“Previously, my main motive in life was to do a painting of myself, filled with bright colors and profound insights, so that all who looked upon it could be impressed. Now, however, I find that my role is to be a mirror; to brightly reflect the image of God through me.” – Philip Yancey
It is said that the eyes are the windows to the soul. Many of us go through our lives believing if we just get the chance to show who we are, what we contain and how much we can contribute; the picture of ourselves will be validated, appreciated and loved. In response, many of us assert ourselves to take control of those things which are so important to us that we cannot leave them to their own results. We master our situations to command security, respect, love, success and purpose. We live in a world where that marketing focus of self allows us to marshal our will and achieve the connection we long for. Our “self” is something that, if pursued correctly, will yield the highest of societal ideals. It is the central factor of achieving your best, enjoying the ultimate pleasure, and being respected by all. When mastered purposefully, security abounds, confidence swells and success is automatic. You will be more attractive, people will love you and hang on your opinion and you will be desired by those who interact with you.
As these mantras fill our heads, we get lost in the shuffle of self. It creates a crisis of identity that internalizes cars, clothes, spouses, houses, jobs, boyfriends and girlfriends, status and friends into meaningful achievements and conquests; a place to say, “I’ve made it in that department. I am complete.” Sadly it has modalized to our hobbies, our children, our charities and our spirituality. It seems that a layer of self-centric purpose has blanketed our very existence. It’s in us as we drive our cars, it’s in our lack of awareness of others and it restricts our compassion toward those who cross our path. Today, for me in my own life, I saw it in my waiting in line at Starbucks. Five minutes of worry, edgy anticipation and felt time infringement; all so I could get my coffee in the time I thought was appropriate. The “self” rears its ugly head and deters me from being open to the world around me by isolating me within the demanding walls of the narcissistic validation of my self-centric existence. In seeing my own failure, I am aware that I am not alone in my moments of fooling myself to think that it is all about me. Behind me and in front of me in line, there were a few others who felt the same entitlement that I was in the injustice of the lack of self-centripetal force in the world at that moment. All of these ideological isolationist theories come to fruition when we ultimately face the reality that we are not at the center. There is no contentment in self pursuit; there is no achievement which is enough, or satisfies our deepest longings for connection and purpose.
It is in these moments that we begin to look outside ourselves for answers to the harsh demands of self. We look for attitudes which do not lead to heightened entitlements; a situation where we feel more acceptance, love, purpose and community over injustice, anger, unrequited passion and disappointment. A place of hope, a place of peace; where security is not based in our own ability, power or influence and validity is placed outside our achievement, our performance or our pedigree. It is in this that the words of a Nazarene carpenter begin to bring purpose; what good is it for a man to gain the whole world, and yet lose or forfeit his very self?
Jesus calls us to deny ourselves and follow Him. Those who understood their lives in this context were changed in their mission of serving God. The disciples who were transformed from a ragged band of those who wished to save their lives by following the Great Teacher and miracle worker; to rugged men who lost themselves in serving the Messiah and became some of the most influential men in the history of humanity. It is through the same transformation that Saul put down his piety and Paul charged others to put the old self to death as it is no longer we who live but Christ in us. John the Baptist responded to those who would put his authority above the Son of God’s saying, “He must increase and I must decrease.”
Christ came to set people free from the confines of self-validated living. He is not the God who helps us achieve; He is the Lord of directing our paths toward Himself. John Kavanaugh put the opposing force of self-centripetal understanding in these words, “American culture fosters and sustains a functional trinitarian god of consumerism, hedonism and nationalism. Made in the image and likeness of such a god, we are committed to lives of possessiveness, pleasure and domination.” If we identify ourselves within this paradigm, we get lost in pursuit of salvation through self. This is not illuminated with the power of a Messiah who died to save us from the effects of self-centric existence. Jesus mission was to rescue us from our internal implosion of disconnection through being our own answer to our questions of purpose, validity and belonging.
This is the essence of Yancey’s mirror; rather than brightly shine for my own glory, I am here to reflect his majesty, given to me to show others the Lord’s “self.” As we are mirrors of the Almighty, the windows to our soul are illuminated by Him. Like stained glass, we are fashioned with care, containing elements of character, purpose and beauty. It is not our own projection which shows our true self, nor our own innate existence which draws out glory to be acknowledged. Much like the sun shining through, it is the Lord illuminating himself through us; revealing our true beauty, our real purpose and our God centered identity. Those who see what becomes of his work through us do not glorify the glass for being amazing; they praise the maker of the art, the beauty of the creator, and the majesty of its source. The mark of his reflection and illumination changes our core identity to be understood through Him alone.
In understanding our complete identity in Him, we are free to live peaceably and responsively to the world around us. We are free of the need to contort ourselves or our self-image to appease society and its demands. We are free to be the new creation of Christ receiving our validity from the Almighty. Rather than seeking it from those around us or from inside our own self-perception; the authority of our central understanding of who we are aligned with our adoption in Christ. We are of Christ and He is of the Father. This is the freedom of which Elihu spoke to Job amidst his turmoil, “He is wooing you from the jaws of distress to a spacious place free from restriction, to the comfort of your table laden with choice food.” He is calling you to be free from the concepts of who you are, what you are, what your purpose is and what you think the best is for you isolated in your own understanding. He knows the distress of every situation and is wooing us away from our self-dependent inception of survival.
In the journey of knowing our “self” illuminated in Christ, we come to realize what Paul told the Ephesians regarding our essence being rooted and established in love. If only we could grasp how long and wide and deep and high the love of Christ is, we might catch a glimmer of our true self as He sees us. The love of our Savior surpasses knowledge, anxiety and uncertainty in renewing our hearts and minds in Him. This is what should fill our “self”; the fullness of love from the God who is able to do immeasurably more than we ask or imagine, according to his power at work within us.
This is the mirror we reflect in glorification of Him. We are the stained glass of Christ Jesus’ majesty; transformed by his image reflecting in us and his love shining through us. If we truly understand our identity in Him as a new creation, we come to know the source of our contentment and completion is secure in the Sovereign Lord. He who reigns omnipotently, omnisciently and omnipresently over all creation has adopted us into his family.
One of the ancient near eastern elements of adoption was security. While natural children could be disowned, lose their inheritance or be exiled; the agreement of adoption meant the security and belonging of an unbreakable covenant for life. Adoption is the context to which we are secure in our identity in Christ. This is the implication of what those who heard these words conceived in hearing them, echoed in the words of Paul; “That neither height nor depth, nor any other created thing can separate us from the love of God, which is in Christ Jesus our Lord.” To be adopted is to have your identity be changed. No longer orphaned, unwanted, isolated and alone; we are secure, loved and united – we belong and we are family forever.
This is our true identity. Even in moments where I am impatient and react poorly, as in Starbucks, my identity is secure. Recalling my true identity reconnects my heart with the compassion and love of the Father. Growing in the understanding of our identity in Him softens our hearts to be the reflection Him. As we grow more in our depth of connection to Jesus, we are able to be illuminated by the Love of Christ and bring forth his response to those who we come into contact with. Even though we may slip into self-focused moments, we do not bring it to bear on our core identity.
In this life, we all suffer the effects of a self-centered existence. Fortunately for us, Christ died to change our reality from our own perspective to his omniscient understanding. His sacrifice gives us the possibility to become a new creation, adopted into the family of the Holy God. As we go forward, let us know ourselves in light of this adoption in Christ. Let us bear his image, beautifully reflecting the love which has made us anew, and re-centered our reality. Let us radiantly shine as stained glass; bringing forth beauty and glorifying Him, illuminated in his love. Let us die to self and live renewed in Him; that we may be the reflective and illuminating bearers of the image of God, his love and his connection to a world lost in the shuffle of self.