“Do it for your self.”

wedding partyJoy and I added this phrase to our shared cache of personal codes nearly three decades ago. Like most of the phrases in our cache, this one reminds us instantly of an experience we shared and how we felt about what we were doing at the time. Joy or I will toss out out one of these lines to telegraph our response to something happening in the present.

For instance, in late March I told Joy that I was going to buckle down and do the taxes. Joy’s response was, “Do it for your self.” In other words, “That’s the last thing you would choose to do.”

You had to be there, right? So, let me tell you the story.

We had just moved from Atlanta to Rocky Mount. While I was teaching at North Carolina Wesleyan, Joy took a temp job until she could find something permanent…. At a meat-packing plant.

Joy worked as an administrative assistant for one of the executives. This was a family-owned business, so most of the executives were brothers or uncles or the one sister. That one sister quickly warmed to Joy and took an interest in helping her career along.

The sister invited Joy to a colors-and-makeup seminar she was leading. Sister had pegged Joy as very bright and personable, but needing a little help in the self-presentation area. Joy was just way too Earth Mother to get ahead in the meat-packing industry.

Despite, or maybe because of, their differences, Joy had grown fond of Sister. To be supportive and to foster their relationship, she agreed to attend the seminar. When she got home, she couldn’t wait to tell me about one particular lesson that summed up the whole morning.

Sister pleaded with the gathered women, “Never go out in public without your makeup and your hair completely done. Don’t even go to the mailbox. Do it for your self!”

Well, actually, Joy always says it by making “self” a two-syllable word like a good Southerner. “Do it for your SAY-elf!”

Joy could only get dolled up for a mailbox run to please somebody else. This is the woman Woman in Mirrorwhose wedding dress was a green peasant skirt. When her high school classmates were sporting saddle oxfords, Joy wore green high tops. In other words, don’t count on Joy doing a red carpet walk to get the mail. It would not be her True Self.

As it turns out, being your True Self is central to Jesus’ message to us. When he says, “I am the Way, the Truth, and the Life,” Jesus is urging us to emulate him. Realizing what a tall order this will be, he promises to help us by sending the Spirit of Truth to dwell within us.

And yet, Jesus did not have in mind what some of us hear with the words “True Self.” Some will think of acting on their feelings, speaking their opinions freely, or pursuing a personal goal.

Many assume that the self is some spiritual essence deep within us, simply waiting to be acknowledged and expressed. In other words, they equate True Self with “be true to your self.” As a result, they reduce being your True Self to self-expression. No wonder many Christians perceive a conflict between being your True Self and the life of humble service that Christ exemplified.

But the True Self that Jesus teaches is not equivalent to the life devoted to self-expression. The True Self is all about connection, a connection that we spend all eternity deepening. Richard Rohr is especially helpful on this point.

As we turn to Rohr, let’s listen to Jesus’ own words: “Abide in me as I abide in you.” (John 15:4) The True Self draws its identity from its intimate participation in the divine life. The Spirit dwells in us. We become who we most truly are by abiding in the Spirit.

Remember that God created us in God’s own image. Who we most truly are is the image of God. When God sees us, God sees God’s own image. And God cannot help but love us. That very love draws us to our True Self.

To be our True Self is to know ourselves as seen and loved by God because we are the ones who God created. Our worth and our dignity derive from God’s loving presence at the center of our lives. God’s love for us is eternal. As God’s beloved, the True Self is eternal, too.

The False Self is what we have made of ourselves: our power, our prestige, our possessions. Richard Rohr calls these idols—these false gods to whom we are tempted to devote our lives—the three P’s. All of these things will pass away. And since the False Self is constructed entirely of these things, it will pass away, too.

The True Self and the False Self enter into relationships with others in sharply contrasting ways.

woman old and youngOnce you know yourself as the beloved image of God, you begin to see and to love the image of God in others instead of dwelling on how they dress or speak, what they have achieved or who they know. True Self connects to True Self. As a result, the True self forms intimate connections and enlarges its circle of friends.

By contrast, the False Self grows lonelier and increasingly anxious of its worth. The False Self measures itself against others. Mirror, mirror on the wall, who is the loveliest, most powerful, smartest, richest of all? The False Self vacillates between the thrill of superiority and the dejection of inferiority. Instead of connection, the False Self is isolated by competition and comparison.

Jesus sends us the Spirit of Truth. That Spirit draws us again and again toward the True Self. And that same Spirit bids us to let go of the False Self. The Spirit gives a different spin to the the phrase that Joy and I have used so frequently. The Spirit whispers persistently, “Do it for your True Self.”

Bishop of the Episcopal Diocese of Western Louisiana, husband, dad, and movie-goer

18 Comment on “Do It for Your Self

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