Fighting for Your True Self

On the podcast, I have on many occasions brought up the dynamic of the false self / true self. While it is something that has become clearer to me in the past year, especially through C.S. Lewis, I came across this idea in different forms years before we started the podcast.

The False Self

My first encounter with the idea of the false self was through the author, Fredrick Buechner. In his book, Telling Secrets, Buechner discussed the importance of entering into the deepest, darkest parts of our story. These are the wounds that cause shame in our lives that we are afraid to show the world because we believe other people will not love us if they knew about them. Buechner says:

“We try to make ourselves into something that we hope the world will like better than it apparently did the selves we originally were. That is the story of our lives, needless to say, and in the process of living out the story, the original, shimmering self gets buried so deep that most of us end up hardly living out of it at all. Instead we live out all the other selves which we are constantly putting on and taking off like coats and hats against the world’s weather.”

The danger is, we quickly forget about the true self and start to believe the lies of the false self; the lies that tell us we are only love if we do X, Y, and Z. Yet, it is only when we enter into our deepest, truest self that we are able to meet the One (i.e. our Heavenly Father), one-on-one. He says:

“I suspect that it is by entering that deep place inside us where our secrets are kept that we come perhaps closer than we do anywhere else to the One”

The True Self

When I read this, I was asking myself, what is happening when we encounter the One?

I came across Henri Nouwen’s books, Life of the Beloved and Return of the Prodigal, and some clarity started to emerge. He says, “self-rejection is the greatest enemy of the spiritual life because it contradicts the sacred voice that calls us the Beloved. Being the Beloved expresses the core truth of our existence.” The Word teaches us that we were made in the image of God and he loves us unconditionally, yet we are taught otherwise by the world. We see this in the 1 John 3:1-2 when John says:

“See what love the father has given us that we should be called children of God; and that is what we are. The reason the world does not know us is that it did not know him. Beloved, we are God’s children now; what we will be has not yet been revealed. What we do know is this: when he is revealed, we will be like him, for we will see him as he is!”

How to be my true self?

It was Nouwen’s suggestions for how we combat the false self and begin living out of the place of Beloved-ness that really caught my attention. He argues that silence and solitude are critical and states:

Solitude is not a private therapeutic place. Rather, it is the place of conversion, the place where the old self dies and the new self is born…
In solitude I get rid of my scaffolding: no friends to talk with, no telephone calls to make, no meetings to attend, no music to entertain, no books to distract, just me – naked, vulnerable, weak, sinful, deprived, broken – nothing. It is this nothingness that I have to face in my solitude, a nothingness so dreadful that everything in me wants to run to my friends, my work, and my distractions so that I can forget my nothingness and make myself believe that I am worth something.

Wow! Essentially, in solitude, we can no longer run to the distractions that prevent us from entering into our brokenness. These are the same distractions that also prevent us from hearing from God that we are his beloved!

Mother Teresa summed up so beautifully in her “I Thirst” letter the importance of a daily encounter with Jesus and knowing we are God’s Beloved.

“Jesus wants me to tell you again…how much love He has for each one of you – beyond all you can imagine. I worry some of you still have not really met Jesus – one to one – you and Jesus alone. ... Never give up this daily intimate contact with Jesus as the real living person – not just the idea. How can we last even one day without hearing Jesus say ‘I love you’ – impossible. Our soul needs that as much as the body needs to breathe air.”

I find myself coming back to this letter in moments when I doubt the Lord’s love for me. I highly recommend reading the letter in its entirety.

While these different insights were helpful and gave me so much to think about, sometimes it felt like a mental exercise. As a Type A person, I’m thinking, “Alright, search for my brokenness, enter into it, create space for God through silence, and meditate on the belief that God loves me. Perfect, that should fix all my problems.” Yet, little did I know, there was so much more for me to learn.

Where the rubber hits the road...

At the time of starting the podcast, I embarked on an immersive spiritual retreat that meets quarterly in Chicago and focuses on spiritual transformation that takes us from the false self to the true self (the practice of allowing Christ to form within us).

It was then that these terms became solidified for me. Right from the first retreat they affirmed what Nouwen was talking about and said: “solitude is where the true self sits in the presence of God and watches the false walk by. Solitude is where we encounter and struggle against the compulsions of the false self.” I saw both Nouwen and Buechner in this statement.

We learned, from a psychological perspective, the false self is the patterns of behavior we developed throughout our life to win love. The world has taught us, if we act a certain way, look a certain way, do certain things, we will be loved (much like Nouwen said). As unique individuals, we have all developed our own personal patterns for dealing with the pressures of the world.

On this retreat, while a primary tool for fighting the false self was solitude, we developed more concrete practices, called sacred rhythms, for fighting these false behavioral patterns. All of these practices were about creating space for Christ to form within us. We discussed daily examinations of conscious, fixed hour prayer (such as found in the catholic tradition as Liturgy of the Hours), the importance of confession, Lectio Divina for daily scripture reading, heart prayer, frequent communion (in my case daily mass) and so much more.

While I now felt I had more tools for combatting the false self by creating sacred rhythms in my life for Christ to form within me, there was one significant piece still missing. Enter C.S. Lewis...

Fighting the False Self with Jack

In Mere Christianity we learned about the transmission of the divine life. Lewis began by explaining how we are made, not begotten, by God. That means, while are made in the likeness and image of God, yet we are not of the same essence of God. Jesus, because He is begotten, not made, He is of the same essence with the Heavenly Father and one with him. Jesus, by being fully human and fully divine, allows us to partake in this divine life. By allowing Christ to form within us, we can be partakers in this divine life.

2 Peter 1:4 says,

“by which he has granted to us his precious and very great promises, that through these you may escape from the corruption that is in the world because of passion, and become partakers of the divine nature.”

What I learned in the retreats about forming Christ within us, and what I learned from Lewis about entering into the divine life started to sound very similar. At this point, it was all coming together. The primary driver of us going from our false self to our true self is the gift of the divine life. When the divine life is transmitted to us, the wounds of our false self begin to heal and we live more fully out of our authentic self.

The Sacramental Life

Finally, I read my own church’s (Catholic Church) teaching on the sacraments. It says,

"the sacraments are efficacious signs of grace, instituted by Christ and entrusted to the Church, by which divine life is dispensed to us.”

It took C.S. Lewis to explain to me why the Eucharist was the source and summit of the Catholic Church. While I was already going to daily mass, it became of the utmost importance to me. I wanted to receive the free gift of the divine life from Jesus Christ in the Eucharist. There is enough grace in a single Eucharist to turn us into a saint, if only we are fully open to receiving it (which is why it is important to prepare ourselves to receive such an incredible grace and not take the gift lightly).

As I mentioned earlier, my part is to create the space for him to form within me. As the retreats have been teaching me, I need to create the sacred rhythms in my life to allow Christ to form within me. After that, I allow him to do the work, and it has transformed my life (literally :) ). I find myself living out of my authentic self more than I was before. I still have a long journey ahead of me, but it is one I am excited for. Moreover, I have such conviction and confidence that Christ is working in me that I can live boldly and not out of shame.

I share this post at this point because we will see so much of the differences between the false self and true self throughout Till We Have Faces, therefore, I wanted to more formalize my own understanding of it. I do not pretend this is comprehensive or complete but simply my summation of what I have personally learned so far. I have no doubt that if I were to update this post in two years’ time, I would have much more to say but for now, I hope this helps many of you on your own journey.