Tuesday, 5 July 2016

Lord, you search me out: imposter, hypocrite or true?

First preached as a sermon at Evensong on the Feast of St Thomas the Apostle (Psalm 139; Job 42.1-6; 1 Peter 1.3-12)

Psalm 139 is a remarkable account of the conviction that God knows us intimately: when we sit down; when we rise up; God even knows our thoughts even before we think them: ‘O Lord, thou hast searched me out and known me: thou knowest my down sitting and up-rising, thou understandest my thoughts long before’ (Psalm 139.1).

It goes further, God knows us from cradle to grave, and, indeed, before birth and after death. It is a psalm of great grace and beauty, and describes the way in which the ultimately unknowable God knows us intimately.

For some people this is a slightly frightening thought, sometimes with good reason, other times not. Either way, it is a pointer that God is with us, which we know manifested in Jesus Christ.

That psalm is a call for us to know ourselves even as God knows us, honestly and without overblowing ourselves, or, as significantly, downplaying ourselves. It calls for honesty about ourselves, and is something St Thomas had to face within himself and in his relationship with Jesus Christ, the Crucified and Risen Lord.

So on this feast of St Thomas the Apostle, it is worth considering the nature of how we know ourselves, know Christ, and know the majesty of God, to whom Christ leads us in the power of the Holy Spirit. All of which will help us understand how we encounter, acknowledge and make known the Crucified and Risen Lord.

First there is a note of caution. And psalm 139 is the antidote to it.

I recently came across the phrase ‘imposter syndrome’. The features of imposter syndrome are self-doubt, a sense that at any minute one might be exposed as the fraud one thinks one really is.

Boy, it rang a bell with me! It seems to account for how I often feel about myself: feeling phony and not up to what I profess. It afflicts me sometimes as a Christian disciple: I believe this in my heart, but aren’t I an imposter if I can’t live up to my Christian calling? It can strike me at any time, not least when I am in a pulpit, or at the altar. It can strike me as a parent and husband, when things all seem too grown up for me.

‘Imposter syndrome’ isn’t simply something that affects clergy, but is a general discipleship issue too. It’s what hinders our ability to name and recognise the action of God’s grace in our lives. It makes us ask: ‘how well do I know myself?’; How well do I know God?; ‘how well does God know me?’

The confusion often comes when we mistake the ineffability of God with the limits of our own understanding. In other words, we feel like imposters because we do not and cannot fully understand God.

St Thomas was a fellow sufferer.  Thomas effectively says to his fellow disciples about recognising Jesus as Crucified and Risen, that he is an imposter who cannot speak about these things. Using Job’s word, ‘I have uttered what I did not understand, things too wonderful for me, which I did not know…I had heard of you by the hearing of the ear, but now my eye sees you; therefore I despise myself, and repent in dust and ashes’ (Job 42.3b,5,6).

Thomas, as a self-perceived imposter, has a problem with saying what he does not understand, or seeing what he cannot comprehend. The person afflicted with imposter syndrome feels like he or she is teetering on the brink of hypocrisy. Am I an imposter or a hypocrite? These questions haunt believers and we end up despising ourselves.

But this question and way of thinking comes from what St Ignatius of Loyola calls ‘the enemy of our human nature’, in other words Satan, which literally means in Hebrew ‘the adversary’. The adversary is very happy to make propositions that are not true of ourselves but sow seeds of doubt, because they sound so very plausible.

Imposter syndrome, or the charge of hypocrisy, is a seductive voice and plays to our deepest fears around our faith. And too many heed that voice.

There is a way out of this. The first letter of Peter reminds emphatically that faith in the Crucified and Risen Lord is not about understanding everything with our heads or about our own logic; it is not even about what we think we see with our eyes; our where we place our hands.

The mystery of faith is not about bafflement but a place in which to immerse ourselves; it is the hope into which we are born through baptism; these are gifts given to us which make even the angels envious, as they want to peer into these mysteries too.

Thomas famously said that he could not believe in the resurrection of Jesus Christ until he had seen and touched. It was as if he felt himself to be an imposter in the fellowship of faith; he could not trust himself to accept the mystery of faith.
St Paul also names imposter syndrome, ‘We are treated as imposters, and yet are true’ (2 Corinthians 6.8b, 10). Paul lists the siren voice of our adversary - trying to capitalise on our imposter syndrome - who said to Thomas, and says to you and me, you and me as Christians: you’re unknown, you’re dying, you’re being punished, you’re miserable; you’re poor; you’ve nothing: you’re imposters in your claim to follow Jesus Christ.

Paul’s rebuttal locates us back where we are to be, men, women and children who are known by God and searched out by him:  “We are treated as impostors, and yet are true; as unknown, and yet are well known; as dying, and see—we are alive; as punished, and yet not killed; as sorrowful, yet always rejoicing; as poor, yet making many rich; as having nothing, and yet possessing everything” (2 Corinthians 6.8b-10).

This takes us back to Psalm 139, which St Paul alludes to in his first letter to the Corinthians, ‘for now we see in a mirror, dimly, but then we will see face to face. Now I know only in part; then I will know fully, even as I have been fully known’ (1 Corinthians 13.12).

You are not an imposter; you are true. God knows you inside out, and as you grow into the stature that brings you will know fully the reality and meaning of that status: that you are a beloved child of God by adoption and grace.

© Andrew Bishop, 2016