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  • Writer's pictureBrittney Switala

Becoming Real

Are we happy plastic people Under shiny plastic steeples With walls around our weakness And smiles to hide our pain But if the invitation's open To every heart that has been broken Maybe then we close the curtain On our stained glass masquerade

From the song “Stained Glass Masquerade” by Casting Crowns

I’ll never forget that fatefully night in 3rd grade when I discovered the truth. It was late fall and the chill in the air seemed to make its way through my bedroom window and into my heart. I grabbed one Kleenex after another, stifling my sobs as I tried to make sense of it all. Santa Claus wasn’t real.

Earlier that day a friend told me a convincing story that rocked all that I believed to be true. I had heard the naysayers before, but never listened. I knew there were some fake Santas at the mall. Santa was busy at his workshop and couldn’t make it to all of his engagements. But the one that comes on Christmas morning, now he was the real deal. I came home from school and asked my mom about Santa. It was then that the house of cards fell.

*The letter Santa wrote back to me.

*That elaborate arrangement my parents had once made to keep me out of the house (including a trip to see Santa at the library) while mom finished putting the presents under the tree

Both Fakes.

Then of course there was the time my dad called the Tooth Fairy (Yes, the Toothfairy!) to explain a situation of a tooth I’d misplaced and couldn’t put under my pillow. I stood there watching him hold the black phone with the long coiled cord and believed he’d convinced the Tooth Fairy to make an exception for me.

One after another I pondered the lies in my mind with anger and distrust. No Santa, so that means no Tooth Fairy and no Easter Bunny. What else shouldn’t I believe in?

After holding me and attempting to comfort me my mom finally told me that it would help me to think about something else. So I moped down the stairs and joined them watched “Who’s the Boss?” Mom was right, I laughed and ate popcorn. But I couldn’t shake the question, “So, is Jesus for real?”

My parents assured me that there were no more cover-ups. We went to church, read Bible stories and prayed because our faith was something that we valued. I had prayed the “Sinner’s Prayer” as a five-year-old and desired to please Jesus with my life. I learned through my parents and my church what behaviors were most frowned upon- cussing, divorce, and disrespecting your parents. The older I got, the longer I realized the list was. I tried as hard as I could to be good enough, to answer the questions correctly in Sunday school. I kept my grades up and I spoke openly against abortion, pre-marital sex and underage drinking during high school.

It wasn’t until I was in my early 30s I discovered the shocking truth about Christians- we sin. Just as the truth that Santa was a fake should have been obvious to me as a nine-year-old, the “perfect” Christian façade had all but escaped me. The PTL scandal, people who left our church because of divorce, a respected pastor who left the ministry because of alcoholism… I was convinced they were all exceptions to the rule. I had gone to church my whole life and knew how a Christian was supposed to live. In my mind, if they had all just tried harder they wouldn’t have fallen into sin.

I honestly had never known that sin was an option for me. We had good conversations at the dinner table as a family and talked about people who fell into affairs or got into drugs. We’d get upset about the country’s moral decline and feel sorry for the broken families. We’d read the Bible story of Joseph and praise him for fleeing a woman who wanted to take advantage of him. Overall I had a sense that if you were a Christian, an active follower of Jesus, then you would always overcome visible sin. In my own mind I was keeping all the rules of a good Christian life, without a whole lot of prayer or time in the Bible. So what was wrong with these pastors and evangelists who did spend all that time studying?!

My world came crashing down as I learned someone close to me was being sexually abused and at about the same time my husband shared he was struggling with ongoing pornography use. My worldview was whirling in a strangely similar way to when I was nine-years old. I yelled, out loud and in my journal, “I have been good, God, I have done all these things for You and I deserve better! You didn’t keep your end of the bargain! I don’t think it’s a stretch to say that there were times when I hated God. He had disappointed me and there was no simple “cause and effect” to explain my family’s upheaval.

I saw things as very black and white, a worldview parents have ingrained in their children for generations. Do something good, get a reward. Do something bad and get punished. There was also no room in my heart for Christians to blatantly do something bad (sin), and for me to respond with compassion. That’s a tension I still feel.

Enter “Sinners Anonymous.” Hi, my name is Brittney. Among other things I struggle with bitterness, anxiety, pride, prayerlessness, and a fear that I’ll never be or look good enough. I don’t have an illness, an addiction, mistakes or hang-ups: I have sins, real and raw. There’s tension there in checking my heart for they “why” behind my doing good. I’m more and more convinced that we should help other Christians through their issues because we’ve been there, not because we are better. My husband became a mentor for men struggling with sexual sins while I worked with their wives. It was not uncommon for mentors to work with between 10-30 people at a time because the need was so great, among everyday church people.

I am so glad that I now understand Christians are real people, but I never learned that from going to church or growing up in a Christian home. It happened when I came to grips with my self-righteous “goodness” being as ugly a sin to God as mass murder. That is not a concept that often comes out in our black and white discipline at home. It is easy to assume that our well behaved children have a good understanding of God, when in fact our good kids may just be striving for positive attention.

“I can do everything through Him who gives me strength.” Philippians 4:13. Becoming a Christian is not a silver bullet that means you won’t sin again. Christians do sin; often, horrifically, blatantly, and at times, unintentionally. They commit the same sins as non-Christians, but they have the power through Christ alone to choose not to sin. Freedom from habitual sin is possible through Jesus, but perfection is not happening on this side of eternity.

Santa brings the world toys in one night. Christians are “mostly” sinless. One by one I find myself chipping through the lies I’ve believed and I’m beginning to discover what it means to be real.


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