Has anyone ever told you to “be yourself?”
I find myself telling people to “be themselves” quite a bit. When applying for a job, going on a date, preaching a message, writing an article, and the list goes on and on, that is the token advice we give. And for good reason–it’s so tempting to mimic other peoples’ styles that we lose our own gifs in the process.
Even so, I’m starting to question the soundness of that advice. Why? Because I believe this advice has one fatal flaw:
Which parts of ourselves were given to us by God, and which parts of ourselves are sinful perversions?
Telling someone to be themselves does not make any distinction between these two identities that we posses. One part of us is striving towards Christ, and another part of us, our flesh, is pulling us from Christ. So just because something comes naturally to you does not mean it is a part of your self that you are meant to cultivate. A quality might be characteristic of who you are, but who you are is a sinner.
That is why I have found this advice to be of little help. And after reading the following passage from C.S. Lewis, I now see why. Being yourself is the wrong goal and the wrong focus altogether. Lewis writes in Mere Christianity:
“At the beginning I said there were Personalities in God. I will go further now. There are no real personalities anywhere else. Until you have given up yourself to Him you will not have a real self. Sameness is to be found most among the most ‘natural’ men, not among those who surrender to Christ. How monotonously alike all the great tyrants and conquerors have been; how gloriously different are the saints.
But there must be a real giving up of the self. You must throw it away ‘blindly’ so to speak. Christ will indeed give you a real personality: but you must not go to Him for the sake of that. As long as your own personality is what you are bothering about you are not going to Him at all. The very first step is to try to forget about the self altogether. Your real, new self (which is Christ’s and also yours, and yours just because it is His) will not come as long as you are looking for it. It will come when you are looking for Him.
Does that sound strange? The same principle holds, you know, for more every day matters. Even in social life, you will never make a good impression on other people until you stop thinking about what sort of impression you are making. Even in literature and art, no man who bothers about originality will ever be original; whereas if you simply try to tell the truth (without caring twopence how often it has been told before) you will, nine times out of ten, become original without ever having noticed it. The principle runs through all life from top to bottom. Give up yourself, and you will find your real self. Lose your life and you will save it. Submit to death, death of your ambitions and and favourite wishes every day and death of your whole body in the end: submit with every fibre of your being, and you will find eternal life.
Keep back nothing. Nothing that you have not given away will be really yours. Nothing in you that has not died will ever be raised from the dead. Look for yourself, and you will find in the long run only hatred, loneliness, despair, rage, ruin, and decay. but look for Christ and you will find Him, and with Him everything else thrown in.“
So the next time someone tells you to be yourself, forget yourself. Your self is what you keep tripping over every time you try to impress others. Instead, seek to reflect Christ, and you will experience a freedom of the self that you have never before imagined.
Just yesterday I began a blog post about this problem and then gave up. I was thinking about Kevin Max’s song “Be” and Chris Tomlin’s “The Way I was Made.” They both suggest a sort of self-actualization in them that I don’t think is faithful to Scripture. Yet, I bet they would both agree in the end with Lewis’ distinctions. I just don’t see those distinctions made in their songs.
I just started reading Lewis’ The Great Divorce this weekend, and it dovetails with his words here about personalities. He describes the men as ghosts, hardly substantive at all, while those who have come into glory are solid and real. Lewis rewards his readers that way, expanding on the same ideas in different books.