Excerpt from David G. Benner, The Gift of Being Yourself: The Sacred Call to Self Discovery (Downers Grove, IL InterVarsity Press, 2004) Used by permission.In all of creation, identity is a challenge only for humans. A tulip knows exactly what it is. It is never tempted by false ways of being. Nor does it face complicated decisions in the process of becoming. So too it is with dogs,
rocks, trees, stars, amoebas, electrons, and all other things. All give glory to God by being exactly what they are. For in being what God means them to be, they are obeying him.
Humans, however, face a more challenging existence. We think. We consider options. We decide. We act. We doubt. Simple being is tremendously difficult to achieve, and fully authentic being is extremely rare.
Body and soul contain thousands of possibilities out of which you can build many identities. But in only one of these will you find your true self that has been hidden in Christ from all eternity. Only in one will you discover your vocation and deepest fulfillment. But, as noted by Dag Hammarskjold, you will never find this “until you have excluded all those superficial and fleeting possibilities of being and doing with which you toy out of curiosity or wonder or greed, and which hinder you from casting anchor in the experience of the mystery of life, and the consciousness of the talent entrusted to you which is your I.”Dag Hamsershold, Markings (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1969).
We all live life searching for that one possible way of being that carries with it the gift of authenticity. We are often most conscious of this search for identity during adolescence, when it takes front stage for most people. At this stage of life, we try on identities like clothing, looking for a style of being that fits with how we want to be seen. But long after adolescence has passed, most adults know the occasional feeling of being a fraud—a sense of not being what they pretend to be, but rather being precisely what they pretend not to be. With a little reflection, most of us can become aware of masks that we first adopted as strategies to avoid feelings of vulnerability, but which have become parts of our social self. Tragically, we settle so easily for pretense and a truly authentic self often seems elusive.
There is, however, a way of being for each of us that is as natural and deeply congruent as the life of the tulip.
Beneath the roles and masks lies a possibility of a self that is as distinctive as a snowflake. It is an originality that has existed since God first loved us into existence. Our true self-in-Christ is the only self that will support authenticity. It and it alone provides an identity that is eternal.
01. Becoming Your True Self
Being yourself would not make any spiritual sense if your uniqueness were not of immense value to God. But each person is exactly that—of inestimable value to God. Nor should we ever be tempted to think that growth in Christlikeness reduces this originality. While some Christian visions of the spiritual life imply that as we become more like Christ, we look more and more like each other, this cultic expectation of the loss of individuality has nothing in common with genuine Christian spirituality. Paradoxically, as we become more and more like Christ, we become more our own true self.
There are many false ways of achieving originality. These all result from attempts to create a self rather than receive the gift of my self-in-Christ. But the uniqueness that comes from being our true self is not of our own making. Identity is never simply a creation. It is always a discovery. True identity is always a gift of God.
Being most deeply yourself is something that God desires because your true self is grounded in Christ. God created you in uniqueness and seeks to restore you to that uniqueness in Christ. Finding and living out your true self is fulfilling your destiny.
The true self is who, in reality, you are and who you are becoming. It is not something you need to construct through a process of self-improvement nor deconstruct by means of psychological analysis. It is not an object to be grasped. Nor is it an archetype to be actualized. It is not even some inner, hidden part of you. Rather, it is your total self as you are created by God and as you are being redeemed in Christ. It is the image of God that you are—the distinctive face of God that has been set aside from eternity for you.
We do not find our true self by seeking it. Rather, we find it by seeking God. For it is in finding God that we find our truest and deepest self. The anthropological question (“Who am I?”) and the theological question (“Who is God?”) are fundamentally inseparable.Ekman P.C. Tam, “Message to the Wounded World: Unmask the True Self—Zen and Merton.” Journal of Religious Studies. 17.1 (1998): 71–84. It is by losing our self in God that we discover our true identity.
02. Fulfilling Our Calling
We are all called to live the truth of our uniqueness. Divine creativity has never involved a production assembly line. The results of God’s creative acts are never less than original works of art. You and I are no exception.
God meets us in our individuality because he wants to fulfill that individuality. God wants us to follow and serve in and through that individuality. God doesn’t seek to annihilate our uniqueness as we follow Christ. Rather, Christ-following leads us to our truest self.
The spiritual life of one person should never be a carbon copy of another’s. Peter and John had quite different personalities and quite different transformational journeys as they followed Jesus. Mary and Martha, two sisters whom Jesus loved deeply, each expressed her love for him differently. And he received both, not discouraging Martha from busying herself in service, simply encouraging her not to fret in doing so (Luke 10:38–42).
God’s will for us is that we live out the harmonious expression of our gifts, temperaments, passions, and vocations in truthful dependence on God. Nothing less than this is worthy of being called our true self. Nothing less than this will allow us to show the unique face of Christ to the world that we have been called from eternity to show. And nothing less than this will lead to our deepest fulfillment.
But Christ’s way to self-fulfillment is not like any way we could ever have imagined. His way involves losing our life so that we might find it, dying so that we might live. His way is always the way of the cross. Death always precedes new life.
Fulfillment is a blessing that comes from surrender to the loving will of God. It is idolatrous if pursued directly. God’s call to our fulfillment is always a call to take our place in his grand restoration agenda of making all things new in Christ. Our vocation is grounded in the self that from eternity God has willed that we be. Our calling is, therefore, to become that self and then to serve God and our fellow humans in the distinctive ways that will represent the fulfillment of that self. Our identity is not simply a possession. It is a calling.
Paradoxically, our fulfillment lies in the death of our own agendas of fulfillment. It also lies in the crucifixion of all our ego-centered ways of living life apart from complete surrender to God. It does not lie, therefore, in any of the places we would expect to find it. Christ’s way always turns our ways upside down. But it is only in the upside-down world of Christ’s Kingdom that we will ever find the self we were called from eternity to be and the God we were created to serve. In God alone is the truth of our being.
The mystery of the Christian gospel is that our deepest, truest self is not what we think of as our own self, but “the self that is one with the Risen and Deathless Christ in whom all are fulfilled.Finley, James. Merton’s Palace of Nowhere: A Search for God Through Awareness of the True Self. (Bloomington, IL: Ave Marie Press, 1978). In Christian spiritual transformation the self that embarks on the journey is not the self that arrives. The self that begins the spiritual journey is the self of our own creation, the self we thought ourselves to be. This is the self that dies on the journey. The self that arrives is the self that was loved into existence by Divine Love. This is the person we were destined from eternity to become—the “I” that is hidden in the “I AM.”
David G. Benner is a clinical psychologist, spiritual director and retreat director who currently serves as Distinguished Professor of Psychology and Spirituality at Psychological Studies Institute in Atlanta. Author or editor of twenty books on psychology and spirituality, he and his wife maintain their home in Hamilton (Canada) but spend most of their year leading retreats, writing and lecturing in Atlanta (USA), Mexico, and Southeast Asia.