What is it that no one else knows about you?
Maybe there are details about your life that, if disclosed, would result in loss or shame. A decision you wish you had never made. An event you want to forget. Maybe it’s not something you did but rather something done to you … a horrific violation of trust that you want obliterated from your memory. Perhaps you wrestle with tormenting feelings and thoughts that you are convinced no one will understand.
Secrets. We all have them. Human nature seems wired to withhold and tuck away the areas of our lives we deem undesirable. For many of us the best option seems to be keeping secrets out of sight and in check—and hopefully, forever forgotten.
But secrets rarely remain isolated in our hearts. Our frantic attempts to keep them at bay usually lead to an untimely unveiling.
I see it happen all the time.
I love my job. I’m a college and twentysomethings pastor, which means I get to experience a passion for life, love for adventure, and young idealism that makes for wild creativity, big risks, and lots of laughs. In the young people I pastor, I’ve also found a spiritual hunger that is curious, rich, and deep. I regularly find myself challenged by the intensity of their faith. Perhaps my favorite part of pastoring this demographic is that it allows me to walk with people through some of life’s most critical questions, such as Do I believe in God? What am I going to do with my life? Who will I marry?
These young people are still figuring out what it means to be an adult and how to establish the right life patterns for the long term. In the process of doing all that, they also grapple with the past: abuse, divorce (both their parents’ and their own), relationship breakups, roommate conflicts, addictions, and more. It’s a pivotal time in life—a time that can be a breeding ground for keeping secrets.
This realization prompted me to do a sermon series about secrets. As a part of the series, I included an action step: I asked each person to anonymously write down a secret that no one else knew on a 1’ x 1’ postcard. Then I asked them to deposit their secrets into one of the baskets placed throughout the auditorium. I was hesitant, wondering if anyone would take up the challenge. Would people really write down the deepest secrets of their hearts?
When the time came, I watched in awe as the lines formed and the baskets filled up—some overflowing with little white cards. It seemed as if giving permission to share a secret had opened the floodgates. Here are just a few of the thousands of secrets collected that night and from other events, conferences, and retreats around the country:
“I can’t stop hurting myself. I can’t stop cutting.”
“I haven’t read my Bible in over a year.”
“I had an abortion last year … I wonder if I made the right choice.”
“My brother died when I was in the 5th grade. I haven’t told any of my friends that it happened. Keeping it hidden eats me up every day.”
“I think I might be gay. I didn’t choose this and I hate it. I’m afraid of myself.”
“I make fake IDs. Not just any, but some of the best.”
“I hate my dad.”
“I’m dating a good Christian man. We recently started sleeping together. It tears me up inside but I can’t tell him that. I want him to stop it.”
“I am never satisfied with who I am and who God has created me to be.”
“I hate my friend for killing my best friend in a car accident two years ago.”
“I was raped when I was four and the memories of that scare me from intimacy. I fear I will never be able to be close to anyone.”
“I’m in recovery from cocaine and I’ve never told anyone about it.”
“I’m terrified that I will find out I don’t have what it takes to succeed … at anything.”
Sobering, isn’t it?
Why are we willing to live with so much trapped inside? Maybe we feel that we can’t stop. Or perhaps we believe that we’ve tried everything. We’re stuck and resign ourselves to what seems to be our only option: Put it out of sight. Keep it in the dark. Make sure no one else knows. Suddenly we become fugitives on the run from everyone, constantly looking over our shoulders in fear that someone will find us out.
It seems safer. Cover up the unmentionables and no one gets hurt, right?
Whatever our reasons for keeping secrets, the fallout is always greater than we think. Secrets actually have the power to hurt everyone you know and love.
THINGS ARE NOT ALWAYS AS THEY SEEM
I’ve spent the majority of my adult life in two churches.
The pastors of both of these churches were later found to have led double lives. They preached the Bible on Sundays while having sexual trysts throughout the week. They taught on integrity while abusing church funds. They encouraged humility while living selfish lives. They taught about the light but lived in the dark. The shadows were familiar territory to them, and what happened in the shadows created monsters. And their monster secrets led to betrayal, disbelief, and truckloads of pain. Spouses, church members, employees, community leaders, colleagues, and friends—the breadth of those impacted by the carnage was huge. Nothing was left unaffected … and everything changed. And it all started with a secret.
My wife, Jossie, grew up in the “perfect” home. Her dad is a doctor who was highly respected by his colleagues and the community. She has fond memories of going to his office, playing on the hospital beds, and wearing his stethoscope. Her mom is loving and caring, and was the quintessential hostess and adoring wife. Friends and classmates regularly enjoyed her home’s warmth and stable environment. The family vacationed frequently, and there was rarely a difficulty in the house. Jossie had all her needs met and most of her wants. But one day she came home from high school to find her mom sitting red faced and teary eyed across the table from her dad, who looked cold and agitated. Something was terribly wrong. When her dad said, “I am leaving,” her life and family changed forever. A mountain of questions and pain arose in the heart of a girl who had admired and looked up to her dad.
How could the perfect family fall apart? Why did this happen?
The next several months uncovered a life of secrets. Things were not as they had seemed. Secrets destroyed my wife’s most valuable possession: her family. Trust was shattered and would take decades to rebuild.
Rachel was abused as a child. As a result of being violated so young, she decided she would never let anything like that happen again. She would always be in control. Food became the outward manifestation of her inward vow. She binged, then took diet pills, exercised vigilantly, and fasted for days at a time. She was in complete control and, at the same time, dwindling away. Her determination to keep her secret cost Rachel her health.
In the ’90s, former president Bill Clinton was the most powerful man in the world. Despite his status as the leader of the free world, which enabled him to make things happen on a global scale with the touch of a button, he still found that he couldn’t keep his secrets behind closed doors. Though he attempted to pack the details of his secret life back in the closet, it only made things worse. As a result, his legacy is remembered by the words “I did not have sexual relations with that woman.” The secret he tried to keep turned into an international fiasco, costing taxpayers money, his wife her dignity, the office its respect, and a young woman her name. Though power might buy time, it can’t erase the losses caused by a dangerous secret.
David, the shepherd king, had a secret. He’d been hanging out on his roof when his eye fell upon a beautiful woman named Bathsheba, bathing on her roof. He chose not to look away but rather gave himself over to temptation and desire. David invited Bathsheba to his palace, one thing led to another, and she became pregnant. Problem? Without a doubt. First of all, David wasn’t married to Bathsheba, and even worse, Bathsheba was already married to Uriah, one of David’s fighting men and a strong military leader. From what we can tell by reading Scripture, the guy was a superstar.
In an effort to cover his tracks, King David summoned Uriah home from the battlefield, thinking that if Uriah slept with Bathsheba, they could pass the baby off as his. However, Uriah ruined the plan when he refused to stay with his wife. His heart was with his men on the battlefield; if they couldn’t enjoy their wives, than neither would he. Uriah was an honorable man. When David’s plan backfired, he decided to send Uriah to the front lines where his death was inevitable. Uriah lost his life because David had a secret.
Not all secrets result in death, but all secrets can cause loss. Secrets rob us of the time and energy it takes to hide them, the grace and mercy of forgiveness and acceptance, and the growth and freedom that come from working through them. Furthermore, it is a lie to think that we can keep our secrets from spinning out of control and hurting others. As long as they are kept, secrets never shrink, they never go away, and they never lead to life.
Unfortunately stories like these seem to be the norm. The uncovering of secrets rarely shocks us anymore. A CEO steals from the company coffers, a pastor betrays the trust of a congregation, or a politician attempts an illegal activity. Secrets are everywhere.
Take marriage, for example. Marriage is the most intimate relationship experienced by humanity. Yet research reveals that even in that close-knit union, secrets fester.
One survey found that about 40 percent of married Americans admit keeping a secret from their spouses. The most common secret is how much money they spend.
A different study broke it down further and estimated that approximately 42 percent of men and 36 percent of women admit keeping something from their mates. Boomers, big-wage earners, and those married a long time are the most likely to have secrets.
Regarding infidelity, about 12 percent of men and 7 percent of women will have an affair at some point in marriage.
Sadly most of us have heard, been party to, or walked alongside someone who fits into these statistics. A husband hides his pornography addiction, a wife conceals her impulsive spending habits on an unknown credit card, or friends lie to friends.
“I can’t stand myself. I hate my mom because I see myself in her.”
We may think that we are keeping a secret, but the truth is that the secret is actually keeping us. What we thought we controlled, slowly and subtly grows.
It’s hard to imagine a marriage or a close friendship deepening in intimacy if a piece of the person’s heart is walled up, available to no one. Secrets leave parts of us unavailable, and as a result, the emotional fallout is massive. Unhealthy patterns are cultivated, and growth is stunted by the drive to cover up lies. Feelings become shuttered, dreams are denied, and vision is blurred.
Even our best efforts to hide or deny the problem can’t unburden our thoughts. We become emotionally muted, dominated by shame, depression, anxiety, fear, insecurity, and heaviness. In an effort to self-protect, we avoid and eventually lose the friendships and community we need the most.
Eventually the secrets burst out. It’s like stepping on a toothpaste tube with the cap on. The tube responds to the pressure and bursts at its weakest point, creating a big mess in the process.
There is scientific evidence that, over time, even our physical health is compromised by the emotional burden of holding on to a secret. In his book Deadly Emotions: Understand the Mind-Body-Spirit Connection That Can Heal or Destroy You, author Don Colbert shows the symptoms and potentially deadly effects of holding things in. Here are just a few:
- Anger and hostility are linked to hypertension and coronary artery disease.
- Resentment, bitterness, unforgiveness, and self-hatred are connected to autoimmune disorders, rheumatoid arthritis, lupus, and multiple sclerosis.
- Anxiety is tied to irritable-bowel syndrome, panic attacks, mitral-valve prolapse, and heart palpitations.
- Those who live under guilt and shame are more likely to have issues with chronic depression.
Quite a grim picture, isn’t it? However, the greatest toll our secret-keeping takes is on our spiritual lives. Our desire to hide translates into distance from God. After all, who would choose to put themselves in a relationship with a God who knows everything if our highest motivation is to protect a secret?
“I can’t find grace for my dad. He embarrasses me and I’m angry every time he fails.”
Anytime we encounter a spiritual problem, it can be helpful to look at our heritage … as in our biblical heritage. Besides, this whole business began with Adam and Eve and the talking-snake, fruit-eating incident that changed everything. How did they respond? Yep, you guessed it. When they realized that they had messed up and disobeyed God, they tried to keep it a secret. Their shame and sudden awareness of both their physical and spiritual nakedness drove them—literally—into the bushes. It turns out this tendency of ours to run away from God goes all the way back to the beginning.
“I am arrogant and not compassionate. The hate in me eats away at my heart.”
However, the questions may remain in our heads and hearts: So what’s the big deal? If no one else knows, the only person my secret hurts is me, right? Perhaps. But that is reason enough.
God longs for us to walk intimately with Him, to be free to engage life and relationships without the stain of shame, hurt, and regret. And there is also the uncomfortable reality that secrets aren’t stagnant. They grow—and the dark recesses of our hearts provide fertile soil.
The Desert Fathers were a community of monks who lived in the Egyptian desert beginning in the third century. They had a collection of sayings that reinforce the weighty power of things hidden. One of those reads, “The more a person conceals his thoughts, the more they multiply and gain strength. If you hide things, they have great power over you.”
Samuel Johnson, a British author in the 1700s, wisely said, “Where secrecy or mystery begins, vice or roguery is not far off.”
On a recent family vacation to California, my family and I visited the Monterey Bay Aquarium. Since I’m from the landlocked state of Colorado, the trip fascinated me. I saw octopuses and sharks and even some sea creatures I never knew existed! One of the things I found most interesting were the bits of information that we learned on the guided tours, videos, or signs placed near exhibits. My favorite piece of information was about barnacles (and how can you not love saying the word barnacle?).
Barnacles attach themselves to things like whales, ships, and even rocks, living out their lives stuck to the undersides of other objects. Barnacles even make whales slower in the water, inhibiting their ability to swim smoothly.
“I struggle with lust and masturbation.”
Secrets are like barnacles: They attach themselves to us and slow us down as we travel through life. Keeping secrets is not just a matter of speed but of us being fully alive. The more secrets we keep and the longer we keep them, the less alive … the less human we become. Secrets cause us to live at a distance from God and others, and the fullness of who we are—the good, bad, and ugly—cannot fully engage in life.
A secret in its simplest form is merely information. However, it is keeping this information hidden that gives control to the enemy. The enemy of our souls uses secrets to destroy us from the inside out. Secrets of any kind can lead to the physical, emotional, and spiritual consequences all too familiar in our society. Sins of commission or omission, family secrets, secret thoughts, and even feelings can quickly attach to shame, fear, lack of value, and a myriad of other barnacle-like emotions, slowing us down and causing loss.
So now what?
At this point, you may be thinking, Wow. You certainly have painted a bleak picture. I understand that secrets of any kind are bad, but living without secrets sounds impossible. Where would I start? What would it look like to have a life without secrets? How can I quit sabotaging my relationships with God and others? Is it possible?
Yes. I watch it every day in the lives of the people I pastor. We can also see it played out in Scripture. Galatians 5:1 says, “It is for freedom that Christ has set us free. Stand firm, then, and do not let yourselves be burdened again by a yoke of slavery.” Burden, bondage, and fear aren’t God’s way. Freedom is possible and it is God’s idea, not just in eternity but today.
God gave us a way to live where secrets don’t have to grow and then explode when we least expect it. We don’t have to live scared for the next twenty years, wondering if our hidden thoughts, behaviors, and pain will find a way out. Remember Adam and Eve? God came looking for them. And He is looking for you.
So where do we start?
The path to freedom begins with an act: confession.