What if God just wants you to discover yourself?

What if God just wants you to discover yourself? August 4, 2013

A few years ago, I was given a short book written by James Martin, SJ, Becoming Who You Are: Insights on the True Self from Thomas Merton and Other SaintsI read it quickly, and liked it well enough, but I recently picked it up again and I felt this time I was more ready to listen to what Martin had to say.

You may know Martin better from his two recent books, The Jesuit Guide to (Almost) Everything: A Spirituality for Real Life (a NYT Bestseller) and Between Heaven and Mirth: Why Joy, Humor, and Laughter Are at the Heart of the Spiritual Life. He has great insights, and is becoming a writer I look to for guidance along the way and to push me think differently about…oh, I don’t know…life I guess.

Much of this short book (89 pages, plus) is a review of the life and writings of Thomas Merton and Henri Nouwen centering on the idea of, as the title tell you, Becoming Who You Are.

Martin explains by citing Merton from New Seeds of Contemplation:

For me to be a saint means to be myself,…Therefore the problem of sanctity and salvation is in fact the problem of finding out who I am and discvoering my true self” (p. ix).

These might be off-putting, even scary, words for those raised in a Christian faith where “we” are the problem that needs fixing. I mean, Jesus even said you have to lose your life if you want to find it.

But Merton is in fact saying just that. Note Merton speaks of “discovering my true self.” The true self is “the person we are before God and the person we are meant to be” (p. 18). The false self, by contrast, is “the person that we wish to present to the world, and the person we want the whole world to revolve around” (p. 19)

Martin cites Merton, again from New Seeds of Contemplation:

Thus I use up my life in the desire for pleasures and the thirst for experiences  for power, honor, knowledge and love, to clothe this false self and construct its nothingness into something objectively real. And I wind experiences around myself and cover myself with pleasures and glory like bandages in order to make myself perceptible to myself and to the world, as if I were an invisible body that could only become visible when something visible covered its surface (p. 19).

I understand some might be tempted to think this is self-help psychobabble, but nothing could be further from the truth.  True knowledge of oneself, and the process of transforming beyond the false self, is a lifelong, arduous process.

It takes courage to look deep inside ourselves and ask, “How well do I know myself? How bound am I to a life I have constructed for myself that on the surface has all the trappings of piety and faith, but in truth is rooted in jealousy, anger, fear, power, self-justification, control, and the like?”

As psychologist and spiritual writer David G. Brenner puts it in Spirituality and the Awakening Self: The Sacred Journey of Transformation:

Far too often we confuse our own spiritual self-improvement tinkerings with the much more radical agenda of God. The call of the Spirit–which is always gentle and therefore easily missed–is an invitation to abandon our self-improvement projects that are, in reality, little more than polishing our false self and become the unique hidden self in Christ that we have been from all eternity (p. 33).

It is a sad thing when one’s faith in God is an expression of the false self: judgmentalism, us vs. them thinking, theological pride, overweening attention to rules and regulations, etc.

A faith that is simply an expression of the false self is mere religion. But when flowing from a knowledge of the true self–which is a work prompted by the Spirit, if we are willing to listen–faith becomes love of God and love of neighbor. This is what Merton means when he says, “For me to be a saint means to be myself.”

I think there is much wisdom here.

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  • Some favorite texts on “becoming that which we are”:

    “To the as-yet-unborn, to all innocent wisps of undifferentiated nothingness: Watch out for life. I have caught life. I have come down with life. I was a wisp of undifferentiated nothingness, and then a little peephole opened quite suddenly. Light and sound poured in. Voices began to describe me and my surroundings. Nothing they said could be appealed. They said I was a boy named Rudolph
    Waltz, and that was that. They said the year was 1932, and that was that. They said I was in Midland City, Ohio, and that was that. They never shut up. Year after year they piled detail upon detail. They do it still. You know what they say now? They say the year is 1982, and that I am fifty years old. Blah blah blah…” ~ Kurt Vonnegut, in “Deadeye Dick”

    “Because Dasein is in each case essentially its own possibility, it can, in its very Being, ‘choose’ itself and win itself; it can also lose itself and never win itself; or only ‘seem’ to do so. But only in so far as it is esentially something which can be
    authentic–that is, something of its own–can it have lost itself and not yet
    won itself.” [Martin Heidegger, “Being and Time”, 68]

    “Losing itself in the publicness and the idle talk of the “they,” [Dasein] fails to hear its own Self in listening to the they-self. If Dasein is to be able to get brought back from this lostness of failing to hear itself, and if this is to be done through itself, then it must first be able to find itself–to find itself as something which has failed to hear itself, and which fails to hear in that it listens away to the “they.” This listening-away must [be] broken . . . [by a call which] arouses another kind of hearing ; in other words, the possiblity of another kind of hearing, which, in relationship to the hearing that is lost, has a character in every way opposite. [Martin Heidegger, “Being and Time”, 315-316]

    “The call is from afar unto afar. It reaches him who wants to be brought back.” [“Being and Time” 316]

    “And to what is one called when one is thus appealed to? To one’s own Self.” [“Being and Time” 317]

    “But how are we to determine what is said in the talk that belongs to this kind of discourse? What does the conscience call to him to whom it appeals? Taken strictly, nothing. The call asserts nothing, gives no information about world-events, has nothing to tell. Least of all does it try to set going a ‘soliloquy’ in the Self to which it has appealed. ‘Nothing gets called to this Self, but it has been summoned to itself–that is, to its ownmost potentiality-for-Being. The tendency of the call is not such as to put up for ‘trial’ the Self to which the appeal is made; but it calls Dasein forth (and ‘forward’) into its ownmost possibilities, as a summons to its ownmost potentiality-for-Being-its-Self. [“Being and Time” 318]

    “Hearing constitutes the primary and authentic way in which Dasein is open for its ownmost potentiality-for-Being–as in hearing the voice of the friend whom every Dasein carries with it.” [“Being and Time” 206]

    Heidegger was influenced by Kierkegaard:

    When around one everything has become silent, solemn as a clear, starlit night, when the soul comes to be alone in the whole world, then before one there appears, not an extraordinary human being, but the eternal power itself, then the heavens seem to open, and the I chooses itself or, more correctly, receives itself. Then the soul has seen the highest, which no mortal eye can see and which can never be forgotten; then the personality receives the accolade of knighthood that ennobles it for an eternity. He does not become someone other than he was before, but he becomes himself. The consciousness integrates, and he is himself. Just as an heir, even if he were heir to the treasures of the whole world, does not possess them before he has come of age, so the richest personality is nothing before he has chosen himself, for the greatness is not to be this or that but to be oneself . . . (Either /Or, II, 177).


  • Susan_G1

    “How well do I know myself? How bound am I to a life I
    have constructed for myself that on the surface has all the trappings of
    piety and faith, but in truth is rooted in jealousy, anger, fear,
    power, self-justification, control, and the like?”

    It is interesting that these attributes are listed as “truth”. I wonder if the truth of many people is not the opposite: the belief that they are not lovable, worthy, good for anything? Perhaps I am not a good judge, but I believe this is at the root of most people’s brokenness. Isn’t this why people have a hard time accepting that God truly loves them? Not that the way people deal with feelings of unworthiness don’t lead to jealousy, anger, fear, etc. But those are secondary emotions. The better question is what our primary emotions are (imho).

  • Eric

    I agree there is much wisdom here. Especially with the implications of “self-improvement”.

  • Andrew Dowling

    This post really illustrates how much it makes sense that gnosticism arose fairly early on within the Jesus movement (the argument has certainly been made that Jesus and especially Paul had some proto-gnostic tendencies, although the full fledged gnosticism of the 2nd century would be a different kettle of fish). To “know thy true self” as a component of godliness and serving God is a constant theme running through Wisdom literature that certainly was a component of the church from its beginning.

  • Ben

    Another great post. I love the Benner quote–a great reminder for me right now.

  • paulbuggy


    Thanks so much for your post. Such refreshment. Such freedom.

    It takes guts to be who we really are. A lot of our efforts amount to someone with a broken leg trying to learn to walk without a limp. So much of Ignatius’ wisdom (Martin is a Jesuit) is based around knowing your own heart and the movements within it. I love the breadth of the topics on your blog.



  • mark

    What if God just wants you to discover yourself?

    Ya mean, like, “have life and have it to the full”?

    This is a way into a more complete theory of revelation: God’s use of man in history as preparation for his (God’s) self revelation in Jesus as Trinity. Revelation is the revelation of God’s identity, without which man doesn’t know his own identity–it is what man’s spiritual and intellectual history, with Israel as leading edge, is pointing toward.

    Yesterday I wrote (in part):

    It is, I maintain, essential to an understanding of God’s revelation in Jesus to place that revelation within the overall context of human spiritual and intellectual history. With Chesterton, I contend that that revelation is the culmination not merely of the history of Israel or of the Israelite writings but is the fulfillment of human nature as we see it throughout history. I believe this perspective offers the solution to the conundrums that Pete wrestles with under such headings as “Inspiration,” and so forth.

  • Bev Mitchell

    Thanks for this Pete. Great to see Merton’s inspiring writing highlighted.

    The extremes of our thinking about God are well covered in a little part of the Gospel of Matthew: Chapter 11:20-24 (the heavy) followed immediately by a very different focus and mood in verses 25-30. When we focus too much on judgement (our version and God’s) we often fail to move on to “Come to me, all you who are weary and burdened, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you and learn from me, for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy and my burden is light.”

    Merton and other contemplatives help us not lose track of this message as we continue to find ourselves in Christ.

  • Peter Anderson

    As a clinician, I’m often seeking people to be their “true-selves”, or Self, as Internal Family Systems (IFS) originator Dick Schwartz would say. IFS teaches that there is a Self and that’s the part of you that’s accepting, rewarding, non-judgmental, but needs to be in control. What is it in control over? Well, IFS believes there’re parts of us “managers, exiles, and firefighters” that either seek to be in control, but they’re not supposed to be, because essentially, those parts will eventually de-value our humanity.

    A manager is the controlling, judgmental, “OCD” part of us. It’s job is to keep the exiles in check, because the managers are ashamed of them. The exiles are the parts of us we’re most ashamed of: the memories when we were embarrassed, the experiences of abuse or neglect; these are the parts that seek to be understood, but the managers just want to “keep them in a box and not deal with them.” The firefighters are the parts of us that get called on when the managers are not keeping the exiles “under control.” The firefighters will often do anything to make this happen; so, they’ll binge drink, seek sex, or in religious settings, become more legalistic–anything for the manager to be in control again.

    The point of IFS is to allow the Self be in control. It does that by speaking value and acceptance to each part, because each part is “part of us” and there’s a reason they are there. The Self will listen to those parts: it makes sense for the manager to seek control, they’re afraid if the exile becomes understood, it’ll create havoc. The exile seeks to be heard, but it’s been imprisoned for so long, it’s not used to it and often floods us with emotions. The firefighters are often so responsive because it depends on the manager. You get the point.

    As a Christian, I have found a lot of truth when looking at families, individuals, churches, even movements. Can the Self be what “image of God” is all about? People who are lost are still in that image and people are Christian have been renewed in that image.

    Just a few thoughts…

  • rvs

    “Becoming”–that’s a good existential-y world. This post made me think of a good remark by John Wesley: “There may be right opinion of God without either love or one right temper toward Him. Satan is a proof of this.”

  • So many people quote

    For by grace you have been saved through faith. And this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God, not a result of works, so that no one may boast.

    without going onto the next verse:

    For we are his workmanship, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand, that we should walk in them.

    Why does it so often escape us that God is doing something on earth and that he wants to use us to accomplish that thing? I even hesitate to use the verb ‘use’; I actually think God wants to cooperate with the real Us, but this verges on heretical to some Christian ears.

  • Lise

    Given your professional journey, I have a weird feeling you’d resonate with David Whyte’s gorgeous book (and NY Times best-seller), “Crossing the Unknown Sea – Work as Pilgrimage of Identity.” I read it annually.

    • peteenns

      Never read it, Lise! It’s on the list of books I wish I read back when…

      • Lise

        It’s still definitely worth a read…. Whyte’s writing is incomparable.