The Real Self: The interplay of true psychology and basic Bible truths
Psychotherapists have powerfully pointed out the difference between the real, essential person- and the personas, or personages, whom we live out in the eyes of others. We humans tend to pretend to be the person others expect of us, we act out the person we feel our society or upbringing demands of us, rather than ‘being ourselves’. Truly did Shakespeare write [from a worldly perspective] that all the world’s a stage, and we are merely the players / actors. And as Napoleon said, “One becomes the man of one’s uniform”; the persona, the act we live, comes to influence the real person, like the clown who can’t stop clowning around. In Biblical terms, we allow the world to push us into its mould, psychologically and sociologically, rather than allowing ourselves to be transformed by the renewing of our minds by the things of God’s word and His Son (Rom. 12:2). At baptism, the “new man” was created within us; the man Christ Jesus was formed in us, a new birth occurred, the real, essential Duncan or Dave or Deirdre or Danuta became [potentially at least] ‘Jesus Christ’, “Christ in you, the hope of glory” (Col. 1:27). This is how important this matter is. Perceiving the Christ-man within yourself is related to your “hope of glory”; this is the assurance of our future salvation, through which we can have all joy and peace through believing.
The real self, I submit, is related to the man Christ Jesus formed within us at baptism (2 Cor. 5:17; Gal. 4:19), the “new man” who is born at baptism (Jn. 3:3; Eph. 4:24). This at times co-incides with various personas which we all tend to live out in our lives, depending upon whom we are with. At times our real self comes through, we are totally ‘ourselves’, at others we deny ourselves and act just a persona; and at yet others our ‘persona’ is influenced by our real self but not totally eclipsed. Thus the high school teacher working in an inner city school needs to come over as tough and hard to her classroom of unstable adolescents. But that ‘tough guy’ persona is ameliorated by its inter-relation to her true person, the man Christ Jesus within her.
The Lord taught His followers “first”, or ‘most of all’, to beware of hypocrisy (Lk. 12:1). For us, all the world is not to be a stage, and we are not to be merely actors upon that stage. Hypocrisy is that living out of a persona, acting, rather than being the person God created us to be. In the Lord Jesus men saw the word made flesh (Jn. 1:14). There was perfect congruence between the person He presented Himself as, and the person He essentially was. This was why He could so easily touch the true person in others. So often in our encounters with others there is no real dialogue, rather a conflict of monologues. This is why so many a debate between a Christadelphian and a Mormon, e.g., has come to nothing; for perhaps both of them are merely showing one of their personas.
Because Jesus was always showing His essential self- and this is in some ways an exhausting and almost unbearable way to live- He tended to connect easier to the real selves in His hearers. It may seem strange on first reflection to realize that the peerless Son of God could connect so easily with the hardest of sinners. Whenever we try to be righteous, we often alienate ordinary, sinful people. Yet why, then, did Jesus connect with them by being righteous? Surely because it was somehow so evident that He was not acting out a persona; He was being absolutely Himself, not acting out a part, with no hidden agendas. This was the beauty of His character; just as nature is beautiful because it simply is what it is. So self-evidently, who He was within, was who He showed Himself to be. The more we are ‘ourselves’, the more likely it is that we will connect with our contacts. People who only live out their personas create an impersonal atmosphere around them, whereas the person who lives and shows their real self encourages those around him or her to also feel themselves to be persons. I would go even further and suggest that the more we live as who we are, God Himself will become more personal to us.
To describe or ‘know’ the real self is ultimately impossible; we can’t write down an inventory of who we really are. Paul perceived this when he wrote that now he only knows himself partially, and only in the Kingdom “shall I know, even as also I am known” (1 Cor. 13:12). This for me is one of the Kingdom’s joys; to truly know myself, even as I am presently known by the Father. Until then, we remain mysteries even unto ourselves; and who amongst us has not quietly said that to themselves... The question ‘Who am I?’ must ultimately remain to haunt each one of us until that blessed day. It would be too simplistic to argue that the new man, the real self of the believer, is simply “Jesus Christ”. Our new man is formed in His image, but we are each a unique reflection of our Lord. He isn’t seeking to create uniform replicas of Himself; His personality is so multi-faceted that it cannot be replicated in merely one form nor one person. This is why “the body of Christ” is comprised of so many individuals both over time and space; and it is my belief that when that large community has manifested every aspect of the wonderful person of Jesus Christ, then we will be ripe for His return. This is why the spiritual development of the last generation before the second coming will hasten His return; for once they / we have replicated Himself in ourselves in our various unique ways to a satisfactory extent, then He will return to take us unto Himself, that where He ‘was’ as He said those words, in terms of His character and person, there we will be (Jn. 14:3; note that read this way, this passage is clearly not talking about Him taking us off to Heaven).
The New Man
The new person created in us at baptism by the new creation (2 Cor. 5:17) is essentially a character; or at least, the potential for a character, after the pattern of the Lord Jesus. For Christ is said to be “formed in us”. As we gaze into His glory, we are changed bit by bit into His image. His glorious character is a mirror, Paul says; as we look into it, our image comes to reflect His glory (2 Cor. 3:18). He doesn’t subsume us beneath Himself. Self-expression, or even self-manifestation, is one of God’s features, and so He intends it to be in us who are made after His image. God manifestation doesn’t in that sense mean the destruction or ignoring of the individual human person; rather, the very opposite, in that the real character will be eternally developed and preserved. This is where Hinduism is so wrong, as wrong as monolithic, apostate Papal or Protestant Christianity- the person disappears into the great Whole. Real character is this world’s most pressing need. If all 7 billion of us down here had real character and refused to be led by the manipulations of others, if we knew who we really were and refused to live out merely convenient personas, then the strife and depression and poverty of spirit which characterizes humanity would be no more. Real character refers to who we are when no one’s looking; what we essentially feel and identify ourselves as, as we walk down a street alone or lay awake at night in silence. It refers to what our self-talk is about, and the nature of it. I submit that true character of any sort is sadly lacking amongst the billions on this earth. The true and real character is that of the Lord, the true humanity whom God intended. And they know Him not. All are merely living out the expectations of their upbringing or surrounding societies. In Christ alone is the true character as God intends. Only in Him, in bearing His image, is there true freedom of self-determination. This freedom leads to visionary thinking, to true creativity. The peoples of this planet are largely committed to doing as they are told, or to preserving or creating a status quo which operates to their personal advantage; it is in the selfless person of Jesus that we find the freedom to break free from this terribly limited perspective; to creatively serve the only true God, to work out His glory in our own unique ways, not at the dictate of anyone else. Our generation seeks instant everything; instant wealth, success, fulfilling personal relationships, instant gratification. All this reflects a total lack of character. For those who are aware of their real selves, the man Christ Jesus within them, there is the strength to realize that nothing comes instantly; the real self is the product of slow, certain development.
There is something unique about the human person, the person God intends us to have; whereas that uniqueness is not found in the personas we often live out. From early childhood, when personality starts to develop, there is the desire to have something unique. Children like to invent secret codes which erect a sort of barrier between them and their parents; they make secret hiding places, or keep secret treasures to which their parents have no access. Take a real life conversation between two kids:
“I’ve got a secret, but I’m not going to tell you”
“Oh, I don’t care bout your silly secret”
“Don’t you want me to tell you my secret?”
“I don’t think you could have a secret”
“OK, I’ll tell you my secret…”.
Children may be incapable of resisting the pleasure of divulging secrets- even inventing them if necessary. Divulging secrets gives the child, so he thinks, some kind of prestige; he knows something the other doesn’t. And adults are no different. Many lack a sense of their own unique personhood, their boundaries and those of others, to the extent that they will spread gossip no matter how much harm it causes to others.
The Adventure Of Living
The man after God’s image is the true self of the believer. This means that the new man within us has God’s characteristics. And our Father is essentially creative, pouring out His love in the face of aggression. When we experience those occasional flares of creativity for God, of love, of desire to witness more powerfully, of the energy to truly forgive, our true person is being revealed, albeit in intermittent flashes. The personas we live, on the other hand, tend towards routines, self-centredness, and an altogether narrow vision of life. The man of the flesh is a slave, doing the same things; whereas the man of the spirit is free. Those who merely live out personas thus become automatons, following habits, tending towards stability in everything. Even their spiritual life becomes mere automatisms- Bible reading, breaking bread, attendance at meetings become automated habits rather than events that regularly shock, startle and inspire us as we find authentic contact with the Father and Son through them. The dynamic life of God is far from the personas we live out. The adventure of living after God’s image becomes suppressed; rather than go out into society and witness for the Gospel and transform lives, a sister prefers to sit at home and read novels or watch movies; a brother plays with his computer programmes or reads Bill Gates’ biography rather than launching out on the internet to lead people world-wide to Christ.
Those random examples reveal something, however. There is a spirit of adventure within us, yet we tend to want to live it out vicariously, through identifying with some character in a movie or in a novel, or reading a travel book, rather than ourselves going outside our comfort zones and being the person God intended us to be in His service. The most timid office clerk will disclose under psychoanalysis that he has dreams which reflect a passion for adventure. Gambling and drug addition often begin from this basic desire for risk and adventure. The young child seeks an escape from his limited life experience by indulging in fairy tales; adults lose themselves in science fiction and video games. Yet the child seeks true and real adventure; it is only socialization that makes him or her a realist, recognizing the narrow limits of our lives. The young child draws maps of imaginary islands, or she constructs new countries in the sand. The adolescent wants to be different, to have different hair, strange clothes; there is a hunger to be themselves and not a copy of their parents; to become a person. This spirit of adventure and rebellion is thus a very real, if latent, part of everyone. It can only find true expression in our total devotion to the creative life and spirit of the Lord Jesus. Conversion is therefore a change from a routine of religion to the adventure of a life lived in actual and real fellowship with God Almighty Himself. We are called to the highest levels of personal ambition - that one day, you and I will share God’s nature, fighting for the only ultimately right and valid cause, knowing that every move, every choice, every personal decision, is of crucial importance.
We nearly all complain of bursts of fervour for the Lord, willingness to take the leap and adventure of faith, and then slipping back into lukewarmness. What is happening is that the true person is showing through only occasionally, and then we slump back into the personas which society demands of us. Our over organized society makes us fossilized, and thus we fail to have the sense of rejuvenation, renewal and exaltation of which the Scriptures so frequently speak. Yet such an existence isn’t necessarily the fate of every Christadelphian. No. We can, we really can, live a life which is ourselves, fearless of what others think, living the gripping life of true spiritual adventure, taking ourselves where we have never been before, even if it takes us to the cross - which is the ultimate end of the truly Christ-following life.
Repentance can be understood as those moments when we realize the discordance between our true person and our personage; we fall to our knees in recognition of our hypocrisy, of our unfaithfulness to the Truth of Christ which is really within us, of our acting out a part in the eyes of men. And it is those moments which light afresh the fire for Him which is the basis for all truly spiritual endeavour. The gap between our own person and our personas is easily reflected in the uncomfortablness we feel when we hear a recording of our own voice, a video of our movements, or even a photograph of ourselves. We’re all eager to see how we came out in the photo… but that eagerness which turns to a slight uncomfortablness, even to the extent of trying to destroy the photo, is really a sign of the tension which there is between our person and our persona. The two aren’t in harmony- and, frankly, never will be until we shall know even as also we are known.
The world, Paul told the Romans, seeks to push us into its mould (Rom. 12:2 J.B. Phillips). And this is increasingly true, as people crowded together catch the same bus each day to arrive at roughly the same time, reading the same newspapers, watching the same soap operas…automatic lives. Yet the real self created in the believer is ultimately free. For freedom did Christ set us free (Gal. 5:1 RV). The new person, the essential you and me, is characterized by sudden, creative welling up to the Father’s glory. This doesn’t mean that we have no habits- regular prayer, Bible study, meeting together etc. are all part of the new person.
As I write this my wife and I have just left a meeting in a small bedroom on a Christadelphian Bible School campus in the USA. Stirred by what they had heard in their Bible study classes, three sisters enthused with each other over lunch and decided they must reach out to battered women living in shelters and on the streets. And they invited us along to their planning meeting. There was the very definition of this sudden, creative upwelling. All present shared their own doubts, fears, past abuses and determination to get out of their rut of inactivity and actually achieve something concrete for their Lord. Their true persons were showing through. They were being themselves. There was no acting, no seeking to impress each other. As an observer, and the only male in the room, not invited to actually participate in the project but just to give some guidance, this was just so apparent to me as I sat there and listened and observed them. They were being themselves; being the women God intended them to be, triumphantly rising above the automatisms of middle class American life. I recall how the simple words of Jesus were throbbing in my mind as I looked on: “I am…the life” (Jn. 11:25).
This welling up of new life is a characteristic of true conversion. This is why the elderly, the infirm, the chronically shy, experience the flowering of the person, the sense of new life even in the face of the outward man perishing daily, because their inward man, their real self, is being so strongly infused with power (2 Cor. ). This explains why the graph of spiritual growth in any person is not a smooth upward curve; it is a very jagged line. Our true person asserts itself in those moments of totally free choice to serve our Lord. But we so easily allow our lives to slip back into the automatisms which define our personas. Yet the Father and Son are constantly seeking to lead us in “newness of life”. David didn’t get victory by the mulberry trees the same way each time. God changed the method. To rend apart our personas by true self-examination, to allow the true self to appear, can be shattering. It is nothing short of the way of the cross, the naked self-crucifixion which the Lord asks of us, in which like Him we may look down at all our bones and see them staring back at us (Ps. ). Living like this, we will be constrained to confront life’s problems head on, not content with compromises, escapism, dodging the issues. We will no longer excuse ourselves that we cannot be ourselves for fear of upsetting others. We cannot be true to ourselves and repress our own convictions, or pretending to have those which we do not.
Adventures become stale once they are over. This is why in our daily reading and fellowship with our Lord, as we enter ever more deeply into His character, we are challenged afresh daily. We aren’t professionals, committee members, in this drive for spirituality. We are amateurs at heart, children, wide eyed with wonder at what we are being shown, ever moving on to some fresh endeavour. Our spiritual life need never become a mere routine, a burden, a duty to be performed, a habit. For “[in the heart] where the spirit of the Lord [Jesus] is, there the heart is free”; we were brought out from the pointless, repetitive bondage of Egypt by the blood of Christ. What this means is not that red liquid somehow did something for us; His example of death, how He was there, inspires us to break out from the vain way of life we received by tradition from our fathers. We alone, as true believers in the representative nature of His sacrifice, are thereby empowered to break out of the routine of our lives. Life becomes valuable; we number our days with wisdom (Ps. 90). We no longer fear failure, for firstly we know there is forgiveness in Christ, and secondly, our focus is upon living the real life of ultimate discovery and adventure, able to live with the fears which this presents to us. Failure is no longer a problem to us; for the aim is ever before us. We will not be like Ahithophel, committing suicide because he ran out of highway and lost his political power to others (2 Sam. 17:23). Our failures are nothing more than temporary setbacks, as the baby who stretches out her hands to the lamp on the ceiling and cries because she can’t reach it. We take them all, even our sins, in the spirit of the cross- the supreme failure which became the supreme triumph of God and the true person. Our instinct for security, to hide behind insurance policies and savings, becomes almost despised as we live the life of true seeking after the ideal. Our struggles between the desire for security and the desire to go God’s way are no more than the tensions between the persona and the true self. Absolutely no other goals or achievements can ultimately satisfy us- the accumulation of wealth, sexual experience, power, artistic achievement….nothing, nothing, nothing, can ultimately fulfil us, apart from the imitation of Christ Jesus our Lord. Solomon is the great Biblical example, concluding at the end that “Then I saw that all toil and all skill in work come from a man’s envy of his neighbour [i.e. his living out of a persona dictated by the society around him]. This also is vanity and a striving after wind” (Ecc. 4:4).
We have probably all realized that mere introspection isn’t necessarily the same as fruitful self-examination. In 1 Cor. 11:29,31 we are exhorted to both judge / diakrino ourselves and also diakrino / discern [s.w.] the body and person of Jesus in His time of dying. This is because our essential person is Him, crucified, covered in blood and spittle. This is why the records of His crucifixion are written so uniquely; supreme above all literature, the inevitable gap between the reader and the person being described [Christ crucified] is miraculously reduced- for the sensitive reader who really makes the effort to believe his or her ‘first principle doctrine’, that there the Son of God was truly the representative of every one of us in Him. We are to thereby “reckon ourselves” to be dead to sin (Rom. 6:11). The Greek word for “reckon” is that normally translated “impute”, in the context of imputing righteousness (Rom. 4:3,4,5,6,8,9- indeed, the word occurs in almost every verse of Romans 4). Strictly the Greek word means “to take an inventory” (Strong). We are to search through our lives and perceive ourselves as in Christ, as men and women who don’t sin because we are in Christ. We are to impute [AV “conclude”] that we are justified by faith (Rom. 3:28). The Lord died to justify us (Rom. 4:25); yet we justify ourselves by our attitude to ourselves, in that we allow His death to so influence our self-perception.
We cannot look passively at the cross. It must change how we see ourselves. For we are in Him. It was us who hung with Him there, and who hang with Him still in the tribulations of life. For we are to account / impute ourselves as the sheep for the slaughter, i.e. the Lord Jesus, for whose sake we are killed all the day long in the sharing of His sufferings (Rom. 8:36); with Paul, we “die daily”, because we are in Christ. And if we suffer with Him, we will also reign with Him (Rom. 8:17; 2 Tim. 2:12). To see ourselves as in Christ, to have such a positive view of ourselves, that the essential ‘me’ is actually the sinless Son of God, is almost asking too much of men and women living with all the dysfunction and low self-worth that seems part of the human condition.
And so this word for “impute” occurs again in a wonderful, truly wonderful passage of assurance: “Ye are manifestly declared to be the epistle of Christ…not that we are sufficient of ourselves to think [s.w. “impute”] any thing as of ourselves; but our sufficiency [s.w. “worthiness”] is of God” because our face / image is being changed into His image, “even as by the spirit of the Lord” (2 Cor. 3:3,5,18). We look in the mirror, and see Christ in us. This looking in the mirror is used by James as a figure for self-examination (James 1:18,22-25). By doing the word of truth, we find we will live lives of looking in the mirror, of self-realization. This is the essence of self-examination; to perceive the Christ-man within us, and that all other behaviour is our being unfaithful to our true self, living out a persona. We are to see ourselves as being Christ; we are to have a high view of ourselves in this sense, whilst despising and seeking to dismantle the personas we so often act out which are unfaithful to Him. Thus Paul could say that although he was not worthy to be called an apostle, felt himself unworthy to be in Christ even, yet he ‘supposed’ [s.w. “impute”] that he was one of the “chiefest apostles” (2 Cor. 11:5). No longer would we be victims of jealousies or striving for a higher place in a hierarchy, be it in the ecclesia or in society- for we impute ourselves to be Christ Himself, the highest of all. Now of course there are times when we need to have a persona- the high school teacher needs to come over to his pupils in a certain way in order to have a disciplined classroom. So it’s not so much a case of casting off the personage we adopt but rather bringing it into conformity with our true person, Christ in us.
All this is the immense challenge behind Paul’s word choice in 1 Cor. 11- that in the light of His cross, in the light of our connection with His life and His death through baptism, we are to use every gram of faith within us to conclude that really and truly, we are Him. And this of course plugs in to the large body of Bible teaching that applies verses which clearly refer to the Lord Jesus personally to us personally. Yet, we do sin. Seriously and grievously. It’s not good enough to say that this is merely our personas sinning. We need to change. We are held culpable for those sins. To put it simply, we all want to stop sinning. And how are we to do this? One way is to realize that we are not merely a housewife, a computer programmer, a quiet pensioner hacking and coughing our way through... We are Christ personified to this world. Therefore to be ourselves as God intends is to be Christ, to let the Christ-man within us show forth; the life that He lived and the death that He died becomes ours (Rom. 6:10,11). Paul could say, with reference to this, that he died daily (1 Cor. 15:31); and out of each death, there comes forth new life. For His resurrection life, the type of life that He lived and lives, becomes manifest in our mortal flesh right now (2 Cor. 4:11).
Relations With Others
Appreciating the tremendous significance of the true person as opposed to our mere personas affects our relation to others. We will seek to decode the images presented to us by our brethren, and relate to the Christ-man within them, to the real and true person rather than the persona they act out. Because we see the Christ within them, the real Duncan or Dmitry or Ludmila or Sue or Jorge… we will realize that relationships are worth fighting for. The world of unbelievers then becomes perceived as a mass of persons waiting to be born, to become born again after the image of Christ through their conversion and baptism. The healing of the blind man as recorded in Mk. 8:22-26 is unusual in that the healing was in two stages. Initially the man only “beheld men as trees, walking”. As a blind man, he would have had very limited experience of people. He initially saw them merely as part of the landscape, as important to him as trees. But the aim of the miracle was to convict him of this, and lead him to understand people as more than trees, more than just part of the natural creation with as much meaning as trees. That man represented us all; part of coming to the light, of receiving spiritual sight, is to perceive the value and meaning of persons; to see the world of persons rather than a world of things. No longer will we divide people as the world does into winners and losers, successes and failures; rather will we see in each one we meet a potential brother or sister. For they have all been invited into God’s family, insofar as we pass them the invitation.
The sheer complexity of human persons means that we cannot ultimately judge them. We see our brother’s various personas, sometimes his true, reborn self coming out; and our images of others derive as much from ourselves as from them. It amazes me that we humans succeed in accurately communicating with each other as much as we do. The more one perceives the complexity of the person and the personas whom we meet, the more apparent it is that we cannot claim to be their judge. And the more evident it is that the judgments which human beings constantly make about each other are so superficial and often inevitably false. Further, if we truly believe that we ourselves are in Christ and “impute” His person as being the essence of our real self, then we must likewise impute His righteousness to our brethren. Thus Peter could say that he ‘imputed’ Silvanus to be a “faithful brother” (1 Pet. 5:12). If only we could consistently live out this truth, then all friction between brethren would be a thing of the past.
The real person isn’t a result of automatisms, mere habits; these are the stuff of the persona. Our real self is involved in making radical personal choices in response to God’s leading. Thus reading / hearing and believing the Gospel results in our submitting to baptism. We did something concrete; we got wet, we went under water. We made a free and responsible commitment of ourselves. Yet in terms of our relations with others, we must respect their person in the sense that we respect their right for self-determination. What their conscience impels them to do must be accepted by us as a genuine, sincere articulation of their person, even if it isn’t what our person impels us to do. Thus I must be patient and eagerly acceptant of those whose consciences tell them to, say, clean up their neighbourhood rather than support a Bible preaching campaign. Just as we struggle to break away from mere social conformity, and so often fail, so we must recognize that our brethren likewise face an enormous struggle to be themselves. For example, we may be frustrated at them making what we clearly see to be ‘political’ decisions, following a certain party line to impress their brethren…but realize that their real, inner self is being submerged in those moments, just as you too so tragically often fail to be true to yourself, and refuse to assume responsibility for your own convictions and talents. Your own example of making clear choices, doing what is right before God rather than what is wise and smart in human eyes, will reveal a sense of clarity about you which will become inspirational to your brethren. Yours will not be one of those many lives that is paralyzed by constantly postponing the choices, by indecision, like Israel on Carmel, hopping backwards and forwards between two opinions (1 Kings 18:21), between your persona and your true person, which is Christ in you. Ultimately, the choice is not one of principles or doctrines or interpretations; it is between Christ and all the other things which would lead us away from Him. The essential choice is always between “Christ in you” and…her mother, your instincts, your self-interest. And in those choices there is no third road; we are at a T-junction, hour after hour. We chose either life or death (Dt. 30:19); we cannot serve two masters (Mt. 6:24). Insofar as you at least live a life that reflects this recognition, you will be a challenge to those around you.
We have spoken earlier of the adventure of life which is characteristic of the truly free person. Special bonds are forged between those who share adventure together; old soldiers have endless reunions, students reunite to remember their years of intellectual adventure and discovery. Those who bravely live the true life of spiritual adventure, of struggling to show radical love and forgiveness, to even risk their lives and wealth and health for the Lord’s cause, likewise share a supreme fellowship and meeting of minds. The real basis of fellowship is the Lord Jesus Christ. But what does this mean in practice? Surely it is in the fact that the true Christ person within us connects with the true Christ person within our brother or sister. How often have I met with someone who has been open with me, and I have been open with them, and an amazingly close bond of fellowship is formed after only an hours’ dialogue. But then we have both slipped back behind our personas, fearful of being totally open, seeking to impress rather than simply ‘be’ as our Lord has created us- and so the relationship recedes, or even anger develops as we come to perceive elements of hypocrisy in the one we formerly trusted. When we are hurt, our personas often reappear more strongly to cover the hurt done to our person. And so the problem in our inter-personal relationships gets worse.
This is the challenge to us all; to be truly ourselves, so that we can bond as we are intended to with our brethren. Humans so desperately thirst for this real contact, this real authentic fellowship; but they don’t let themselves receive it because they too aren’t transparent. Paradoxically, we often shy away from transparency in the interests of safeguarding harmony. How many marriages have run into the problem of not talking about something because the subject always causes friction and argument! And how many ecclesias have refused to allow open minded discussion of prophetic matters in the interests of unity… This harmony and unity is a fake. It’s as superficial as a couple having sex before they are married, or a marriage in which the real issues are never addressed, it’s the too easy road, which avoids the difficult encounter of persons which there must be to make any relationship authentic. But the real transparency is brave and unafraid, not for ever calculating what to reveal or not reveal. There will never be the authentic fellowship which God intends unless we can rise up to this transparency, with all the initial awkwardness of seeing both ourselves and our brethren standing naked, as it were, before each other.
And yet in another sense, we are never totally naked before each other, for we can never fully plumb the depths or complexities of the human person; we can never totally separate the personas from the person, neither in ourselves nor in our observation of others. And the person is dynamic, energized by the things of God’s Spirit, ever developing. When we first begin a relationship with another person, there is the fascination to explore and know them which often is related to the love we feel for them, in whatever form. Yet here is where many an ecclesia has become dead, many a marriage has grown stale; the partners consider that they know the others’ person. But how wrong they are! How little do they appreciate the wonderful complexities and hiddenness of the other! This is why the terms “soul” and “spirit” are so vaguely defined in Scripture; they refer to so many things, and they are the closest equivalent to the term “person” which I have been using in this study. The Son of God spoke of how He knew the Father and was being known by the Father using continuous tenses; He was growing to know the Father, as the Father was growing to know the Son. And so it is within our far more human relationships; fellowship is not something static, a dry theoretical state that exists because we profess allegiance to the same theological tenets. It is a meeting of persons, a coming together in the unity of Christ our Lord. The fellowship we are intended to share in Christ is not merely a sharing of ideas; we are not to view people as simply a pile of flesh and blood who claims to believe various ideas; but rather as real, live persons. To be interested in people as persons rather than as holders of ideas, bearers of party labels etc., means a complete revolution in the thinking of many people. Our Lord surely viewed the mob crying for His blood not as a mob but as people; those who listened to Him likewise were not just an impersonal crowd, or class of pupils, but a collection of persons. His teaching of them was therefore not so much lecturing as a dialogue. And immediately one reflects uncomfortably how our beloved community has focused so much on lecturing and platform speaking; and how we have chosen to combat false points of view rather than first seeking to understand why a person holds that false view.
Truth: A Biblical Analysis
The crucial issue in all our reflections so far is that of truth. To be true to our maker, true to our Lord, true to ourselves, true to the new man that was created in us at baptism. We all seek for someone with whom we can be completely honest and vulnerable, who will relate to us with mercy, integrity, confidentiality and loving understanding. Every time we think we have found such a person and they fail us, we are driven further into ourselves. In this lies the sin of gossiping, breaking promised confidences and betrayal; and as a community we need to urgently give a long hard look at ourselves to see if the way we treat each other is leading us closer to the Father and each other, or deeper into ourselves. Because of our repeated bad experiences with people, we drift so easily into surface-level, false relationships. We talk about safe subjects, not disclosing the really private parts of our hearts. Failures aren’t shared, frustrations aren’t aired. Hurts are covered up. We sacrifice truth on the altar of peace-keeping and pleasant sociality. And it leads us to the lives of quiet desperation and loneliness-in-the-crowd which so many experience. Yet we in Christ have “the truth”. And seek to live it. What does this mean?
The phrase “the truth” is used in Scripture as a summary of the Godly life; for truth telling, and being truthful with onself and God, is the epitome of the life which God intends. I want to demonstrate this; for all too often it has been assumed that because we know and believe true propositions about the Gospel, therefore we are somehow automatically ‘of the truth’. The following passages make clear enough that “the truth” refers not so much to intellectual purity of understanding as to a righteous way of life. If someone understands a matter of Bibical interpretation differently to how we do, e.g. over matters of prophecy, this doesn’t mean they have ‘left the truth’. Yet if we [e.g.] lie, then we have ‘left the truth’ despite holding a correct understanding of the doctrines of the Gospel:
- Sinners turn away from truth (2 Tim. 4:4; Tit. 1:14). They are bereft of the truth (1 Tim. 6:5). God has revealed the truth, indeed has sent his Son to live it and to proclaim it, but sinful people have refused to listen.
- English does not have a verb “to truth,” but Paul uses such a verb when he urges the Ephesians that “ ‘truthing’ in love” they should grow in Christ in all things (Eph 4:15). We might understand this as “speaking the truth in love,” but more probably we should see truth as a quality of action as well as of speech. Paul wants his converts to live the truth as well as to speak it. Real spiritual growth is only possible by a way of life that ‘truths it’.
- Paul calls on the Corinthians to keep the feast “with the unleavened bread of sincerity and truth,” which he contrasts with “malice and evil” (1 Cor. 5:8). Truth is set up against evil- not against wrong interpretations of Bible passages.
- In Ps. 15:2 working righteousness paralleled with speaking the truth in our hearts.
- Ps. 69:13; 117:2 use “truth” to refer to God’s mercy and salvation. To shew mercy and salvation to others is to be ‘truthful’ in the Biblical sense.
- In Jer. 5:1 any who “seek the truth” will be forgiven- i.e. seek repentance and forgiveness. This is what truth is about in this sense. It is not simply those who search for correct understanding of Bible verses who will be forgiven.
- In Jer. 9:3, to be “valiant for the truth” is not to lie and deceive our brethren; it’s not referring to being cantankerous with others about their interpretation of Scripture. It’s a tragedy that such individuals are held up by some as “valiant for the truth”- but that’s just not Jeremiah’s context at all.
John’s greatest joy was that his converts ‘walked in truth’, they ‘walked after [the Father’s] commandments’ (2 Jn. 4,6). They walked in life honest to themselves and to the Father. Walking or living ‘in truth’ is thus put for living a life pleasing to God. It surely doesn’t mean that we simply live our lives holding on to the same intellectual understanding of doctrines which we had at our baptism. There is so much more to walking in truth than this. We rightly emphasize the need for true doctrine; but the issue of this in practice is that true doctrine leads to a true life, a life true to God, to our brethren, to ourselves.
The True Life
Yet “the truth” is clearly related to the Gospel. It does, of course, matter crucially what we believe. Paul can speak of “the word of the truth of the gospel” (Col. 1:5) and again of “the truth of the gospel” (Gal. 2:5). He refers to “the word of truth, the gospel of our salvation” (Eph. 1:13). It’s quite Biblical that we refer to our faith as “the truth”. But truth is clearly a way of describing or summing up the way of life which the doctrines of the truth should elicit in us. Thus “the new man...is created in righteousness and holiness of truth” (Eph. 4:24). We obey the truth in unfeigned love of our brethren (1 Pet. 1:22), not just by intellectual assent at a baptismal interview; we ‘do the truth’ in loving our brother (1 Jn. 1:6); if truth is in us then we walk in it (3 Jn. 3). We are to walk uprightly according to the truth of the Gospel (Gal. 2:14); the truth is an upright walk. The truthfulness of the doctrines we believe is intended to issue in a truthful way of life. Thus Eph. 4:17-21 says that living a vain, greedy life is being disobedient to the truth which is in Jesus. And 2 Thess. 2:12 teaches that to not believe the truth is to take pleasure in unrighteousness. There is a moral link between any falsehood and an unspiritual life. And so repentance is an acknowledgment of the truth (2 Tim. 2:25). A person can learn the theory of God’s truth but never come to acknowledge it- i.e. to repent and life the life of the truth (2 Tim. 3:7), i.e. being transparent before God and brutally honest with oneself.
The Truth Of Christ
In Jn. 18:37 Jesus told Pilate in the context of His upcoming death that He had come into this world to bear witness to the truth- the cross was the supreme witness and exhibition of the truth. There was no doctrine preached there, but rather the way of life which those doctrines ultimately lead to. Gal. 3:1 remonstrates with the Galatians as to how they could not obey the truth when the crucified Christ had been so clearly displayed to them; clearly Paul saw obedience to the truth as obedience to the implications of the cross. There is a powerful parallel in Gal. 4:16: I am your enemy because I tell you the truth... you are enemies of the cross of Christ. Thus the parallel is made between the cross and the truth. We are sanctified by the truth (Jn. 17:19); but our sanctification is through cleansing in the Lord’s blood. The same word is used of our sanctification through that blood (Heb. 9:13; 10:29; 13:12). Perhaps this is why Dan. 8:11,12 seems to describe the altar as “the truth”. The cross of Jesus is the ultimate truth. There we see humanity for what we really are; there we see the real effect of sin. Yet above all, there we see the glorious reality of the fact that a Man with our nature overcame sin, and through His sacrifice we really can be forgiven the untruth of all our sin; and thus have a real, concrete, definite hope of the life eternal.
Jesus told the truth to this world in the sense that He was sinless (Jn. 8:47). Likewise in Jn. 17:19 He says that He sanctifies Himself, so that “the truth”, i.e. His perfect life and death, might sanctify us. This was His telling of truth to men. By continuing in the word of Jesus we will know the truth (Jn. 8:31,32)- not so much that we will attain greater doctrinal knowledge, but that our lives will reflect our knowledge of Jesus who is “the truth”. The truth sets us free; the Son sets us free (Jn. 8:32, 36). “The truth” is therefore a title for Jesus. Mere academic knowledge alone cannot set anyone free from sin; but the living presence and example and spirit of life of another Man can, and does. And so in Jn. 14:6 the way, truth and life are all parallel- truth is a way of life; “truth is in Jesus” (Eph. 4:21 RV). The spirit of life in Christ sets us free from sin (Rom. 8:2); but Gal. 5:1 simply says that “Christ” has set us free [the same Greek phrase] from sin. The Man Christ Jesus is His “spirit of life”; the man and His way of life were in perfect congruence. They always were; for in Him the word was made flesh. There was ‘truth’ in His very person, in that the principles of the God of Truth were perfectly and totally lived out in His person and being.
So what can all this mean in practice? We all talk to ourselves. There’s a steady stream of self-talk going on within us, whether or not we quietly mouth the words to ourselves at times. Some people have a stream of self-talk going on that denigrates their self-worth day after day, week after week, month after month, year after year. Others have thoughts of anger and bad imaginations against the evil which they imagine others are doing. Yet others have thoughts of utter vanity, of grandeur, of lust, of various fantasies...and these all influence our words, actions and ambitions in the very end. From the abundance of the heart, the mouth speaks. So “guard your heart, for it is the wellspring of life”(Prov. 4:23). This is why we are told to speak the truth in our hearts. David definitely has in mind our self-talk. Our self-talk has a high likelihood of beng untrue, fantasy, imagination. Be aware, keenly aware, of the private conversations you’re having with yourself. Ensure that all you are saying to yourself, even if it’s not about spiritual things, is at least truthful. This is where this great theme of truth starts and ends. Ideally, our self-talk should be of Jesus, of the Father, of the things of His Kingdom. Of anything that is just, true, of good report... Yet our self-talk is closely linked to what Scripture would call the devil- the constant fountain of wrong suggestions and unspiritual perspectives that seem to bubble up so constantly within us. The devil- the Biblical one- is “the father of lies” (Jn. 8:44). And untruthfulness seems to begin within our own self-talk. I would even go so far as to almost define the devil as our own self-talk. And it’s likened to a roaring, dangerous lion; a cunning snake. And it’s there within each of us. The control of self-talk is vital. And the Biblical guidance is to make sure it is truthful; for lack of truthfulness is the root of all sin. Sin is normally committed by believers not as an act of conscious rebellion, but rather through a complex process of self-justification; which on repentance we recognize was the mere sophistry of our own self-talk. This is why truthfulness is the epitome of the spiritual life. To deny ever being untruthful is to deny ever sinning. We all have this problem. It’s why the assertion of Jesus that He was “the truth” was tantamount to saying that He was sinless. Only thus is He thereby the way to eternal life.