Updated: Dec 12, 2019
"When a person is in their 20's, their whole life revolves around finding themself."
I was only in my early 20's, but if I'd heard it once, I'd heard it a thousand times. I'd heard it in Psychology 101. I'd heard it on Oprah. I'd read it in magazines. I'd heard it in conversation. My teachers, pastors, peers, and perfect strangers had all said it. Sometimes I felt as though I'd heard it more than others due to the sheer fact that I'd bucked societal norms and married my high school sweetheart while still (barely) in my teens. (We turned 20 a couple days after our two week honeymoon. Yes, both of us. We share a birthday.) In fact, even the young lady helping us assemble our wedding registry in the china department at Macy's had peered at us quizzically and asked, "Are you Christians?" "What gives you that impression?" we asked. "Well, only Christians get married this young." (This, by the way, was an interesting observation which could serve to launch the message of an entirely different blog post.) "Why don't you," she continued, "live together for the next ten years then get married? You need time to find yourselves."
A DEFINING MOMENT
Here I was hearing it again, this time in a gigantic auditorium -- the sanctuary of one of the largest churches in my state -- at a conference for ministry workers. This time, I was holding a darling, squirming baby boy in my arms. And this time, it got under my skin a little -- okay, a whole lot! -- more than usual.
"Did you hear that, Joel?" My voice brimmed with passion and bore a slight resemblance to both astonishment and consternation as I slammed face wash, toothpaste, and contact solution around the vanity counter of our hotel room that night.
"Did you hear what that lady said tonight? 'When a person is in their 20's, their whole life revolves around finding themself.' Ha! Like I have time for that! I've barely graduated from college, I've got a baby to take care of, a home to take care of, and a church to worry about! People come to me thinking I have something to give them. Me! Like I know what to say! And since I'm in my 20's I'm supposed to throw all that aside to find myself? I don't have time to find myself! If I had any time, I'd be sleeping, but there's no way that little guy over there is going to let me!"
My stunned husband probably didn't know how to respond to my little fit. The well-meaning woman on the stage certainly couldn't have imagined my exhausted response to her tidbit of "conventional wisdom." And when the words flying out my ranting mouth rang in my ears, the familiar still, small voice of my Shepherd whispered in the recesses of my heart: "You don't have to right now. Just keep doing what you're doing and you'll find what you need when the time is right."
That gave me a lot to ponder. As we drove home from the conference and debriefed, I shrugged and asserted my conclusion: "If I'm ever going to find myself, it'll have to be later when I have more time. Maybe I'll skip right on past my 30's and figure it out in my 40's when our kids are grown."
By the time I approached my 30's, I'd heard it countless times more -- "When a person is in their 20's, their whole life revolves around finding themself" -- but with each passing year it's directive has lost a little more power over me. I had poured myself into each God-assigned task -- helpmate, mothering, housekeeping, church ministry, homeschooling, teaching piano, and so much more -- and had consistently sought to stay in the Word and grow in relationship with the Lord through it all.
In many ways, I still felt small and ill-equipped for much (most?) of what life threw my way, ever wondering when I would feel like I had "arrived" as a confident, mature woman of God. (I still haven't, and am now realizing the journey will simply never end until He takes me home.) Yet, I realized that in all I had done through that decade of my 20's, the Lord had graciously spared me from what would have surely been a disaster: finding myself.
GRACE PROTECTED ME
They say hindsight is 20/20, and I learned enough to know that if I had spent 10 whole years of my life trying to find anything worthwhile in myself I would have dug a deeper and deeper pit into an abysmally dark place and never would have been able to rescue myself from it! You see, all of us -- every human on this planet -- is born lacking. We simply are not enough. In our own power, strength, talent, intellect, and "wisdom," we are a mess. In a world that constantly tells us we are beautiful just the way we are, powerful in our own right, and most valuable in our authenticity, why do we bother to manage our appearance, climb ladders of success, and hide our true selves from plain sight? The answer is not because of an institution or cultural construct that demands hiding such things, but because of an innate awareness of and desire to hide the problems that burden our souls. One big problem, to be specific: we sin.
And sin, by its nature, makes us feel really gross, really broken, and really separated from God. Because. We. Are.
The Bible is clear on this point:
"for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God" (Romans 3:23)
What a spectacular fall, too! Scripture leaves no wiggle room for any variation of innate goodness (or godness) enough to outweigh the consequences of our sin, either.
"If we say we have no sin, we deceive ourselves, and the truth is not in us." (1 John 1:8)
Our sin distinguishes and divides us from God himself.
"But your iniquities have made a separation between you and your God, and your sins have hidden his face from you so that he does not hear." (Isaiah 59:2)
Increasingly I hear it said, "find your true self" and "follow your heart," as if that which is upright and worthy to be found is buried somewhere inside the bosom of humanity. Our postmodern culture sincerely believes and daily drones the mantra that everyone is born good.
The only problem with people, says the "wisdom" of the day, is that they have somehow wandered from their true self and lost their way. Harmful life experiences are said to cause us to construct defenses and false selves, keeping us separate from the people we are supposed to be. If only we could find our way back to our true selves, we could find happiness, peace, and security in the "goodness" that is us. This, my friends, is why we live in a culture obsessed with identity.
A CULTURE OBSESSED
The goal of finding one's true self, also known as self realization, is an ancient one. It is a prominent feature of mystical pursuits both Eastern and Western, but we see evidence of its earliest form take shape in the words and actions of the very first humans, Adam and Eve.
All that happened during that fateful moment in the Garden (Genesis 3) can be boiled down to fundamental questions like these:
"Who is in control?"
"Who is really divine?"
"Am I really all that bad? Or is there something in me that is more capable than previously thought?"
"What can be gained when I do things my own way?"
Important questions, indeed. These are the same questions people still grapple with today, generally grasping to find the true nature of self more in control, more divine, more righteous, more capable, and possessing more potential than originally believed. All this could lead one to believe submission to God less necessary than first mandated.
Entire spiritual industries -- yes, you read that correctly -- spiritual industries have grown up around these ideas of helping people find their way back to their true selves. These teachings dominate social media, Christian book stores, fitness club class offerings, therapy sessions, Hollywood, lecture circuits, academia, and have even wormed their way into pulpits, convincing well-meaning searchers they simply need to direct their focus inward, discover their identity, then protect it with every social, legal, and political means necessary to keep it from being damaged.
How fragile we have become.
Or should I say, how fragile we are.
Because we're just people "prone to wander" as the old hymn says. I'm reminded of Jesus' reply when a certain scholar posed a question, calling him "Good Teacher:"
"Why do you call me good?" Jesus answered. "No one is good -- except God alone." (Luke 18:19)
Here's the deal: we're not God. And we're not all that, meaning we're not as good (or as great) as we think.
God, by very definition, is both good and great. In fact, theologians typically divide the characteristics of God into two categories: good and great. He is both in the superlative, and He is fully aware of how the human heart deceives itself into thinking He is less and we are more.
"The heart is deceitful above all things and beyond cure. Who can understand it?" (Jeremiah 17:9)
God does. He calls our bluff.
"When you did these things and I kept silent, you thought I was exactly like you. But I now arraign you and set my accusations before you." (Psalm 50:21)
Let that sink in. We thought, but we thought wrongly.
JESUS KNOWS THE INCLINATION OF THE HUMAN HEART
Jesus told the parable of a young man who decided that he, too, wanted to find his own way.
"Father, give me my share of the estate." (Luke 15:11)
He set out for a distant land to find the path to his own happiness and fulfillment.
One might say he wanted to find his true self, uninhibited by the seemingly draconian dictates of life in his father's house and independent of the reputation of the man under whom his own identity had been obscured. Driven by an inner compulsion to satisfy every fleshly desire, because that is the natural tendency of unfettered humans, he "squandered his wealth in wild living" (Luke 15:13). Sadly, his search turned up empty. Quite literally.
"After he had spent everything, there was a severe famine in that whole country, and he began to be in need. So he went and hired himself out to a citizen of that country, who sent him to his fields to feed pigs. He longed to fill his stomach with the pods that the pigs were eating, but no one gave him anything." (Luke 15:14-16)
With an empty tummy and depleted resources, he finally realized the only chance for finding what he was looking for waited not at the end of the road to self, but at the end of the road back to his father.
“When he came to his senses, he said, ‘How many of my father’s hired servants have food to spare, and here I am starving to death! I will set out and go back to my father and say to him: Father, I have sinned against heaven and against you. I am no longer worthy to be called your son; make me like one of your hired servants.'
So he got up and went to his father." (Luke 15:17-20, emphasis mine)
What he originally thought was stifling, binding, or a hindrance to gratification could only be found in resources outside of his own power when he submitted his whole self to the one greater than himself. He realized how good his father was and that he was...not.
THE ROAD BACK TO THE FATHER
Jesus told this story because He aches to redeem and restore us to right relationship with God. He knows that only when we are found in Him do we find true joy and completion. Only when we relinquish our vain pursuits of self realization, self gratification, and self glorification, instead, submitting our broken, depraved selves to the merciful love of the Father and letting our own identity be absorbed in all that He is, do we find all for which we search.
“Whoever wants to be my disciple must deny themselves and take up their cross daily and follow me. For whoever wants to save their life will lose it, but whoever loses their life for me will save it." (Luke 9:23-24)
"to live is Christ" (Philippians 1:21)
Truly, the only worthwhile pursuit in or beyond this world is Christ. However, lest you think the absence of worthiness within you negates your own value, let me clarify on this point: you are not worthless.
To Christ, you were worth leaving His throne in heaven, wrapping Himself in human flesh, submitting Himself to the depravation of this world and the degradation of the cross to shed His perfect blood for your redemption. Jesus came to find you and buy you back from the clutches of sin and death. You were worth it, but your old self is not worth keeping.
The apostle Paul described it this way:
"You were taught, with regard to your former way of life, to put off your old self, which is being corrupted by its deceitful desires; to be made new in the attitude of your minds; and to put on the new self, created to be like God in true righteousness and holiness." (Ephesians 4:22-24)
This reminds me of something he wrote to the Corinthians:
"Therefore, if anyone is in Christ, the new creation has come: The old has gone, the new is here!" (2 Corinthians 5:17)
The road to self was a miserable one for the prodigal, but the road back to the father through repentance brought full acceptance, restoration, and joyful celebration.
“But while he was still a long way off, his father saw him and was filled with compassion for him; he ran to his son, threw his arms around him and kissed him.
The son said to him, ‘Father, I have sinned against heaven and against you. I am no longer worthy to be called your son.’
But the father said to his servants, ‘Quick! Bring the best robe and put it on him. Put a ring on his finger and sandals on his feet. Bring the fattened calf and kill it. Let’s have a feast and celebrate. For this son of mine was dead and is alive again; he was lost and is found.’
So they began to celebrate." (Luke 15:20-24)
AN INSPECTION OF THE STATE OF THINGS
Perhaps you, too, have been deceived. Perhaps you've been looking inward, thinking what you could do or find on your own would supersede that which has been provided for you at home with the Father.
Perhaps at one point you, too, became disillusioned, not realizing how good it really is being found exclusively in Christ.
Perhaps you've been wooed by the song of the culture that repeats the refrain, "There is more than you've been given. A little from this, a little from that; it's not really all that different from what you were taught."
Maybe you got bored or ungrateful. Or extremely confused.
Perhaps you were told to "find yourself," and you threw your whole being into the search but now find yourself sinking further into depression and struggle and hoping, but never actually finding.
And maybe you're trying to find anything worthwhile in yourself, but are just digging a deeper and deeper pit into an abysmally dark place. Now you're beginning to gain the sense that you cannot rescue yourself from it.
Could I ask you to bravely buck to the norm of our culture and turn around? Take a different road. Don't find yourself; lose yourself in Christ. Like all the greats, all the ones who found what they were looking for, all the giants who've gone before, take the road back to the Father. Take the road home.
To God be the glory!