You and Your Sel(f/ves)
An Exploration in Identity
The Five Selves
If you think that you have one coherent self, then you have already made a mistake. Sin so utterly ravished us that we can no longer think of ourselves as whole. Beyond one self, we each now (in some sense) have many selves that are all in conflict. When we flee from God, this conflict increases and we become at war with ourselves. When we pursue him, we start to become whole once more.
But what do I mean when I use the word self? I, myself, do not know. But I think we would be wrong to think of our selves as just the stuff that goes on in our heads. Biblically, it seems that our selves are composed of at least six parts: soul, spirit, heart, mind, body, flesh. These make up our selves both insofar as they are ours (my soul is mine, not anyone else’s) and insofar as they are oriented and related to each other in ways that are unique to each of us. Included in our selves—these parts and their orientation—are our personalities, characters, desires, wills, etc. In short, your self is all the things that make you you.
But if we stop at the six parts from the Bible, then I think we have made a mistake. I am not simply claiming that these six parts are in conflict. I am claiming something bigger. Not only are the parts of our selves in conflict, but because of sin we now have multiple selves (each with six parts of their own) that are in conflict as well.
This does not mean that there are multiple you’s running around. There is still only one you. It also does not mean we all have dissociative identity disorder. But your you has been torn and pitted against itself to the point where it is like there are multiple you’s. I propose that we should think of ourselves as having at least five selves, or rather five types of selves, some of which there can be many. Though some of these selves only exist in the imaginations of others and some only exist in our own, it is still helpful to think of them as really existing.
These five selves are as follows: the true self, the real self, the imagined selves, the projected selves, and the perceived selves. There is also a quite delightful sixth self, but we’ll save that one for the end.
The True Self
First, there is the true self. You could also call this your edenic self or your ideal self. This is the self God created you to be. It is the self that you should be—not the self that you are. It is you if you were perfect.
This self is never wholly gone and it is always somewhat recoverable. Insofar as you still exist, this self still exists with you. This is because God really created the soul/spirit/heart/mind/body/flesh that you really are. Insofar as each of those parts still exist they exist as he created them. Therefore, your true self exists at least as much as each of these parts do. But sin is like a cheese grater that shreds our true selves away. It pokes holes in our true self’s existence, threatening to make us altogether cease to exist. But because we all still exist to one extent or another, we all still have our true selves.
The true self desires God 100%, obeys him 100%, and loves him all the way. It is also the only one of our selves that is 100% happy—or would be, if we were only it. It is the you-iest you there is. It is more uniquely and individually you than any of your other selves. It is not less you because it loves and serves God, but rather is all the more you. One of the biggest mistakes a person can make is thinking that Christianity will kill their individuality. It won’t. It will secure it. It is also worth noting that the true self is not in any way less free because it serves God all the way. On the contrary, it is the most free of all the selves. God created us to have freedom. It is we and we only who gave up that freedom to sin. Sinlessness is not a lack of freedom, but rather is the acquirement of freedom. We will not be imprisoned in Heaven. We are imprisoned now. In Heaven, we will be free.
The Real Self
Second, there is the real self. If the true self is who you should be, then the real self is who you really are. This is the self that sometimes desires God and other times desires sin.
It is helpful to think about the relationship between the true and the real with a graph. Your true self is at the origin and your real self can be anywhere else on the graph. When you pursue God, your real self moves closer and closer to your true self. (This is one way to think about sanctification.) When you pursue sin, your real self moves further and further from your true self.
In this life, though it may be possible, it is incredibly unlikely that our real selves will ever be perfectly aligned with our true selves—though that is and should be the goal. For most of us, the relationship between these two selves will be a long and tedious war that tears us apart from the inside. Shame, as well as a great many other feelings, arise from this disunity. Shame is when your real self feels itself condemned by the high standards of the true self to which it cannot seem to measure up. Eventually, because of shame, the real self may come to hate both the true self and itself. Indeed, one of the more accurate ways to think about sin is as an act of self-hate. This is because it causes such war and strife between your real self and your true. In any case, a great many things can be explained by the conflict (and the romance) between the real self and the true. But, in an effort to be succinct, I will let you do your own explorations.
The Imagined Selves
Next, after the real self are the imagined selves. One of the difficulties of being a fallen human is that we are not particularly good at determining where we really are (as in, where our real selves fall on the graph). This is why it is crucial to recognize that we have imagined selves. We don’t know where our true selves are, and we also don’t know where are real selves are in relation to our true selves. We can make educated guesses, but we’ll never hit the mark exactly because we don’t have perfect sight of our selves. Our imagined selves are where we think each of our other selves are—and we would do wise to know that our imagined selves can be and usually are pretty inaccurate. Our imagined selves will never be totally inaccurate (unless you think you are your neighbor Steve) because you’ll always know to some extent that you are, at the very least, still you.
Pride arises when you imagine your real self to be closer to your true self than it really is. Self-deprecation or self-hate arises when you imagine your real self to be further from your true self than it really is. Humility is when your real self and your imagined self perfectly align. This is why humility is so difficult to attain. But I think it is not quite so difficult as the thoughtful tend to think. Humility is attained through the most simple practices of gratitude. In fact, all coherence between our selves is attained through gratitude.
The Projected Selves
After our imagined selves, we have our projected selves. As human beings, we rarely want other people to see us as we really are. We either want them to see us as better than we are or as worse than we are. So we create selves that we project through our actions—made-up selves for other people to believe in. These selves can never be wholly separate from our true, real and imagined selves (Are you noticing a pattern here?) because we will never be able to separate our projected selves entirely from the soul/spirit/heart/mind/body/flesh that God created us as, which we truly and really are and imagine ourselves to be. All five of our selves are always interacting and always entangled in each other. So our projected selves will always contain some amount of our true, real, and imagined selves, no matter how hard we try to hide any one part. I think there are times to project ourselves as better than we are and times to project ourselves as worse than we are, but I think most of us need to project ourselves as we really are (or at least as we imagine we really are) a heck of a lot more than we do. We have different projected selves to perform for different people and different places. This is sometimes okay, but we should be wary never to let our projected selves stray too far from our real selves and we should also be wary not to acquire too many projected selves. Both can lead to disaster.
It is worth noting here that you are not the only one projecting projected selves. Everyone else is too. Part of our responsibility of love to our neighbors is to see through their projected selves and know when to call them out. This is also a duty of love to ourselves. Being deceived by some people’s projected selves (including our own) can be detrimental.
The Perceived Selves
After our projected selves, we have perceived selves. This is like our imagined selves, but instead of us doing the imagining, everyone else is. Our perceived selves are the selves that everyone else perceives us to be. It is so important to recognize that these selves exist and also that they will never be 100% accurate, though they may at times be more accurate than our own imagined selves. Recognizing the existence of these selves is a helpful reminder that you are not who other people think you are. But, because we care about what other people think, we imbibe many of the things they say and adjust our selves accordingly. So our perceived selves have the power to influence our real, imagined and projected selves in massive ways. For this reason, it is loving to others to perceive them as they really are and it is hating to others to perceive them as they are not. It is also loving to yourself to recognize that you are not who others say you are, but it can also be loving to yourself to recognize that you are. So listen, but listen carefully. And listen most of all to those who love you.
The Weight of Sin and Gratitude/The Sixth Self
Having now laid out the basic ideas of the five selves, we can start to see their value in understanding who we are. Most importantly, we can start to see the weight of the danger of sin, and why we so desperately need a savior.
I have always believed in the five selves simply because they strike me as really intuitive. You don’t have to be a Christian to believe in any one of them—not even the true self. Even the most staunch atheist will talk about “finding themselves.” We all say things like “This isn’t really you” or “I’m trying to find out who I really am.” The reality is, Christian or not, we all have an idea that we are not quite who we should be, and that we need to find out who we truly are. We go on “self-discovery journeys” et cetera because no one really believes that we get to create our own identities 100% by ourselves. We all have some sense that our identities are something we partially create but partially have to discover and live in accord with. Christianity simply says that this discoverable (not creatable) part of our identity comes from a 100% loving God who created us in such a way that we will love our selves most when we live in accord with the identity he created. Atheism, so far as I know, can provide no explanation for this phenomenon of believing in a discoverable self.
We all, therefore, have some idea of a true self, as well as a real self that doesn’t quite align with that ideal version of us. And we all (hopefully) know to some extent or another that our ideas of who we are can be inaccurate and damaging. We certainly all know that we have created false projected selves for other people to believe in. And if nothing else, we definitely know that others have ideas about who we are that are typically wrong but sometimes incredibly insightful. The five selves just make sense.
So how can they help us better understand the weight of sin? Well, let’s return to the fall. Pre-fall, all our selves were aligned, so that, to a certain extent, it is true to say that we each had only our true selves. We really were our true selves. But sin disrupted this. The moment we sinned, our real selves became other than our true selves, and thus, we became at war with ourselves. Our new normal became a true self that desired God and a real self that desired sometimes God, but more often sin. In this sense, sin severed us in half. But it did more than just cut us in two. Once our real selves became split from our true selves, our other selves had to figure out what to do. In order to cope with the horror of our split selves and the undesirable sinfulness of our real selves, we moved our imagined selves away from our real selves until we lost the ability to find our real selves again. We moved our imagined selves closer to our true selves—lying to ourselves that we are better than we are—because we could not deal with the reality of sin. At other times, we moved our imagined selves further from our true selves (further than even our real selves are) to atone for self-deception through an act of self-hate. In any case, sin had now divided us into three selves, not just two. Three selves that are all at war with each other. But it didn’t stop there. It led us to create projected selves to hide our real selves from others—both because we are sinful and therefore ashamed, and because they are sinful and we are therefore afraid. And then, because we all were so ravished by sin and caught up in our own disunity, we lost our abilities to see others as they really are. And so we ultimately found ourselves severed in five directions by sin.
The more I sin, the further my real self moves away from my true self. The further my real self moves away from my true self, the further my imagined self has to move away from my real self in order to cope. I become stretched thin. And the further I become stretched the more I need to create projected selves that are less and less like the real me, so that I can hide my real self from the prying eyes of others. And the more scattered I become, the less clearly I am able to perceive others and the less clearly they are able to perceive me. So you can see that sin is a deadly cycle with seemingly no escape. Understanding the five selves makes it clear just how much sin tears us apart from the inside.
But there is hope. If we turn to Jesus and pursue him faithfully, then all our selves will start to re-align. It will be a painful and difficult journey, but it will also be joy-filled and rewarding.
There is a lie that many people like to believe that says you have to know where you are in order to improve. In other words, you need to get your imagined self aligned with your real self before you can start moving closer to your true self. Though I think there is a good amount of truth to this, I think it often becomes an excuse for laziness. We put off following Jesus because we think we need to get our imagined self aligned with our real self first. But this is folly! Stop putting it off! Follow Jesus now and your imagined self will naturally move toward your real self as your real self moves toward your true self. It is easy to think that I’ve made everything more difficult by splitting identity into these five elements, but I haven’t. This is because there is still only one simple solution to all the problems, and it is this—follow Jesus.
But how? Following Jesus seems like this big abstract thing. How can I follow someone I cannot see and feel and hear? Well, first of all, we have all the teachings of his that we need in scripture. So read. I say that to myself most of all because I am so bad at reading the Bible. But really, Jesus is in there. That’s how we follow him. That and prayer.
But I’ll make it simpler even still. Gratitude is the key to internal coherence. I would actually go so far as to say that gratitude is the key to everything in life. Sin is nothing more than ingratitude to the Creator. So all we really need to do to fix ourselves is start saying “thank you” for literally everything. The biggest and easiest thing any of us can do right now to fix ourselves and the world around us is thank someone we are not thanking. Gratitude is the path to glorification. It is the crux on which everything turns, and everything can be explained in terms of it. So if reading your Bible and prayer seem too difficult right now, just start saying thank you. It really is that easy.
I said toward the beginning that there is a rather delightful sixth self that I would save till the end. This self is the heavenly self. It is the one coherent self that all followers of Jesus will have in Heaven. It is all five selves in perfect alignment.
Consider how desirable this is! In heaven, without any effort on your part, your real self will be exactly the same as your true. You will have no internal disunity. No shame. You will really be the you you have always been trying to find. And you will never imagine yourself as worse than you are. And you will never need or be capable of imagining yourself as better than you are because you will be perfect in every way. Without any effort on your part, your imagined self will always be accurate. You will know exactly who you are and you will love yourself entirely—because you will be entirely lovable. You will like yourself entirely because you will be entirely likable. You will never so much as think of creating projected selves because you will love who you are so much. Without any effort, you will always be yourself and never feel any need or desire to be someone else. Your projected self will align perfectly with your true, your real and your imagined. And to top it all off, no one will ever be wrong about you again. Everyone will see you exactly as you truly and perfectly are. And you will see everyone else exactly as they truly and perfectly are. Without shame and without fear. Without any effort on anyone’s part, you will love everyone completely and perfectly and everyone will love you completely and perfectly. This is because everyone will be completely and perfectly lovable and likable. All pride and self-deprecation, all shame and all fear, all slavery and all hate will cease to be entirely. They will be so consumed by love, that without any effort on anyone’s part, they will be completely forgotten and they will never be an option again.
So press on. Heaven is not so far away.