Sister Charleen pulled me aside after one of my high school English Literature classes. Noticing my uncharacteristic silence during the discussion, she asked, “Have you read the book?” We were studying The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn.
I admired and respected this woman. She had always encouraged me and supported me. She saw something in me that I didn’t see in myself. So I told her the truth. “No, Sister. I’ve been reading Strangers in a Strange Land instead.”
“I see,” she said. “That really is your sort of book. But the Mark Twain book is a classic. You should pick it up as soon as you’ve finished the one you’re reading now.”
In a manner of speaking, Sr. Charleen had told me, “Just be yourself. And remember that there’s more to yourself than you realize.”
Being yourself is essential to thriving as a person. When we’re nervous or facing a big challenger or entering into a new situation friends will sometimes advise us: “Just be yourself.” The “be yourself” part of the advice is sound. The “just” bit? It’s misleading.
It is not easy to be yourself. Part of being human is that we can betray ourselves. We can be untrue to who we really are. And what makes being yourself even more challenging is that we’re not always completely clear about what makes us who we are. Where do we get our authentic identity?
Believe it or not, Jesus says that to follow him you have to be yourself. But he also has a surprising, even countercultural notion of what that means. Identity is crucial to human existence. And Jesus wants to help us be fully human. The kind of human we were created to be.
Identity includes both a sense of who we are and a sense of what makes us valuable. To be ourselves we need both self-knowledge and self-regard. As it turns out, every culture lays out a path for being your true self.
Jesus himself lived in what has been called an honor/shame society. In such a society, each person has a role to play in life. That role is given to you by your family, by your society, and by the state. Your personal value—your honor—derives from accepting this role and playing it well.
Shirking the duties that come with your given role or failing to perform them adequately brings shame. You are condemned or even rejected by the group to which you belong. In today’s terms, this means that you would spend your life living up to other people’s expectations of you and evaluating your own worth on the basis of what those people think of you.
Jesus ran afoul of the religious and political powers of his day precisely because he insisted on the inherent value of everyone. He respected foreigners and sinners, women and the poor. And yet he also showed the same love for Roman soldiers and tax collectors. He didn’t see people as insiders and outsiders, higher or lower on the social ladder. His only conflicts were with people who insisted on seeing some people as better than—more worthy of love and respect than—other people.
So far, this may sound like Jesus sees things just the way we do. In the West, many of us subscribe to what Robert Bellah called expressive individualism. The true self is an inner core of desires and aspirations.
To be true to ourselves and to feel self-esteem, we need to acknowledge, to accept, and to act upon our inner passions and dreams despite the discouragement or even the opposition offered by others. What makes this life valuable is the authenticity with which I express outwardly what my true inner self yearns for. Nobody can tell me who I am and what makes my life worth living. Self-assertion is the path to healthy identity formation. What you achieve is what makes you valuable.
With this view of the self, we can be liberated from the potentially narrow-minded and sometimes demeaning opinions of others. It recognizes the uniqueness of individuals, guards each person’s agency, and stresses our personal responsibility for the choices that we make. In short, this view of the self aims at recognizing the dignity of every human being. This may make it sound very Jesus-y.
And yet in the end, expressive individualism places human dignity on a foundation of sand. Our value derives from our achievements. We are always judged—even if only by ourselves—by our level of success. The question “what have you done lately” will press on us every day.
Moreover, this view of the self invites us to compare our own accomplishments to those of others. It becomes difficult to resist sorting the world into heaps of winners and losers. We are more likely to compete than to cooperate. We remain what Charles Taylor calls buffered selves, never strands in an intimately woven web. Never what Paul would describe as members of a larger Body.
Jesus does encourage us to be ourselves. He shows us how to belong to a greater whole without surrendering our personal agency to the opinions and prejudices of the crowd. His teaching is summarized in this deceptively simple phrase: “You are the salt of the earth.” (Matthew 5:13)
In Jesus’s day, salt not only preserved meat and enhanced flavor, it also healed wounds. Salt brings with it a life-giving effect. Followers of Jesus bring Jesus with them wherever go. We are who we are because of our friendship with Christ. Where we go, he goes. And where he goes, love goes. The salt of the earth brings the life-preserving, life-enhancing, live-healing power that only love can bring.
In Christ, we are our true selves. As Paul put it, we are a new creation. We know ourselves as the beloved and find our value in the love—Christ’s love—that we give for the sake of the world.
You are the sat of the earth. So go be yourself. And remember that there’s more to yourself than you might realize.
Looking for a Lenten study? My latest books include study guides for groups or individuals. Click here to learn more about Looking for God in Messy Places and click here to check out A Resurrection Shaped Life.