Wilderness Emergence: Living from the New Self
“The dark night helps the false self to wither. It liberates our true self. The false self will continue to remain, perhaps, all our lives. But thanks to God’s grace, the false self’s influence on us will be much reduced.” Daniel Schrock, The Dark Night: A Gift of God
“So I am not the one doing wrong; it is sin living in me that does it. There is another power within me that is at war with my mind. I see another law at work in the members of my body.” St. Paul, from Rom 7
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One of the difficult realities of our journey from the encumbering slavery of Egypt to the expansive freedom of the Promised Land is that it takes a lifetime to get free, really free, of the ugly stench of our former enslavement. It takes just a moment to be freed from slavery. It takes a lifetime to get the mindset of a slave out of us.
St. Paul seems to agree. His words in the quote from Romans 7 (above) are curious: it’s not me sinning, it’s sin in me. Is St. Paul blame-shifting? Is this a bit of legal maneuvering?: I didn’t do it, your honor! It was my alter-ego Saul, the murderer! And what’s this talk of a war within? He’s preoccupied with another “law” or “power” within, countering his new identity in Jesus. And he seems to indicate that this other “law” or “power” is more complex, at work in the “members” of his body. Apparently, this dynamic within is multiple. Does St. Paul suffer from multiple personalities? Or, is he putting his 1st-century finger on a psychological sin-complex that speaks to the depth and scope of human brokenness?
In a series of previous posts, I introduced the idea of the “divided heart,” a biblical way of talking about the internal polarization which takes place as a result of both sin and woundedness. But we didn’t go into depth on how to break free from this kind of internal slavery. In the last post, I mentioned that the process of change is often over-simplified, particular among Christians who reduce change down to a behavioral choice or a mental formula. What I’d want to argue is that St. Paul thought differently – that our inner world is more complex, that our self-reliant strategies for coping with life’s pain are more advanced, that his metaphor of “war” actually challenges simplistic versions of change. The complexity is embedded in a Pauline phrase – “members of the body.” These warring and dividing “members of the body” are inside, and become an illustration for what happens outside, among people. In some respects, these internal members of the body are like an internal family, called to be unified by polarized by their different agendas. N.T. Wright, in fact, calls these “members of the body” parts of our psyche. And sometimes these different parts of us, like members of a family, don’t get along.
Think about this practically. We’ll often use language saying, “My heart says yes, but my head says no.” Sometimes, we’ll say, “Part of me wants to stay in the relationship, but another part of me doesn’t.” Or, a good friend will hear us tell her that we’re doing fantastic, but will read on our face that we’re really a mess. Or, we’ll read a good many authors who talk about a false self or mask that we wear which isn’t our true self or core. It seems that we’re divided within. I illustrated this in that previous post with the ambivalence of the Israelites who, on the one hand, wanted everything the Promised Land had to offer, but on the other hand wanted the security of Egypt. St. Paul in Rom. 7 can say, “I don’t really understand myself, for I want to do what is right, but I don’t do it. Instead, I do what I hate.”
While I spelled out the problem in my previous post, I did not elaborate on the process of growth, change, and restoration. The first insight for wilderness emergence comes from St. Paul himself, when he says, “it’s not me sinning, it’s sin in me.” The point, for Paul, is that something new and good exists within. He calls this “new creation” (2 Cor. 5:17), among other things. It is new life inside of us. It is a regenerated heart. It is a temple of the Holy Spirit. And for this new self, Paul prays for strength “with power through the Spirit in your inner being” (Eph. 3:16). This is not another “part” of us, it is a new self, a new center, a new organizing principle amidst the disorganized and chaotic parts of the old self. It is this new self, the home of God Himself, that becomes the redemptive center in a wounded soul.
Now, the problem is that many of us live more from a part of ourselves, a false self, than this new self. In fact, sometimes these parts of us take over, going to war against this new self and sending us into a tailspin. Often, we’ll say, “My anxiety takes over and I just can’t think,” or “When I’m depressed I just don’t feel like myself,” or “When I blow up at my wife, I don’t feel like it’s me, and I hate who I’ve become.” The truth is, it is not you. You, the new you, the real you, the redeemed you, could not and would not do that. This is why St. Paul can say, “It’s not me, it’s sin in me.”
While we’ll learn more about how these warring parts of us work in future posts, it is important to know that what you need to begin growing, changing, healing, and maturing is already in you. It is not in your spouse. It is not in a counselor. It is not in a substance. It is not a religious ritual. And it is not in your self, or your “old self,” that is. Sometimes, we expect people to fix us, or substances to fix us, or even false images of ourselves to fix us. And while these things can be helpful to point us to growth, challenge us to maturity, and sustain us in our journey, they cannot fix us. But if St. Paul is right, God has pitched his tent in us, and is committed to seeing this new seed of life grow, flourish, and change us from the inside out. As a therapist, this is a great relief, in some respects, because God Himself is far more committed to seeing change take place within people than I am. It’s a great relief, but also a great Hope as well. The Kingdom of God, like a mustard seed, is growing within.
Emerging from the wilderness, we recognize that God had a purpose all along: “The dark night helps the false self to wither. It liberates our true self” (Daniel Schrock). The dark night, in fact, often makes us strikingly aware of old patterns and habits that enslaved us. But how do we begin to recognize that centered place, that new self, that core where God resides, particularly when we feel like we’ve succumbed to identity theft? St. John of the Cross counseled that you find “you” by identifying what isn’t you. Sounds confusing, right? This, for St. John, was a contemplative exercise, an exercise in self-awareness where you pay close attention to feelings or thoughts that are not you. For our 21st century practical purposes, let’s do an exercise.
Imagine that you are standing at the foot of a mountain. At the foot of the mountain, begin to identify and greet the different “you’s” that have been taking over. For example, I’d see the Chuck who is a competent workaholic who finds identity in achievement, and the distant loner who finds (false) satisfaction and safety in my own mind, and the chronic helper who has trouble saying no, and the anxious plate-spinner who vigilantly obsesses on details, and the insecure little boy who rarely emerges but wields great power from his hidden place, or the lonely need-vacuum who longs for affection and approval, and many, many other Chuck’s who operate within my orbit. In this exercise, we are not yet working with these varying parts of ourselves, just getting to know our core self. So, as you see and experience each part of you, acknowledge it, and tell it you’ll get to know it later, but walk on and up the hillside. As another false self greets you, acknowledge it, but ask it to stay behind. Some of these you may greet as old, longtime friends. Some may come as a surprise. I was surprised to be greeted, at one point, by a very strategic part of me that was far more manipulative in my world than I knew. Again, the point is to greet the part of you, and walk onward and upward, like Christian in Pilgrim’s Progress. As St. John taught, the more we identify what isn’t us, the real us, the more we begin to get a glimpse of that unfettered treasure that is our new self. At the top of the mountain, when these varying parts of you have stepped back, take some time to sit and be silent, experiencing God’s nearness as you can, experiencing the spaciousness of an inner place that “flows with milk and honey.”
Rest and enjoy.
Now that you’ve moved through the winding path upward, greeting your many counter-identities, alter-ego’s, and false selves, you’ll be more ready to greet them on the way back down from a place of greater love and sanctified compassion. After all, these parts of you reflect good and godly longings which have become mis-directed toward achieving intimacy, purpose, and glory in our own way and in our own timing. They have chosen Egypt over the patient longing for the land flowing with milk and honey. They’ve chosen management over trust, and in so doing have thrown our hearts into disorder. In the coming weeks, we’ll explore how to meet God at the mountain top, and return to our disordered world with God’s intention to love and redeem.
Until then, God’s peace.
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