Who am I?
Am I then really that which other men tell of? Or am I only what I myself know of myself?
Who am I? This or the Other? Am I one person today and tomorrow another? Am Iboth at once?
—“Who Am I?”, Dietrich Bonhoeffer
These questions so eloquently captured by Bonhoeffer have haunted me.
Have you ever had this thought: “If another person knew me, really knew me, they couldn’t possibly like me”? You know the “real me” person I mean, the “inner you” that you go to great lengths to hide–yeah, that’s the one right there living in the shadow of the person you project–if they really knew that person they wouldn’t like you…or so you tell yourself because you know yourself better than anyone.
Have you ever had a really good friend tell you that they see good something in you that you know couldn’t possibly be true because, after all, you see the backstage areas of your life? You nod at their comment in appreciation, perhaps even feeling a little flustered while protesting against their observation, while down deep wishing that what they said were indeed true. What they say can’t be true, you tell yourself, because they don’t know the “real you,” and you, of course, know yourself better than anyone.on you project–if they really knew that person they wouldn’t like you…or so you tell yourself because you know yourself better than anyone.
Have you ever had some well-meaning fellow Christian tell you that God loves you for who you are? You nod your head knowingly because it is a fact straight from your Bible; however, somewhere down deep you know it is a lie…after all, the “real you” is unlovable and, after all, you know yourself better than anyone.
What if you are wrong? What if you aren’t the best judge of who you are.
What if you are wrong? What if you aren’t the best judge of who you are.
What if there are other persons who know you at least as well as you know yourself and perhaps better than you know yourself? I am coming to believe that there are three valid perspectives of me…
The first perspective is that of God. If I am a follower of Jesus, then God has adopted me as His child. To use the language of the Apostle Paul, God sees me-in-Jesus (Christ). That’s a funny theological concept. How can I be in another person? Well, it is a bit of a mystery in the same way that two married people in a healthy marriage slowly and mysteriously become as one, their very persons separate but intertwined.
The practical outworking of this is that when God looks at me He sees me in the same way as He sees His Son, Jesus. After all, I am His son, too (or daughter, ladies). Imagine God looking at you that way. And here’s the best part: He already knows about that shadowy person inside that I try to hide even from Him, and He still sees me as His most beloved child.
Sure, there’s a bit more to this perspective. God wants me to really become like Jesus, so in addition to offering His unconditional love He helps me through His Holy Spirit to live my life in a way that I am being actually transformed into the likeness of Jesus.
Don’t get too bogged down in this extra stuff just now; the point is that God sees me as His child in the very same way He sees His real Son, Jesus. God looks at me and sees me-in-Jesus. That is His perspective.
What about these other people who see something in me I don’t see. Well, it is not just any other people that will see this truthfully. It is too easy to fool the masses; with a few deft moves I can pull the wool over their eyes. Or, they might see only a snapshot of me and rush to a good or poor judgment of me.
No, I’m talking about those very few people who really know me. Those people I let into the innermost circle of my life; those to whom I tell of my hopes and dreams and expose my weakness and failures. I hope you have a few people like that in your life. These are the people who will see Jesus in you. You cannot really know yourself without them.
As I draw closer to Jesus I become more like Him. I am indeed a cracked pot, as they say, which is a good thing. It is through those cracks that the light of Jesus shines through. Jesus-in-me begins to shine through those very cracks in ways of which I am not aware unless someone else points them out to me. This is what those closest to me begin to see. And, it’s not really them seeing me differently; rather, it is Jesus-in-them seeing Jesus-in-me.
My closest friends look at me and see Jesus-in-me. This is their perspective.
Then there’s my perspective. Unfortunately, it is the one in which I put the most stock. It is me looking at the backside of the tapestry of my life and seeing all the loose and knotted threads. I see the mess behind the mask. I hear the voices unkind toward you and me in my head. I experience the doubts and fears of life. I recognize the false bravado.
In other words, I see the sin in me. I’m seeing the shadow person I think I hide because he is unlovable and if you or God knew him you would reject me and I’d rather die than be rejected for who I believe am.
In reality, this shadowy figure is not separate from me but is part of me. As I draw closer to the light of Jesus I begin to see him more clearly for the wretched person that he is (I am). He is (I am) not something to hide…he is who I really am: the person God has redeemed by the death of Jesus. I’m seeing me-as-redeemed. Having this view of me allows me to see God’s great mercy and grace toward me. Sadly for us and for God’s kingdom we too often find our identity from this perspective alone. We too easily dismiss ourselves as unworthy to do God’s work here.
The Apostle Paul is a good case study. We know he is God’s son (perspective 1). We know from his writings (two-thirds of the New Testament) that he was a great man of God (perspective 2). Yet, he calls himself the chief of all sinners (perspective 3).
Each perspective offers me something.
God’s perspective gives me the deepest truth of who I am. From His perspective I findmy ultimate identity, security, and significance.
The perspective of my friends gives me hope that God is at work transforming my life, that His promises are not empty promises. I really am changing; my friends see it when I don’t. Through the eyes of close friends I see who I am being transformed into.
My perspective reminds me of God’s grace and mercy as I see what I have been redeemed from. I see the inner ugliness and it reminds me what God did for me through Jesus on the cross. Out of this perspective I can begin to offer God’s love to others.
Each perspective is important. Bonhoeffer finishes his poem with a reminder of the bedrock answer to the question, “Who am I?”:
Who am I? They mock me, these lonely questions of mine. Whoever I am, Thou knowest, O God, I am thine!
Somehow this brings to mind a concept that Lewis wove into Perelandra. There are no mirrors, and Tinidril (Eve) has never (prior to her temptation) seen her own reflection. Her only ‘perception’ of her image is in the reaction of those who look upon her.
So, I’m not entirely sure how far I follow Lewis down this trail. However, imagine if our only concept of our own image was to see and understand the emotion in the faces which we face. That could be fairly frightening – until I wonder how God would look upon me, and how I would receive the aspect of his countenance. I think – I hope – that by though his grace, His searing justice would flow into me as his merciful love. Only then can I embrace him as the father who both sees all my sin and yet calls me his child.
Thanks, Stuart. A life without “seeing” my own face (no personal sense of self) sounds like the extreme opposite to the belief that I am the only and best judge of myself. Neither extreme sounds healthy to me. I believe Lewis continues to explore the theme of seeing self and God darkly, then clearly in his book, Till We Have Faces.
That is a good thought. It has been some years since I last year Perelandra, and I hadn’t connected this with Faces. The latter is, perhaps, my absolute favorite novel; read and reread, I am continually impressed, and challenged, and by new and unexpected ways of seeing our myriad journeys. As much as I appreciate Lewis’ earlier works, the depth of mystery which he brings to Faces, the humility which accepts both the uncertainties of our clouded vision and the solidity of our Lord’s omniscience, never fails to piece through and resonates within me.
As always, Mike, I appreciate and value your insights, and am blessed by your integrity in these trying times. Grace and peace.