Finding Your True Self Starts from With…Out
If you have listened to our latest podcast episode, then you have met Rachel Gilson.
Rachel Gilson’s Story
In Born Again This Way, writer Rachel Gilson tells the story of her conversion to Christianity and wrestling with her homosexual desires. She begins her book this way:
“I became a Christian much to my own surprise. It was as if the sun of the gospel had evaporated my atheism in an instant. But as time went on, one reality remained like a stubborn puddle: I was sexually attracted to women. I still am.”
She became a Christian during her first year of college. She did not have a religious background and found herself covertly Googling “arguments for Christianity,” only to snap her laptop shut when someone came in the room as if she was reading something illicit. As time went by, she encountered a case for Christianity that she found compelling, but, more than that, she encountered Jesus and fell in love. Her conversion was fast and overturned previously held convictions left and right, especially her convictions about same-sex attraction.
Gilson met two women who were in a relationship and were also Christians. They explained to her that the Bible doesn’t actually prohibit same-sex sexual relationships, but when she compared the materials they gave her to the passages in the Bible, she felt their conclusions seemed incorrect. She concluded that the plainest reading of the Bible was that she could not be a Christian and continue to follow her sexual desires for other women.
So Gilson committed herself to the hardest way: to ride the horse of sexual morality without falling off on either side. More difficult than either rejecting Christianity and its teachings on sexuality or embracing a form of Christianity that renders homosexual practice permissible, she chose a third way. She has delved into the Bible’s teachings on sexual morality, and her book drips with bracing and compassionate wisdom for those who are asking questions about sexual identity. She has sharp, profound challenges for the left and the right sides of both the church and culture.
If you have found your way to this blog post because you want to get into the nitty-gritty nuances of the discussion around homosexuality and Christianity, listen to the episode, and read Rachel’s book or any of these resources:
Authenticity and Sexual Identity
There is no shortage of responses and counter-responses when it comes to questions of same-sex attraction and Christianity. However, I would like to focus on a theme in the cultural narrative that intertwines with and energizes culture’s discussion around homosexuality: the search for one’s authentic self.
“Perhaps nothing carries more cultural cache today than the longing for the authentic, especially in the self. But how can we tell what our authentic self is? The answer of the culture around us is to look deep within, mining our desires. Because these spring from within us, they must be the keys to who we are. We have only one life. The greatest tragedy is to waste it by forcing ourselves into someone else’s mold. This finds force especially in the realm of sexuality, where boundaries are cast as repressions that strangle the true self.”
Today, authenticity is put forward as both a goal and a measure of modern moral health. How are you going to make sure you are on the right side of history? How are you going to make sure you live a life you can live with? How are you going to protect your personality from distortion? Look within and stay true to what you find there. Modern people know that inside themselves they can find a reliable, authoritative guide to answering all of those questions. The belief goes: if you align yourself with the truths you find within, you won’t go wrong.
This thread in our culture echoes Jean-Jacques Rousseau, one of the fathers of the modern self, who wrote, “I need only consult myself with regard to what I wish to do; what I feel to be good is good, what I feel to be bad is bad.” This carries with it a sense of suspicion of external constraint in which boundaries are recast as repression. There is an axiom of the modern self that says that our ultimate purposes are those that come from within. By staying in close contact with one’s authentic self, each person can find the way of living that is right for them, the beliefs that are right for them, and the sexuality that is right for them.
Not Everything Inside You Is Supposed to Be There
Gilson knows that, according to the ethic of authenticity, “Some people might say that I am denying my true self, my true identity by not acting on my same-sex desires.” Then she adds:
“But I do wonder where we get the idea that our authentic self is every single desire that we have? It seems sort of given in this culture that is now all over the Western world that you dig deep to find your true self, and whatever you find at the bottom – whatever that desire is – that’s you. But I think all of us have the experience of knowing that there are certain desires we have that if we fulfilled them would destroy us, wouldn’t make us happy. Is that my actual self?”
Should we regard our desires as good just because they are our desires? If we find a desire inside ourselves, (and we like that desire), should we then conclude that it is a good desire? Does everything inside us belong there? If not, how did it get there?
The thing about Rousseau’s advice is that it only works under certain conditions, namely, that you can trust what you find inside yourself. Making your own internal compass your highest authority requires that you can trust that it points to the true North.
Of course, there are plenty of things inside each one of us that we’re not proud of, things that, if we gave them free rein, would only bring sadness, regret, and pain into our lives. Contrary to the ethic of authenticity, it isn’t necessarily repressive to say no to things inside you. Rather, it can be a prerequisite to a healthy, flourishing life. We’ve always got to bridle some of our desires. The only question is: Which desires should we bridle, and which should we let run free? And why?
The need to keep our desires in check is especially true with our sexual desires and inclinations. The more powerful the desire, the more destructive it can become if it is set upon the throne of our lives. And sexual desires are among the most powerful desires we experience in this life.
If the Christian story is true, there really are diamonds inside you. You are a creation of the bright, burning mind at the center of reality, God himself. He knows your name. He had something in mind when he made you, and that something is, in the words of C. S. Lewis, a kind of person that if people saw it now they “would be strongly tempted to worship it.” However, we humans are a mixed bag. There is also a lot of stuff inside you that needs to be cut away, denied, laid upon the altar, sent to the tomb to die and rise again, transformed.
So we need a way to sort the internal wheat from the chaff. We need a guide more reliable than the zeitgeist. Christianity offers such a guide in the form of a story about what it means to truly find yourself.
But Isn’t Christianity Just About Denying Yourself?
Yes and no.
Before we talk about the shape of “Christian authenticity” in contrast to “modern authenticity,” we need to define some terms. This is important because, by and large, Christians are pretty confused about how to find themselves too.
Many Christians are taught a false dichotomy: denying the self is good and holy, while trying to “find yourself” is wicked and worldly. People who imbibe that dichotomy can end up feeling bad for being happy. They can forswear God’s good gifts — love, laughter, beauty, satisfaction, ecstasy, sexuality — and all the glorious fruits of human creativity because they have a vestigial sense that any channel through which earthly happiness comes must be suspect. It can feel pious, even holy, but that doesn’t mean that kind of self-denial is what God is asking for.
Because God is the fountain of everything that is good in life, if your Christianity isn’t life-affirming, it may not be Christianity at all. It might just be another self-salvation project dressed up in Christian clothes.
Taking Up Your Cross
But what about all that stuff Jesus said about “taking up your cross” and following him? That doesn’t sound very life-affirming.
Jesus talked a lot about losing yourself, but he wasn’t talking about forswearing all of God’s good gifts. Rather, he was pointing the way toward another way of being human that was radically subversive to the self-focused, hierarchical, narcissistic scramble for self that every human culture fosters one way or another. Denying yourself in the Christian sense is about setting aside those things which stand in the way of following Jesus with your heart, mind, soul, and strength.
This inevitably entails suffering. Hence the cross. But when love of God or love of neighbor demands that you suffer, you must suffer. When unshackling yourself from the distortions that life in a fallen world has saddled you with entails pain, then your path toward real life will be a painful one.
That is part of how Rachel Gilson tells her story. She found that her whole life was overturned by her love of Jesus and, in the light of that narrative, she came to the conviction that her sexual desires for other women were distortions of goodness, not goodness itself. So her life involves a lot of affirmation of God’s good gifts — and a lot of self-denial. She, and all of us, can only really accomplish the latter by leaning heavily into the former.
The hope in the way of the cross is that when you deny yourself for the sake of living more fully into God’s reality, the pain of the denial will be like a seed that bears new life one hundredfold for you and for everyone around you.
Why Is Self-Denial a Part of Finding Yourself?
Denying yourself is part of finding yourself because we often live out of a false self that has to be set aside. This is as true for same-sex-attracted Christians as it is for all of us.
Self-denial is a part of the Christian life because it is so easy for us to live a lie. It is easy for us to wear a mask made of ego for so long that we forget the look of the true face beneath it. Many of us find that we have danced to a tune of another’s making and it has drowned out the still, small voice that urges us to return, to come home, to sit in the stillness of our maker’s affection. In those cold moments of clarity, we see that we have to return to all our renunciations and begin again. Christianity invites each of us who have lived too long inside the false self to unburden ourselves before the God who made us and who knows us and who can lead us into who we truly are. That is the path to Christian authenticity, to relentlessly set aside the false self with all its trappings and trumpery.
And that is why it is the way of the cross. It hurts. So often, like the high-flying careerist who sacrifices his family on the altar of his work, we have aligned our identities with the very things that we should have forsworn before they became our functional gods. We have raised the houses of our happiness on the shifting sand of our desires, and when the Rock invites us to come live on his solid foundation, it can be scary as hell if we have learned to equate our desires with our very selves.
But — and here is the secret of Christian discipleship — it is in the service to a higher good that your true self is revealed, is freed, and flourishes. The paradox of the Christian life is that the more fully we are God’s, the more fully we become ourselves.
Rousseau was wrong — there is a whole lot more to authenticity than simply looking inside yourself and following the desires you find there. Life is full of reasons to lay down your own desires, your inclinations, and even your needs in service to others and out of fidelity to God. As Jesus said (and showed), it is this laying down of one’s life so that others might live that is the true path to the flourishing of the self. You get filled up as you pour yourself out.
Rather than getting lost in the pursuit of self-discovery, self-fulfillment, and self-actualization, the Christian path is to lose yourself in love for others and find, despite giving everything away, that you have more than you started with. It is to find that without attending to your own actualization, you have been transformed. It is to put your personal formation in the hands of your maker and trust him to also be your re-maker as he “transforms you into his likeness from one degree of glory to another” (2 Corinthians 3:18).
Want to learn more on what it means to truly find your true self? Then head over to our podcast! You’ll be both challenged and encouraged by our recent conversation with Rachel Gilson.
Andy Patton is a former staff member at L'Abri Fellowship in England and holds an M. A. in theology from Trinity Evangelical Divinity School. Read more from Andy on The Darking Psalter (translations of the Psalms with new poetry), Three Things (a monthly digest of resources to help people connect with culture, neighbor, and God), and Still Point (reflections on deconstruction and why people leave Christianity).
Read more by Andy Patton: https://bit.ly/AndyPatton