Tag Archives: identity

Some Things Cannot Be Delegated

Never has an age promised so much and delivered so little as ours. Modern culture assures us that pursuing boldly our individual tastes and preferences is the way to create our identities to our liking and escape confining social roles, customs, and prescriptive morality.  Happiness will be ours if only we refuse to conform to readymade social roles and begin to live consistently with our inner selves. And yet, we find ourselves herded into groups whose identity is rooted in ethnicity, a political cause, gender, age, and a hundred other categories. We want to be unique as long as we are surrounded and supported by others just like us. By identifying with a group that vociferously distinguishes itself from other groups, we seek to resolve the conflict between individual and social identity. We self-deceptively adopt the group’s identity as our individual identity, assuring ourselves that we’ve done our duty to “become ourselves.” Becoming a unique individual is not as easy or as pleasant as modern culture makes it sound! Nor is becoming a Christian.

Christian people find the task of becoming an individual no less difficult and subject to self-deception than do our secular contemporaries. Identifying yourself with the Christian faith, a Christian denomination, or a local Christian congregation does not make you Christian. Although becoming a Christian involves adopting an identity that is shared by others and living as a Christian requires that we live in community with other Christians, no one else can become a Christian for you or live the Christian life in your place. The institutional church cannot do it. The clergy cannot do it. Others can guide, encourage, and provide good examples, but you must step into that bright, heavenly light alone and relate directly to your God.

To live as a Christian you must believe in Jesus Christ as Savior and Lord. No one else can believe for you. Repentance and confession of sin must come from your heart and your mouth. Identifying with a church where communal prayers and liturgies speak of repentance and forgiveness cannot replace your own inner contrition and secret confession to God. You have to change your own life. The two greatest commands are to love God and love your neighbor. To love God is to acknowledge his love for you, to place him on the throne of your heart, and to seek him as your highest good. No institution, no other person can do this for you. And you have to love your neighbor from your heart. You cannot delegate this task to someone else. No one else can pray your prayers, give your praise, and express your thanks. Experiencing God’s presence is not a group activity.

Living a good life and practicing virtue, while done in community, must be done by the individual. Faith, hope, and love cannot be inherited from your parents or distributed like communion wafers. No one can complete your God-given assignment. It’s not like such tasks as cooking dinner, washing the car, or taking out the trash, which you can have done for you. God gave the task to you, and your doing it is part of its nature. If you don’t complete it, it will not be done.

Human beings judge each other on superficial grounds, external appearance, church membership, group associations, social status, and professional accomplishments. God judges the heart. God knows us from the top of our heads to the bottoms of our feet, inside and out, down to the depths of our souls. We cannot hide from God within the crowd, in the audience. To become a Christian, you and I must first give up the self-deception that the secrets of our hearts are known only to us. We must face the fact that we have been found out, that is, we must come to realize that God has always known our sins. And then, under our own names and in our own persons, we must deal with God directly.

 

 

 

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Authentic Living in a World of Imitation Games and Fictional Lives?

Are you living your own life, or is it being lived for you by some other force? From where did you get the script for your life? Do you know who cast you in the role you are playing? Are the passions and thoughts and goals that drive you through life based on reality, or are they elements of fictional story-world? Most people never ask such questions. They just live as they are told to live. They seek what others seek, love and fear what others love and fear. They worry about what concerns others. Most of us are simply personifications of the values, loves, and dreams of the society in which we live. We are the hosts within which live society’s demons. There is nothing inside. There is no substance to us. Take away our masks, costumes, and memorized lines, and nothing remains. And this is not my pessimism speaking; it’s the clear-eyed teaching of Jesus and his apostles.

In the parable of the sower (Mark 4:1-20), Jesus warned his disciples that their mission to preach the good news would not meet with complete success. He speaks of four different reactions they will receive. The third one strikes me as highly relevant to our situation:

18 Still others, like seed sown among thorns, hear the word; 19 but the worries of this life, the deceitfulness of wealth and the desires for other things come in and choke the word, making it unfruitful.

The seed of God’s word can impart truth and authentic life. As it enlightens and enlivens us we become “fruitful,” that is to say, we begin to live the life we were meant to live and become what we were meant to be. But if we focus on “this life” we will grow anxious about what might harm us. We are deceived into a false sense of security by wealth. We are driven by our animal passions to seek immediate pleasure and by our human passions toward envy, jealously, anger, and hatred. With our minds full of other things, we can’t think about the life that exists in God.

And of course we must listen to John when he urges us:

15 Do not love the world or anything in the world. If anyone loves the world, love for the Father is not in them. 16 For everything in the world—the lust of the flesh, the lust of the eyes, and the pride of life—comes not from the Father but from the world.

“Love” in this text does not mean “unselfish self-giving to another.” It means desire for something as if it were the source of life and joy. When we seek our true lives in the world, we lose them completely. The world is driven by the irrational desire for pleasure, unbridled curiosity, and overweening pride, which is a feeling of self-generated, comparative worth based on falsehood.

Let’s now ask an even deeper question: What would it mean to live your own life? Where does one find the script for the real world? How do we get out of the fictional story-world into light of reality?

Popular culture recognizes to some degree the problem I’ve been describing. Its solution sounds simple: write your own script, cast yourself in the role of your choice, in defiance, live your own life! The problem with this advice is that it is but one more subtle and deceptive way the world’s demons colonize our minds. From where do you get the storyline for your script, and on what basis do you choose your role? How can you live you own life, if you don’t know in what your own life consists? The “do your own thing” approach to life always ends up living according to the lust of the flesh, the lust of the eyes, and the pride of life.” These things may feel like our true selves because they move us from within and are always with us, but this too is a deception. And when we live according to these feelings we are doing what everyone else is doing! The differences are superficial.

But Jesus said,

“I am the way, and the truth, and the life (John 14:6).

If you want to live your own life and not be colonized by the world and driven by irrational passions toward death and unhappiness, you must live according to truth. Authentic living is not about merely existing as a thing or in our automatic animal processes. It’s about acting to achieve goals, about becoming in actuality what we are potentially, and about embracing and enjoying good things. It’s about freedom. But apart from the truth about what goals are worth achieving, what we are meant to become, and what things are truly good, we cannot truly live. Apart from truth, freedom is an illusion.

Jesus is the truth, the truth about God and the truth about human life. We usually think of truth as a quality of an assertion; it is the perfect fit between how the assertion describes reality and reality itself. Jesus is the truth because he is the reality of God manifested in the reality of a human life. He is the truth not merely in the words of an assertion but in the reality of a life, and for that reason he is also the way to the Father.

If you want to live your own life, stop imitating others and give up attempting to write your own life script. Follow in the way of Jesus, let yourself be guided by the truth who is Jesus, and you will find yourself living your own life. Only the God the Creator knows the goal of human life, only God knows the way life must be lived, and only God can give us a life that is truly ours. And only in Jesus can we begin to live that life as our own free act.

 

On Fame and Friendship Or Why Do I Need the Crowd’s Approval?

This post is the second in a two-part series dealing with a struggle I feel between my ideal of living for truth, goodness and righteousness and my desire to be loved, admired, approved and accepted by other people. In the following essay I explore the relationship between fame and friendship and try to get at why we need the approval of others, hoping that by being thoughtful about our need for approval we can get free it to some extent:

When we think of fame and the desire to become famous, we tend to think of a little vice characteristic of a small group of people. Perhaps everyone has the potential to become obsessed with becoming famous and maintaining fame, but very few of are placed so that fame is a real possibility. So we don’t think we need to arm ourselves against it. What is the desire for fame? Or what does one desire in wanting fame? Fame is the condition of being known and admired by people whom you do not know. Fame can be measured quantitatively, but the exact line between obscurity and fame is difficult to mark. In desiring fame, then, one wants to be known and admired by many people, many more than one can engage with as friends, even more than one can ever meet.

Fame is related to friendship. Friends know us and think well of us. But friendship must be mutual and among equals. Fame is neither. But some of what we want in friendship we look for also in fame. Friends are insurance against want in times of need, and a band of friends is stronger that an individual. Fame also brings economic benefits and other types of power. Our friends’ acceptance enables us to think well of ourselves. Perhaps, then, the desire for fame is a variant (on a lower ethical level) of the desire that drives us to seek friends. Its lower ethical level is obvious. The lack of mutuality and equality is clearly less noble. But the desire for fame has another imperfection: fame is only loosely based on truth. Friendship is a bond between persons who relate in truth. The relationship between the fan and the celebrity is based on a fantasy in the fan’s mind that has been created or occasioned by the celebrity. (Or do fans create celebrities?) So fame possesses a certain superficial resemblance to friendship, but the substance is missing. The fans mistake their fantasy for a real person and famous people mistake the adulation of their fans for love and admiration. Fame floats on a cloud of fantasy while friendship walks on the rock of truth.

But desire for fame and friendship are instances of more basic impulses that are exemplified in other ways. Let’s speak first of the psychic level of being. We want to be heard, seen, and noticed by other human beings. We want to be objects of their consciousness, to be included in their psychic field. First of all, we must take into account that interaction with others can be negative as well as positive. Overwhelmingly, we want others to experience us positively, as admirable, worthy and attractive. We want them to smile, to speak to us, to touch us. When this field of psychic interaction is positive, we feel similarly about the other person; and we feel good about ourselves. When the other person frowns, growls, curses or acts aggressively we feel angry or ashamed or afraid; and we feel the urge to defend our dignity to ourselves. The other person says in effect, “You are rejected, not worthy of the friendship of others, an outcast.” We can tell ourselves this is not true; but we can be only partly successful in convincing ourselves. Why is this? Because the very definition of being an outcast is that one is cast out! And in this case one has been cast out. Our only defense is to remember the acceptance others have given us in the past or to get away from the enemy and find one’s friends to experience again their acceptance. Merely telling yourself that this person is wrong and thinking of your positive qualities can have only limited success in removing the impact of rejection. Doubt remains and this doubt disturbs our sense of well being.

Why are we so dependent on others’ opinions of us? The simple version may go something like this: I exist and my identity is constituted by my relationships to others. If those relationships are broken or threatened, my existence and identity are threatened. But I know that I evaluate things and make judgments about them in view of their effect on my health and joy. I want to experience good and beautiful things because I need them to maintain myself. We intuitively believe others think the same way. They too evaluate everything in their field of experience as good or bad, pleasing or unpleasant in relation to themselves and act accordingly. In my reflexive relationship to myself, I want myself to be pleasing to others because, if I am not pleasing to them, they will reject me. And if they reject me, my existence and ability to enjoy life will be greatly diminished; and this calls the value of my existence into question.

We tend then to base our judgments about ourselves on how we believe other people see us. We don’t have any other obvious vantage point from which to judge ourselves, for our judgment concerns whether or not we possess qualities that please others. If we don’t think we please others, then what other judgment can we make than that we don’t possess pleasing qualities! And if we believe we do not possess pleasing qualities, we cannot believe others will accept us. We then see ourselves as rejected and deprived of the possibility of a sense of well-being. But if life presents no possibilities for joy, why live?

But we are not merely passive. Since we are uncertain about whether or not we possess pleasing qualities, we become proactive and attempt to make ourselves pleasing to others by acquiring or pretending to possess qualities we think they would like. They of course are doing the same thing! In this way fashion and prejudice become incarnate in a crowd and no one has a basis in truth on which to live. Fame is a particular form of this phenomenon. In seeking fame I seek redundant confirmation that I possess pleasing qualities. Some people may simply fall into fame—though those who attain fame accidentally soon become addicted to it—but many seek it. And they seek it by becoming, acting and dressing in ways designed for no purpose other than to attain and maintain fame.

But none of these strategies work to give us real dignity or identity. Human judgments about the value and dignity of other people are usually superficial and prejudiced. Human beings cannot assess all the qualities of other human beings and all their relationships. Many qualities are hidden within and hence inaccessible to us. We can judge only the present, and knowing the place of a person in the total matrix of the world would require omniscience and eternity; only from such a vantage point could definitive judgments be made. And as I pointed out above, we cannot judge our own dignity or the status of our qualities from within. We need an external criterion.

Only God can judge our dignity, our usefulness and fitness for life. Our desire to be approvingly known, so that we can accept ourselves, will be frustrated unless we direct that desire toward God. God knows us as we truly are and as we shall be. But God’s knowledge of us is not based on mere observation. God knows us because in his love for us he takes account of us. God knows our sins and weaknesses—we don’t have to hide and pretend to be something we are not—but has other plans for us. God plans to make us beautiful, significant and worthy. If we seek to be known by God, to know God and to know ourselves as God knows us (not as the crowd knows us), our desire will be directed to the only place where it can be fulfilled. We can never be satisfied until we know we are known and loved by one who knows all things and cannot be mistaken. Not until we know who we are and why we exist will the restless desire for attention and admiration find its end.

Now we live in faith and hope. However, if we believe we are known and accepted by God, we can begin to experience freedom from slavery to the judgments of others. We can minimize the number and intensity and futility of the things we do for no reason other than to please others so we can think well of ourselves. If rather we love ourselves because we believe God loves us, we won’t seek fame, and even if it comes anyway we will be less likely to be deceived by it. Our energies can be directed toward real things, good and truly beautiful things; we can live for things that matter, things that last rather than the ephemeral fantasies of the crowd.