The False Self and the True Self


Filed under: Pastor Jeff’s Sermons 
A sermon preached on March 4th, 2018 based upon Galatians 2:19b-20 and Mark 8:34-37.

“If any want to become my followers,” said Jesus, “let them deny themselves, take up their cross and follow me.”  Last week I talked about these words of Jesus in relationship to his call to forsake violence and the way of retribution and to be willing to love so deeply that if necessary we would embrace suffering, even death to bring reconciliation to this world full of hatred and violence.

This morning I want to take another approach. Something pretty central here is being expressed regarding the Christian life but unfortunately it often gets misrepresented.

All this talk about dying, of taking up crosses, of self-denial — taken literally the Christian faith can be turned into something lifeless and joyless which is precisely not what Jesus intended. Jesus said that he had come that we might have life and have it abundantly. Jesus enjoyed a good party, and often had parties occur in his parables. He and his followers were accused by some of Jesus’ critics of being drunkards in contrast to John the Baptist’s disciples who were described as being much more austere, fasting often.

So what does it mean to “deny myself?” Am I supposed to deny myself everything I want? A good night’s sleep? Healthy meals? Friendships? Of course not.

And what about the business of bearing a cross? That gets misinterpreted. For instance, if a person is in an abusive relationship with somebody who shows no indication of changing their abusive ways, sometimes Christians have referred to this kind of relationship as a cross a person is obliged to bear — that freedom from such abuse is something that the person has to “deny” themselves. But Jesus came to set the captives free.

The issue it seems to me is this: who exactly am I talking about when I speak about my “self?” We make frequent reference to our “selves” as though it were clear we know what we’re talking about. But is it? We think, “I am the one inside me who is calling the shots. I am the one who wants certain things and doesn’t want other things.” But if we spend some time observing ourselves we will notice that this “self” seems rather fickle – that the things this self wants varies widely, often by the hour.

If you pay close attention to the words of Jesus, the implication is that in some sense each of us has two distinct selves. There is the one that needs to be lost and the one that needs to be found. There is the self that needs to die, and another self – often referred to as the “soul” – that needs to rise. In the twentieth century, in order to make it clearer what Jesus was talking about here, certain Christian writers began to speak of a “false self” in contrast to the “true self.”

The ancient story of Adam and Eve provides some insight into the nature of the false self. Essentially they aspired to the center place in the universe – to be like “gods” — but in doing so – in biting the forbidden apple – life lost its natural harmony and balance.

A couple of things suddenly occurred.

First, they became totally self-conscious in a way they had never been before. They realized for the first time that they were naked and covered up their nakedness with fig leaves. They felt shame for the first time. And second, it suddenly became very hard for them to take responsibility for their actions. They begin to lie – blame others – when God asked them why they had broken the one simple rule. A crippling self-consciousness and the inability to take responsibility are characteristics of the “false self.”

The false self is preoccupied with how we appear to others. The image I project and what people think of me becomes more important than what I am actually thinking or feeling inside. The false self is consumed by the things the world values – the three As – Appearance, Achievement, and Affluence. And the false self is – to use another A word – addictive. How much is enough in order to feel good about my “self”? Always a little more.

The false self has a hard time being truthful – taking responsibility for mistakes and flaws – because to acknowledge such things seems to tarnish the image we’re trying to project. For the same reason the false self resists being known in a deep way by others – even by ourselves. It is like the little guy pretending to be the great and wonderful Wizard of Oz who says, “Pay no attention to the man behind the curtain.”

The false self is inherently fragile, tending to alternate between feeling good about the image we’re projecting and really bad about that image, depending upon our success or failure— the criticisms or praise we receive – in a given moment.

And the false self can’t really love because it’s trapped inside self-centeredness. The false self can decide to take actions that resemble love – but it isn’t real because the whole purpose of doing such things isn’t to help other people but rather to be seen by others as a good and loving person. (Call to mind Jesus’ harsh words regarding the hypocrisy of the scribes and Pharisees.) The false self can feel pleasure but not true joy.

Now having said all this about the “false self” it is important to take note of the fact that in some sense it is inevitable that we all will have one, and give it a lot of attention. When we make the transition from being a child to being a teenager, what happens? We become self-conscious with an intensity we’ve never known before. We can’t help ourselves. We can’t help but be preoccupied with the image we are projecting – how our peers perceive us.

The false self is related to the necessary task of forming an identity. There are better and worse ways to form an identity, and hopefully the identity or image we project has some congruity with who we really are on the inside. But inevitably this identity formation causes us to focus on the image we are trying to project to the world. As we grow older the pressure of self-consciousness subsides some, but that doesn’t mean we don’t continue to put a lot of energy into maintaining what I’m calling the false self.

The good news is that a true self – a soul – that part of ourselves that is in intimate relationship with God — is always there inside us. But we can lose the ability to access that true self.

There this anecdotal story of a three year old boy who has a new baby sister born into his family. The boy pesters his parents about being given an opportunity to be alone with his baby sister. The parents are understandable reluctant in granting there son’s request but remembering they have a sound system in the baby’s bedroom with which they can listen in, they grant their son’s wish. They listen in as the boy draws close to his baby sister. And this is what they hear him say: “Tell me what God looks like; I’m beginning to forget.”

The story suggests that we are all born one with God, but that over time we gradually lose that intimate connection. But we can’t remain infants. In a certain sense it is necessary for us to leave the garden – to grow up – to become fully aware of ourselves and separate, autonomous creatures and to learn the difference between right and wrong. But how do we turn and become like little children – even as we are fully adult in the best sense of the word?

Despite our chronic tendency to focus on the false self there are moments that come to us in even our most self-absorbed times when our souls – our true selves — breaks through. Whenever we’ve experienced a taste of real joy, a bit of real love – imperfect as these may be — our true self has made an appearance.

You often see this happen in times a crisis when people suddenly forget themselves and act in self-sacrificial ways to truly help other people. Those teenagers who survived the school shooting in Florida – at one moment they were likely consumed with how many “likes” they were getting on their social media posts, the very epitome of the “false self” – and the next moment they were broken out of their self-consciousness and self-preoccupation by their shared grief and a deep love for one another and a sincere desire to make a real difference regarding the violence of this world.

So Jesus says, “if anyone would be my disciple, let him or her take up their cross, deny themselves and follow.” In the course of our journey through life, the false self needs to die so the true self can rise. This is the way of the cross – Jesus’ way – the journey through death to resurrection.

It’s what Paul was getting at when he speaks of how he has been crucified with Christ, and now it is not he who lives but Christ – the beloved child of God – who lives through him. It’s what Paul means when he speaks so frequently of being “in Christ” or “in the Spirit.” “If anyone is in Christ,” Paul says, “behold, he or she is a new creation. The old has passed away and the new has come.” And in Christ – when the true self arises –all the distinctions we make regarding people fall away: “There is neither Jew nor Greek, slave nor free, male or female, for we are all one in Christ Jesus.”

This is what being “born again” means in the best sense of the word. For some people, a powerful and largely unexpected experience of God’s grace occurs, and suddenly they feel to a depth they’ve never known before what it means to live out of their true selves – their souls.

But it doesn’t work that way for most of us and even for people who have such powerful new birth experience the false self continually tries to regain control. So all of us on the Christian path are called to engage in a life-long process of “denying” this false self – embracing a kind of death in order that we may rise to eternal life – right now.

Ultimately, however the rising of the true self is a work of God’s grace and not something we can bring about on our own. Fortunately though there are things we can do to open ourselves up this grace. Slowing ourselves down is important – especially inwardly, if not necessarily outwardly. Engaging in prayer helps – both the prayers we can make throughout the course of our busy days in which we remind ourselves that God is present — and the prayer in which we sit in stillness and let the noise of our brain – largely an expression of the false self – slowly begin to lessen.

It involves becoming “self-aware” rather than simply “self-conscious” so that we can begin to distinguish between the various voices inside our head – those that involve our souls and those that are the babble of our false selves.

Committing ourselves to interact with others – particularly in ongoing communities that seek to focus on the mind of Christ – is another way to make room for the true self to arise. In making a habit of remembering the needs of others, and reminding ourselves it’s not about looking like a “good guy” – we give room for the compassion that lives deep within us to arise to the surface of our consciousness.

And in those times when we find ourselves offended – when our pride takes a beating – most often our false selves are in play and an opportunity given to come to a deeper self-knowledge and awareness. At those time when we sense our hearts begin to harden and determination never to forgive – the false self is resisting being dethroned.

The false self is the one that fears death, and for good reason because the false self isn’t the one that is raised up after we die. That’s the true self – the soul – the capacity within us to love, for love is the only thing that does not die.

So it is no coincidence that the two sacraments of the Church — The Lord’s Supper and Holy Baptism – have at the center death and resurrection. In Holy Communion we remember the death Jesus died and are invited to participate in it, putting to death our false selves, trusting that beyond the crucifixion is resurrection. And in baptism, we enter the waters of death by drowning in a symbolic dying of a false self, to that we can rise with Christ in our true selves to everlasting life.

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