When the mask is removed

I couldn’t bear to look at my wife’s face. She was sitting on the couch adjacent from me with tears falling from her eyes into a puddle in the palm of her hands.This was the moment I’d feared for who knows how long. I was sharing the darkest parts of myself to the woman I’d been married to for five years. I somehow thought I was doing her a favor all this time by sparing her the pain of my hidden life, but actually I was only adding black powder to the bomb that was imminently going to blow up. The world we knew was about to be forever changed. The exposure of disastrous lies made me think this was about to be the death of me. And in so many ways it was. It was the death of dreams I had, the death of certain friendships, the death of an image I tried tireless to uphold, and not least the death of a lifestyle.

I always thought it was my appearance that mattered. Now it’s my shattered appearance that draws me to Jesus. As I write, so many emotions are overwhelming my heart. It’s weird because I never was that guy that wore his emotions on his sleeve. I was too tough for that. I was a real man, ya know? It all changed when reality really, I mean really, dawned on me that I was a completely broken, needy person, that was behind the bars of sin. It was humiliation of a shattered appearance that brought me to my knees. In May of 2012, the walls I’d built up, the fortress I’d created, the masks I wore, it all fell. As I sat in front of my wife confessing, I thought for sure our marriage was over. Behind the mask was a man who spent ten years relying on pornography to meet his deepest need. A constant let down. A man that had been married for five years and had multiple affairs. A man that visited strip clubs. A lying, manipulative, secretive, self-seeking man that thought he had it all together. A man that went to church and professed Christ outwardly, but inwardly was a prisoner to sexual sin. A man whose identity was wrapped up in playing basketball at the University of Kentucky.84158576 My appearance was in tact, but inside I was a mess.

I quickly learned growing up that people liked me more when I was successful in sports. They talked to me more, smiled at me, patted me on the back and told me I was really going to be something someday. I mattered most when I was the best and everyone was talking about it. Not narcissistic at all right? I mattered when my performance was above the standard. I desired deeply to matter and I knew how to achieve it.

I didn’t know it then but I was structuring my life to have significance based on what others thought of me. So I learned to manipulate and manage my persona to appear worthy of one’s praise. I was faking an image so I could be valuable to another. Living behind this mask I learned to impress, but no one ever told me that impressing is not the same as connecting. Yet connecting is what I yearned for. I wanted to be important and affirmed because of me, not simply for what I could do. Impressing others kept others at arm’s length, sometimes miles away. Connecting meant being known by another individual.

As I continued to grow up, I feared being known because I felt the real me was sick, weak, perverted and worthless. On the inside I believed the most shameful parts of my life would define me if they were ever exposed. On the outside I played an Oscar-winning role as the confident hero. I saw porn for the first time at age 12 at a friend’s house. I knew something was horribly wrong with it and it weighed heavily on my conscience. But there was something about this fantasy world that drew me in. I understood correct church morals: no cussing, no drinking, and always be polite and respectful. The best part for an image-conscious person like me was that secret porn allowed me to protect a public image. While some of my friends had no shame about porn, I acted like I was above it. Sin was more a sin to me when done or said around others.

By high school I really began enjoying the attention of girls. A smile, a flirtatious comment, a hug or a touch spoke volumes to me. Female attention made me feel awesome, manly and courageous. So along with sports I added “girls” to the affirmation list. In the fall of 2002 Bryana Malone and I developed a friendship that we knew was something more. She wore my football jersey every Friday night. I loved her free spirit, her love for Jesus and her strong convictions. I genuinely thought I could respect her boundaries (and wanted to at first) but I was still addicted to porn. Not only that, I had already experimented sexually with other girls. It was difficult enough being a 16-year-old boy with a beautiful girlfriend, but because I never let anyone in on my struggles my chances of success were basically zero.

I lived with constant anticipation of my next sexual experience with Bryana. Our sexual sin always delivered on its promise of pleasure, even if only for a brief second. Eventually our desire overtook our will power and we were crossing boundaries we never thought we would. Bryana always suggested we talk to someone, get help or be held accountable. But my pride wouldn’t let me. We would do better next time, I always reasoned. I thought I could push through this (just like I had in sports). I became more and more deceived by how helpless I truly was. I would talk to God about this but I was certain He was just fed up with me. Though my athletic accomplishments made me appear successful on the outside, on the inside I was crumbling because I kept failing to please God by the standards I presupposed Him to judge me by. This pattern continued on into college and then marriage.

Living 2,500 miles away from Bryana during my first year in college, I took advantage of this independence and took up a life of sleeping around and partying. People must have been perplexed by the extreme hypocrisy in my life. I hid it all from Bryana. We got married the summer of 2007. I thought the struggles I had (I use the word struggle loosely. I felt guilty but struggle would mean there was two opposing forces. I just gave in to my sin constantly) would go away because of marriage. Seriously, I really thought that. I was sure the freedom of being able to have sex whenever and not feel convicted would cure my problems. And it did for a while. Then reality set in and my old life slowly crept back. I began to find ways to hide parts of my life. It worked­–until I got caught. All my flaws and weaknesses were exposed. On one hand I felt relief, but on the other hand vulnerabilities pain just about overtook me.

I always thought a weakness meant being a failure and failing was not an option. I knew I could “out grit” anyone or anything and accomplish the task in front of me. I saw toughness as godly and flaws as weakness. So I bolstered my strengths and hid my weaknesses. I thought God was looking down on me, ready to call me a wimp or be angry if I backed down from a fight or didn’t push through a challenge. So I never did.

Now I shout my weaknesses to the world. There’s a story in Luke 8 about a woman with a hemorrhage. For 12 years this uncontrollable flow of blood plagued her. One day, in what seems to be a last-ditch effort, she reaches out to Jesus. In the Message Version, Luke tells it like this: “When the woman realized that she couldn’t remain hidden, she knelt trembling before Him. In front of all the people, she blurted out her story–why she touched Him and how at that same moment she was healed (8:47-48).” It’s crazy how much I relate to this story. When I used to read the Bible I wanted to relate to David slaying Goliath or Peter walking on water. But the lady with the hemorrhage? Really? Oh well…brandon20bradley20-20broken_dreams[1]In May of 2012, when I realized I couldn’t remain hidden anymore, I knelt trembling before my Lord. For the last four years, I choose to blurt out my story. Not because it feels good. Oh, absolutely not. It sucks really. It’s painful. But the magnification of my ugliness leaves an immense amount of room for the magnification of God’s glory. I get to share the healing power of our Lord. It’s not that He made me perfect. No, I am far from that. It’s that He has shown me I am perfectly complete in Him. And the best part about the end of Luke 8, Jesus replies with “you took a risk in trusting Me, and now you’re healed and WHOLE.” I always thought that I had to come to God “put together” for Him to be proud of me. Now I know it’s the broken Michael He desires. “The sacrifices of God are a broken spirit; a broken and contrite heart, O God, you will not despise” (Psalm 51:17).

Psalm 69:33 says “For The Lord hears the needy and does not despise His own people who are prisoners.” While I literally did spend time in prison because of my sins, I believe this is talking about those incarcerated to their sins. When I finally cried out to God, when I told Him that He could do whatever it took and I didn’t care what it would cost me, He was faithful to rescue, to bail me out. When I finally valued the presence of Christ in the darkest room of my heart over what people would think of me, over future pursuits, over appearing like a godly man, the chains of sin lost their power.

I always thought it was best to keep my struggles to myself, ya know, between me and God. Now I think that the prayers of a righteous person have incredible power and my struggles need to be confessed to those individuals. Only when I am courageous enough to allow others to dive into the depths of my darkness, am I able to experience the freedom of the light. The ironic thing about our life is that generally we think for our light to shine bright we need to make sure everything in our life looks good and spiritual and healthy. If it’s all in place people will be like, “wow, look at him!” And I’m like “yeah, look at me.” But if people were to see the broken things in me and see God work gloriously in and through them, people will be like “wow, look at God!” And I will be like “yeah, look at Him.” But too often I want people to look at me. But I can’t make much of God and me at the same time. “He must increase, but I must decrease” (John 3:30).

Through the pain and near-intolerable consequences Bryana suffered for my sin she showed me grace. This grace and patience she extended to me could have only come through her intimate knowing of Jesus. She spent many days having to play the role of a single mother. She should have left. She had every right. But I am so thankful for her decision to seek the Lord’s guidance in calling her to stay with this broken man.IMG_0517

Now, four years removed, I am thankful my life fell apart. I’m not proud that I hurt so many people in the process, but the work God does in the broken places has proven Him faithful. It was His gentle discipline in my life that gave me the assurance I was one of His own. I still have to be on guard for my blindness. It is still a struggle to live a lifestyle of vulnerability. This vulnerability requires total dependency on Christ and the distractions of daily life often pull my focus away from that dependency. I rely on Jesus more and more for my purity, but I also remind myself constantly to be connected and frighteningly open with a small band of brothers.

I still care too much about what I look like, sound like and perform like. But I am free now to allow others into my weaknesses. My marriage is healthier than it has ever been, yet we still have much to work through. I still crave affirmation, significance and worth, but I am learning to find that first in my Father God. All my life I’ve seen God through a veil of shame, standing on the other side of my big pile of sin. Now I know He is forever by my side loving me even in my failure. He wants all of me, not just the parts I deem worthy.