Shepherd's Voice February 2021 - FROM FALSE SELF TO TRUE SELF


St. Paul in his letter to the Colossians (Col 3: 1-17) places before us the touchstone of Christian life which hangs on one powerful expression within his exhortation: “For you have died, and your life is hidden with Christ in God” (Col. 3:3). While we are still physically alive on this earth he calls us ‘dead’ – but dead to what? To sexual immorality, impurity, passion, evil desire, covetousness, anger, wrath, malice, slander, obscene talk, lies and everything that belongs to the ‘old self’ which we have put off in baptism. Because our lives are now hidden with Christ in God we have put on the ‘new self’ which belongs to Christ who is our life. This new self is the restoration of the divine image in which we were originally created; this image was lost due to sin but regained in the death and resurrection of Christ. What are the characteristics of being ‘alive’ in Christ? Compassionate heart, kindness, humility, meekness, patience, forbearance, quick forgiveness and love “which binds everything together in perfect harmony”. When we live this life “hidden in Christ with God” the peace of Christ begins to rule in our hearts, and where there is peace and love there is also unity of the one body of Christ. Therefore he insists that we are no more “Greek and Jew, circumcised and uncircumcised, barbarian, Scythian, slave, free; but Christ is all, and in all” – all these man-made distinctions of the ‘old self’ or the ‘false self’ are removed because Christ, who is in all, is the only defining reality. We do everything, whether in word or deed, in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, our Savior and Liberator.
Another beautiful characteristic of the ‘new self’ emphasized by St. Paul is ‘thankfulness’. In all our thoughts, words and actions we are called to give thanks to God the Father in Christ Jesus Our Lord; and thankfulness manifests itself in “singing psalms and hymns and spiritual songs”. It is not a thankfulness to God when everything is going on well with us but also when things go ‘wrong’ as we experience so many times i.e. thankfulness in all circumstances.
This newness of life is ours through baptism but it can be lost too due to our sinfulness; therefore we need, by God’s grace, to constantly “seek the things that are above”; we need to “put to death what is earthly” in us and put on the ‘new self’ as “God’s chosen ones, holy and beloved”. This is a daily striving, nay of every moment, as the Saints have taught us.
The season of Lent in particular, with its call to ‘repentance’, is God’s gift to us to enter into the process of renewal and move from worldly foolishness to divine wisdom, from the ‘false self’ to the ‘true self’ i.e. Christ in us and we in Christ. We have to allow the word of God to dwell in us richly and also help one another in all wisdom to live the new life “hidden with Christ in God”. This is the mystery of the Church, the body of Christ, that lives in Christ and wants to deepen her communion with him at every moment so that the world may believe. This mystery begins firstly in the Christian family and from there moves to the Church at large locally and universally.
‘Repentance’ is depicted in a powerful image in the Book of Revelation– that of Christ knocking on our door to enter and sit at table with us: “Behold, I stand at the door and knock. If anyone hears my voice and opens the door, I will come in to him and eat with him, and he with me” (Rev. 3:20). What is the door on which Jesus knocks?
“It is the door of our false self. It is those places in our life where we have shut God out and enclosed ourselves within our self-referenced structure of being, where we are imprisoned in our false self. But notice the movement here. God doesn’t call us to clean up our act and come out to have a good relationship with God. God calls us to open the door so that God can come in, come into our false self. God’s cruciform love seeks to enter into the depths of our darkness, our sin, our deadness, our brokenness, our bondage. What will God do when God comes in? ‘I will eat with them and they with me’. The word that John uses here for ‘eat’ is the word that is used in the New Testament for the Lord’s Supper. When God enters into our false self, it is the sacrament of God’s presence, another image of the cross. God comes into the core of our self-referenced being. God comes to bring light into our darkness, cleansing into our sin, life into our deadness, healing into our brokenness, liberation into our bondage; to nurture us there into wholeness in the very image of God. But to open that door is to acknowledge our false self and to allow God to come in, knowing that when the love of God encounters the false self, it is always a cruciform encounter for God and for us.
How do we do this? How do we open the door? In fact, what is that door? We might think of the door as any aspect of our false self that prevents God from being God in our life in God’s terms. It may be a habit that holds us in its destructive bondage, an attitude that deforms our way of living, a perception that warps our view of others, a pattern of relationship with others that is destructive to both them and us, a way of reacting to circumstances that hinders us, a cancerous resentment whose poison is eating away the vitals of our being. Whatever the door may be for us, it is something to which our false self has become attached and in which we are finding something of our identity, meaning, value or purpose. The hinges of this door are mounted in the depths of our being. To put it simply, the door is something we love more than we love God. To open this door is to breach the wall of our false self, to release our possessive grip that holds the door closed, to respond to the cruciform love of the nail-scarred hand that knocks, to receive the nurture into Christlikeness that is offered.
Let’s say for example, one of your doors is a long-held, deep-seated resentment at someone who has wronged you. The anger, the bitterness, the pain of what they did have birthed dreams of revenge, which you have fed and nurtured so many times they have now become woven into your very being. Part of your false self has become indentified by this resentment. How do you open this door? By forgiving the one who wronged you! This is taking up the cross. Forgiveness is a death to your false self and its righteous indignation, its justified rationale for revenge, its fondling of the resentment. This death is extremely painful; everything in your false self screams out against it; this is truly dying with Christ. The instant you even touch this door of resentment with the faintest desire to open it by forgiveness, Christ is present to enable you to open it fully. He comes in, and as you continue to rely on him to enable you to forgive, you begin to experience his cruciform love nurturing you in that love, healing the hurt, removing the resentment, flushing away the bitterness until one day you realize that Christ’s love and forgiveness have become incarnate in you for the one who wronged you. Your Christ self has come to life!” [M. Robert Mulholland Jr The Deeper Journey. The Spirituality of Discovering Your true Self (St. Paul’s, Bandra, Mumbai, 2012)] pp. 79-81.
Ultimately it boils down to knowing God as our ‘Abba’ and experiencing the infinite love of the Father revealed in Jesus Christ. M. Robert Mulholland in the book cited above narrates a beautiful story:
In a meeting of young couples a woman shared something of her spiritual pilgrimage. She was the daughter of a prostitute – literally a job-related accident! She was raised up by aunts, uncles, grandparents, even her own mother from time to time. As a young teenager she was drawn into a church youth group and there she discovered the love of God in Christ and responded to that love. After graduation she went to a Christian college where she met a young man with whom she fell in love and they were married. They built up a wonderful home and two lovely children were born to them. Yet she had a compulsive need to know who her father was. She was spending every ounce of her energy and all her resources to try to find out who her father was but it was an impossible task. Her mother didn’t have the slightest idea who her clients were nine months before she was born. This compulsive ‘search’ was destroying her beautiful home. Then one day a miracle happened. She was standing alone at her kitchen sink, cleaning some dishes. In the pain and anguish of her heart, her tears running down her face and dropping into the dishwater, she cried out, ‘Oh God, who is my father?’ and she heard a voice say, ‘I am your Father’. The voice was so real she turned around to see who had sneaked into the kitchen behind her. There was no one. She heard the voice again, ‘I am your Father, and I have always been your Father’ . In that moment she was released from that obsessive need to know who her biological father had been. She discovered the truth of these words of St. Paul: “…even as he chose us in him before the foundation of the world…In love he predestined us for adoption to himself as sons (and daughters) through Jesus Christ, according to the purpose of his will” (Eph. 1:4-5).
WThe purpose of the season of Lent is precisely to affirm us in our identity in Christ – that we are God’s children spoken forth out of the heart of God’s love before the foundation of the world that “we should be holy and blameless before him” i.e. to live a life in loving union with God which is our true self. Therefore Lent doesn’t mean only strict abstinence, fasting and other penances but it means “the abandonment of our false self, the relinquishment of our whole pervasive, self-referenced structure of being. Our cross and Jesus’ cross are united. His cross is the presence of his love at the core of our false self” (ibid, p. 79). Lenten practices of penance, unless they are expressions of the inner conversion of heart through repentance, may still reinforce the ‘religious false self’ of the Scribes and Pharisees so much detested by Jesus in his encounter with them because they set much store by the external observances and “neglected the weightier matters of the law: justice and mercy and faithfulness” (Mt. 23:23). St. Paul was also a highly educated and fanatic Pharisee, but, after his encounter with the Risen Lord and his conversion to the Way, he considered all such practices of the law as mere “rubbish” in comparison to the “surpassing worth of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord” and “be found in him, not having a righteousness of my own that comes from the law, but that which comes through faith in Christ” (Phil. 3: 7-11).
The Church in Laodicea (Rev. 3:14-22) is the archetypal false self. They proudly boast that they are rich, have prospered, and need nothing, but they don’t realize that they are “wretched, pitiable, poor, blind and naked” (Rev. 3:17). In their blindness they have become lukewarm i.e. neither hot nor cold; so our Lord Jesus Christ, the true and faithful witness, threatens to spit the Laodiceans out of his mouth unless they become zealous and repent.
What do they need to do in order to be saved?
They need to seek the true riches of God’s Kingdom which the Lord alone can offer us. He invites them to buy from him “gold refined by fire” so that they may be rich; “white garments” to cover the shame of their nakedness; “salve” to anoint their eyes so that they may see. All these are symbols of the ‘new self’ or ‘true self’ in Christ.
What happened at Laodicea can happen with any church that becomes comfortably settled, organized and inward-looking over passage of time through very many structures. This church begins to gradually diminish in its evangelical zeal and to focus more on its own maintenance. The original fervor of the Gospel disappears individually and collectively and what is left is an ‘organization’, however grandiose, whose growth has practically come to a standstill.
May the grace of God enable us to transcend the ‘old self’ and put on the ‘new self’ in Christ.

+ Archbishop Anil Couto
Archbishop of Delhi

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