There’s a lot of mystery and often a lot of confusion when we start to speak about one's “True Self.” Depending upon your religious background, this can be relatively normal, completely bizarre and for some quite dubious. However, in the sense of healthy Christian faith, the pursuit of the authentic self is simply discovering and sometimes scraping the cultural graffiti off of who you were created to be in the first place.
The first thing we need to get out of the way is that from a healthy Christian perspective, discovering your true self is not separate from or at the expense of your relationship with God. Thomas Merton, a 20th-century Trappist monk, reminds us that we discover ourselves, who we really are by finding God. It is essential to remember that who we truly are in the best possible sense is inextricably rooted in the Creator. The true beauty of who we were created to be, our gifts, talents, our best possible self is never discovered outside of this relationship with the divine because it is the source of who we are.
That being said, contrary to some narrow Christian thought, God does not discourage us from discovering and being that person. God, by calling us deeper into himself becomes the best way to realizing our true self. When we talk about finding the true self, we are talking about that which is our core. It describes that foundational centre that is pure, authentic, life-giving and lovely. It is important that we don't see this as a separate part, distinctive from the whole, rather that our true self is inextricably a part of an integrating whole. We discover this by allowing ourselves to be loved by God. The source of perfect love has the transformational effect like sunshine on Spring Flowers. The sun's warmth awakens the seed, and it bursts forth from its slumber and blooms with all the created beauty intended.
This journey of discovery is more like being open to God or as the mystics describe it as waking up from sleeping. It is indeed as much a search for God as it is allowing ourselves to be found by God and in the light of this perfect love releases us to be who we really are!
So if there is a true self, there must be a false self. In a few words, the false self is our idea of who we are and this image is formed by our families, friends, and culture. They are forged around cultural ideas of success, sex appeal, wealth, our occupation, the things we own, the things we wear and the amount of influence we wield. These kinds of external thing form the false self, and they are external identities that we put on like a coat - whether it fits well or not. Often when living out of our false identity we feel awkward, we are chronically stressed and lonely. Sometimes it seems like we are always striving to look good, to pretend that we are indeed worthy of the coat and not some imposter. It produces tyrannical slavery and detachment from real life all the while screaming its false promises of the good life.
Discovering one's true self in God is the shedding of the ill-fitting garments. It is moving away from these identities that don’t bring real life. As we learn to experience and accept the love of God we find our place in the world. We begin to realize that our belonging is not based on our ability to live up to the expectations of an often fickle culture or even our well-meaning families. As we move closer to God, as divine love draws us, we learn that we can shed our selfishness, our self-centeredness, fear of being rejected and realize we no longer have to pretend. We can begin to cast off the baggage that has obscured who we truly are, and as this begins to fall away, it reveals more and more of the good creation we were created to be. The life we seek, the life that really satisfies, is found in God in us, not outside of us. Jesus taught that the issues of life flow from inside us (our heart) not what eat or drink.
So how do you know if you are discovering one's true self in Christ?
The litmus test is always deep love. (It may be helpful to reflect on 1 Corinthians 13)
- Am I becoming more generous relationally and otherwise?
- Are my motives becoming less inspired by selfishness?
- Am I becoming less concerned with how others see me?
- Ask yourself Is my life progression towards the things that are bigger (transcendent) than I am?
- Are they leading me closer to God, to others in a genuine way?
- Am I discovering deeper life peace and meaning?
Consider the beliefs that keep you hiding from God and others. Consider what things keep you running away from God. Is it:
- Fear that God will reject you?
- Fear that God will punish you?
- Fear that God may be angry at you?
- Fear that God can’t be trusted?
Ask God about these things. Remember that Jesus, the fullness of God in human flesh demonstrated just the opposite. Jesus came to heal our relationship with the Father. When Jesus judges, it is with mercy, forgiveness, and healing. For many, the prospect of discovering and beginning to live more authentically is genuinely scary. The fear of being rejected, being seen as a loser because we no longer have an interest in playing the game can be paralyzing. For many of us, this fear keeps us hiding and pretending to be something we are not. The consequences of continuing to live a lie, to craft and fortify our false self will leave us frustrated, anxious and consume our lives with a profound sense of futility.
Many of us already sense that things within us are amuck. It’s time to exchange the ill-fitting coat of false self for the freedom of authenticity and with it a greater sense of peace, meaning, relationships and love. Regardless of where you are on your journey, consider being a little more open to being found by God and step stumble and fall into His perfect love for you.
“The punishment imposed on us for claiming true self can never be worse than the punishment we impose on ourselves by failing to make that claim.” - Parker Palmer