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  • Writer's picturePaul Coulter

We CAN still connect

Updated: Mar 2, 2022

Anyone fed up with masks? As gospel people we should recognise the dangers of masks of both the physical and the psychological types. We hark back to the innocence of Eden, when all could be uncovered without shame (Genesis 2:25). We long for the restored innocence of the new creation, when everything will be laid bare as it already is in the sight of God (Hebrews 4:13; 2 Peter 3:10). In the middle, we look to the man who revealed the fullness of God to us in bodily form (Colossians 1:19) and who was exposed to all who passed by on the cross for our sins.

It is right that we want to be without masks. In the unhindered gaze on a person’s face or the unhurried listen to a person’s heart we find intimacy and we can become instruments of healing in God’s hands. Think how often the Lord Jesus paused to look someone in the face and how tenderly He engaged with broken people at the level of their hearts’ longings. We who follow Him should long for the same. His way is the path of all ministry worthy of His name.

But there is a problem. Sin has wreaked havoc in our world. The face masks we wear to shield against transmission of a virus are reminders that there is disease and death, and we know these are, ultimately, consequences of sin. The invisible masks we wear to hide our true feelings and thoughts are also reminders of sin’s effects – sometimes our own sins of deceit or hypocrisy; sometimes our fear of the sin of others who may judge us unfairly, take advantage of us, or condemn us rather than lovingly welcoming and helping us. These two kinds of mask are not unrelated either. The choice to wear a face mask may be a rational response to a genuine risk of viral transmission or it could come from unfounded fear, and we can seldom disentangle these two. It is surely right that we long to be able to remove all masks.

The challenge comes in knowing when to remove them and how to relate to others who stay masked when we feel we should remove ours. The instinct of loving others might, I suggest, push us in different directions with psychological masks than with physical ones. If I sense that another person is masking their true emotions from me, I should probably let down my ‘mask’ a little more, making myself vulnerable, to encourage them to trust me. In doing so, I had better be sure that I am trustworthy, and I should be judicious in knowing how much self-disclosure will be helpful for the person I’m seeking to help. I should also be aware that I am risking the possibility that the other person could prove untrustworthy. To open oneself up is to expose oneself to the risk of betrayal and hurt.

When it comes to face coverings, however, the desire to help a mask wearer is more likely to push me in the opposite direction. Rather than removing my mask, I may choose to wear one to help the other person feel safe and to establish a connection. After all, if I insist on being mask-free, I will never connect with those who cannot embrace that freedom (even if all the evidence says they should). On one level, this is little sacrifice. I can still breathe, speak and move as usual. On another, I am giving away a lot. I will be inhibited in my ability to connect with the other person, who will not be able to read my facial expressions as they normally would. The same runs true, of course, for inability to make appropriate physical contact or the need to sit at a greater distance than normal.

This might sound like an argument for removing the mask. But let’s think a little more. If I remove my mask, I won’t make a better connection with the cautious person. Rather, I will put a barrier between us. And the sacrifice works in another direction too. By masking, I am surrendering my freedom and putting myself on a par with them. I am making commitment to work harder at connecting with them. Yes, it will be more difficult to read emotions and all the non-verbal clues of communication that involve the lower half of the face. But I can still read the eyes, listen to the tone of the voice, consider the body language. And the mask may force me to work harder at this, to tune in with greater focus. Perhaps the mask might actually be a path to a deeper connection.

Thinking like this might help us understand how challenging communication can be even when there is not a mask in sight. Think of cross-cultural communication. Some cultures are relatively mask-less – emotions are freely expressed, people dance and gesticulate freely and use a full range of tones and volume settings in their speech. Others are relatively masked – the voice and body are more restrained and it is harder to know whether someone means what they say. Before we assume the former is better than the latter, we may need to re-examine our values. If restraint is for the sake of harmony and to ensure everyone can be heard in turn, is that bad? If freedom means sinful ideas can be expressed and others be treated insensitively, is that good? Only in the new creation in its fullness will it be safe to unmask all the time everywhere because only then will our hearts be pure and our actions governed consistently by love.

Communication between people this side of eternity will always face limitations. Culture is one factor that widens the gap, but others play a part: personality, education, experiences, mood, intellectual and physical ability or disability. The marvel is that we can transcend these to at least some, imperfect degree. That is so because of both creation and new creation. Creation meaning that we have commonalities as human beings that run beneath our differences. New creation meaning that the Spirit transcends the constraints that result from sin, giving us deeper insight, greater patience, readiness to forgive, joy in the frustrations and hope for the perfect communication that will be when He completes His work in us. In short, when it comes to communication, where there is a will, there is a way. With God all things are possible. I have seen this a multitude of times in my experience of cross-cultural ministry and in my cross-cultural marriage. It may be less obvious, but is no less important, in ministry and marriage that does not obviously cross cultures.

I’m not certain where this leaves us as regards requiring or requesting mask wearing when we gather together. I’m not claiming anything I have said provides an easy answer. But I am convinced that we CAN connect with or without masks because God’s grace is sufficient for this challenge too.

If you would like to explore pastoral care in some depth and be equipped to care for others, the Gospel-Shaped Pastoral Care course from Living Leadership (Monday mornings online from 28th February) might be for you.

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