Finding Our True Self

In Spiritual Growth by Jason Phelps

Written by Jason Phelps

We all want to be our self.
To find a place of satisfaction with who we are.
Yet, the place of satisfaction feels so elusive.
Why?

To be satisfied with my self, I need to know myself
Who is my true self?
I work hard in life,
producing results in a timely fashion others are satisfied with.
Is this my true self?
I study and train in life,
earning respect through competition and success.
Is this my true self?
I’ve been social,
playing in the spotlight of crowds and gatherings,
I’ve been reclusive,
retreating into the shadows and interior places of myself,
Who is my true self?

My true self is with You.
Life is a journey of ongoing discovery of my true self.
Every moment I experience my true self is sacred.
A divine moment with You.
I can neither control nor rule my true self,
I receive him/her as a gift,
as I commune with You.

We all want to be our self.
To find a place of satisfaction with who we are.
Yet, the place of satisfaction feels so elusive.
Why?

Perhaps the desire to know our true self is not universal, I admit that possibility. As I have recently reflected on stories in the Bible, Church history, and in human history, not to mention the people I share life with, I see a shared desire to become our “true self.”

One example in particular of this is the first human pair, Adam and Eve. They pursued their true self like this:

“So when the woman saw that the tree was good for food, and that it was a delight to the eyes, and that the tree was to be desired to make one wise, she took of its fruit and ate; and she also gave some to her husband, who was with her, and he ate. Then the eyes of both were opened, and they knew that they were naked;” (Gen. 3.6-7a, NRSV).

All they desired in this tree (the italicized parts) was to become their true self. Or to know their true self. We all share this real desire. It is a human desire. Theologically we may say, an ontological desire.

Basically, a desire we all were created with.

Interestingly, the journey to discover “This is who I really am!” is elusive. Did Adam and Eve find their true selves through the fruit? No, they didn’t.

Our true self eludes our grasp. I think this is good, for we do not contain the ability to seize it and control it.

To be satisfied with my self, I need to know myself
Who is my true self?

Perhaps the first human pair overreached that day (pun intended). But reaching is good. Regardless of how we see that, their desire was true. It was also good.

Being created in the image of God (the Imago Dei) includes a desire to know our true self. Our shared desire propels us on a quest. Sometime early in life we launch out on a journey to know our true self.

Our true self is a place of peace. Thus, our pursuit of our true self is a pursuit of freedom and contentment.

To be satisfied with my self, I need to know myself
Who is my true self?
I work hard in life,
producing results in a timely fashion others are satisfied with.
Is this my true self?
I study and train in life,
earning respect through competition and success.
Is this my true self?
I’ve been social,
playing in the spotlight of crowds and gatherings,
I’ve been reclusive,
retreating into the shadows and interior places of myself,
Who is my true self?

Job interviewing 101:
Interviewer asks the Applicant, “What liabilities do you bring to the team?”

Job Applicant, “I am a perfectionist! I work so hard to be perfect, I don’t know when to quit. I rigorously work to produce results!” (all said with disheveled hair and a wrinkled shirt).

Everybody works hard. Everybody studies. Everybody trains. I am not special because I did too.

We are all created equal, but not the same. The hardest workers do not always rise to the top. We are not always monetarily rewarded for hard work. Life is not an equation: intelligence + hard work = success. Studying and training, i.e., working hard, is a good thing

Ultimately, I was helped when I realized my pursuit of success was a pursuit for contentment and freedom. A problem was when I realized many of the popular stories of success I knew, were not stories of lives of contentment and freedom.

This poetic attempt was an outflow of reflecting on my desire for freedom and peace with myself. I realized all my attempts have been really good and helpful. But I am still left with the question, “Who is my true self?” .

My true self is with You.
Life is a journey of ongoing discovery of my true self.
Every moment I experience my true self is sacred.
A divine moment with You.
I can neither control nor rule my true self,
I receive him/her as a gift,
as I commune with You.

This poem was written in a time of transition for me. Moving on from a good season of life, into a new season but I don’t know what it is! I don’t have concrete next steps. The anxiety associated with this brought me into places I describe as dark and despair.

I realized the narratives running my life were that if I worked hard, and worked smart, I would be happy. I would get what I want.

The truth is, what I wanted was freedom and peace. I wanted to know my true self. I though I wanted to secure that specific job I was studying for. Or, placate my inner tension by accomplishing something grandiosely successful.

Even while seeking these latter goals, God still faithfully and graciously granted me experiences of my true self.

When I realized that is what my journey has really been, I asked, “What if our true self is not found in ourselves? What if our true self is found with God?”

Going back to the story of Adam and Eve, they sought to find their true self through a piece of fruit. The problem was not the desire. The problem is how we pursue the desire. Anything finite will not satisfy our desire. Our true self is not within the finite (c.f., Psalm 82). There is no magic fruit tree, perfect human relationship, career, or possession able to satisfy our desire.

Why?

All of these can be lost or taken against our will. The mistake I’ve made in the past is not in my trying. Rather, it has been my inability to see or hear rightly.

Genuine moments of experiencing my true self happens with finite things—the people I love and who love me, good food and drinks, through work, parenting, etc. What I am learning is what I am experiencing is more than these physical components. I am experiencing the presence of Jesus mediated by the Spirit through these created things.

My true self is not found in any of these things. It is not even found within myself. My true self is found in God–in a perichoretic dance!

While I cannot find my true self in my efforts and achievements, my pursuit is good and necessary. The shift I am making is from seeking to seize and control my true self, to simply discovering my true self as I connect with God through living life.

Communion with God, in real time and space, is where I find and receive my genuine true self as gift. It happens everywhere in God’s creation. I can neither capture, nor control, the moments and spaces. I can only choose whether I enter into them–receive them.

Spaces (moments) where we experience contentment, wonder, leisure, and freedom are sacred spaces . . . divine spaces. They are experiences of our true and free selves. Will we receive them when the come? Will we receive the One who bestows them to us?

Grace and peace fam!

Author: Jason Phelps

Jason’s life and thinking has been formed in several ways–he’s a husband, a father of two daughters, he lived as a missionary in the inner-city of St. Louis, helped to start and guide a Mennonite Brethren community (called Watershed) in Kansas City, MO, underwent a three-year intentional spiritual formation journey, completed a masters of divinity at Nazarene Theological Seminary, and is being certified as a spiritual director through Gonzaga University.