A Compartmentalized Life: Keeping God in His Place

We’ve all heard the stories. A man well-respected in his community, prosperous in his career, one upon whom the obituary-writers would heap praise, is the man around whom his wife walks on eggshells for fear he’ll lose it and beat the crap out of her again. An elderly gentleman who married and raised four children, is blessed with several grandchildren, pays his taxes, mows his lawn, and votes in every election, is also a former war criminal responsible for the slaughter of hundreds if not thousands of innocent civilians half a century earlier. Serial killers who drive school buses. Pastors who visit prostitutes. The list goes on and on. These are people who lead ordinary, if not outwardly exemplary lives, but harbor a secret that completely contradicts the persona they present to all but a few. How do they do it? I suspect at least part of the answer is that they have successfully compartmentalized their lives. Now he’s a renowned doctor, now he’s a compassionate friend, now he’s a tithe-paying deacon…and now he’s a wife-beating maniac. They are a disunited person, fractured by falsehood, who are only their true self when they act with utter disregard for everything but their own destructive ego. What is most shocking about such people is not their duplicity or hypocrisy, but that we are shocked by their existence. As this or that story of sin surfaces, I can hear some exclaiming, “Why, I just can’t believe he did that!” and “Who’d have ever thought she was capable of that?” Call me callous, but I am so habituated to evil things done by evil people in an evil world that sin hardly ever shocks me, no matter who the perpetrator might be, or how grotesque his offense. More importantly, I know myself. I don’t need to watch a blood-soaked story on CNN or visit someone of death row to familiarize myself with the beast of depravity crouched within the human heart. I just need to look in the mirror, to stare deeply into the eyes that are a window to a soul that has journeyed down dark paths whose only illumination comes from the fires of hell. Those who are most shocked by the sins of others are usually those most ignorant of who they themselves are, and of the devolutions of which they too are capable when their lives are fractured by falsehood.

For the compartmentalizing of lives is not something only “really bad people” do. It’s a coping mechanism we all practice, to greater or lesser extents, for it rescues us from that most fearful of all lifestyles: the totally honest one. We have a closetful of masks to put on, depending upon who the person is with whom we are interacting. These masks match the “compartment” in which we find ourselves, the person we want to be at that particular moment in time. The greatest irony is that he who knows all, who permeates everything, whose eyes pierce through every lie, is the one we attempt to fool the most. For above all, God is the one whom we endeavor to keep out of most of the compartments of our lives. We open the door to him perhaps on Sunday morning, or when we offer up a prayer, or are chatting with our pastor, but when it comes to my work and sexual life and finances and most other aspects of my existence, God needs to know his place and not attempt to scale the walls into those compartments labeled “No Trespassing.” Those belong to me, to be the man I choose to be, to make within them the choices that make me happy.

The result of keeping God out of all but a fraction of my life is not that I somehow thereby achieve happiness. Rather, I perpetuate a life that is a lie, and one that leads only to lasting gloom. For until I, who am not only a creature but a child of God, tear down the walls that divide my life, and let the Lord into them all, to shape me into one who bears and beams his divine image to the world, I will not be fully a man. Joy is found when God is found in all of who I am, when my will is harmony with his own, and every lying mask is burned in the fires of repentance.

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