For more than a year, people nearly everywhere on the face of the earth have been asked, encouraged, instructed, urged, required, or otherwise prompted to wear a mask or face covering in public. Whatever your opinion of the present focus on mask wearing, there seems to be at least one aspect of it upon which most people agree. Mask wearing diminishes our ability to recognize one another, and this should not surprise us. We were wearing masks long before COVID-19 reared its pathogenic head.
Spiritually speaking, we have been attempting to cover our sin ever since the first man and the first woman turned away from the Lord’s Word and listened to the snake (Genesis 3).
Running for cover or scrambling to cover up one’s sin is a recurring theme throughout the Old Testament. Joseph’s brothers bring a torn, blood-stained garment to their father Jacob (Genesis 37). Achan keeps for himself some of the plunder from Jericho, which should have been either destroyed or turned over to the treasury of the Lord’s house (Joshua 7). David commits adultery with Bathsheba and attempts to cover his tracks through the arranged death of her husband (2 Samuel 11). None of these cover-ups were successful.
Jesus, in Matthew 23:27-28, also called out the mask wearers who opposed him, referring to them as hypocrites:
Woe to you, teachers of the law and Pharisees, you hypocrites! You are like whitewashed tombs, which look beautiful on the outside but on the inside are full of the bones of the dead and everything unclean. In the same way, on the outside you appear to people as righteous but on the inside you are full of hypocrisy and wickedness.
Our word “hypocrite” comes from the mask-wearing actors of ancient Greek dramas. The real self of the actor was hidden behind a mask, hence Jesus’ declaration to the Pharisees of the contrast between their outward appearance and what was hidden.
A good actor in a play or movie can portray a character so convincingly that the viewer forgets the actor and only sees the character of the story. Scripture informs me that the masks I wear have no chance of concealing my inner sinner from God. A fellow human might possibly find my mask convincing, but most likely the only one fooled by my mask will be me.
“If we claim to be without sin, we deceive ourselves and the truth is not in us” (1 John 1:8).
There is a cure for the corruption within. Counterintuitive to human reason, the cure is not to cover up the problem, but to confess it to the One who can cleanse me of it.
“If we confess our sins, he is faithful and just and will forgive us our sins and purify us from all unrighteousness” (1 John 1:9).
The beautiful irony is that what I wanted to keep hidden, Jesus has taken away and out of sight, forever.
“As far as the east is from the west, so far has he removed our transgressions from us” (Psalm 103:12).
In the process of taking my sin out of sight, however, Jesus first had to make it his own. Jesus took ownership of my sin when he allowed himself to be nailed to a cross and be regarded as an unmasked sinner for all the world to see. He did the same for you.
“God made him who had no sin to be sin for us, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God” (2 Corinthians 5:21).
Removing the Mask
When our sin affects other people, it is often necessary to confess that sin to them. Confession of sin, however, is first and foremost directed to God. All sin, whether it involves others or not, is sin against God (Psalm 51:4). Even when our sin does not involve others, there are times when it is helpful to confess our sin to another person, a fellow believer who in turn can declare the good news of forgiveness to us.
“Therefore confess your sins to each other and pray for each other so that you may be healed” (James 5:16).
During the Reformation, Martin Luther objected to the way confession had been turned into a burdensome requirement. He was not, however, opposed to confession of one’s sin to another person:
I will allow no man to take private confession away from me, and I would not give it up for all the treasures in the world, since I know what comfort and strength it has given me. No one knows what it can do for him except one who has struggled often and long with the devil. Yea, the devil would have slain me long ago, if the confession had not sustained me… And if anyone is wrestling with his sins and wants to be rid of them and desires a sure word on the matter, let him go and confess to another in secret, and accept what he says to him as if God himself had spoken it through the mouth of this person (Martin Luther, Sermon of 16 March 1522; LW, Vol. 51, 97-98).
“Off with our masks!” Regarding physical mask wearing, disagreement on the conditions warranting such a declaration continues among civil authorities, scientists, and whole societies.
As believers in Jesus, however, we can agree to declare to one another and to ourselves, “Off with your masks!” regarding sin. Because of Jesus, we have nothing to hide.
When we take off our sin masks, when we cancel the efforts to hide our sin, when we confess it to God, we can be assured that Jesus has taken it away, and that we can breathe easy once again.
“My dear children, I write this to you so that you will not sin. But if anybody does sin, we have an advocate with the Father—Jesus Christ, the Righteous One. He is the atoning sacrifice for our sins, and not only for ours but also for the sins of the whole world” (1 John 2:1-2).
Rev. John Juhl is Pastor at Stavanger Lutheran Church in Fergus Falls, Minnesota.