Wednesday, November 3, 2010

Self and Sovereignty

As I’ve been reading and reflecting this past month, one issue that keeps bubbling up is identity, and the “sovereignty of self.” On a road trip to Cape May I listened to a great seminar by Paul Tripp, “Your Walk with God is a Community Project.” He argues that it takes an intentional, grace-filled community to help us claim and live into our identity in Christ. On our own, we slip into finding our identity in job descriptions, accumulated “stuff,” the fulfillment of desires that lead us farther from who God created us to be.

At the same time, readings in Oswald Chambers’ My Utmost for His Highest have been highlighting the challenge of identification with Christ, and the call to live as totally new creations, set free from our own desires, our own prejudices, our own preferences and self-indulgences. Today’s reading focused on Galatians 2:20: “I am crucified with Christ.” Until we come to that break with the sovereignty of self, Chambers says, “all the rest is pious fraud. The one point to decide is – will I give up, will I surrender to Jesus Christ, and make no conditions whatever . . . I must be broken from my self-realization . . . The passion of Christianity is that I deliberately sign away my own rights and become a bondslave of Jesus Christ.”

In Eat this Book, Eugene Peterson comes at this same topic from another angle: “We live in an age in which we have all been trained from the cradle to choose for ourselves what is best for us. . . . Our tastes, inclinations, and appetites are consulted endlessly. . . . If the culture does a thorough job on us – and it turns out to be mighty effective with most of us – we enter adulthood with the working assumption that whatever we need and want and feel forms the divine control center of our lives.”

According to Peterson, the kingdom of God has been replaced by the kingdom of self: “My feelings are the truth of who I am. Any thing or person who can provide me with ecstasy, with excitement, with joy, with stimulus, with spiritual connection validates my sovereignty.”

The sovereignty of self works its way out in how we pursue careers or calling, our use, or misuse, of Christian community, our failures in marriage, our self-indulgent parenting. It also shapes our understanding of sexuality. I’ve been wrestling with Mark Yarhouse’s very helpful book, Homosexuality and the Christian. He talks about what he calls the gay script, one rooted firmly in the sovereignty of self:

·         Same-sex attractions signal a naturally occurring or “intended by God” distinction between homosexuality, heterosexuality, and bisexuality
·         Same-sex attractions are the way you know who you “really are” as a person (emphasis on discovery)
·         Same-sex attractions are at the core of who you are as a person.
·         Same-sex behaviour is an extension of that core.
·         Self-actualization (behaviour that matches who you “really are”) of your sexual identity is crucial for your fulfillment. (p48)

This all makes sense if the self is “the authoritative text” (Peterson’s very perceptive term), but for Christians who are willing to submit to the authority of scripture, rather than the authority of self, another script is possible:

·         Same-sex attraction does not signal a categorical distinction among types of person, but is one of many human experiences that are “not the way it’s supposed to be.”
·         Same-sex attractions may be part of your experience, but they are not the defining element of your identity.
·         You can choose to integrate your experiences of attraction to the same sex into a gay identity.
·         On the other hand, you can choose to center your identity around other aspects of your experience, including your biological sex, gender identity, and so on.
·         The most compelling aspect of personhood for the Christian is one’s identity in Christ, a central and defining aspect of what it means to be a follower of Jesus. (p. 51)

These scripts are a helpful way to think about gender and sexual orientation, but give insight into other conditions and desires we struggle with. “I’m just an angry person.” “I just find I need to talk about things. I can’t really help it if sounds like gossip.” At every turn, we’re tempted to the sovereignty of self, "self-actualization" that defies God's call to holiness. At every turn, we can choose to define ourselves according to who we “really are,” or we can find who we really are in our identification with the death and resurrection of Christ.

Am I seeking myself? Or am I seeking Christ? There’s a cost either way, a choice either way, and that choice defines my future. 

There’s a stanza at the end of Eliot’s Journey of the Magi that captures this reality, the death to self and “the old dispensation” that is an essential part of birth in Christ:

All this was a long time ago, I remember,
And I would do it again, but set down
This set down
This: were we led all that way for a
Birth or Death? There was a Birth, certainly,
We had evidence and no doubt. I had seen birth and death,
But had thought they were different; this Birth was
Hard and bitter agony for us, like Death, our death.
We returned to our places, these Kingdoms,
But no longer at ease here, in the old dispensation,
With an alien people clutching their gods.
I should be glad of another death.