–some thoughts on ‘self’ for children of the King—
In an era shaped by much ado about self, the Christian ideal of ‘death to self’ sounds harshly inappropriate if not wrong! What could it mean? Are we not made in the image of God, creatures with great creative potential, dearly loved and desired? Of course we know there was ‘the Fall’ marring that Grand Design but then there was also the Cross whereby a way of redemption was bought and now all those who have been ‘united with Christ in His death’ (Rom.6:5,6) are said to be new creations, alive to God, and empowered by His Spirit to walk in the good deeds prepared for them in the foreknowledge of the Creator… So what to think of ‘self’? If my destiny is to be Christlike, do I still get to be ‘me’? Is ‘self’ something to shun or to celebrate?
On the one hand there are many things that could be affirmed to be true of me as a new creation in Christ. There are lists of such affirmations, mostly beginning with “I am…” I am accepted. I am secure. I am significant. I am free. And under each of these is an array of Scriptures to prove their validity. (This has been done in a lovely Calligraphic form here.)
But as a friend pointed out, shouldn’t we be a little wary of the emphasis? Is it so important who I am? Shouldn’t my focus be on who He is, i.e. the Great I AM! All these things may be true of me, but only because of Him. Apart from Him I am in fact unacceptable, insecure, insignificant and in bondage to sin, even if self-help programs buoy me up to believe otherwise! Is it me I need to celebrate or Him?
Another friend rightly comes to the defense of self as the essence of all that makes me unique, the very gift of God to me, not the enemy, but the canvas on which God paints His glory! She rejoices in God’s design, trusting Christ to do the alterations as needed, celebrating life in the meantime. What do I say to that? Am I so wary of ‘self’ getting a foothold on my affections that I cast a wary eye at all my comforts and little joys rather than enjoying them with gratitude? Can I celebrate the ‘me’ I am on the way to becoming the ‘me’ I shall be when I see my Saviour face to face? Do I dare?
These are thoughts I’ve been casting about in my mind this week. I don’t have all the answers. I suspect it is a matter in part of defining what one means by ‘self’. Am I called to despise all that makes me uniquely me, the ‘fearfully and wonderfully made’ creation knit together in my mother’s womb and then shaped by training, circumstance, and destiny under the guidance of God’s sovereign Hand. I think not. Who is the clay to say to the Potter, ‘why have you made me this way’?! (Rom.9:20) Am I called to submit all that I am– the ‘good’, the ‘bad’ and the ‘maybe someday’, to God for His pleasure and pruning. Yes, that too.
I’ve been lapping up C.S. Lewis lucid thinking in “Beyond Personality” (Part IV of Mere Christianity). In a chapter titled: “Is Christianity Hard or Easy?” He differentiates between the ‘natural self’ and the person we become in giving over our whole selves with all their wishes and precautions to Christ for Him to fill and transform. Lewis says it will do no good to insist on being ‘ourselves’, intent on our personal happiness on the one hand while striving to be ‘good’ on the other. We are called to perfection and only Christ can do that in us as we lay aside self’s insistence on its own thoughts and listen for His. There is at once the seeming hardship of ‘Take up your Cross and follow Me’ and the promised ease: ‘My yoke is easy, and my burden light.’
Lewis pictures it this way. Trying to be good while yet ‘ourselves’ is like an egg trying to fly! “It may be hard for an egg to turn into a bird: it would be a jolly sight harder for it to learn to fly while remaining an egg. [Ha! Can you picture it?!] We are like eggs at present. And you cannot go on indefinitely being just an ordinary, decent egg. We must be hatched or go bad….this is the whole of Christianity.” (169) He comments elsewhere: Christ came not ‘to torment your natural self but to KILL IT!’ (167)
Now I realize Lewis is primarily speaking here of the self before we have surrendered to Christ, but I do wonder whether there is relevance still to us as believers. Do we not tend to lapse back into ‘trying to be good’, striving to do ‘good works’, working hard to ‘be pleasing’ in our own steam? Unwittingly appealing to the energy of our old self in an effort to be new selves! I know I do. The Galatians did too: “Having begun by the Spirit, are you now being perfected by the flesh?” (Gal.3:3) It seems to me ‘self’ is always at the ready to step up to the plate and try for a ‘home run’ that will redirect God’s glory to self. Even as I am ‘in Christ’ I find my ‘natural self’ is not silent. I need these reminders to surrender everything I am and am not to Christ. So I continue with Lewis’ thoughts on self:
‘The more we get what we call ‘ourselves’ out of the way and let Him take us over, the more truly ourselves we become.’ (189)
He says that all we are intended to be is ‘waiting for us in Him’. And we need never fear a boring uniformity of personality in being ‘like Christ’ anymore than Light makes all thing appear identical or Salt makes all foods taste alike! (188-89) Lewis brings out the idea that no matter how many ‘little Christs’ (as he calls the believer being conformed to Christ’s image) there may be, it will still be too few to express Christ fully. (189) I like this idea. It reminds me of the Body imagery of Ephesians 4. Each of us is an integral part, necessarily unique, to the completion of the Body of Christ. In this respect the proper functioning of each ‘self’ is crucial to the whole. Seeing myself in relation to the Body also draws me away from hyper-focusing on ‘who I am’. I can’t determine this in isolation anymore than a Nose put away in a box can determine its worth or role in life. It is needed by the Body and only connected with it will it become all it is meant to be!
The alternative is to try to ‘be myself’ without Jesus. Ironically, as C.S. Lewis suggests, ‘The more I resist Him and try to live on my own, the more I become dominated by my own heredity and upbringing and surroundings and natural desires. In fact what I so proudly call “Myself” becomes merely the meeting place for trains of events which I never started and which I cannot stop. What I call “My wishes” become merely the desires thrown up by my physical organism or pumped into me by other men’s thoughts or even suggested to me by devils…I am not, in my natural state, nearly so much of a person as I like to believe: most of what I call ‘me’ can be very easily explained. It is when I turn to Christ, when I give myself up to His Personality, that I first begin to have a real personality of my own.’ (189)
So perhaps this is the place to get out the party hats, call together our friends and celebrate what Christ has done in each of us!
But, if you don’t mind, before the party I offer this overview of my understanding of the Bible’s teaching on:
WHO I AM, WHO I WAS, and WHO I WILL BE…
I’m created in the image of God—designed for fellowship with Him! This makes me distinct from the animals, possessing not only a body but a spirit and soul designed for communication with others and with God. Because of this design I have ability to create, not from nothing as God did, but from the grist of God’s creation—inspired by its beauty, supplied with its materials…Because of this design, I have inherent value apart from anything I am able or not able to accomplish. This ‘fearful and wonderful’ design (Ps.139) is what makes the unborn child, the demented adult and the severely incapacitated individual of equal value with the most beautiful, intelligent, or otherwise capable person. Our value is inherent, not earned. [Contrary to popular cultural thought and practice]
By the Fall
The image of God in man was marred. The spirit was pronounced dead and the body doomed to join it. I was made the enemy of God. Fellowship was severed and impossible to fix without intervention by Someone other than myself. How did it happen? The most beautiful and talented angel wanted to usurp God’s position. He was not content to be a creature, but insisted on being recognized, glorified and worshiped. His fall precipitated our own when he tempted our ancestors to trust their own instincts instead of God’s words, with the lie being that they too could be like God, running their own lives. I was born a rebel intent on being the center of my universe.
The Father still seeks worshipers, still wants fellowship, still has our best interests on His heart. So He gave us Jesus to take on our human form—to sample our situation and taste of our estrangement and ultimately to suffer the death we rightfully had coming so that we could be restored to fellowship with the Father. He invites us to know His ways and do life His way. In fact He offers to be our life. By His Spirit I am made alive to God, a new creation. The fellowship is restored and the image of Christ in me is being recreated by His Spirit as I behold Jesus. C.S. Lewis refers to our transformation this way: “This world is a great sculptor’s shop. We are the statues and there is a rumour going round the shop that some of us are some day going to come to life.” (140) In one way redemption is a done deal. I have been redeemed and given a new nature, my sins forgiven, my pardon signed. And yet I still live in a body bound for the grave. My complete redemption is yet future…
I am one who has been bought with a price and called therefore to ‘glorify God in my body’ (I Cor.6:20) This I do imperfectly for my body houses a nature at odds with my ‘new man’. Though rendered powerless it cries out to be served. But one day my body too will die and with it this old self. I will be fitted with a new resurrection body untainted by sin. When this mortal puts on immortality I will not only be with the Lord forever but will perfectly reflect His image. This is my great hope and the hope toward which all creation looks—the revealing of the ‘sons of God’ (Rom. 8:21) and the summing up of all things in Christ (Eph.1:10) That will be glory!
Let the party begin!
‘Beloved, now are we the sons of God, and it doth not yet appear what we shall be: but we know that, when he shall appear, we shall be like him; for we shall see him as he is.’ I Jn.3:2
For we are God’s masterpiece. He has created us anew in Christ Jesus, so we can do the good things he planned for us long ago. Eph.2:10NLT
In Him also we have obtained an inheritance, having been predestined according to His purpose who works all things after the counsel of His will, to the end that we who were the first to hope in Christ would be to the praise of His glory… Eph.1:11,12
Quotations taken from Mere Christianity by C.S.Lewis. MacMillan Publ, 1960, 190pp.