I often have the impression that my sermons serve as a kind of a spiritual Rorzak Test, the psychological test where insight is revealed into someone’s psyche through the pictures the person conjures up in random ink blots. What I imagine myself to be saying on a given Sunday morning and what people hear me saying can be quite different. It often seems that, depending on where people are on their spiritual journey, they hear what they need to hear in my words. The holy spirit can be thanked for this. (A joke comes to mind: psychologist shows a man a series of ink blots. After viewing each one, the man describes seeing various forms of sex. After a time, the psychiatrist comments, “Sex seems to be on your mind a lot.” The man replies, a bit angrily, “Me?! You’re the one showing me all the dirty pictures!!”)
A while back, an older woman — a truly beloved, good soul — said in one of my groups that a sermon of mine had triggered reflections on her part regarding personal identity. Specifically, she was wondering about the question of who she was. I didn’t recall this question having been the focus of my sermon — perhaps a passing comment — but it had been on her mind all week since hearing me preach. She was aware that there was a discrepancy between who she presented herself to be to the world and who she often felt like on the inside. On some level, she wondered if any one truly knew her — whether she even knew herself.
It struck me as an extraordinary insight. All of us present to the world an image that we have shaped of who we are — who we want to be seen as. There is always a whole lot more to us than what fits into this image. When our identity is tied up with being “Christian”, the image we present is unlikely to contain much of the darker stuff that lives within all of us. We try hard to be good people. Nonetheless, for all of us, there are times when we can’t help but notice the stuff inside that seems downright unpresentable. (Sometimes it even comes spilling out for others to see.) Hence the question, who am I, really?
We are both saint and sinner. We contain darkness and light. We are child of God and child of the earth. None of us are as wholly good or as wholly bad as we imagine ourselves to be at times. Â Strangely, the path to Christ-like holiness involves being humbled by confrontations with our darker side, even as we hear God claim us as a beloved child. Before Jesus was arrested, Peter’s self-image involved being wholly brave, good, devoted; better than the other disciples. (“Even if they fall away, I will not!”) The three-time-denial left him humbled, big time.
When to his great surprise Peter discovered Jesus alive again, the biggest surprise of all for Peter was that Jesus didn’t tell him to go to hell, which is what he figured he deserved after having his “good guy” self-image thrown for such a loop the previous Thursday evening. He was absolutely stunned that he was loved, completely even after failing so miserably.
In the end, the capacity for compassion towards all people (the ultimate mark of the Christ-like life) is directly related to being able to say, “There, but for the grace of God, go I.” That the darkness that I see in others is also within me, and it is only because I have not been, as we say in the Lord’s prayer, “led into temptation”,Â that the darkness hasn’t broken loose in my life and taken over.
Here’s a comforting verse for all of us who aren’t altogether sure who we are: “Now I know only in part; then I will know fully, even as I have been fully known.” (1Corinthians 13:12) Check out Psalm 139 as well.