Mark 8:34-38—He called the crowd with his disciples, and said to them, “If any want to become my followers, let them renounce themselves and take up their cross and follow me. For those who want to save their self will lose it, and those who want to lose their self for my sake, and the sake of the gospel, will save it. For what will it profit them to gain the whole world and forfeit their self? Indeed, what can they give in return for their self?
Matthew 26:41—“Stay awake and pray that you may not come into the time of trial; the spirit is indeed willing, but the flesh is weak.” (The context of this verse is the struggles of Jesus in Gethsemane when his disciples cannot even stay awake during his ordeal.)
Romans 7:14-23—For we know that the law is spiritual; but I am of the flesh, sold into slavery under sin. I do not understand my own actions. For I do not do what I want, but I do the very thing I hate. Now if I do what I do not want to do, I agree that the law is good. But in fact, it is no longer I that do it, but sin that dwells within me. For I know nothing good dwells within me, that is, in my flesh. I can will what is right, but I cannot do it. For I do not do the good I want, but the evil I do not want is what I do. Now if I do what I do not want, it is no longer I that does it, but sin that dwells within me. So, I find it to be a law that when I want to do what is good, evil lies close at hand. For I delight in the law of God in my innermost self, but I see in my members another law at war with the law of my mind, making me captive to the law of sin that dwells in my members.
We are all familiar with the concept of self. With the exception of some positivistic materialists, we each claim to have a self, although we may have some difficulty defining exactly what a self is. Here are five definitions of self:
- A person’s essential being that distinguishes them from others, especially considered as the object of introspection or reflexive action
- The union of elements (as body, emotions, thoughts, and sensations) that constitute the individuality and identity of a person
- A person or thing referred to with respect to complete individuality
- An individual person as the object of its own reflective consciousness
- A unified being essentially connected to consciousness, awareness, and agency
Philosophers spend endless hours defining and debating the nature of “self.” For the purpose of this article, I want to assume that we all know we have a self as we consider the implications of our individual self within the Christian faith. Jesus affirmed the existence and value of the individual self in his words found in Mark 8 quoted above. (The Greek word psuche has been translated as soul, life, and self. I would suggest that the word “self” is the most appropriate translation in the context of this particular Markan passage.) Although we may understand ourselves to have only one self, we often struggle with the choices available to and made by that individual self. In Matthew 26 Jesus speaks of a spirit willing to be faithful and of a flesh (sarx) that is weak. Paul in Romans refers to the all too familiar experience of wanting to do good but choosing to do evil. He speaks of a “war” going on within his self. Such a struggle may appear to indicate that we have more than one self at the core of our being. (Elizabeth O’Connor wrote an insightful book entitled Our Many Selves which examines this experience from many different angles.)
Various religious traditions deal differently with the concept and ultimate value of self. Eastern religions tend to have a more negative understanding of self which is evidenced by the concept of nirvana. Hinduism, Jainism, Buddhism, and Sikhism all see nirvana as the ultimate goal of the individual. The term “nirvana” literally means “blown out”/ “extinguishment” as in blowing out or extinguishing a candle. Although the nature of nirvana varies within these religions, this article deals with only one expression of Buddhism. Nirvana is a form of liberation which is identical to anatta (non-self/lack of any self). Such liberation occurs when all things and beings are understood to be with “no Self.” Everything is empty (sunyata) and possesses no essence. Nirvana brings liberation from repeated rebirth in this world of suffering, greed, desire, hatred, and delusion. (Although this brief look at nirvana reflects only one interpretation within Buddhism, I think it demonstrates the tendency of Eastern religions to see salvation in terms of being liberated from this world and from one’s self.)
I have never found this idea of nirvana comforting or rational. It reminds me somewhat of the platonic suspicion in Greek philosophy that creation is evil and illusionary; that the soul is a spark of immortality; and that salvation for that soul involves an escape from the enslaving nature of one’s earthly existence. Such a view of reality is in sharp contrast to the earthiness and creation-centered religions of Judaism and Christianity (when they are at their best). My question is simply this: what’s the point of creation if we all become part of a cosmic consciousness with no awareness of self? This cosmos has evolved over billions of years to produce incredible diversity, exquisite uniqueness, and profound individuality. Having all that beauty and potential simply melt into nothingness with no awareness of the self which creation has striven so long to bring into existence would be an unfathomable tragedy and an incomprehensible act of a Creator who loves and values Her creation. Christianity, birthed within Judaism, affirms creation as good (though in need of healing primarily because of human sin) and understands salvation as the liberation of the entire cosmos (including the unique selves of humans).
A foundational belief within the Christian faith is the hope of resurrection. The teachings of Jesus and the writings of Paul on resurrection assume that it is, in fact, the self of a person which is embodied within the next dimension. This future embodiment makes no sense if the individual self is lost by being immersed and diluted to the point of nothingness into some greater Consciousness. In Jesus’ debate with the Sadducees over the question of resurrection, he reminded them that God said to Moses, “I am the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob.” Jesus then said, “He is God not of the dead, but of the living; for to him all are alive.” (Luke 20:27-40) Notice Jesus did not say, “He is the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob.” The one he called Abba was/is specifically the God of each one of these patriarchs, both when they walked the earth and now that they are with God in a different dimension. The specificity of each self is preserved. The Apostle Paul maintained the same hope in his writings on resurrection (I Corinthians 15; II Corinthians 5). The New Testament even includes all of creation in the transformation which will occur in the new heaven and the new earth. We will have a new “body” fit for that new dimension, and the “we” who are given that new embodiment will be the specific “we” experienced in this life.
But the question remains as to how we deal with Jesus’ shocking demand that we must lose ourselves if we are to follow him. Within Fundamentalist and some conservative types of Christianity, we find a weird and unhealthy application of this teaching. People are told that God loves them and wants to save them from eternal damnation. However, once these people are “saved,” they are often required to live very truncated lives as they restrict their beliefs, thoughts, actions, and associations. It’s almost as if they are told that once they are saved, they must destroy their individual selves as they embrace the strict standards dictated by this form of Christianity. I have witnessed how harmful this spiritual malpractice can be for people who struggle with who they are at the core of their being when that core fails to meet these rigid demands. What is really being said in these versions of Christianity is that God loves people as long as they hold fast to certain beliefs and ways of living. It is a religion based on fear and, as such, demands that one never doubt, waver, or fall. These versions of Christianity are so distorted and destructive because they have never experienced a perfect love that casts out fear. God does not demand that we become spiritual zombies or mindless and soulless ticky-tacky all in a row to experience wholeness, healing and liberation. The Creator of this exquisite and massive universe delights in diversity. The very evolutionary process itself has labored toward diversity and uniqueness to allow for homo sapiens. God does not desire to destroy our selves and to replace them with truncated and fearful beings who will never know pure love and exquisite joy. (Both joy and love are impossible in an environment of fear.)
So, how do we deal with Jesus’ teachings about losing ourselves? Many of Jesus’ teachings (as well as teachings in other religions) are presented as paradoxes. Here is a dictionary definition of paradox: “a seemingly absurd or self-contradictory statement or preposition that when investigated or explained may prove to be well-founded or true.” The definition I have used in religion classes is the following: “A paradox is something which first seems false or ridiculous but upon further thought or experience is found to be profoundly true.” I suggest that Jesus’ words in Mark 8 are a profound paradox of the life he invited his followers to live.
At the root of everything Jesus said and did was a deep trust in the One he called Abba. Human nature is such that we need something to trust and by which we can orient our lives. We each have to decide how we will live and to what or to whom we will give our allegiance. Our choices are many. Among those choices are money, status, power, comfort, various addictions, pleasure, family, another individual, greed, demagogues, gurus, religious and faith commitments, maintaining the status quo, bigotry, and any of the “isms” which have plagued history. To establish and maintain a self, we must make choices regarding our ultimate commitments and allegiances. We must give ourselves to something, even if that something is our own comfort and safety, in order to find some direction in life. That’s simply the way we are made.
Augustine famously said, “We are restless until we find our rest in Thee.” In other words, only an ultimate commitment and allegiance to God will satisfy our longings and fulfill our potential as creatures made in the image of God. Any other choice will fail to provide the opportunities, means, and future worthy of our identities as children of God. In the final analysis, such choices constitute a form of idolatry. Idols are false gods which can take us only so far in life. At some point all idols reveal themselves to be lifeless and dangerous. Idols are also enslaving. Part of the genius of Paul was his realization that when we commit ourselves to anything other than the Living God, we become slaves to that which can never allow for our full potential, healing, and joy.
But what if we gave ourselves and our allegiance to Someone who can be trusted to always seek our very best? What if this God out of pure and unconditional love was eager to love us into our complete and liberating potential? What if there were no devious, selfish, and limiting motives in this God to whom we offer ourselves? What if, with this God, there are unending horizons of love, joy, growth, peace, and fulfillment which flow from the fathomless potentialities of our Creator?
As we give our selves to this God, we are loved into our healing and liberation. Simultaneously, this God gives us back our selves and invites us to journey with Her into a future chosen by both of us. Rather than woodenly following some predetermined path we must take, together we choose to flesh out the life we want to live. Our lives become an exquisite pas de deux as we are enriched and discover the unique life which corresponds to our most authentic self. In our surrender to this God, we find the self we would have lost if we had followed other paths which could take us only so far before they end in boredom, tragedy, or self-destruction. Our surrender to this God of unconditional and never-ending love becomes our liberation. This is the paradox of self-giving love.
This insight explains how we can save ourselves once we lose our selves for the sake of God’s will in this world. That found and saved self is possible only because of the trust we place in this Abba God and the healing power of Her unconditional and everlasting love. It is only as we experience this authentic self as a child of God that we even have a self to give to the world. The mistake of Christian Fundamentalism is that the self it offers is based on fear. A faith based on fear has nothing to offer the world which is healing, liberating, and joyful. We can’t offer a self to the world until we have a self that is worthy of being offered.
Eastern Orthodox Christianity understands the ultimate goal of God for creation to be theosis (the divinization of the universe). Theosis doesn’t mean that we become divine. It means that we share in the divine nature and life of God. Our self and God’s Self are in intimate communion with each another. God does not cease to be God, and we do not cease to be our selves. But in the communion of divine love, we find an identity and a destiny which expand to match the horizons of God’s healing and liberating will for every part of creation. As Shug says in The Color Purple, “God’s just wanting to share a good thing.” And that good thing is the very nature and depths of God Herself. We give our all to a God who gives Her all (which includes our unique, authentic selves). And in that lopsided exchange, we experience the never-ending horizons of grace piled upon grace.