By David Benner from his book Sacred Companions
The mystical teaching of the New Testament about the relationship between our life and Christ’s life within us has frequently been misunderstood, often with serious consequences. Failure to understand this matter has led to dangerous and misleading teaching about the self. It has also sometimes led people to attempt to crucify the wrong thing.
Paul speaks of being crucified with Christ but of Christ’s living in him (Galatians 2:20). But which part of us is to be crucified and which is to be alive in Christ? What is the relationship between me and Christ who lives in me? After all, Christ is described as living in me; so there must be some “me” that survives the crucifixion. What, then, does this tell us about the goal of the Christian transformational journey?
The notion of becoming our true self-in-Christ emphasizes the fact that there are true and false ways of living. Most of us can identify ways we wear masks our own creation. The fact that we are capable of thinking about how we want to behave in any given situation shows that we can make choices about this. Inherent in this choice is the fact that we can choose to live a lie: we can choose to pretend to be someone or something that we are not.
In his very helpful discussion of the true and false self, Basil Pennington suggest that my false self is made up of what I have, what I do and what people think of me. It is constructed, therefore, out of false attachments.
Stop for a moment and think about how you introduce yourself. It will tell you a lot about how you want others to see you. Whenever I invite people to see me in terms of what I have or do, I am living out of my false self.
Pennington suggests that Christ’s temptations in the wilderness were temptations to live out of such a false center. First the tempter invites him to turn stones into bread. But Jesus said no to the invitation to establish himself on the basis of his doing. Then the tempter invited him to throw himself from the top of the temple into the crowds below, so they would immediately recognize him as the Messiah. Again Jesus rejected the temptation. He chose not to base his identity on the acclaim of others. Finally the tempter offered him all the kingdoms of the world. But once again Jesus rejected the offer, refusing to find his identity in possessions or power.
Jesus knew who he was before God and in God. He could therefore resist temptations to live his life out of a false center based on possessions, actions or the esteem of others.
Merton suggests that at the core of our false ways of being there is always a sinful refusal to surrender to God’s will. My reluctance to find my identity and fulfillment in Christ leaves me vulnerable to living out of a false center. It leaves me no alternative but to create a self of my own making.
This is where the problem begins. The self I am called from eternity to be has meaning only in relation to Christ. The unique self that I am called to be is never a self I simply dream up and decide I’d like to be. It is always and only the self that I actually am in Christ. This is my eternal self. This is the self I am intended to be. This is the only self that will allow me to be truly whole and holy.
What, then, should be crucified? Call it my sinful self or my false selves; what needs to be crucified are my ways of living apart from surrender to God’s will. It is not radical enough to try to stop committing sin. This is too superficial. Ignatius of Loyola suggests that sin is ultimately a refusal to believe that what God wants is my happiness and fulfillment. When I fail to believe this, I am tempted to sin—to take my life into my own hands, assuming that I am in the best position to determine what will lead to my happiness. As I become convinced that God wants nothing more than my fulfillment, surrender to his will is increasingly possible.
If our sinful and false ways of being are what we are to crucify, what are we to actualize? The self that I am to become is Christ in me; it is my self-in-Christ. Both say the same thing. Both point to the unique self that is found only in Christ and in the fullness of his life in and through me. This is good news of Galatians 2:20. This is the goal of the Christian transformational journey.
Properly understood, these three intended destinations of the journey—becoming a great lover, becoming whole and holy, and becoming my true self-in-Christ—demonstrate just how radical Christian spiritual transformation really is. At times these goals seem absolutely unattainable, impossibly far from where I am at the moment. Authentic transformation seems so tiresome, so long a reach. I simply want to stay where I am. I want to stop the journey and make my destination wherever I presently find myself.
I were making the spiritual journey on my own, I suspect that I would do just that. But I do not need to make it on my own. In fact I dare not.