My 9-year-old was ready to spend his screen time. But you know that feeling, stumbling around to find quality television for an elementary schooler? In a blast from my ‘80s past, I delighted to find The Cosby Show on Amazon. In a few minutes, I could hear my son giggling from the next room. “Mom! You’ve gotta come see this part!” We chuckled together over Theo and Rudy, and over Dr. Huxtable imitating a woman in labor.

My son’s enthrallment was only three weeks before Mr. Cosby was led somberly in handcuffs from a Pennsylvania courthouse, prison-bound following his conviction of sexual assault. Like so many, I groaned at the disparity: Perfect, hilarious TV family. Lurid, devastating real life.

It’s fairly easy to chuck stones at this man who’s toppled from such a staggering height, at this man who caused America’s families to laugh every Thursday night for eight years. He who advocated winsomely—beyond the camera—for the advancement of African-Americans.

Picture perfect

But perhaps we could all find pause, including those of us nestled in near-picture-perfect families. Which of us truly has no guilt or shame—nothing to hide behind bright lights, a decent script, and some well-placed makeup? Which of us would always be declared innocent?

What if, like Mr. Cosby, the portion others see of us and our families, misleads and distracts from our actual selves?

No, we’re probably not accused and convicted of drugging someone with intent to rape. But does that mean there isn’t a part of each of us that’s heinous?

Which of us would be open to every moment of our private lives broadcast on the big screen: How we think about the opposite sex? What we spew at spouses in moments of rage? The shame we heap on our children in moments of stress and exhaustion? How we speak about our bosses or enemies or our own friends? None of us really want our lives broadcast.

We long for our heroes to be wholly good, perhaps with a few endearing, surmountable weaknesses. We want to cast our villains as despicable, unforgivable, and able to be hurled from society. But is it truly so simple?

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The “shadow”

Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn wrote,

If only it were all so simple! If only there were evil people somewhere insidiously committing evil deeds, and it were necessary only to separate them from the rest of us and destroy them. But the line dividing good and evil cuts through the heart of every human being. And who is willing to destroy a piece of his own heart?

As a musician who leads others in church worship, I feel this. I feel it as a blogger. I’d love to tell you I’m always on, always ready to deliver something meaningful with the regularity of a smartphone reminder: You have wisdom! I write for families and parents. So I’d love to report that who I am in print is completely of the same cloth you’ll find in my home. Anger problems, snarky teens, marital issues, begone! Shuffle along to the next house down the street!

Any of us can think of the life of the heart, the life within, like Peter Pan’s shadow. It traipses along with our families, enriching them and adding just the right amount of panache. But this thought pattern is distinctly different from the pattern we know to be true, one laid out by God. What if our outer lives are actually the dimmer reality, the shadow … or the TV show?

I’ll ask it this way: Who was the real Mr. Cosby? The one who nuzzled Clair Huxtable, or whatever Mr. Cosby did off-camera?

Our on-camera selves

There was only One whose outer perfection lay perfectly symmetrical to the inner. He spoke once to those who have eyes that can’t see, and ears that can’t hear. Translation: You think you can see and hear, but your heart is the real you. And as for the audience to which he spoke, you can’t see or hear what matters. We can have perfectly-functioning eyes, and yet be blind in all ways that matter.

The Apostle Paul asks similarly that “the eyes of your heart may be opened.” Elsewhere, Jesus speaks of Himself as the “Bread of Life” not for bodies, but for the nutritional needs of the soul. Over and over, Hebrews describes our physical environment as a copy—a one-dimensional shadow—of what’s to come (8:5; 9:23; 10:1), while still affirming the importance of this place and all we do here. What if the body and world we witness with our physical eyes is the shadow?

What if what we choose to put “on camera,” performing for the world, isn’t the real us at all?

Rx: Dealing with our secret selves

Seventeenth-century English theologian John Owen penned words that shake my people-pleasin’ heart:

A minister may fill his pews, his communion roll, the mouths of the public, but what that minister is on his knees in secret before God Almighty, that he is and no more.

Tim Keller affirms,

Most contemporary people base their inner life on their outward circumstances. Their inner peace is based on other people’s valuation of them, and on their social status, prosperity, and performance. Christians do this as much as anyone…

If we give priority to the outer life, our inner life will be dark and scary… We won’t know how to go into the inner rooms of the heart, see clearly what is there, and deal with it. In short, unless we put a priority on the inner life, we turn ourselves into hypocrites.

What we do behind closed doors is who we are. It’s true of Mr. Cosby, it’s true of me, and it’s true of you.

This week, when the lights go down on our lives, may God continue to refine us, making us and our photo-ready families real from within.

Behold, you delight in truth in the inward being, and you teach me wisdom in the secret heart (Psalm 51:6).

Copyright © 2018 by Janel Breitenstein. Used with permission.