Learning to be Oneself: A Spiritual Discipline?

As I wrote Monday, I’ve been reading Alexander Elchaninov this Nativity and have found his meditations to be a great source of encouragement. In that post, I reflected on Elchaninov’s words about living life as it actually is, in the present, rather than retreating into our constructed notions of past or future ideals.

Today I am sharing a quotation that in my mind extends from that idea. It speaks about the necessity of being oneself in the spiritual life:

We can live our entire life–and many in fact do–as a pale reflection of someone else. The first and primary meaning of living is to be oneself, and from this to ascend to transfiguration of oneself into the ‘image and likeness of God.’ (Alexander Elchaninov, Diary of a Russian Priest, 82)

To be oneself, rather than a false ideal of oneself, is one element of learning to live life as it actually is. We often live out of our self-concocted ideals of our future selves–the self we will be when we figure out all our issues and stop messing up. Or the self we will be when our lives are better, when we have a better job, when we finally attain what it is we think we were created to attain.

It seems to me that to surrender to God, we must first surrender to ourselves. I don’t mean to give in or give up on the worst parts of ourselves, but to acknowledge who we actually are in a spirit of relinquishment. Just as we can only have fellowship with Christ in the present moment–the time of action and presence we have been given from God–so too we can also only do so as the self/person we were created as.

Too often, we attempt to come to God as people we aren’t. Perhaps we turn towards God as humbler, more pious and loving copies of ourselves, people who don’t need to ask for humility or wisdom because they already have it. People who have it all figured out and are only showing up in their inner prayer chamber because it’s what’s expected.

Or perhaps we come to Him as hopeless, self-hating versions of ourselves.  We show up before God in a conspiratorial spirit as though He must agree that we are a bad, terrible, worthless person. (Some would call this false pride or false humility. It consists of the same self-focus but is inverted in a spirit of hate. In some ways this is harder to address because it can be disguised as humility or piety.)

In either scenario, we aren’t living or praying out of the “noble ruins” of our true selves, to borrow a phrase a counselor friend of mine is fond of using to describe the blessed-but-fallen tension of humanity.

Many of us know people who spend much of their time in relationships with others lamenting x, y, or z characteristic about themselves. You try to have a conversation about the weather or a movie, and suddenly they’re talking about how fat they are. You’re trying to share about a book or an idea that’s important to them, only to have them sidetrack the conversation by bringing up their supposedly lousy parenting skills.

Still there are others who constantly pretend to be someone they’re not, hiding their real selves by projecting a persona who is more put-together, intelligent, energetic, instagram-worthy.

Maybe we are or have been that person at times.

Really what all of these efforts are about is shame. A sense of unworthiness.

Counter-intuitively, trying to be a better/false version of ourselves will drive us further from people rather than closer. Covering up our shame takes an enormous amount of energy and self-preoccupation that makes it impossible for others to truly connect with us.

When we fail to be ourselves in human relationships, what we are really saying to those that love us is that we don’t trust them. We don’t trust them to see and accept us for who we are, in all our strengths and weaknesses.

So it is with God. When we turn to Him as “pale reflections” of who we really are, we are neglecting true communion with Him, and we are also turning away from a spirit of trust.

What does it mean to be ourselves in the presence of God?

To me, it comes back to a verse found in the Psalms: “Be still and know that I am God.” (PS 46:10, NIV)

Other versions translate this as “Cease striving and know that I am God.” (NASB)

There may be things we don’t like about ourselves, there may be things we legitimately need to address, but standing before God as our true selves requires us–in a certain sense–to simply surrender those things, surrender the temptation to cover up our warts by adopting a different persona. All of that is a form of internal striving that makes it impossible to just be and rest in the presence of the Lord.

All of this takes an enormous amount of strength. As humans, one of our strongest instincts is to avoid pain. And one of the hardest pains is the simple wound of being with ourselves, day in and day out, our brokenness and mistakes constantly before us. To trust God with who we actually are, in the time we are actually standing (not in the ideal future when we will have ourselves sorted out), at times requires an almost excruciating degree of humility.

It’s not that we need to give up on ourselves or stop doing the hard work of transformation in Christ. But all that, to be true transformation and theosis, has to come from a place of trust, repentance, and relationship (and hope!) rather than from fear and shame.

It is only in His presence, not in our striving, that we can quietly begin to recover His image, which He deigned to create us in. And it’s in His presence, too, we begin to be transfigured into His likeness.





Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.