I have good news. You are more than you think you are, and quite other. To be clear, I don’t just mean that in the “you’re a new creation,” and “you’re in Christ” kinds of ways. Of course, if you follow Jesus, those things are absolutely true of you, and meditating on that can only help. Rather, what I mean is that you think you know who you are, and it’s very likely that you are spectacularly wrong, and that who you actually are is better and more beautiful than you’ve had the moxy to imagine.
In Genesis 32, we find the story of Jacob at Peniel. This story used to annoy me. Not the content, but how it’s written, and specifically the end. See for yourself.
Jacob has been running – his whole life, really – and his flight brings him to a titanic battle in the dark with (apparently) God himself, in which Jacob seems to win, and has gotten a new name. Moses brings it home with cinematic glory, “And the sun rose on Jacob as he crossed the stream, limping because of his hip.”
Can you see it? The silhouette of a man we recognize, but not quite, limping across the stream, backdropped by a burning yellow Palestinian sunrise. Moses should have dropped the mic right there, but instead he gives us, “And the sun rose on Jacob as he crossed the stream, limping because of his hip. And that’s why Jews don’t eat hip meat. The End!”
It occurred to me one day that the people of Israel are famously particular about what they eat. I went to seminary, so this should not have caught me by surprise, but it also occurred to me that Moses would have known that, too, as would his original audience.
Sabbath-keeping, pilgrimage, and dietary prohibitions were three essential practices that the Hebrews used to assert and preserve their identity. Jacob at Peniel is an identity story. By adding the bit about the hip-meat, Moses was letting the Hebrews know – every time they read that and every time they declined the roast hip – who they actually were. The story of Jacob, I realized, is a map to our true identities, and I wanted to see where it could take us.
To read a map well you need to know some things. Is a centimeter a kilometer, or a hundred? Which way is north, and what do the squiggles and colors mean? This cartographic vocabulary is often contained in something called a legend. That’s fitting, as Jacob’s map is quite legendary. Yours might be, too.
When I turned 38 I wrote an email to a few trusted friends, asking them what I thought was a very important question. “As I enter the second half of my life in a couple years, I want to be intentional about how I aim my efforts. What do you think will be my most significant contribution? What impact should I focus my energies toward?” I’m a recovering over-achiever, so it seems I wanted to over-achieve at aging, too.
A few friends told me things I already knew, and I was happy with that because I needed affirmation, and it turns out that was about half of why I asked the question in the first place. That, I didn’t know.
Fran, who has since become my spiritual director, responded differently, unintentionally answering better questions than I had asked. I am tempted to try to get her email canonized. Two bits, in particular, stand out.
She asked me, “What imagination of yourself most opens you to change? What imagination of yourself closes you to change, perhaps by provoking you to defend or justify it?” That line of inquiry was scarily prescient.
Then, she told me to look for new teachers – voices from streams in the Jesus Way that I had not plumbed very deeply, yet. Specifically, she suggested an Anglican, a Quaker, and a Catholic. If an Anglican, a Quaker, and a Catholic walked into a bar, it would make for a rather inaccessible joke, but the conversation would be revelatory. Odds are, it would quickly make its way to the concepts of True Self and False Self, and these comprise the legend we need to read Jacob’s map, and our own.
The self that God saw when he first dreamt of you is your True Self. Before the collapse of his first intentions, there was a version of you he held in his unfathomable mind. At the end of the Biblical story, in John’s Apocalypse, there’s an odd scene in which those who overcome receive from Jesus a stone and a name only they know – an identity literally carved in stone and given by Jesus himself, utterly underived from anything anyone has ever said to, done to, or thought about you. That dream of you, and that name in the rock, is your True Self.
Between the dream and the stone lies a hard place. We’re born into a miasma of insecurity, selfishness and reckless evil. We sin and are sinned against, and we quickly learn to put particular parts of ourselves forward – those aspects of us that garner the most acceptance and invite the least damage. We’re very small when we start doing this, too small to call it deceit or manipulation. It’s something more like a sophisticated instinct for survival.
Our False Selves are usually something true about us, but dragged to center, developed out of all proportion and pushed forward to keep us basically safe. Think of it like a mask we hold up before us, not to hide or deceive, but simply because that mask appears to be the part of us that the world knows what to do with, and with which we know how to live in the world.
This is where it gets really dangerous. Over time, we come to hold the mask closer and closer to our true faces. We begin to see more and more of the world through the eyes of the mask, and less and less around the edges. The growing proximity of the mask, combined with the question our souls almost continually ask, especially in periods of transition (who am I? who am I? who am I?), create an environment of profound peril. One day, often in adolescence, we happen to glance in the mirror and see ourselves, our False Selves, through the eyes of our mask, and it happens. The mask attaches itself to our faces, and that question, for now, is answered. I am the mask.
It gets worse. Now, we can only see the world around us through the mask. So, we don’t really see the world, the narrative that truly is, at all. We see the story in which our False Selves might be a central character. We write others into roles in that story, and hence comes most of our relational angst and existential loneliness. Humans are hardwired to make sense of the world through stories, and we live out a plot that isn’t really what’s happening, in a mildly delusional approximation of reality, and wonder at how infrequently life makes sense.
Worse still, we look up at the sky, knowing our mask and convinced it’s us, and we imagine a God who would make our Faces in his image. Then we read that image into every single Biblical narrative, and quietly despair at the dissonance.
“Well,” you say, “thank God we have the Bible! I start from the revelation of absolute truth, not from the quagmire of my own experience!”
Indeed, thank God for the Bible, without which we would be well and truly lost. But you don’t start there. You start long before you’re literate, before your little toddler brain can process abstract ideas and absolute truths. You start, as we all do, not where God is, but where you are. You start who you are, and truer still, who you think you are.
The terrifying, glorious fact is that you’re dead wrong about nearly everything. You’re not who you think you are, the world’s living a different story than the plot in your head, and you are (regardless of your Biblical literacy) astoundingly wrong about God. And there is absolutely nothing you can do about it. You’re helpless in your made-up world, with your tiki God and your false face.
Don’t worry. It gets worse, and so very much better. Our Anglican, Catholic and Quaker friends will tell us that, while we originally crafted our False Selves to make life work, they don’t, at least not well and not for long. But, in his immense kindness and audacious affection for us, God often drops into our narratives and puts the moves on us. Most often, we misinterpret these kind words and deeds of God as affirmation of our Falseness, using them to reinforce our extant concepts. Eventually, though, living in a big fat outrageous lie (even unintentionally) winds us up like Jacob, somewhere alone in the dark with everything to lose. A crisis brews.
It’s there, in the dark, that God often applies his most severe mercies. For Jacob it was a continuous, 6-hour beating. For you, it will likely look different. But only a crisis in the dark can loosen the ties of the False Self and make way for receipt of the True. For the True Self is not pursued, built, crafted or earned. It’s received. A gift of utter grace. A salvation. A conversion, again. This is what is happening to Jacob at Peniel, and what is happening to some of you, now.
Orientated to our legend – False Self, True Self, Crisis and Gift – let’s return to Jacob’s story, and see how much of our own we find along the way.