Jesus had a way of making you stop and think. Think about who you are, what you stand for, and what you ought to be doing with your life. Frequently, he did this by saying odd and confusing things that force you to step back and reflect instead of giving you clear marching orders.
For instance, near the beginning of what we’ve come to call The Sermon on the Mount, he said, “You are the salt of the earth; but if salt has lost its taste, how can its saltiness be restored?” (Matthew 5:13a)
For salt to lose its saltiness means that salt stops being salt. But strictly speaking, salt is salt. Sure, Jesus wouldn’t have known to call it sodium chloride or to identify it as NaCl. But look, he would have known that an oak is an oak, a rock is a rock, and a fisherman is a fisherman.
Except that a fisherman is not just a fisherman. Sure, salt is salt, an oak is an oak, and a rock is a rock. But a fisherman chooses to continue to be a fisherman. Or maybe chooses to follow Jesus and become a fisher of people. A lover of people.
You are not a ready-made true self. You become your true self or not, and the choices you make are crucial to that process. So, Jesus obviously wasn’t talking about salt. He was using salt as an illustration to talk about people. He was telling us that, by virtue of the choices we make, we either become our true selves or we betray our true selves. In what may seem to be a paradox, Jesus then says that you become your true self by following him.
This is just where those who reject organized religion—often for abundantly good reason—take themselves off the bus. To their ears, this sounds like betraying yourself. In part, that’s because they equate following Jesus with conforming to the dictates of a particular denomination.
And let me be up front. When you follow Jesus, you’re going to belong to a web of other Jesus followers whether you like it or not. And trust me, sometimes you won’t like it. But following Jesus is responding to one who loves you and letting that love make you more loving.
But I’m getting ahead of myself. Let’s talk about what I mean here by the term “true self.” And what I don’t mean.
Many writers use the word “authentic” to refer to the true self. You’ve seen it in articles, books, and blog posts about drawing good boundaries and maintaining healthy relationships. That word “authentic” and its opposite “inauthentic” came to us by way of existential philosophers like Camus, de Beauvoir, and Sartre.
In their view, an authentic person’s actions arise from their inner life of desires and from their own sense of right and wrong. Passively doing what someone else tells you to do as if you have no choice in the matter is an act of self-deception. A notorious example comes from the Nuremberg Trials for Nazi death camp perpetrators. One guard after another proclaimed their innocence by saying, “We were only following orders.”
You always have a choice. Even refusing to choose is a choice. Circumstances limit the range of available choices. And you are not free to choose the consequences of your choice. But choose you must. As Sartre put it somewhere, you are condemned to be free. To suppress or to deny your own inner GPS in order to follow anybody else is self-betrayal.
This is why the existentialists cautioned that participating in groups—even and especially groups like organized religions—can lead you to betray yourself. Every group presents individuals with standards and expectations for membership. Some groups demand strict conformity while others leave a some personal latitude for personal conscience.
You betray yourself—you become inauthentic—when you just go along to get along. In your heart of hearts you celebrate LGBTQ+ friends or family members, but you stay stay quiet about your denomination’s condemnation of them. Maybe you believe that some of your church’s policies are sexist, racist, or indifferent to the poor. But to avoid conflict or rejection, you raise no objections.
The existentialist perspective encourages us to take responsibility and to speak inconvenient truths. And for that, it’s very valuable. But by identifying the true self with the individual, they ignore a fundamental element of being human.
People need to belong. The psychologist Abraham Maslow famously arranged the basic human needs in a hierarchy of importance for survival and well-being. In his scheme, belonging ranks third, just behind physiological needs—like food, water, and air—and safety from extreme poverty, illness, and injury.
Everybody wants to give and to receive love and acceptance. We seek a sense of belonging in friendships, romantic relationships, family, social organizations, and religious groups. The true self is actualized in relationship. In love. Not in isolation.
Joining the rolls of this, that, or the other church is not what following Jesus means. Jesus gives love without prerequisite. He refuses to withdraw it or to diminish no matter what. Following him means to respond to that love. And we respond by following his way of love.
When we love, we do not betray ourselves. We get over ourselves. We move from being I-centered to we-centered. Let’s face it, loving can be a challenge. Every day. And when we fail to love, we lose our saltiness. Jesus’ love restores it. Every day.