Reflection on False Images of God and Self – SF2

The last 5 months of Impart have been dramatic in my own spiritual journey. There have been a number of significant catalysts that have stimulated growth, these include Brené Brown’s talk on the Power of Vulnerability[1], a C.S Lewis[2] quote, spending time wrestling with enneagram types, and going through the motions of my first serious dating experience. In many ways, this year has been one of the hardest I’ve ever experienced, yet it has also been incredibly freeing and soul satisfying. It has been difficult dealing with formed ideas about myself and God that after reflection are clearly false. Developing images that truly represent God and myself seems to be a lifelong journey that I have only just started. In this reflection I hope to identify and explore revelations that have shed insight on my identity and self-worth, particularly in how I see and relate to God.

At the beginning of the year in our first intensive with Impart we watched Brené Brown’s talk on the Power of Vulnerability. A particular line resonated with me “We cannot selectively numb emotions, when we numb the painful emotions, we also numb the positive emotions.” As I reflected, I realized that I had subconsciously numbed and avoided feeling emotions from experiences, particularly involving my family. Further along that line, I have been challenged by researchers, such as Dickie, Eshleman, Merasco, Shepard, Wilt and Johnson[3] and Justice and Lambert[4], finding the deep links between the images of our parents and the images that we use for God.  Stopping to think and analyze the relationship that I have with my parents has been a difficult but ultimately rewarding experience. Significantly for me, I have found that my view of my parents, almost entirely translated into my view of God. [Parts censored for privacy] Somewhere along my journey things such as anger and crying started being seen as negative, weak or wrong and the need to avoid these feelings arose, so without realizing it, I started to numb all emotions (watch the Brene Brown video if this doesn’t make sense). It has only been this year that I have started to actively uncover this tangled web of mistruth, which I am only beginning to see how it impacts my view of God. At times I know I still view God as an angry judge, ready to scold and communicate his disappointment with my failures. Sometimes I see him as a distant scorekeeper, always far off watching and tallying my good against by bad, able to be contacted, but only if I try really hard. Maybe more common than all, I see him as a fickle friend who will only like me if I act the way that he wants. I believe that my previous relationships deeply influence my subconscious view of God and myself, however reflection can, and has started to, change this.

An interesting quote, “You do not have a soul. You are a soul. You have a body”, often attributed to C.S Lewis, sparked a process of self-discovery in my life. While now I’m not sure that I completely agree with the quote, it was an important part of pulling me out of one extreme category into what I feel is a healthier middle ground. As I begun to mention previously, I had so numbed myself to feeling emotion that I started to process everything in a very cold, logical way. In this new way of understanding, it was much easier to simply distract myself by living only in the physical world. Encountering this quote however made me start to re-evaluate the importance of caring for the health of my soul. While I’m not sure that we are only a soul, this emphasis engaged me in a new pursuit of trying to understand the more complex aspects of myself. Tools such as the enneagram have helped me to investigate dimensions of who I believe myself to be and to gain a more developed sense of self-awareness. The enneagram has helped me to own many of my negative attributes, to realize that it’s human to be flawed and to start to feel loved despite my weakness. My experience in that regard is summarized well by a quote from Tim Keller[5], “The gospel is this: We are more sinful and flawed in ourselves than we ever dared believe, yet at the very same time we are more loved and accepted in Jesus Christ than we ever dared hope.” Despite growing up in a family that taught me all about Christianity, it has only been this year that I have begun to truly feel Grace. I previously had the knowledge of Grace but lacked a real sense of understanding. Never before had I really felt that despite my intrinsic flaws I am so loved by Christ that he would die to bring me back into relationship with him.

Travelling with the concept of the “True Self and False Self”[6] has been an enormous challenge for me this year. I like to have clear-cut, short-term, achievable goals, and while in some regard this too can be broken down, lifelong journeys are always difficult. At times it feels like the more I focus on myself it seems the false self’s pride and need for perfection grows, however I have also found a much more developed sense of self-awareness. Predominantly, I feel that I have grown in how I understand my, unhealthy, searching to fulfill my needs in things other than God. Too often, I have sought to find my self-worth in relationships, only to find myself become a slave to people’s expectations or opinions. This is particularly evident in my relationship with Elana, who is now my Fiancé, that my sense of worth is directly tied to my perceived opinion of what she thinks of me. I easily fall into patterns where if I feel loved by her, I feel worthy, but if I feel neglected or mistreated by her, I feel worthless. For a long time in our relationship I felt like I was unable to show certain aspects of myself that I deemed to be negative and would cause me to be unable to be loved. I am prone to be fearful and protective of anyone discovering my dark side. Retrospectively, I now understand these characteristics to be my false self at work in my life, my pursuit of “popularity, praise, perfection, prestige, pleasure and productivity”[7]. It has however been my radical re-understanding of Grace that has allowed for much growth in this area. I believe that it has only been beginning to see my identity and worth in Christ, that my deepest needs have been met. Only from a position of satisfaction in God, have I been able to let go of my false self. Practically, I do not need to rely on human praise to feel good about myself, because I know what my father in heaven thinks about me. In this regard I have never experienced such a feeling of freedom, that my identity and worth is secure. Regardless of what people say or do to me, I am secure under Grace. Despite this, I am finding the fight to live life under Grace difficult. It feels as if there is a long learning curve, I am often getting distracted or losing my way, but I am also slowly improving. I feel like each time I turn back to Grace, I am more able to feel more fully reliant on God.

Despite the huge steps forward I have felt this year, I can see obvious things that still need to be dealt with and processed. Looking at Enneagram has largely left me feeling like I don’t fit well into any “type”. Despite trying to be vulnerable and plainly honest, I have definitely struggled with feeling too complex to be understood. I find it extremely difficult to articulate well how I feel[8] or to be satisfied with how I have managed to communicate myself. I often feel misunderstood. I know that I prefer to process things externally, but often don’t feel like I am able to. I think that I often turn thoughts into an internal down-wards spiral that causes me to lose focus on the God that created me, the only one who completely knows and understands me.

I feel like I have experienced several significant events this year that has stirred up and enormous amount of mess in my life. As some of this mess has begun to resettle in healthy ways, I am still trying to understand everything else and sort out where it needs to go. Similarly, it feels like I have been building a house for the last 20 years, but am just realizing that much of the foundation needs replacing. It has been extremely difficult to accept my need for re-formation, but I have been seeing exciting growth. I see progress in areas where I’m able to let go of my pride and give God a chance to restore. Through rooting out and severing the lies that I believe, growing in understanding of my true and false self and going on a lifelong journey of formation, I have seen, and hope to continue to see, substantial growth in my spiritual life. It is plain for me to see how my relationship with God is dynamically different when I have a clearer image of both him and myself.

References

[1] TED, The Power of Vulnerability, video, 2010, accessed June 11, 2016, https://www.ted.com/talks/brene_brown_on_vulnerability?language=en.

[2] While this “quote” is often famously attributed to C.S Lewis, it cannot be found anywhere in his writing https://mereorthodoxy.com/you-dont-have-a-soul-cs-lewis-never-said-it/

[3] Jane R. Dickie et al., “Parent-Child Relationships and Children’s Images of God”, Journal for the Scientific Study of Religion 36, no. 1 (1997): 25.

[4] W. G. Justice and W. Lambert, “A Comparative Study of the Language People Use to Describe the Personalities of God and Their Earthly Parents”, Journal of Pastoral Care & Counseling: Advancing theory and professional practice through scholarly and reflective publications 40, no. 2 (1986): 166-172.

[5] Timothy Keller and Kathy Keller, The Meaning Of Marriage (New York: Dutton, 2011).

[6] I have found a wide variety of readings on this helpful, including: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/True_self_and_false_self and http://sfhelp.org/gwc/compare.htm

David G Benner, The Gift of Being Yourself (Downers Grove, Ill.: InterVarsity Press, 2004).

Robert Mulholland, The Deeper Journey (Downers Grove, Ill.: IVP Books, 2006).

[7] Albert Haase, Coming Home to Your True Self (Downers Grove, Ill.: IVP Books, 2008).

[8] Particularly writing a reflection such as this

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