In the Christian world-and-life-view, we cannot make progress in truth unless we understand ourselves and can answer the question, who am I? Yet our understanding of personal identity does not spontaneously emerge from a pure inner subjectivity, even less out of theoretical scientific knowledge; it always begins as a response to somebody who relates to us as a person – first our Creator, then our parents, wider family, and friends.
The existentialist philosopher Jean-Paul Sartre realised that human beings “are a choice and for us, to be is to choose ourselves”.[i] But Sartre also recognized that human consciousness is a rebellious attempt to become God – to be totally original and create de novo. Eventually admitting this was impossible, he despaired saying, “man is a useless passion.”[ii] The Bible teaches that whenever human beings fail to become themselves in relation to Jesus Christ, by trying to ground and construct their identity in substitute gods, frustration and despair is ultimately the result. Scripture identifies the attempt to define ourselves and our lives in this way as sin – a choice to live in untruth.
We hear a great deal in our present culture about ‘authenticity’ and are constantly being told to ‘be yourself,’ to ‘express yourself’ and so on. And in one sense we must be ourselves. Indeed, God calls us to become our unique selves in terms of His purposes. Even though we belong to the human family, we are not summed up by the abstract term humanity as though we are each simply one example of a species like an earthworm or ant. As God says to the prophet Jeremiah:
I chose you before I formed you in the womb;
I set you apart before you were born.
I appointed you a prophet to the nations. (Jer. 1:4-5)
We are uniquely made with a purpose and plan in mind. Scripture says God the Father is the source, “from whom every family in heaven and on earth is named” (Eph. 3:15).We might say that we each have a divine name; God has defined our being. This is the givenness of the self. We were all intended, called forth, wanted, loved, with a specific calling to become and do that for which we were made. Yet the prophet Jeremiah still had to choose to become himself – he did not arrive in the world fully actualized as a prophet.
As creatures, the self (the ‘I’) is therefore partly a given but is not fully actualized. This means we must grow and develop, accountable in the context of God’s order, as we confront possibility and choice. It is here in the realm of both possibility and necessity that we tend to flounder. We may rightly recognize that the self is a task, a calling, and we may will to be a self, but not the true self we are created to be. Instead, we demand to decide for ourselves who we are and who we are to become. But if we lose sight of our creatureliness and the givenness of our personhood, our God-given imagination can become an end in itself and life starts to be lived through a kind of inner fantasy, actually leading us away from true selves – the reality of possibility runs wild and unrestrained.
The tragedy is that all such ephemeral choices become arbitrary because, lacking contact with one’s God-given self, they have no stability and can always come apart and be undone, for a person to try and reinvent themselves all over again. The illusion of absolute freedom makes finally for an empty self and empty life.
The astonishing claim of Jesus Christ is to being the absolute Person – the appearance of the living and eternal God, the Creator and Sustainer of all things, in time – that the Truth about life and the liberating Truth for the lost and tormented self is found in Him as a person:
I am the way, the truth and the life. No one comes to the Father except through Me (John 14:6).
If you continue in My word, you really are my disciples. You will know the truth and the truth will set you free (John 8:31).
In the appearance of the God-man we do not judge the Truth, but the Truth brings our hearts into judgment by gently helping us to see that we have lived up till now in untruth. In short, we are not free in relation to Truth but must be set free, and once released by Jesus Christ, discover to our joy that we are not the ultimate criterion, nor the measure of all things. Ironically, in letting go of the illusion of autonomy, the Truth really is now ‘your truth’ because you belong to the Truth and the Truth belongs to you.
When God reveals Himself in Christ to a person, He offers true rest for the embattled and confused self by bringing to an end the wearisome struggle for true self-identity. The Saviour’s gentle yoke of necessity makes sense of our human possibility. Jesus said:
Come to Me, all of you who are weary and burdened, and I will give you rest. All of you, take up My yoke and learn from Me, because I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your-selves. For My yoke is easy and My burden is light (Matt. 11:28-30)
It is in the Son of God, Son of man, our Creator and brother that we discover who we truly are, and through whom we are finally liberated to be ourselves. In the words of C. S Lewis, “…it will never be lawful simply to ‘be ourselves’ until ‘ourselves have become sons of God….”[iii]
[i] Jean-Paul Sartre, The Wisdom of Jean-Paul Satre (New York: Philosophical Library, 1956), 40.
[ii] Jean-Paul Sartre, Being and Nothingness, trans, Hazel E. Barnes (New York: Washington Square, 1992), 754.
[iii] C.S. Lewis, God in the Dock (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1972), 286.