The title image of this post is a depiction of Sydney Carton being taken to the gallows. It is one of my favorite moments in literature, for, in Dicken’s Tale of Two Cities, this character, who is the most unlikely hero, makes a bold and daring move for the sake of those he loves, by betraying himself and taking on the identity of another, so as to die in that other person’s place. His act of self-betrayal echoes what Christ did. In a way, it is also demonstrates what we should do: betray ourselves.
There are some parts of ourselves that feel so authentic, so real, that to disown them would be tantamount to self-betrayal. For some, that might be a fascination with college football; to deny their loyalty to their team or to the sport itself would feel wrong. For others, that might be their gender orientation and sense of sexual attraction; for an out-of-the-closest gay man, to deny his attraction to other men would feel disingenuous to him.
But embracing what feels authentic about ourselves is not what I want to discuss today. Rather, after having had the pleasure of listening to my friend Martin Luther recently, I want to write about embracing what feels like a betrayal to ourselves. In his “Lectures on Romans,” Luther writes,
“We must understand that we have to become sinners and liars and fools and that all our righteousness, truthfulness, wisdom, and strength have to perish. And this takes place when we believe that we are sinners and liars, etc., and that our virtue and righteousness are absolutely nothing before God. Thus we become inwardly, inside ourselves, what we are outwardly (that is, before God), even though inside ourselves we are not this way, that is, even though we do not believe that we are such.” (Luther’s Works 25:213)
In other words, according to Luther, in the gospel God calls us to own the fact that we are deeply sinful, despite our not thinking or feeling this way. “Even if we do not recognize any sin in ourselves, it is still necessary to believe that we are sinners” (Luther’s Works 25:214).
Five years ago I sat before a group of friends and colleagues who told me about some patterns of sin and pathology they were seeing in my life. I was more than a little incredulous. Inside, I did not feel this way, and to agree with these people felt unjust, like a self-betrayal. Yet, these folks weren’t just casual acquaintances; they had gotten to know me, and they had heard my story, listened to me talk quite a lot, and had taken up the care of my soul. I was forced to decide whether I would trust what felt most familiar and safe–myself–or if I would trust them.
As I drove home that day, I remember feeling radically uncertain of myself, like Neo when he first realizes that his life has been lived inside the Matrix. Everything about my world seemed upside-down. It’s funny though. Once I had begun to go down the rabbit hole and glimpse the truth, it’s wasn’t so easy returning back to normalcy and self-deception. True self-awareness was scary and even repulsive, but also compelling, because I realized God was the one bringing it about.
The assumptions we hold about ourselves that feel most authentic and good are usually those God calls us to disown and see in a new light. And when I say “our lives,” I’m talking about Christians as well as non-Christians. We all need to confess our self-reliance, self-trust, and self-worship; to be a Christian just means that one has accepted this fact and has given up trying to deal with it without Christ. In fact, we might define the Christian life as the pursuit of confessing the truth about ourselves as weak, ignorant, and sinful with ever-increasing faith and accuracy.
I’m not saying that the most important goal in life should be navel-gazing, or trying to figure out our true selves. Only God can reveal the true self. We should pray and yearn for this gracious revelation, but, as Paul said, we should set our minds “on things above, where Christ is, seated at the right hand of the Father.” I think the highest goal of life should be getting to know the Son of God; in him is hidden everything, including our true self. The surest way to the true self is through faith, not through self-awareness. It takes faith to believe how loved we are, as well as how weak, foolish, and sinful we are.
Let me speak to my Christian friends for a moment. Much of what you think is the real you is actually just the old, false self, i.e., the self-apart-from-God. It takes faith to believe this, because it feels like a self-betrayal to disown yourself. You may be very willing to disown some aspects of your life, but God doesn’t want just some, he wants all:
Christ says: “Give me All. I don’t want so much of your time and so much of your money and so much of your work: I want You. I have not come to torment your natural self, but to kill it. No half-measures are any good. I don’t want to cut off a branch here and a branch there, I want to have the whole tree down. Hand over the whole natural self, all the desires which you think innocent as well as the ones you think wicked–the whole outfit. I will give you a new self instead. In fact, I will give you myself: My own will shall become yours.” (from Mere Christianity, by C.S. Lewis)