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I study publishing, book marketing, and author “branding” to teach myself about the world of writing. Through a marketing newsletter I subscribe to, I came upon this blog post, “Paula Deen Blew It.”  Famous for her rich, Southern-style recipes, Paula is a mega-star cook with a TV show, magazine, cookbooks, and her own line of kitchen products.

Three years ago, she was diagnosed with diabetes. But she kept it private until she recently announced a spokesperson deal with a company that manufactures a diabetes drug. Paula is now, as they say, out of the closet. And the you-know-what has hit the fan.

The vultures are circling over the issue of whether she can survive the PR mess of having kept her diagnosis private for three years while continuing to promote food that many consider unhealthy.

Does a public figure give up all rights to privacy? When you become a “brand,” do you cease to be a person? Must you then be free of errors or mistakes? What if the public feels, rightly or wrongly, that they’ve been duped? These are at the heart of the debate.

When you live in the spotlight, you also live under a microscope. You reside in the court of public opinion. All three are dangerous places to be. In the name of transparency, the public will strip a brand/person of all rights to privacy and compassion. One screw-up and you’re a gonner. And God help you if you suffer a meltdown like Charlie Sheen or Britney Spears.

This is the warning Jesus refers to regarding image. We usually think of graven images made of stone or wood, but they’re also made of sound bytes and photo ops. We all use image to one degree or another—job interviews or first dates, for example. We want people to think well of us, so we put on our best public image for the world to see. Yet we don’t like people who are “two-faced.”

The problem with image is that it can turn and bite you—badly. The more carefully crafted it is, the worse the backfire when things go unexpectedly wrong. I think we should do an about-face and not put ourselves in that position in the first place. One way to help do that is the spiritual discipline of secrecy.

Never heard of it, you say? That’s because we associate secrecy with deception. However, it also counteracts the deception of image.

Jesus taught it in the context of public acts of “righteousness,” but it applies to any act of image promotion, grandstanding, and fanfare. “And when you pray, go into your closet and shut the door. Then your Father, who sees what’s done in secret, will reward you.” Don’t trumpet your charitable giving just to get noticed. And don’t put on drama queen faces when you fast just to show how “pious” you are. (Mat. 6:1-18)

Practicing this is actually fun. First, it creates a secret little “conspiracy” of goodness just between you and God. And nothing builds intimacy and delight like a shared secret. Second, it’s very freeing. The court of public opinion becomes less and less a soul-sucking vortex in the name of transparency.

I started my practice on panhandlers I encountered when I worked in downtown D.C. Because many of them were downright belligerent, I often got mad and offended. I usually gave them a piece of my mind instead of a donation. But I realized that this self-righteous attitude owned me and I didn’t like the fact that belligerent people could control me like that.

So I took control and asked God how I might get free. I had recently learned about the discipline of secrecy; and I got the idea that this would be a good time to try it. I decided to put a dollar in my pocket each day, ready for rapid deployment. (Digging through my purse would only make me feel put out and thereby defeat the purpose.) I certainly wasn’t going to change the world with a measly dollar, but I might change my world.

Whenever a panhandler approached me, I whipped out my dollar cheerfully. I decided it wasn’t up to me to second guess their motives and character; the point was my motive and character. If I forgot to put one in my pocket or had already given it away, I calmly said No; and that was that. No anger. No fanfare. No piece of my mind. Just a giddy little secret between me and God. To my amazement, my attitude and spirits lifted dramatically and immediately!

Practicing this spiritual discipline: Try giving a big tip to a horrible waiter (without explaning why). Or giving a compliment to the jerk who doesn’t deserve one. The point isn’t to reward them, it’s to reward yourself. Or rather, let God reward you when He sees what you did “in secret.” The jerk gets the side benefit. Next thing you know, you’re doing good to “enemies” and loving neighbor as self almost effortlessly.

Jesus knows what he’s talking about. If you wonder why your relationship with God can seem shallow, try secrecy with God. That’s the only time your transparency is safe regardless of screw-ups or accomplishments. And that does wonders for your self-image, regardless what others think. You won’t be nearly as worried about crafting an image.

What are your thoughts? Do you think public figures give up rights to privacy? What about errors in judgment or deception? Can those be forgiven? Should they be forgiven?