The True and False Self – Jeremiah 31:31-34, John 12:20-26
It’s amazing but the outer layer of our skin gets replaced every few weeks. The dead skin cells continually slough off and mix with the secretions of the sweat and sebaceous glands to form an interesting layer the surface of your skin. It just happens…well sort of. If not rubbed off into our clothing or washed away, the slurry of sweat and sebaceous secretions mixed with dirt and dead skin is decomposed by bacterial flora, producing a foul smell. Teenage boys often need to learn this truth. But it’s an amazing reality that bits of us are constantly dying to be replaced by new life. We are in a constant state of dying and renewal.
Death is part of life. It’s a truth that is happening all around us. It’s not going to be long now before trees start turning colour and leaves begin to fall. If we were Americans we would refer to the season we are now in as Fall. The leaves of deciduous trees die and fall to the ground to create nutritious leaf litter while the tree is left bare till spring comes around and there is an awakening of life again. In fact everywhere we look there are things dying and there is new life emerging, and Jesus proclaimed this was how life should be for us. In a famous passage he tells his disciples that if we want to follow him there needs to be death for us to find the way of life. There is according to Jesus something within us that needs to die so that new life can be born. What’s going on here?
I was talking to someone last week about someone else and I noticed we were having a put down session. We were enjoying pulling them to pieces like a couple of vultures around a corpse. What felt good was that this person was someone who in the eyes of the world was quite successful…. Maybe more successful and popular than we were. What was going on here? Why were we so destructive and why did it feel good? What was motivating our destructive behavior? When I reflected on my behavior I thought something needs to die here. There’s something within me that isn’t right and good.
Psychologists tell us that there are three things that we long for in our lives. We long for security, affections, and power and control. These are not bad things to hanker after. Without security life can become full of anxieties that cripple us, without affection we literally shrivel up like a prune, and without some sense of control life becomes meaningless as we take no responsibility for shaping anything. The problem is that from an early age the way we usually go about fulfilling these desires in unhealthy ways. As a baby we smile and it causes people around us to take notice. So we smile again. We quickly learn that we can manipulate others to get attention and affirmation. We start playing little games and we start manipulating an image of ourselves that pleases others and draws affection. Some may adopt quite destructive patterns to get the attention they crave. Whatever the result is that by the time we reach adulthood we are often skilled practitioners and have developed a well honed mask or persona that is good at getting security, affection and power. But what others see isn’t the real us. One of my first learnings as a minister came as I visited a church family one hot Saturday afternoon. In those days you often visited uninvited and as I reached the front door I could see everyone sitting around enjoying a beer together, What the family didn’t realise was that there was a side window open and I heard clearly the registration of shock as they realized the minister was visiting. Quick hide the beer the minister is here was heard clearly, and sure enough by the time I was ushered into the room there was not a sign of any alcohol and their reputation and standing in my eyes had not been dented. On another weekend I went to the local races and discovered several parishioners doing their best to hide from me and not wanting to be noticed. Why do we put on such masks in front of each other? Why do we promote false images to impress others? What drives that?
Psychologists talk of the development of a false self. This false self loves to compare with others, and seeks others it can look down on. It finds value and worth in proving it is a cut above someone else. I was with a couple a while ago and just about everything he said, she corrected him. I felt like saying ‘whoa there do you realize what you’re doing’. She had to get the last word in there. If he said there were five people in the room she would say, “actually dear there were six – you forgot to count yourself.” What was driving that? Why did she have to have the last word, and why did she always have to have a dig at him?
Maybe you notice how we like others to know about our achievements and how we like to build ourselves up in front of others. Do you ever find yourself telling a story in a particular way that makes you look better? Like you emphasize certain things that will twist the story in your favour and make you more of a hero than is really the case. You know add a little extra drama or drop the name of someone you know who is important. Why do we do it? What is driving this?
Jesus tells us something has to die. We need to start living from a different center, we need to change the default driver. We need to be born with a new heart says Jeremiah.
Something has to die….
That part that wants more in bank just in case
That part that is looking for others we can look down on.
That part that always has to be right
That part that always has to look good
The part that wants the biggest bit of cake for me
The part that’s always comparing ourselves with others
The part that wants to tell our friends about our children’s achievements because it proves what a great person I am
That part that craves for the affirmation of others.
That part that wants things my way
That part that has to cultivate the image of knowing it all.
When was the last time you put on the mask that that said I‘ve got it all together when underneath things were a mess?
When was the last time you did something just to impress someone else?
When was the last time you were anxious because what will others think of you?
When was the last time you rejoiced in someone else falling flat on their face?
When was the last time you took the secure road instead of risking generously?
There is something inside us all that has to die if we are going to truly live isn’t there?
There’s something inside us that has to die if we are going to be the wonderful, unique person God desires.
There’s something inside that has to die if we are to discover the eternal life – the life of integrity – the life of authenticity, Jesus wants for us.
Jesus said, “those that want to save their life will loose it”. Anyone who follows me must leave self behind. He also said, “do not worry about your life and what you will eat; don’t worry about your body and what you will wear. Life is more than food, and the body more than clothes. Consider the birds; they don’t sow or reap, they have no store-room or barn; and yet God feeds them. How much more valuable each one of you is than the birds. Don’t worry – it won’t add a single hour to your life. Don’t be afraid.”
You see according to Jesus that part of us that has to die –the false self – is fed by fear.
The part of us that is eternal and good – our true self – is fed by love.
Our true self emerges when we trust God, know our security lies in God, the God who is known as unconditional love.
It’s a strange paradox that to find life we have to let something die. And as with our skin we have to keep letting it die. This death doesn’t just happen, although growing older often helps. Then we know as we get closer to the end that masks aren’t needed any more. We know we can’t take the props with us. We learn hopefully that we are cracked and imperfect but that doesn’t really matter. In fact as Leonard Cohen told us that the cracks are how the light gets in.
We aren’t perfect, we aren’t all powerful, and we can’t build an impenetrable fortress that is our life. The admiration of others is fickle and flawed because they don’t really know us. We have to let go, and the invitation is to find our security, our affection, our power, in God. The invitation is to learn to live in relationship with God who is bigger than us. According to Jesus this God is pure grace and love and that’s where we find our true security, the unconditional affection, and the power to stand tall and live authentically and courageously. The invitation is to let go and trust.
Dugald Wilson 18 March 2018