If you’ve ever seen any of the Mission Impossible movies starring Tom Cruise, you’re familiar with the Mission Impossible mask scenes. At key points in the plots, a character you thought was one person turns out to be someone else, disguised underneath an incredibly life-like mask. Tom Cruise impersonates the villain. The villain impersonates Tom Cruise. Tom Cruise impersonates a Starbucks barista. (Yes, I made that one up.) After a while, a viewer familiar with the MI mask motif gets a bit cynical: that guy looks like Tom Cruise, but is he really? Who’s the real Tom Cruise?
I doubt if perfectly life-like MI masks actually exist. But you do know what it’s like to wonder who’s masked and who’s real. This is the question you ask in marriage after that first explosive conflict: You’re not the person I married – who are you? It’s the thoughts you have in the friendship when suddenly you can no longer agree on even the simplest of things: I don’t think I even know you anymore. After all these years, I can’t believe you could do this to me. Are you really like that?
The problem is especially acute when the other person is a fellow believer. You’re supposed to be on the same team. You believe the same things, you go to the same church, you serve in the same ministry – and yet his behavior or her actions make you wonder if the person you thought you knew was just a mask.
And then it gets even worse when the situation endures over time. Gradually, with every interaction, your opinion is settled and confirmed. They really are like that: nitpicking, petty, deceitful, proud, defensive. It’s not just once – it’s over time, a pattern repeated and long ingrained. You no longer ask, Who are you? You know, and you intensely dislike, the answer.
How do you live in those kinds of relationships, when you don’t know what’s the mask and what’s the real person? Or, even worse, when you come to believe the person you fell in love with, or built a friendship with, was just a masked imposter?
The right question here will completely alter our perspective. The right question to ask is this: who does God see when he sees this person? When we observe a fellow believer and draw conclusions, we are defining that person, and the question we need to ask is whether our definition matches up with God’s.
In God’s sight, the truest identity of any believer is not who they are now, but who they will become. The defining reality of their life is the presence of the Holy Spirit, uniting them with Christ and filling them with the life of God. And because the God who began a good work in them will surely complete it, God alone has the right to define who someone is.
If this is true, then every temporal observation that we make of another believer – even if it’s backed up by years of evidence – is only a half-truth. And a half-truth expressed as a whole truth is an untruth. The full story must include the presence of the Holy Spirit, the outworking of the character of Christ in the believer’s heart, the resurrection power of God applied to making each believer a fit temple of the Holy Spirit (see, for instance, Ephesians 1:15-19 and 3:14-21). If you don’t take this into account, you’re not considering the true person. You’ve been fooled by a temporary – though real – mask.
That person you’re thinking of even now, if they’re a believer in Christ, is not who they will one day be. The weaknesses will be gone. The sins will disappear. He will be radiant with Christ’s glory. She will stand spotless in the presence of God. That future identity trumps all present realities. Those are masks, temporarily hiding what is true and what is real. And so we must learn to see behind the mask.