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“A Kind of Splendour or Sorrow or Both”: The Modern Self Encounters the Word

In his recent book, The Rise and Triumph of the Modern Self [1], Dr. Carl Trueman traces the emergence of “a notion of selfhood that places self-expression […] at the heart of what it means to be human” (336). As he points out, it’s not that such a notion is inherently bad—especially where it serves to highlight the dignity and value of the individual human being. Rather, the problem is that today’s “expressive individualism” attempts to do so while “untethered[] […] from any kind of metaphysical framework” (387). In other words, the modern self isn’t grounded on the belief that it is made in the image of God. The burden, then, is on the individual to create the self.

Though we acknowledge God as our Creator, Christians can’t sidestep this issue, either. As Trueman emphasizes throughout, even when we’re aware of it, we can’t simply extract ourselves from our cultural context; it’s the air we breathe, and so we can’t dodge questions about identity and what it means to be a “self.” At the same time, perhaps Christians are right to question the terms of this discussion. After all, outside of Scriptural guidance, we’re ultimately just making guesses about who we are. Our fallible claims might provide useful frameworks to hang our experiences on (like personality typing popularly does), but in the end, they’re little more than that.

This is one reason I’ve always loved Jane Studdock, the somewhat colorless protagonist in C. S. Lewis’s That Hideous Strength [2]. (And not just because, like me, she didn’t quite finish her dissertation.) I think her realizations about identity later in the book convey something of what it means to wrestle with an “untethered” self (and this, interestingly, the better part of a century ago). In the moments just before her conversion to Christianity, Jane reflects on her vague sense that “Religion ought to mean a realm in which […] what she called her ‘true self’ would soar upwards and expand in some freer and purer world.” But then it occurs to her that the Christians she knows talk more about a personal God than about some misty abstraction called “religion.” She permits herself to wonder, “Supposing one were […] a thing designed and invented by Someone Else and valued for qualities quite different from what one had decided to regard as one’s true self? Supposing all those people who […] had infuriatingly found her sweet and fresh when she wanted them to find her also interesting and important, had all along been simply right and perceived the sort of thing she was?”

Even as Jane wonders if it’s possible that God agrees with “those people’s” galling perception of her and not with the respectable self she longs to project, she finds herself yielding to God in a way she can’t explain:

“the little idea of herself which she had hitherto called me dropped down and vanished, unfluttering, into bottomless distance […] The name me was the name of a being whose existence she had never suspected, a being that did not yet fully exist but which was demanded. It was a person (not the person she had thought) […] made to please Another […] in a shape it had never dreamed of. And the making went on amidst a kind of splendour or sorrow or both[.]”

315-16

A number of things happen all at once. Jane realizes that she is made, is being made, by and for “Someone Else,” for a purpose she can’t fathom. Even the suggestion of belonging to a greater Someone causes her fragile “little idea of herself” to crumble into oblivion. This is all the more shattering because she understands that Someone Else even less than she understands the “person she had thought” she was. And yet she surrenders because this Other seems to know her. He is right about whatever she really is and will be—and that means it’s safe for her to let go of the “me” whose importance she’d clung to so desperately.

I love Jane’s garden scene because it suggests that we aren’t what we make of ourselves, no matter what our culture says (and evidently has been saying for some time). Until her conversion, Jane has been drifting in the very cultural stream Trueman describes. And even as believers, we do want that thing we’ve “decided to regard as [our] true self” to be validated. We will fight for it and defend it as if its loss is the worst fate we can imagine, forgetting that we didn’t invent ourselves in the first place.  

When the “sorrow” overwhelms the “splendour” of being molded by God, it is, in one sense, a true and devastating loss, even for a Christian. Losing a clear sense of identity can leave a person disoriented, doubting that there’s a real point after all. For example, I think of spending a decade working toward a graduate degree, only to have to abandon what I’d believed to be my vocation (and the identity with which it had become entwined) within the space of a semester. Such circumstances involve a kind of death, and pretending otherwise doesn’t help.

I would suggest that we won’t find a satisfying answer to our identity questions because, while inevitable, they aren’t the questions that ultimately get us where we’re going. Jesus doesn’t ask, “Who are you?” but “Who do you say that I am?” And this does give us something to grab on to. It is not just a vague assertion that we “find our identity in Christ”—a directive I’ve always found difficult to wrap my arms around. Rather, I think He offers us something firmer and more substantial. How do we learn more of who Jesus is? Through the means of grace—and we have this need and nutrition source in common. Our truest selves, in other words, are realized in the need we share in common, not in what makes us distinct or important in our own or others’ eyes. And this can give us rest.

 For the vast majority of us, one concrete thing this means is that throughout our lives, we’ll bear the duty and privilege of being hearers of the Word. Along with meeting Him in the Lord’s Supper and walking together in fellowship with other believers, this is how we grow up into fullness in Christ.

At church recently I heard a sermon that helped me understand more of what it means to know ourselves as “[beings] that [do] not yet fully exist” but who are being formed into an undreamed-of shape. Surprisingly, this sermon was talking about the role of pastors and teachers in ministering the Word in order to build up the saints, strengthen them, and beautify them; in other words, to make them complete in the selves that God has intended for them. That completion entails being united to a Person unimaginably greater:

And he gave […] pastors and teachers;

For the perfecting of the saints, for the work of the ministry, for the edifying of the body of Christ:

Till we all come in the unity of the faith, and of the knowledge of the Son of God, unto a perfect man, unto the measure of the stature of the fulness of Christ

Eph. 4:11-13

This “perfecting” is all Christ’s gift, and our job is to receive the gift (to be ministered to). But being a receiver, a hearer of the Word, isn’t simply a passive endeavor. We participate in the administration of this gift (preaching) first of all by actively listening to it; by meditating on it; and by feeding on it in such a way that we grow up in Christ. As the Westminster Larger Catechism says,

What is required of those that hear the word preached?
A. It is required of those that hear the word preached, that they attend upon it with diligence, preparation, and prayer; examine what they hear by the Scriptures; receive the truth with faith, love, meekness, and readiness of mind, as the Word of God; meditate, and confer of it; hide it in their hearts, and bring forth the fruit of it in their lives.

Q. 160. 

This is how Jesus builds His Church, the sermon concluded. Both as individual selves and as united to one another in Him, we are all being built up into His stature and fullness. I’d suggest that this is the real work of figuring out who we are, the “self” most worth fighting for and protecting. As believers, we each have an indispensable and active role in it. But living in a culture that frames self-making as autonomous self-expression, that role looks different than what we may be used to thinking.

None of this means that our individual particularities aren’t God-given and good. Or even that we won’t deal with questions and conflicts that those particularities bring to bear on our life in Christ. But especially when we’re constantly pressured to make, remake, and even market ourselves, we need a constant reminder that we’re fundamentally receivers. We get that by sitting under the Word.

And this means that we can safely let our sense of “me” “vanish[] […] into bottomless distance.” There will be a “me” left, because it’s something God made, its making goes on, and it’s being flawlessly knit into a Body greater than ourselves. We are creatures, and, like Jane, we couldn’t make ourselves if we tried. We don’t have to.

Sarah White is a writer and editor living in western Pennsylvania.