Authenticity is the daily practice of letting go of who we think we’re supposed to be and embracing who we are.
— BRENÉ BROWN
Who doesn’t want to be seen by others as put-together and successful? We all like to put our best self forward, don’t we? Publicly displaying our shame, fear, or sadness is generally a cultural no-no, and I’ll confess I don’t particularly want people who interact with me to walk away thinking, “Yikes! She’s a disaster.” Believe me, I’ve had moments when that could have been the takeaway. You’ve probably had those moments too.
We often present what we hope is “our best self,” but it isn’t really us at all, just some imaginary, idealized version of ourselves, carefully curated to give the right impression. This favorable self-portrait is what I call my fig leaves—and in all honesty, there were many years when most people in my life only saw my meticulously crafted fig leaves.
Why fig leaves?
Many of us know the story of Adam and Eve as told in Genesis, but it’s easy to become so familiar with a story that we lose sight of some of the important truths within. Let’s take a look at Genesis 3:6-10:
When the woman saw that the fruit of the tree was good for food and pleasing to the eye, and also desirable for gaining wisdom, she took some and ate it. She also gave some to her husband, who was with her, and he ate it. Then the eyes of both of them were opened, and they realized they were naked; so they sewed fig leaves together and made coverings for themselves.
Then the man and his wife heard the sound of the Lord God as he was walking in the garden in the cool of the day, and they hid from the Lord God among the trees of the garden. But the Lord God called to the man, “Where are you?”
He answered, “I heard you in the garden, and I was afraid because I was naked; so I hid.”
Before Adam and Eve eat from the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil, from which they have been told they must not eat, they have nothing to hide. They live without shame or fear. They experience perfect intimacy with the Father, their creator. They know they are loved. They know they belong. Life couldn’t be better.
The moment they choose to ignore God’s wisdom, everything changes. Shame and fear enter the human experience. They become aware of themselves in a way they have never known. The eyes of their minds are opened while the eyes of their hearts are closed. They can now discern right from wrong, but they no longer know they are unconditionally loved. What a travesty! This is where humanity gets stuck—in a condition of self-awareness but spiritual-blindness.
Adam and Eve are immediately aware that something is very wrong. And how do they respond? They take matters into their own hands, trying to cover the shame of their mistake with fig leaves. Hmm…seems like a lousy solution. Then, to make matters worse, they try to hide from God. Well, I’m pretty sure that never works. But how often have I done the same?
So now, having rejected God’s wisdom in favor of their own, they have entered into a condition of shame and fear, and ultimately control. They know they have messed up, and they don’t want God to see their true condition. They want to make things right, but they believe they can do it themselves. The thing is, they can’t.
Have you ever found yourself in a nasty spiral like that? I can recognize many times in my life when I used metaphorical fig leaves to hide what I believed was shameful and unworthy. My fig leaves have taken the form of academic success, career status, musical accolades. I could certainly go on. All of these fig leaves helped me project a particular image, one that I believed would make me welcome or acceptable.
When my first child was born, my career fig leaves were taken away, and I felt naked. Without the trappings of an office under the U.S. Capitol dome and the perception of political influence, I had no idea who I was. So I promptly stitched together some new fig leaf couture, Super Mom. If I wasn’t going to be someone people recognized for a brilliant career, then I would be the mom who had it all figured out—the mom who only fed her kids nutritious, no-sugar-added organic meals and introduced them to great literature, music, and art. The one who always demonstrated spiritual wisdom and godly living. The one who paved the path for them to reach their full potential. All worthy objectives.
The Super Mom fig leaves were what I wanted people to see, so they seemed like a great idea—until they ate me alive. You see, no one can present a false front forever, and we can certainly wear ourselves out trying. When my fig leaves finally crumbled, I was consumed by the shame and fear I’d tried to hide. (You can read more about that in When Paint Became Scary.) I had no choice but to let God show me who I really was because I truly had no idea.
I recently stayed in a large convention-style hotel where a youth leadership event was being held. Hundreds of high school kids were gathered in the lobbies and hallways wearing lanyards with name and state badges. Many of their badges also had colorful ribbons attached recognizing specific associations and accolades. I could see that many of these young people had worked hard to achieve a certain level of status within the organization. Some of them had a kaleidoscope of ribbons over two feet long.
When I remember myself at that age, I think I would have looked like many of these kids. I wanted to be seen. I wanted to feel special—to be celebrated. Winning academic or music awards made me feel that way. It was a way to prove to myself and to others that I had worth. This is a very human desire. We all want to be recognized and valued. Unfortunately, if we don’t feel seen and appreciated for who we are, we may make it our mission to do everything we can to be known for what we achieve. If we’re not careful, the accolades we receive in that pursuit become a false identity, our fig leaves.
Even though we may earnestly believe in the story our fig leaves tell, they aren’t really who we are. Going all the way back to the garden, our human insecurity tells us we must fix ourselves, make ourselves more presentable, more beautiful, more successful. God sees us differently. There is nothing we can do to make him love us any more than he already does. He loves us because each one of us uniquely reflects who he is.
Do you believe you are precious to him? Do you know you are his beloved?
Ask God to help you experience his love for you in a deeper way. You may need to surrender something you’ve been clinging to for a long time. I had to relinquish many precious fig leaves in order to let God speak to my heart. There was no other way.
Understanding the way shame, fear, and control operated in my life, and asking God to enter into those places, has given me an incredible amount of freedom. Today I pray that you also may experience the freedom that comes from resting in your true identity as God’s beloved.