We sometimes have the idea that our job in life is to discover our real self. This self exists independent of all our life experiences and the forces of society that intentionally and unintentionally make us over into something else. Christians who take this position might see this true self as the self created by God, yet distorted by sin and the pressures of living in a corrupt world. As we turn from our sin and rid ourselves of the influences of the corrupt world, the original God-created self can shine through. Those who don’t believe in a created self might attribute the origin of the real self to our DNA or some sort of fate.
Inasmuch as we’re human, we’re made in the image of God. Being made in the image of God gives us a commonality with all other humans. It is both past oriented (we have a common origin) and future oriented (we are invited to a common destiny). This common creation in the image of God means that all of us have a significant portion of what we are in common with others, whether those others be family, friends, or even enemies.
If we are of an existentialist bent, we will reject the idea of there being a self to discover. Rather than have some essential self that is there all along, our job as humans is to create a self. What we do makes us what we are. If I love, I am a lover. If I sin, I am a sinner. There is no self to which I must be true: I create myself as I go along. It is the existentialist within us that bristles at the notion that we ought to “hate the sin, love the sinner.” If I am what I do, then when you say you hate what I do (sin), you are saying that you hate me (the sinner). You may make a distinction, stuck as you are in your essentialism, but I, an existentialist, feel only hatred and rejection. There simply is no distinction between what I am and what I do.
I don’t find either of the accounts I’ve mentioned so far to be very useful. Approaching the problem phenomenologically, I from time to time sense a distinction, a distance, between what I do and my “real self.” This is where I can identify with what I read in Romans 7: Sometimes I know the right thing to do, having a concept of “right thing” not merely as something declared right by the forces of society or some bossy controlling God who is out to ruin my life, but as something even I consider right. I know the right thing but do it not. In this case the “hating the sin and loving the sinner” is not the stance of an external judge but my reflection on myself. I have a sense of a better life – both a better life in general and a better life “for me.” I want to change so that I can do all within my power to instantiate that better life.
I also don’t think there is some real self there for me to uncover. Not in a substantive sense anyway. My ontology is structured around the reality of story. I live in a story. I am a character in this story. This story is partly my own, partly others. On the grandest level, my story is part of the story of God. If there is such a thing as “discovering my true self,” that discover is not directed toward the self, but directed toward God. As I discern more clearly and truly God’s story and my role within that story, I, as a result, more truly discover my self. As I become a willing participant in the story of God, as I submit my (partially) self-written story to God’s story, I become more the person God intended me to be. As I become the person God intended me to be, I find that result to not just be better for God, but better for me as well.
Some are inclined to dig within themselves to find the deepest insight into what God wants them to be. Popular as this is, I see it as a way too prone to self-deception. It is a way that too easily reasons, “I am this way, so this must reflect what God wants me to be like.” Alexander Pope famously said a few centuries ago, “Whatever is, is right.” I can’t say that either about the world or about myself. I know myself to be a sinner. I know the world to be marred by my sin and the sin of others. So is the fact that I am a sinner me “real self?” That I am a sinner is a current reality about me that I need to take into account, but it is neither the identity for which God made me nor that for which he intends me.
Christians take the story of God to have climaxed in history in the story of Jesus. Jesus went to the cross not thinking “whatever is, is right,” but with the apparent conviction that the world and its inhabitants were in desperate need. In Christ we see that God wanted to do something about my current identity as “sinner.” God’s desire was so great that he sent Jesus to do something about it.
In a sense I am called to recapitulate the story of Jesus in my own life. He said, “Take up your cross and follow me.” My taking up my cross will most likely look rather different than his taking up his cross. But if I do it rightly, my taking up the cross will be recognizable at some point as an echo of his taking up his cross. I will die with him so that I may truly live.
This notion of a life submitted to God is rather unpopular these days. We value autonomy (being a law unto ourselves) and condemn heteronomy. Heteronomy is for children, not adults. Once we’ve clarified our desires, we ought to seek what we desire, submitting to no one. If there is a story of God, that story is a story of oppression. We want the freedom to make our own story, now and every day.
As Christians, however, we turn away from the notion that we make (or ought to make) ourselves, that we are (or ought to be) a law unto ourselves. We look to God as the good Creator who loves us beyond measure and is wise far beyond our capacity. Entering into the continuing story of Jesus is good for us and the people around us.