The Deeper Journey for Leaders: From the False Self to the True Self
“For you have died, and your life is hidden with Christ in God.”
Paul in Colossians 3
Once I asked the pastor of a large, vigorous, dynamic, growing church with a strong emphasis on the deeper life in Christ—a church that confirmed fifty to seventy-five new members each week—where these people were coming from. His response surprised me. He told me almost all of these people had begun their journey in Christ in an even larger, more vigorous, more dynamic church whose worship was leading-edge contemporary, whose focus was strongly charismatic and whose corporate life centered in highly emotional expressions of faith in God.
These people would stay in that church for about two to three years and then the novelty and excitement would become ritualized and dry for them. They began to hunger, in his words, “for something deeper.” They began to sense there was more to the Christian life.
You may have felt the same thing and asked yourself, Isn’t there more to the Christian life than being active in a Christian community, affirming a certain set of beliefs, adopting a particular behavior pattern?
The answer is Yes. The “more” is the journey from living out one’s false self to living as our true self in Christ—a self that is deeply centered in and utterly abandoned to God.
Two Ways of Being in the World
You see, there are two fundamental ways of being human in the world: trusting in our human resources and abilities or radically trusting in God. You cannot be grasped by or sustained in the deeper life in God—being like Jesus— until you are awakened at the deep levels of your being to this essential reality. You might describe these two ways of being in the world as the “false self” and the “true self.” Unless you are aware of these two selves—these two ways of being in the world – you will have great difficulty allowing God to lead you into a deeper life of wholeness in Christ.
The reality of the “false self”–this pervasive, deeply entrenched, self-referenced structure of being as the primary context of our spiritual journey—is one of the hardest things for us to acknowledge. We tend to think of the false self as a “surface phenomena” that can be treated by a few cosmetic alterations in our behavior. We are slow to accept the fact that our false self permeates all the way to the core of our being. It is hard to admit that we are profoundly habituated to a self-referenced way of being in the world that manifests itself in characteristics such as being fearful, protective, possessive, manipulative, destructive, self-promoting, indulgent, and making distinctions so as to separate ourselves from others.
Jesus makes the reality of the false self unmistakably clear when he says, “If anyone would come after me, they must deny themselves,” and, “Whoever loses their self for my sake will find it” (Mt 16:24-25). Jesus is not talking about giving up candy for Lent. He is calling for the abandonment of our entire, pervasive, deeply entrenched matrix of self-referenced being so we can enter into a life of loving union with God that manifests itself in Christlikeness.
The Religious False Self
What’s even more difficult, however, for us as Christian leaders to acknowledge is the reality of a particular aspect of our false self that is even more subtle– our religious false self.
Our religious false self presumes, because we are religious, that everything is fine in our relationship with God. Oh, to be sure, there may be a need for some “fine-tuning” of a few aspects of our life, a polishing up of a few of our rough edges. Our religious false self may be rigorous in religiosity, devoted in discipleship and sacrificial in service—without being in loving union with God.
We see a frightening example of this at the end of the Sermon on the Mount where Jesus depicts a scene before the throne on the judgment day. A group of people appear there and say, “Lord, Lord, did we not prophesy in your name, and cast out demons in your name, and do many deeds of power in your name?” Obviously these were serious, dedicated disciples. Their lives had been spent doing “God things.” But Jesus replies to them, “I never knew you; go away from me, you evildoers” (Mt 7:22-23 NRSV).
Their lives, their ministries, were not grounded in a loving union with Christ. They were religious false selves. They were so busy being in the world for God that they failed to be in God for the world. And here is a great difference between these two ways. A religious false self will expend amazing amounts of energy and resources to be in the world for God. But the true self is called to be in God for the world, and this is costly. It requires the abandonment of the whole self-referenced structure of our false self and, especially, the religious false self.
An Essential Awareness
Perhaps the premier examples of religious false selves in the New Testament are the Pharisees. Jesus uses a powerful simile to describe their frightening condition. He calls them “whitewashed tombs” that outwardly appear beautiful but within are full of deadness (Mt 23:27). Their outward display of religiosity was enviable in its apparent holiness, in its faithful obedience to the Torah, in its devotion to the scribal lists of dos and don’ts, in its rigorous abstention from anything that might defile its purity. Behind this religious façade, however, was an emptiness of deadly proportions.
Their profound religiosity was a self-generated effort at attaining holiness for themselves rather than the fruit of a life in loving union with God.
For those on an intentional spiritual journey, our awareness of the deadly and debilitating nature of the religious false self is essential. Rigorous religious practices, devoted discipleship, sacrificial service, deeper devotional activities may do nothing more than turn a nominally religious false self into a fanatically religious false self.
The essential difference between a false self and a religious false self is that the latter brings God into its life, but in service of its false self programs. Our religious false self may begin with a genuine experience with God. But then, like Peter on the mount of transfiguration, we often seek to contain our experience within a box of our own making. We attempt to integrate our experience with God into the structures of our life in ways that are minimally disruptive to our status quo. The “God” within our box, however, becomes a construct, an idol, that enables us maintain control of what we call “God” as well as continue to be in control of our existence.
Letting God out of the Box
To put it succinctly, whenever we attempt to have God in our life on our own terms, we are a religious false self. The temptation to take over God’s role in our life is the essence of the false self. The false self is the self that in some way is playing God in its life and in its world. Before we can move forward to a life of radical abandonment to God in love—we must be clear on the nature of our religious false self and must come to the decision to lose this life for Christ’s sake.
But loss is not the main point. The main point is what we stand to gain. We are created to experience our true life, our genuine identity, our ultimate value in an intimate loving union with God at the core of our being. This is a life of radical abandonment to God in love and equally radical availability to God for others so that in all circumstances and relationships our life becomes one in whom God is present for others.
The life hidden with Christ in God is one of such growing union with God in love that God’s presence becomes the context of our daily life, God’s purposes become the matrix of our activities, and the values of God’s kingdom shape our life and relationships; God’s living presence becomes the ground of our identity, the source of our meaning, the seat of our value and the center of our purpose. And that way of being in the world is life indeed!
Gracious and merciful God, whose cruciform love has plumbed the depths of my false self, awaken me from the pervasive bondage of my false self and enable me through the power of your indwelling Holy Spirit to be restored to wholeness in the image of Christ. As I reflect on the hope and the possibility of living as my true self in Christ, stir my heart to hunger and thirst for your transforming work in my life through the Holy Spirit, who with Christ lives and reigns with you. Amen.
©M. Robert Mulholland, 2016. This article is adapted by Ruth Haley Barton from The Deeper Journey: The Spirituality of Discovering Your True Self (InterVarsity Press, 2016.)
Learn more about the impact of Dr. M. Robert Mulholland, Jr.:
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Read Ruth’s message from Mulholland’s memorial service.
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Donate towards the M. Robert Mulholland Scholarship Fund.
In your own life, how do you experience the “two ways of being” Mulholland describes? In particular, how and when do you experience the religious false self and how is God leading you beyond it?Discuss