How do you know who you are?
All of us learn who we are from our relationships. Ideally we discover our identity by seeing ourselves reflected in the eyes of those who love us. Initially these eyes are the eyes of our parents, our family. Later that circle expands to include friends, school mates and co-workers.
Living as we do in a fallen world the ideal is never fully attained. Even our parents don’t have a perfect view of who we are and are not able to reflect what they see perfectly. Worse, they too are sinners, and that experience of falling short distorts their perspective. The same is true of everyone we have met or ever will meet.
Especially as children we have no way to measure the accuracy of what those around us are telling us. As children we simply took in what we got uncritically, and this formed the foundation of our self image. “Good boy”, “Lazy girl”, “Stupid boy”, “Pretty girl”, all are the building blocks in that foundation. Parts of that foundation are solid, but some parts a flawed, sometimes very badly flawed. It is these latter misshapen and crooked stones that are the source of a false self, a incorrect understanding, which, when we try to live according to that incorrect understanding creates a lot of painful problems in our lives.
Even more painful than the follow on problems are the events that distorted our perception of ourselves. The sins that were sinned against us a children are particularly traumatic because we simply had no defense. Worse, the evil that was done, or not done in the case of neglect, we came to believe we deserved because of some flaw in ourselves, and blamed ourselves for what happened. Worst of all, we came to believe that this was love, because a child must, as a condition of survival, believe that those charged with his care love him and are expressing love to him. We then repeated these acts of “love” later in life, hoping for true love in return.
God created us in His image and likeness. That perfect image and likeness is incarnated in an imperfect human being. Imperfect though we are, we are acceptable to and loved by God. This does not mean that He approves of everything we do, but that He approves of the creation He has made. He approves of you as He created you to be even as He understands that you will never fully actualize all of what He built into you.
He rejoices when you develop your unique true self and the powers, abilities and gifts with which He endowed you. He grieves when that perfect image is twisted and distorted by lies and sin, the powers partially developed, the abilities turned against yourself and others, the gifts unused and undiscovered. But its not just Him, the more we tend away from His image in us the more miserable, angry, unhappy, sad, bitter and disappointed we will be. Similarly, the more we prize and develop His image in us the happier we will be.
How do we re-image ourselves so as to become happier?
Jesus is our model and guide.
He Who was sinless became sin for us when He went to the cross. Following His death on the cross He returned to the Father from Whom He received glory. Since He is our model and guide we must do the same. In fact He reiterates several times in the Gospels that we, who have been redeemed by His sacrifice, must take up our crosses – daily – die to ourselves and follow Him. If we do this He will present us to the Father and we will receive glory as well.
This first part, sin, is much easier for us than for Him, sin being foreign to both His human and divine natures. In contrast we have sin aplenty. All we have to do is acknowledge it, repent of it, beg forgiveness for it and receive that forgiveness, be healed and reconciled to God. Easy!
St. Thomas Aquinas teaches that sin results from mis-valuing the objects of our desires. We assign an exaggerated value to the object of our desire. This is so clearly seen in the story of Adam and Eve in the garden. The serpent convinces Eve that the value of eating the forbidden fruit exceeded the danger of the divine warning. Likewise Adam, who valued solidarity with Eve more highly than obedience to God. The perceived value of the knowledge of good and evil turned out not to be higher than the true value of innocence, not even close!
As a result they realized that they were naked, their imperfections unbearably exposed, and they were ashamed. So they covered their nakedness and hid from God. Now there is no hiding from God, so Adam blamed Eve and Eve blamed the serpent each in a vain attempt to evade responsibility for what they had done. I wonder how the story would have ended if they had simply ‘fessed up and asked for forgiveness. But they didn’t, so now sadder but not necessarily wiser they and all their descendants are banished from the garden.
By His incarnation, death, resurrection and ascension Jesus has reversed the consequences of Adam’s sin and restored us to relationship to the Father. At our own baptism, as at Jesus’ baptism, the Father declares our sonship and His pleasure with us. We are each of us, no matter how imperfect, deficient, sinful and shameful, beloved of the Father, members of His divine household and a source of great joy and satisfaction to Him.
That can be hard for us to see as we are operating under a kind of delusion, the delusion that our self image is who we actually are. Our self knowledge is darkened and distorted, and as a consequence our priorities are out of order and our decisions frequently turn out to be disappointing and painful. We are operating on the basis of a false self. So how do we fix this?
We can’t do it alone. We look to Jesus, the perfect man, to be our model and guide.
When we do that the imperfections in our own nature become increasingly evident. This tends to make us feel a painful sense of shame, a pain we’d rather avoid. We use all kinds of ways to avoid feeling that pain, this is primarily what addiction is all about. Based on the false premise that there is something horrible about me, I know that if you knew how horrible you could never love me (a love I crave and can’t live without), so I have to manipulate you to get what I need since I don’t deserve it and you wouldn’t give it to me anyhow, and what I need is whatever will numb the pain of hating the evil part of me and not receiving the love I desperately want. Fill in the blank: I need alcohol, drugs, compulsive, often destructive behaviors, anything at all.
But Jesus did not avoid the cross, he embraced it for the sake of the joy that was set before him, freeing us from bondage and restoring us to the Father. He chose it despite the agony because He knew that there was something absolutely wonderful on the other side. That was His pearl of great price for which He traded death and abandonment for that pearl, and that pearl is us.
So following Jesus, our model and guide, we too much embrace the cross, which means facing the agony of our wounds, trusting that as we join them to His wounds on the cross He will draw the poison from them and restore us to a healthier, more peaceful, more authentic state that more closely reflects the Image of God.
“Offer it up!” was the old Catholic response to any kind of discomfort. “Offer it up!” in union with Christ crucified that He may join your sacrifice to His, offering both to the Father. “Offer it up!” as an acceptable oblation by which you yourself and those you hold dear in prayer may draw benefit from the Father’s love and compassion. “Offer it up!” that you may be joined more closely to Jesus, by slow degrees transformed from what you are to something better, a loving son or daughter of God.
Just as Jesus received Glory from His Father so too do we. We bask in the loving gaze of our heavenly Father. This is the Father Who created us in the first place, acknowledges our sonship through Christ our brother, Who delights in us and is pleased with us. It is in gazing back into His loving countenance that we see reflected the absolute truth of who we are. So the distortions in our self image are cleared up, all our fears swept away and our hope of eternal glory secured when all sorrow will flee and every tear wiped away.