What in the World is a Self, and Do I Have One, or Two?

I don’t know who I am anymore. Who am I?

Oh, she just hasn’t found herself yet. One day she will, and then she will truly know herself.

What is a self?

I would propose that the letters S-E-L-and-F are used more now than ever in history (90% usage being in the word selfie, no doubt), but never were we ever more ignorant of what a self is, or could be, or should be.

The self is commonly misunderstood with related concepts of identity, ego, personality, and, ultimately, idolatry. Tim Keller’s helpful book The Freedom of Self-Forgetfulness is only 65 pages (and $1.99 on Kindle) and is remarkably subtitled “The Path to True Christian Joy.” If you know your Bible well at all you’ll hear some undertones of Matt 10:39, by implication Matt 6:33 (and Matt 6:21), and maybe some Acts 20:35.

The theme is clear in Scripture: self-focus is destructive and self-forgetfulness is life–so we should shoot for self-forgetfulness. And the more pious among us go to extremes and throw out the entire discipline of psychology. Why should we study ourselves at all if self-focus is destructive? And things get more complicated when you’re dealing with introspection. Jer 17:9 is quoted on top of this pious self-forgetfulness, and so internal problems go unsolved and unheeded in great self-neglect with a one-two punch of bad hermeneutics.

These internal problems create a divide in your self, so that now you have a section of you that you are proud of and ok with, and a section of you that you keep locked away in the closet. One for show, one for hiding–sound familiar? The guy in the closet is not me, you tell yourself. He does things I would never do, so obviously I’m not him; he’s not me. But who are you trying to convince? This internal dualism is downright hysterical for those who are objective, but it is this that is the root of hypocrisy. The reason hypocrites can do polar-opposite things without seeing the obvious disconnect is because they are blind to those inner- and inter-connections. And since they can’t make those connections, they continue to act two-faced, while seeing themselves one-faced.

What I’m saying is that the self is as important to spiritual growth as the Scripture. John Calvin said, “True and sound wisdom consists of two parts: The knowledge of God and of ourselves.” We need to know ourselves truly and fully in order to apply the Word of God to a holistic picture of us which we carry into the world. When applied to a dualistic self, Scripture creates a two-headed monster who is fundamentally unable to be Matt 6:33 or Matt 10:39 because he is divided; he is a house built on a foundation of sand (Matt 7:24–27); he is a διψυχος (di-psu-kos), a double-souled man (James 1:8; 4:8). He is an oxymoron in flesh.

This man is who we are without Christ. This man defines the human condition. We are ever bent toward our own ruin. Luther said it well:

The world is like a drunken peasant. If you lift him into the saddle on one side, he will fall of on the other side. One can’t help him, no matter how one tries. He wants to be the devil’s.[1]

This is a serious issue which requires deep thought and care. No simple answer will suffice. We need to find a proportional relationship between self-love (indulgence, hypocrisy, etc) and self-hate (pious asceticism), and locate our identities in a healthy self-esteem. Tim Keller solves this puzzle of the self with great finesse, with the greatest grace and clarity I’ve seen by an evangelical, and it is that we will look at in future posts.

  1. Luther, Table Talk, 630.  ↩