Mine, me, and no are important words in a child’s vocabulary and in the later life of most people in this post-fallen world. They coalesce into what psychologists call a self-concept, our own personal, but often semi-conscious definition of ourselves based on how others, especially our parents, describe us. Thus, we tend to define ourselves by our appearance, our intelligence, our abilities, and our possessions as well as by our relationships with others and the way they look at us. A positive self-concept helps us feel good about ourselves; a negative self-concept makes us feel bad about ourselves. And a fluctuating self-concept causes us to feel lost and unsure in a threatening world.
And yet, the Christian “self-concept” should begin with the image of God, an understanding of the proper ordering and functioning of the human soul, and a loving relationship with one’s neighbor. For the Christian, self-definitional feedback comes neither from doting parents nor hurtful peers, but from the Gospel of Christ, the writings of the fathers, and the lives of the Saints. Part of the Christian life needs to involve challenging our psychological self-concept with Christian wisdom, so that we grow in Christian virtue, valuing what is truly valuable and learning to let go of those things that are passing away.
Unfortunately, using our psychological self-concept to tell us who we are can lead us to protect and defend thoughts, attitudes, and behaviors that are contrary to our identity as Christians and that even others can clearly see as questionable. It is much easier to preserve our self-concept intact through justifying ourselves and blaming people, places, and things for how we think, feel, and behave than it is to repent and dare to change. If we are not engaged in an honest spiritual struggle, our self-justifications can become so elaborate and impenetrable that they become cognitive blind spots or blinders, our own personal darkness through which the truth is no longer capable of piercing.
This may take on various forms such as justifying cheating on one’s spouse by blaming the limitations and weaknesses of the spouse to justify the bad behavior. In other instances, a person may justify anger by pointing to the actions of another as the true source of being angry. In all instances, preserving our fabricated and sometimes wrongly, flattering self-concept is the dominant force behind the justification and blame. With desperation, we fight to preserve our “I am ok, really” self-concept, for without it, we feel as though we would fall apart. And yet, we are sinners in need of God’s mercy and His children made in His image.
Human history is replete with the tragic consequences of those who’ve succumbed to a self-serving, but ultimately self-destructive self-concept. When that self-concept is challenged by another or by an experience, we may experience the pain of cognitive dissonance wherein our self-concept is confronted by another set of traits that threatens it. In cases where those who experience such a cognitive dissonance aren’t committed to spiritual struggle, the urge to avoid the pain and confusion dominates the clarion call for truth and an honest assessment of the self.
The ancient fathers counsel humility, constant vigilance, and a healthy dose of self-reproach in acquiring a genuinely Christian identity that gradually informs, corrects, and even transfigures the self-concept into a deep self-understanding from the vantage point of “the mind of Christ.” As we are in the midst of preparations for the beginning of Great Lent, the Church offers us beautiful examples of how to undertake such a struggle through the preparatory Sundays: Zachaeos Sunday and the Sunday of the Publican and the Pharisee. Zachaeos was a tax collector who defined himself by his wealth, his height, his ability to get what he wanted, and his social situation of being an outcast. And yet at the fringes of his self-concept, there was a theological truth, he was also a child of Abraham and his soul desired to see God. He dared to go beyond and around the constraints of his self-concept in order to see the Lord Jesus. Short in stature, Zachaeus climbed the sycamore tree. He made the effort in spite of the potential ridicule of the crowd. He changed his point of view so that he would be able to see more clearly the Lord entering his town and eventually his heart. And lo, the Zachaeus’s self-concept changed radically from that blessed meeting with the Lord. He understood himself now in terms of God’s compassionate understanding of Zachaeus that in turn made Zachaeus all the more compassionate towards others. This Sunday we will hear the Gospel of the Publican and the Pharisee. The Gospel offers us the stark contrast between the one who justifies himself before others and God and the one who dares not raise his eyes to heaven while quietly praying, “Have mercy upon me, a sinner.” Both men are sinners and fall short of the glory of God, but only one is capable of moving beyond the self-concept to be justified in the sight of God.
The heart of a Christian that functions properly neither judges nor blames, but cries out to God for mercy and looks at the neighbor with love. It lives not on the basis of a self-concept formed in the past and in need of being preserved in the future, but on the basis of communion with God in the present moment. That communion must guide us as we prepare to enter the period of Great Lent. We each have a self-concept, but we also have a Christian identity. Let us strength that identity, let us put off the old man and put on the new, by repentance, by prayer, by studying the Gospel of Christ. And in place of my, me, and no, let us learn to say, “Thine own of Thine own” and Yes “even so, come Lord Jesus.” Amen.
—Hieromonk Alexios, Holy Monastery of Karakallinos, Mount Athos
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