Have you ever thought:"If people knew some of the bad things I’ve done in the past, they would be appalled"? If so, you know it can be tempting to distance yourself from that past “self” and strive to become a “good” person. The danger with this strategy is that it prevents us from experiencing the fullness of love, both from those around us and from our Heavenly Father; it places a subtle wedge between ourselves and others, as well as a wedge between ourselves and God.
I’ve been writing a lot these past few weeks about the false self. In so doing, I have painted a picture of this false self as the corrupt, ego-driven part of ourselves. While there is truth to this, the false self is complex. The false self can also have a lot of good mixed into it, which can make it even more dangerous to our spiritual journey. I saw this most clearly in the character of Jean Valjean, the protagonist of the book I'm currently reading, Les Misérables (I did warn you that I'd be writing more about him)....
After Jean Valjean hit rock bottom, he received forgiveness and grace from Bishop Myriel, becoming a transformed man. Valjean became an extremely wealthy businessman, treated his employees admirably, gave away considerable amounts of wealth to anyone in need, and eventually became a good and just mayor of his local town. As part of this transformation, he changed his name from Jean Valjean to Mayor Madeleine.
All is going well, but Valjean comes to learn that a man has been caught by the police and mistakenly identified as Jean Valjean. While the man's crime was not serious, the law is such that punishments for repeat offenders are much more severe.
When Valjean learns about this case of mistaken identity, he feels torn. While he doesn’t want to see a man unjustly punished, he knows that if he comes forward, he himself would go to prison, which would devastate his community and prevent him from continuing to do so much good in his town. As he was wrestling with his conscience one night, Valjean says the following:
“I am Madeleine, and Madeleine I remain. Woe to the man who is Jean Valjean! I am no longer he; I do not know that man;” - Victor Hugo, Les Miserables
It's clear that Monseur Madeleine has spent his new life hiding Jean Valjean away, the part of himself which had brought so much shame, locking him away deep inside. He thought he escaped him, only to find that Valjean is still a part of who he is.
Living into our full selves
On the surface, this was a beautiful transformation and precisely what you would wish for someone who received a second chance, yet there is a danger in what Valjean did. By burying his past, he was not living out of his full self, the beautiful and the broken. The mistakes he made in the past are a part of his true self, no matter how hard he tries to erase and forget them, which is why he can’t escape them.
“What we hunger for perhaps more than anything else is to be known in our full humanness, and yet that is often just what we also fear more than anything else. It is important to tell at least from time to time the secret of who we truly and fully are . . . because otherwise, we run the risk of losing track of who we truly and fully are and little by little come to accept instead the highly edited version which we put forth in the hope that the world will find it more acceptable than the real thing.” - Frederick Buechner, Telling Secrets
When we allow those closest to us to enter into the fullness of our stories, both the beautiful and the broken, we wholeheartedly become ourselves. We can experience a love that satisfies a hunger within us. We allow those closest to us to love us fully and completely.
Later in his book, Buechner states that it is when we enter into our most profound brokenness, where our shame is buried, that we experience the One (our Heavenly Father). When we embrace the beautiful and the broken, we allow the unconditional love of our Heavenly Father to pour into us and renew our hearts and minds. If we bury the parts of ourselves that bring us shame, we are resisting our own redemption.
We have all made mistakes which bring us shame, and I imagine in many circumstances we have worked hard to put them in the past by becoming a different/better person. While the new person we become can be very good, if we are not embracing the brokenness of our stories, we are not allowing Christ to transform us fully through his grace. If we do not give him our whole selves, we are preventing ourselves from experiencing full communion with him, and the real joy and peace that comes with that.
As we prepare for Easter, the climax of the Christian year where we celebrate Christ’s resurrection from the dead, I’d invite all of us to go into those deep, dark places and invite Christ to be present with them and redeem them.
Keep back nothing. Nothing that you have not given away will ever be really yours. Nothing in you that has not died will ever be raised from the dead. - C.S. Lewis, Mere Christianity