It is the people we trust the most that can do us the greatest harm. So often the warning signs are there but we just don't see them. I learned the lesson the hard way.
I thought I knew him, but I was wrong. We had spent hours together and had deep conversations about faith, family, personal failures and life in general. I supported him, encouraged him and defended him against criticism. I held him out to the world as a quality man, someone to be listened to and respected. He seemed to be a man of insight, a man whose life was filled with remarkable experiences and amazing stories.
Sadly, the stories he shared did not actually tell the true story of his life. Over time I learned that the stories he chose to tell and the secrets he chose to reveal were not the open and honest disclosures of a great man but instead were part of a false persona, stories designed to lead others to falsely assume goodness and stability that did not actually exist.
As so often is the case it was adversity that revealed his true character. Some bad decisions left him indebted to others, and instead of doing what he could to make amends he just walked away.
While his actions revealed the fraudulent nature of his personal claims, they did not stop him from continuing to make them. In post after post in social media he continues to make assertions of faith and statements of deep family commitments, implying he is a humble man working on the problems in his life. The false persona is continually on display.
In thinking about his story I am reminded that it is more normative than exceptional. We live in a world where people exhaust great amounts of energy creating false, praiseworthy images of themselves, where words and actions coexist in contradiction. We strive to put on a good face for the world, often showing who we hope to be instead of who we are.
Problems such as these are not new. 2000 years ago Jesus attacked this character flaw when he observed it in the religious leaders of His day. He called them "whitewashed tombs", beautiful on the outside but empty and dead on the inside. Like my friend, these religious leaders seemed to get away with it. They built a following of people who believed their lies, people who would defend them against criticism. They mastered spiritual language and used it to support their actions and to quiet any who dared to disagree.
So what do we do with such deception? while it is hard to stop it and difficult to correct, we can limit the negative impact on personal lives.
Here are a few rules I am setting for myself.
1- Avoid superficial praise. People love to look good on blogs and on Facebook. If they are truly worthy of praise they can get it in real life from people who know more of the story.
2- Look to actions over words. Not just momentary acts of goodness, but a track record of consistent goodness over time.
3- Look for lasting relationships. People of Good character do not leave a trail of broken relationships behind them.
4- Watch out for excuses. Quality people own mistakes, work to correct them and seldom play the role of victim.