As I’ve read and studied over the past few years, I am struck with two opposing messages that infiltrate our current cultural landscape.
In the first message, you are taught to deny yourself in a way that I do not believe is of God. You are taught that you should bury your feelings, shrink, self-flagellate, or self-sabotage. This message might be summed up in the following ways:
- Deny yourself.
- Shrink yourself to fit our expectations.
- Focus only on other people.
In the second message, you are taught that self is the ultimate “god.” You are taught to speak your truth no matter the cost, that what you feel is synonymous with what is true, and that you are your own higher power. This message might be summed up in the following ways:
- Free yourself.
- ‘You Do You’ regardless of impact.
- Focus only on your own voice.
Neither message gets it right.
Neither message reflects the way of Jesus, who stayed true to his God given identity, even as he stayed closely connected to God and to the work of lifting up other people.
You + God
Early on, when I first started following Jesus, I heard the “deny yourself” messages loudly, and tried to apply them quite literally. In fact, when I look back at this younger version of me, it can be painful at times. It’s sort of like watching a movie where the heroine is on the verge of complete self-sabotage.
I loved God with all of my heart. But some part of me had picked up the idea that “I” should not matter. If “I” loved something—that was “self”. And, “self” was bad. We’re supposed to die to “self.” Somehow following God meant that I must completely obliterate any sense of “I” all together.
I know it sounds extreme, but honestly, I see a lot of people operate in this way—hiding God-given aspects of who they are in the name of their faith.
- “My identity is in Christ,” can mask, “I don’t know who I am.”
- “I only want to serve” can mask, “I’m afraid I might fail, so I’ll hold myself back.”
- “I have Jesus—I don’t need other people,” can mask, “I don’t know how to let others in.”
We can hide behind this “deny yourself” message, in a way that isn’t God-honoring, in a way that is far from what Jesus meant.
At the same time, we can swing too far to the other extreme, where we start to put ourselves on the throne.
In my own work of healing, I had to find a different way—a way that honored the fact that “I” was a key part of the relationship equation. I wasn’t the only—or the ultimate—part. But, my part mattered.
I had sought to know God with all my heart, but I had no clue who I was. Over time, this didn’t work. I became so spiritually minded, that I was neglecting my body, my heart, and even my soul. This isn’t what God wanted. And, it wasn’t healthy for my relationships.
And, so I had to shift my focus. I had to figure out who I was, so that I could bring myself into my relationship with God. . . and into my relationships with other people. I had to focus on getting to know myself in order to heal.
This focus wasn’t the “end game.” But, it was critical.
I have come to believe that discovering who you are is holy, sacred work that matters not just for the health of your soul, but for the health of all of your relationships, including your relationship with God. This is the work I have committed my life to—the work of helping you go deeper into becoming your truest self in God.
I’m not going to tell you to place yourself on the throne. That is a road to nowhere.
But, nor will I tell you to ignore the work of digging deep into yourself as a key part of loving others and loving God.
Seeing Yourself as God Does
Imagine if you could see yourself exactly as you are. And, I don’t mean your physical self, I mean your inner self: the “I” inside of you.
Imagine if God held a mirror up, and said, “This is the best of who you are.”
In that mirror, God would show you the wonders of your sensitivity, your kindness, your honesty, or the way you use your mind. He might show you how gifted your are at using your body, making things, or holding space for other people’s pain. He might highlight situations in which you displayed a tenacious persistence. Or, a moment when your smile pierced someone else’s depression. You might see yourself walking bravely into sixth grade, feeling like you were a nobody. But, in God’s mirror, you see a valiant soul, a treasure.
And, maybe in that mirror, as your trust builds with God, he also starts to show you a few things that are hard. Maybe in that mirror, God reflects to you a moment when you lied, or shoved someone else aside. It hurts a bit to see it. But, you don’t feel shame, oddly. Instead, you feel sorrow. It’s not the person you want to be.
Maybe you see a moment when you chose a path you wish you hadn’t. Maybe you let bitterness get the best of you or you took your own sorrow out on someone else. It’s painful to see that story, but somehow God’s mirror—while honest—does not include shame. It’s simply a mirror God holds up because he wants to point you to be a better way. He wants to point you to becoming the best version of yourself.
Can you imagine?
You see, I think this is exactly what God is trying to do with us. I don’t think God is blowing feel-good platitudes our way. Nor, do I think God is trying to shrink us down or squash our sense of self.
I think God sees us.
I think at the core of who we are, being seen in this way is exactly what we long for. And, I think our most important job on this earth—is to learn how to see ourselves as God does.
As we do this work, we come into our true self in God. But, it doesn’t end there.
As you see yourself more clearly, you start to see other people more clearly, too. When you’ve faced yourself honestly—with compassion, it’s much easier to understand what other people are going through. You get less “hooked” by their inconsistencies, the ways they are still stuck in painful patterns. Instead, you simply start to notice and you adjust your own responses accordingly. You start to show up with other people in the same way Jesus has shown up for you—with honesty, intention, and compassion. You are anchored in your own integrity, which equips you to show up far more effectively with them.
“How can you draw close to God when you are far from your own self?” —St. Augustine, Confessions
“Almost all problems in the spiritual life stem from a lack of self-knowledge.” —St. Teresa of Avila
“Our wisdom. . . consists almost entirely of two parts: the knowledge of God and of ourselves. But as these are connected together by many ties, it is not easy to determine which of the two precedes and gives birth to the other.” —John Calvin, Institutes