OK, that’s a deliberately bold and attention-grabbing opening line. Bear with me as I try to unpack it.
Once we have passed the relatively innocent age of our youngest childhood, we quickly grow accustomed to living in a world that places all kinds of demands upon us. Our parents play a vital role in teaching us what to value and how to behave, but even this good and essential duty is tinged by a dark side: we begin to learn very early on what it is to perform. We come to realise that if we behave in a certain way that meets the desires and expectations of parents, family members, teachers, classmates and others, we will be rewarded with expressions of approval and favour.
This mechanism of learning how to please others is critical to our growth and development into well-adjusted human beings who can live more or less peaceably in society. However, as I suggested above, it also has a dangerous underside: we can become so trained in and accomplished at pleasing others and seeking approval that we forget – or fail to ever discover in the first place – who we really are.
First, we try to be the kind of son or daughter our parents seem to want us to be – and, since parents often have differing expectations, this in itself can be quite a task. Next, we want our teachers to like us (or at least not to dislike us), partly because this makes school easier to navigate and partly because our parents will be pleased with us if our teachers are pleased with us. Then there are our friends and acquaintances: no one wants to be the odd one out in the playground, the child who is the butt of everyone’s jokes, so we try very hard to fit in, to use whatever particular skills and talents we have to impress at least a few people and gain some kind of social status.
This sort of peer pressure is accentuated to the nth degree by the media. From the latest must-see TV show to the ubiquitous marketing and advertising messages with which we are bombarded daily from morning till night, we are continually squeezed by pressure to conform, to look like this, to act like that.
Then we must think about a job or career. In my experience, relatively few are the people who have a genuine passion that propels them into a particular vocation. For most of us, it’s a case of needs must: we find a job and subsequently a career not because we love it, but because we need it in order to live. And so, perhaps against our will, we end up squeezing ourselves into the mould of salesperson, banker, accountant, administrator, office manager, or whatever.
Given all of the above, we spend a large part of our lives and expend much subconscious emotional energy trying to be various kinds of person: the right kind of son or daughter, sibling, student, employee, parent, friend, etc. And by the “right kind”, I mean the kind that will secure us the attention and approval we crave.
Being a Christian doesn’t automatically help. In fact, far from relieving this constant pressure to live up to certain subconscious ideals, religion often compounds it. We may well genuinely encounter Jesus and be given fresh hope and a new lease of life by the glorious good news of his gospel, but now there are even more things we need to live up to. Now we feel we have to be a “good Christian”, defined based on a variety of criteria: our attendance on Sundays and at various midweek events, our perceived passion for the cause of Christ and the church, how kind and loving we are towards others, whether we are carrying our fair share of the church load, whether we are sufficiently full of the joy of the Lord at all times, and so on.
It often takes some kind of crisis to shock us into seeing that we’ve spent years juggling all these plates and in the process lost our very identity. We experience some kind of loss or failure, the whole elaborate edifice we’ve constructed comes crashing down, and we realise just how worn out we are by the constant acting and performing.
I believe God wants us to know him in truth. This of course means, in large part, understanding the truth about God. Churches are typically quite strong on this aspect of our faith. They are much less strong on helping us resolve what, for me, is an equally vital part of the equation: understanding the truth about ourselves. I’m not talking here about ethereal truths to do with our spiritual position in God (which is not to say such things aren’t important; just that they aren’t my focus here). I’m talking about discovering the essential truth of who we are, learning to accept and live with the good, the bad, the ugly and the beautiful of our personalities and peccadilloes. And, above all, learning to shake off and live free of the perceived expectations of others – realising that in constantly seeking approval, whether we do it consciously or not, we are drinking from a poisoned well that will eventually kill us.
In other words, we must learn to be ourselves whether others like it or not. This might sound like a light thing, but in my experience it’s the fruit of years of experience and effort.
I can think of at least three reasons why learning to be our true selves is so important:
– First, we need it for our own freedom and our own emotional and spiritual health. Constantly living to meet some mark or standard, whether real or imagined, places an unbearably heavy burden on us. It ends up sapping our strength and crushing our spirit.
– Second, when we constantly try to jump through hoops in order to be what we think others want us to be, we rob the world of the utterly unique individual we really are. Every one of us bears the divine image in a never-to-be-repeated way, and God’s light shines in and through our lives most brightly when we stop trying to conform and please others and begin first to accept and then to enjoy and revel in the peculiar uniqueness that is, in fact, our gift to the world.
– Third, just as it’s essential that we know God as he really is, God wants to know us as we really are. The person he’s after is not the dutiful parent we feel we ought to be, the high-achieving student we wish we were, the ambitious employee we try to be, or the model church member we need others to think we are. All of these things are externals, a collection of masks we wear in an effort to look the part in any given situation. But God is not after our masks: he wants our heart.
I have a long way to go on this journey of laying aside the masks and learning to be who I am and not who I think I ought to be. Wherever you are on the journey, my biggest prayer for you and I is for courage. Stripping away the things that have for decades given us a sense of security is a difficult and scary prospect. But I believe it is ultimately the only way to the freedom that is found in the truth about God and about ourselves.
I want to know God, not just in my head but in my heart and soul and woven into the day-to-day fabric of my life. This is not mere knowledge, and neither is it the kind of superficial relationship that is often touted in popular Christianity. It is a deep knowing, a knowing that will one day find fulfilment in knowing even as we are fully known. May God grant us the courage to cast way all that is external and artificial and bring our real selves to him and to the world around us.
And so I close with my opening line: you cannot really know God until you know who you are.
[ Image: Jesus Solana ]