Hans Christian Andersen tells of the emperor who loved new clothes. This emperor so admired modeling his new robes that he spent all of his time in his dressing room. In fact, he had little concern for anything else in his kingdom.
One day two swindlers came to town announcing they were weavers of the finest clothes imaginable. Their royal colors and fabrics, they claimed, were exceptionally stunning. In fact, they were of such quality that they were only visible to the finest few! Those who were unfit for their office or were hopelessly stupid would not be able to see them at all.
The emperor was immediately taken by this description and provided the weavers with large amounts of money. He wanted to know those who were unfit for their posts; he also wanted to see the foolish and the clever within his empire. Yet when the emperor went to try on the garments, he was most distraught to realize that it was he who saw nothing at all. But the king would not admit his stupidity or incompetence; he would not let anyone think him a fool. He announced that the cloth was very beautiful, and all the courtiers rapidly agreed. In a great procession the next day, everyone spoke in admiration of the emperor’s new clothes. They loved the detail! The colors were beautiful! The garments were like no other, they said. But then from the back of the crowd a child spoke up, observing what the rest would not: The emperor was wearing nothing.
Imagine finding out that the one thing you have desperately attempted to keep veiled in secrecy was not actually veiled at all. The thought bears the unsettling sense of finding yourself unclothed before a crowded room. Would you feel foolish? Would you run and hide? Or would you insist the veil was still there? Andersen ends with a glimpse into the mind of the king: “[The words of the child] made a deep impression upon the emperor, for it seemed to him that they were right. But he thought to himself regardless, ‘Now I must bear up to the end.’” Idols are not easy to own up to; how much more so, when what we idolize is not really there in the first place.
I believe, however, that there might be another response—besides denial or shame—to the startling realization that we stand unveiled before family, friends, or maybe even God. We can find ourselves enveloped in gratitude, clothed by meekness. The masks we were so certain were necessary, the act we put on to appease the crowd, the lies we told to protect ourselves were maybe not quite as necessary as we thought. Could you take off the costume you thought you were wearing if you realized you were only wearing it for yourself?
Perhaps Paul’s instruction to “put off falsehood” is sometimes a call to “put off” what is not even there. The call of Christ is no different. He calls us unto himself and requires that we give him everything, but asks that we come without costume or pretense. We must come as much ready to be honest with ourselves as with him. In the journey of the Christian pilgrim, we walk with Christ toward the cross through crowds of sheep following blindly, and like the disciples on the road to Emmaus our eyes are opened to our own blind and deceived ways. It is as if Jesus himself is a mirror and we are inspecting our new clothes. But he will take from our shoulders our robes of self-importance and false security. He will tear from our grasp our garments of self-pity and shame. Then he will clothe us with garments of salvation and array us in robes of righteousness, and he will show us that we have been made new.
Jill Carattini is managing editor of A Slice of Infinity at Ravi Zacharias International Ministries in Atlanta, Georgia.