me. When I faltered, the possibility of his displeasure terrified me. My longing for validation blinded me to who God really was as well as the severity of my own situation.
Speaking to the Christians in the first century church of Ephesus The apostle Paul writes:
But God, being rich in mercy, because of the great love with which he loved us, even when we were dead in our trespasses, made us alive together with Christ—by grace you have been saved—and raised us up with him and seated us with him in the heavenly places in Christ Jesus, so that in the coming ages he might show the immeasurable riches of his grace and kindness toward us in Christ Jesus. For by grace you have been saved through faith. And this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God, not a result of works, so that no one may boast.
This is what I didn’t understand for a long time, despite being a part of the church from childhood. First of all, I cannot conceal anything about my nature from God. He is not fooled by an idealized presentation of myself, nor is he impressed by any airbrushed attempts at perfection. Spiritually speaking, men and women are dead from birth. Severed from the life blood of God like a branch broken from the trunk of a tree in a winter storm. Because we are spiritually dead and the consequences are ugly there is nothing inherently admirable or worthy about us. Nevertheless God loves humanity, collectively and individually. Trying to impress God or curry his favor through moral or charitable living is impossible, but garnering his love is possible; it simply cannot be bought on our own merit. Human righteousness is an empty currency, but the righteousness of Christ can and did purchase infinite forgiveness for everyone who believes in him.
Christ in his death and resurrection purchased the forgiveness of dead, sinful men and women whom God loved despite our deceptiveness, vanities, pride, and rebelliousness. The penalty for all these misdeeds is death and the crucifixion of Jesus Christ was the substitutionary satisfaction of that consequence so that unrighteous humanity could have the means of being enveloped in the love and joy of a righteous God. Not as a result of our own attempts at living the good life—that leads to more pride—but rather on the basis of God’s loving provision in Jesus Christ. And this gracious clean slate is once, for all. No more guilt, condemnation, or need for repeated penance. Just life in Christ received by faith in the atoning power of his death and resurrection. I don’t have to conceal the moral weakness, ugliness, and depravity in my life from God because He has already seen it, forgiven it, and paid the penalty in blood.
And this should give me confidence to stand in the presence of God knowing that I am still loved and affirmed because of Jesus Christ even though I am also a complete failure yet too often it does not. I continue in my enslavement to the old habitual ways of thinking about God: the callous reality show judge, the impersonal yet demanding corporate executive. Neither of those depictions could be further from the truth. Every time I fail as a husband, a father, and as a Christian my eyelids flinch and my shoulders tense with the expectation of God’s inevitable judgment and instead I receive mercy and compassion; the gentle nudge forward of a proud and caring Father. Perhaps if my distorted views of God are proven wrong frequently enough (and my persistent failings provide God ample opportunity to remind me of his grace) I will eventually grow more comfortable in his presence, the way my son sits at my side without even a momentary doubt of my love for him.
The gospel of Jesus Christ should also give me courage to be myself with other people. If I were truly comfortable with who I am in Christ, convinced in my soul that he is infinitely worthy and eternally for me, I wouldn’t care so much about what other people think. Not that I would be unconcerned with how others feel or with their needs, but rather my every thought and action would not be bound by the desire to earn their approval.
I suppose in a way this post (though unintentionally at the start) is the result of a renewed desire to be a whole person. Here stand I—husband, father, painter, visual manager, writer, avid MMO gamer, and lover of Jesus Christ, happily indebted to his sacrifice. I wish I could say from now on I will no longer conceal parts of myself to appease others, to earn their friendship and affirmation. It’s a way of thinking, feeling, and living to which I’ve grown accustomed and this old dog is slow to change. But he is not unwilling.
I questioned when I began this blog whether it should be focused entirely on my interest in MMOs. I knew I could write plenty on the subject and wouldn’t need any other prompts. I even considered editing my first post after it was published and removing the declaration that I would also be writing about Christian subjects. I’m glad I didn’t. I need to start being a whole person, sharing all aspects of who I am with the people in my life without the white grip of fear in my chest. While I want you all to like me, it needs to be the real me, not the fragments I think will gain your affection. When I paused Bel’s podcast to ponder these ideas on my drive down I-75 this one phrase resonated with me more than any other: if you do no risk rejection, you cannot be known.
Hello MMO community. My name is Jake, it’s nice to meet you.