According to the theology I picked up as a teenager, we humans are fallen creatures—under the power of sin. I went to plenty of youth camps and retreats with sweaty evangelists trying their best to get teenagers to “let Jesus into your heart” by telling us what lousy sinners we were. God was spoken of “out there” but rarely “in here.” Combine these negative theological messages with my low self-esteem at the time and the usual doubt every teenager feels about himself or herself, and I was left with the understanding that there was nothing “inside” me that was good. Sure, Jesus might “enter into” my heart if I let him in, but why would he want to hang out there very long?
It was not until I was in seminary that I learned about what Quakers called the “inner light” or “that of God” in every person. Thomas Merton called it the “true self.” Theologians and mystics through the centuries had called it the “imago dei” or “the image of God” inside each of us. This last term comes from Genesis 1:27 where it says, “So God created humankind in his image, in the image of God he created them; male and female he created them.” The idea behind these terms is that we are not beings who are “utterly depraved” or “totally corrupt” but rather free beings—prone to sin but still possessing that divine spark—the imprint of God inside of each of us.
At first this idea of an “inner light” seemed to sound like New Age teachings—suspect and heretical. Yet, there was something inside of me that responded to this idea. God was not just “out there” but also—maybe, just maybe—“in here” too. The more I encountered writers who believed that the “image of God” was present inside each of us the more I understood they were not ignoring our propensity towards self-deception and destructive behavior. Rather, self-deception and destructive behavior are what result when we do not live out of our “true selves”—the person God created us to be.
For me, the significance of this transformation in my thinking about myself—and a transformation in my thinking about just where the presence of God was to be found—came most profoundly in terms of vocation—not choosing a job, but rather discerning God’s calling for the kind of person I would be. Throughout my adult life, I have struggled to discern not only what profession I would hold but what kind of husband, father, son, brother, friend and Christian will I be. It took a long time to realize that feelings of dissatisfaction, longing, frustration and even depression where not things to be resented but rather gifts, because they were alerting me when I was trying to be someone other than the person God meant for me to be. My “true self” or “inner light” was trying to win out over voices telling me I had to prove my worth rather than trust God’s declaration that I had inherent worth. The pain in my psyche came when I resisted the presence of God at the core of my being.
An author whose words have been grace to me is Parker Palmer, a Quaker educator. In his short and simple—but oh so spiritually rich—book, Let Your Life Speak: Listening for the Voice of Vocation, Palmer describes the kind of false sense of vocation I had learned as “rooted in a deep distrust of selfhood, in the belief that the sinful self will always be “selfish” unless corrected by external forces of virtue.” In his own life, Palmer also had learned this false understanding of vocation. He says, “It is a notion that made me feel inadequate to the task of living my own life, creating guilt about the distance between who I was and who I was supposed to be, leaving me exhausted as I labored to close the gap.”
The difference between mere “self-improvement” for self-gratification and the profound discovery of the “image of God” inside ourselves is vast. Palmer writes, “Self-care is never a selfish act—it is simply good stewardship of the only gift I have, the gift I was put on earth to offer others. Anytime we can listen to true self and give it the care it requires, we do not only for ourselves but for the many others whose lives we touch.” Indeed, when a person lives a lie he or she is destructive in all his or her relationships. Yet, when we live out of our “authentic selfhood”—the person God created us to be—our relationships are healthy and faithful.
The irony of this discovery of our “true selves” is that it results in our discovery of more than just our “self.” Again Palmer notes, “The Quaker teacher Douglas Steere was fond of saying that the ancient human question “Who am I?” leads inevitably to the equally important question “Whose am I?”—for there is no selfhood outside of relationship.” The ultimate relationship, of course, is the one between our “true self” and our Creator.
Grace and Peace,