Volume 17 Number 1
Where Eagles and Nightingales Dare
01 February 2004

Does doing God's will mean losing your identity, asks Philip Boobbyer.

We all want to be faithful to our 'true selves'. But how do we discover who we really are? In our individualistic western societies, this is a big question; indeed, the nature of the 'self' is perhaps the central moral and intellectual issue of the age.

Two philosophies of the self are currently very popular. One of them, with its roots in the Romantic movement of the 19th century, assumes that we all have a true self, and that life is about discovering and expressing it. There is great attraction in this idea: we all want to find out what our hearts are really saying. However, taken in isolation it can make life very complicated. It easily leads us into slavery to passing impulses or self-absorption. We feel we must check out every feeling that comes along in case it is reflective of our 'true self'.

Another approach-the post-modern one-assumes that there is no essential self at all: we are either products of our environment, in which case the values that we hold are temporary and certainly cannot be relied upon; or we create ourselves through our own free choices. This approach highlights the fact that we are not abstract individuals, but members of particular communities; and it rightly emphasizes the importance of free choice. Once again, however, it creates a new set of difficulties. It deprives people of any moral landmarks for making choices; there are no absolutes, so anything that comes along might be worth a try.

Both Romantic and post-modern philosophies are designed to liberate people from various forms of oppression. However, they offer no adequate way of resolving the questions that they set, and thus easily leave people with a new set of burdens. They also assume that human beings can experiment on themselves like a scientist examining a test-tube. All sorts of lifestyles need to be tried out to see whether they work. But this is very dangerous; we ourselves are often changed by our experiments, and continue our lives as different people. Our experiments can lead to addictions that we then try to justify; blinded by our compulsive behaviour, we declare that our addictions are simply an expression of our 'natural' or 'true' selves!

The temptation is to believe that our personalities and our actions can be separated. However, the human being is a unity and to live with this kind of separation has terrible consequences for a person's identity. Pressured, for example, to conform to the values of the crowd, we think we can defend ourselves by playing the roles publicly required of us while remaining unaffected at heart. But we cannot live double lives without being harmed by it. Writing on post-war Poland in his acclaimed book The Captive Mind (1950), Czeslaw Milosz noted that many people had lost the ability to distinguish between their real and their false selves: 'A man grows into [his role] so closely that he can no longer differentiate his true self from the self he simulates'. It is dangerous to think that we will be unaffected by the games we play.

radical trust
How, then, do we find our true identities? The answer involves turning our attention away from ourselves towards God, and adopting a radical form of trust about the world we live in. We choose to accept the idea that there is a merciful God who knows the purposes for which we were created, and who will generously give all that we need. Here our identities are received as gifts from God. Jesus's primary relationship was with God as 'Father'. Likewise for us, it is as sons and daughters of a Father-God that our true identities are to be found. Identity is a kind of inheritance, and it arises out of our relationship with God. Such an approach does not free us from the task of taking responsibility for our lives and thinking things through. But it means that we look at life in a different way.

This raises another question: in committing our lives to God, do we not become automatons? Does this not lead to a divided existence where what we ought to do conflicts with what we want to do? According to the Scottish writer, Henry Drummond (1851-1897), the solution to this dilemma lies in the fact that at the deepest level God's will is not something alien to us. God does not want us to be cogs in a machine. What he wills for us is perfectly designed for us. We have particular gifts to contribute to the world, and when we do not use them the world is the poorer for it. And as we exercise those gifts in God's service, we ourselves are changed and become the people that we are meant to be. The tasks God chooses for us are not arbitrary: 'Work is given men not only because the world needs it, but because the workman needs it.' The challenge is to let go of control and the right to shape our futures for our own purposes. It involves a wholehearted decision to trust in God.

Trusting in God's love for us has radical consequences for personal identity. It challenges our constant tendency to try to prove ourselves. However, it can bring great upheaval. Sometimes our friendships, identities and careers have been built around the wrong values or reactions. Things have to be put right, and new habits of mind created. Fear so often prevents us from taking the action that is needed. We are afraid for ourselves, and of what others will think of us. And where others depend on us, we are afraid for them too. It is in the nature of evil to try to prevent us from breaking out of sin for fear of the con-sequences for those around us.

misplaced emotions
This does not just apply to individuals. As the 20th century has shown, nations can also embrace deeply destructive identities. A country's attitudes can be rooted in pride, anger, guilt, feelings of inferiority or a refusal to be honest; and there are vested interests that profit from mobilizing these feelings. To challenge misplaced emotions, and to rebuild national life around the right values, demands a lot of thought, courage and care. Honesty, justice, freedom and a generous patriotism have to be worked for.

It is easy to lose sight of the revolutionary kind of change that Christ proposes. Take, for example, the commandment to love our enemies. This is something that requires such a deep-seated reorientation of responses that something very radical must take place if it is to be possible. The same is true in the sphere of sexual behaviour and identity. St Paul talks of people who have been freed from enslavement to promiscuous or perverse patterns of behaviour. What kind of power can make such transformation of character possible? It is clearly not enough for people just to change their outward behaviour.

A kind of 'exchange' is needed. One of the Sufi mystics wrote:

Could there be a better customer than God?
He buys our dirty bag of goods,
And in return gives us an inner light
That borrows from his splendour.

God himself makes it possible for us to change. It is in this context that the mystery of Christ can be partly understood. As we take up the Cross, our lives become permeated by a different spirit; we exchange the tyranny of a selfish or guilt-driven life for a life of inner freedom inspired by divine grace. The 'old nature' dies, and a new one is kindled in our hearts. An inner trans-formation starts to take place that can go on to affect the community. As Dante wrote: 'Out of a small spark comes a great flame.'

unique inheritance
At any moment we can start again. This is not some quick fix. There is a moderation as well as a radicalism in St Paul, for he noted that our motivations are not changed overnight but are renewed 'from day to day'. But things start to be put right. As the author of the book of Proverbs noted: 'In all your ways acknowledge [God], and he will make straight your paths.' The presence and power of the Holy Spirit is available to us. If we lose sight of that power and the experience of moral victory that it generates, we end up by trying to manage or channel human sinfulness, rather than to challenge it and call its bluff. And the trouble with appeasing sin is that it will always try to break its boundaries.

Gradually, we find that our very wills are changed. In his Renovation of the Heart (2002), the American philosopher Dallas Willard states that people with well-kept hearts find that 'their will functions as it should, to choose what is good and avoid what is evil'. We are moral beings, and when God is at the centre of our lives, we function properly. As we obey God, we find that we actually start to want the right things. There is nothing sinister about this; it is a voluntary process, and God never forces his will upon us.

The Russian priest, Serafim Batiukov (1880-1942), stated: 'Every bird has its own flight. An eagle flies in the clouds, while the nightingale sits on the branch, but each of them glorifies God.' Each of us is unique. Paradoxically, however, our particular calling and identity is only revealed as we turn away from ourselves towards God. As we do God's will, we don't lose our identities at all. Instead, we enter into the inheritance prepared for us all along. n

Dr Philip Boobbyer is a senior lecturer in modern European history at the University of Kent.

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