Tuesday, 3 July 2007

"Just be true to yourself..."

We went to see Shrek 3 at the weekend. It's a good film, lots of fun and definitely stands alongside the quality of the preceding movies.

I don't want to spoil the plot, but the inevitable happy ending has the equally inevitable moral lesson. And Shrek 3's moral rings through loud and clear: 'just be true to yourself'. Which in turn is a theme that resonates within plenty of statements of popular culture today. Take former Sugababe Mutya Buena's offering Real Girl. It includes this line:

And all I can do is be true to myself
I don't need permission from nobody else

'Cause this is the real world, I'm not a little girl

I know exactly who I am

Meanwhile, type in 'be true to yourself' into Google and you'll get 323,000 matches. It's everywhere, on blogs, philosophy pages and self help websites across the globe. The phrase may owe itself to Shakespearean origins (“To thy own self be true and it follows, like the night the day, you can’t be false to any man”) but at the beginning of the 21st Century it appears everywhere like a mantra. So pop psychology and cliché the phrase may be ... but Shrek got me asking what it actually means!

Well, Larry at Cybernation.com has this advice:

'While I was working in a "so-called" good job and doing a lot of the things I wanted to do at that time, I wasn't completely happy with my life. This was because I knew I wasn't using my potential and pursuing my passion and dreams. Like most people, I was simply passing up time. I examined myself in a mirror – carefully and thoughtfully. After thinking about what I really wanted to do, to have, and what kind of person I wanted to become, I knew I had to change for the better. I realized that if I kept on doing what I had been doing, then I wouldn't be able to look at myself in the mirror five years later and be proud of that person. So from that moment on, I decided to develop my potential and make each day count, no matter what obstacles I may face. Although I haven't achieved everything I desired, and the last ten years have been very challenging, I'm pleased with myself. This is because I had spent more days doing the things I wanted to do, rather than doing the things I didn't.'

Meanwhile, Irene at True to Yourself Radio (no, I'm not making it up!) offers these words of wisdom:

We all have challenges, but our individual response to them determines our well-being. As I produce and host True to Yourself Radio, I, too, face many challenges. At this time it is one-woman show. I do everything from producing to hosting, from radio sales to promotion and marketing, from business operations to delivering an inspiring show every week. I am also a mother and primary caregiver of three little children (my husband travels a lot). And as I try to juggle it all, I count my blessings. It doesn’t matter that I am burning the midnight oil at my computer or reading late into the night the most current books of guests who will appear on upcoming shows. What matters most is that I am at home with my true nature. Every day I follow my heart’s desire and live my Truth. My new lifestyle allows me to unleash my creativity, evolve in my own personal growth and fulfil my dreams. Remember, you alone are responsible for your life. Every day is your time, your moment, and your reason for being. Take it as the gift it is; it will fill you up and lead you to joy. I hope you will join me, and together we will explore life’s possibilities.

It sounds good, doesn't it? But how am I to respond to these sentiments as a Christian?

Well, firstly, I think there's an element of 'being true to oneself' that I'd want to endorse. After all, God made us all different - with different passions and talents and skills and abilities - and he did so deliberately. When we use those passions and talents and skills and abilities in the right way, we reflect glory towards our Creator. And so it seems to me right to look for, say, jobs where those God-given passions and abilities can be best used.

Secondly, it seems to be that 'being true to oneself' is essentially a question of understanding one's identity. In order to be true to yourself, you need to develop a sense of who you are. And this is where I think the Christian worldview is quite different to those I've sketched above. The Biblical worldview says that we were deliberately created for a relationship with God, and to treat others in a God-glorifying way. In other words, God created us to enjoy his love for us and he calls us to grow in our relationship with him by living in line with what he says: loving the things he loves, hating the things he hates, so that in the way we treat one another we reflect his character. To be true to our nature as humans, then, is not to put ourselves first (which many of the above quotes suggest, and which seems to be a veiled and polite way of encouraging an me-centred selfishness) but to serve others in love, out of love for God.

Surely, this is why Jesus' words in John 8:31-32 make sense:
"If you hold to my teaching, you are really my disciples. Then you will know the truth, and the truth will set you free." It's through Jesus that we are restored to our purpose, and where we know true freedom - living out the relationship with Creator that we were made for.

And so as a Christian I think I need to be quite suspicious of most that calls me to 'be true to myself'. It's true that I needn't put up a wall of pretence and pretend to be someone that I'm not: God made me me and his unconditional grace frees me to be transparent before him and others. But to be truly free doesn't call me to put my ambitions and my hopes and my wants first, but to put them last and to serve others in love. That's when I'm truly free and when I'm being genuinely true to my redeemed human nature.


Matthew McMurray said...

Nice post Mr (or is it Dr?) Dray!

In my exploration of vocation in the CofE, one of the books I was encouraged to read was The Fire and the Clay by the priests and monks of the College of the Resurrection. It is mainly about what it means to be a priest but it starts by talking about what it means to be a person and then a Christian before going onto talking about priesthood. This book says that it is only in Christ that we discover what if means to fully be a 'person': by the example of Jesus Christ but also by our new identity in him.

I think that the problem that some people have with Christianity (or any religion) is that they perceive (wrongly in my opinion) that it is all about conforming and becoming something rather than being 'who we are'. In my view, my identity in Christ as somebody who is redeemed is exactly who I am but at the same time, I need that to be integrated with who I perceive myself to be. When this happens, there may be things that the example of Christ urges to me to surrender but on the whole, my passions and inclinations are entirely compatible.

The conflict might come if, for example, you felt that being a Christian meant that you felt that you had to enjoy Graham Kendrick songs, or 16th century Church music. Actually, strike that: it was a stupid example, but do you see what I am trying to say?

peterdray said...

Hi Matthew - it's most certainly just Mr Dray!

I think that what the book is saying is true: I think if we think that being truly human is about living the relationship with God we were created for. It's when we live with God as our loving King and Ruler that we are truly human. As I said in the post, this means that Jesus is the only true human (other than Adam!) to have lived. And so this means that there is a way in which we are called to conform - but only to the likeness of Jesus (which is, I think, the point of Romans 8:29).

However, I think you hit the nail on the head when you say that there is still a difference. Whilst our character is called to be like Jesus, our personalities are different and God-given. So we can both be Christlike in character (and we pray to be so increasingly) but our personalities are completely different (and praise God that they are!). Worship style is probably one such area (one amongst many), although the point of 1 Corinthians 13 is that we are willing to lay down our preferences over style and things like that in order to build up the local church. Although we all have different God-given preferences, we're prepared to sacrifice them for the sake of others.