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How self-honesty can free us to be our true selves
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The words echoed in my head, growing louder rather than fainter with each repetition:
“Rarely have we seen a person fail who has thoroughly followed our path. Those who do not recover are people who cannot or will not completely give themselves to this simple program, usually men and women who are constitutionally incapable of being honest with themselves…They are naturally incapable of grasping and developing a manner of living which demands rigorous honesty. Their chances are less than average. There are those, too, who suffer from grave emotional and mental disorders, but many of them do recover if they have the capacity to be honest.” - How It Works, Alcoholics Anonymous
I clung to these words knowing my life depended on following the wisdom within them. The road to my sobriety would be paved with rigorous honesty—the very thing so difficult for me to do. But if I had any hopes of getting and staying sober, of living in freedom, I had to befriend truth.
Addicts are masters of dishonesty. Perhaps what is most damning for an addict is not how we lie to and deceive others—though that is grievous— but how we lie to and deceive ourselves. Because self-deception often precedes all other forms of deception. We tell ourselves an untrue story about who we are and what is essential for life. And then we make a thousand daily choices that keep us numb and blind to the truth. It’s a well-honed strategy that enables us to remain in the dark, afraid of what the light of day might reveal.
But people with substance abuse problems aren’t the only ones who grapple with this. The same is true for those of us who follow Jesus. Because we all have the propensity to cling too tightly to things we think will provide security. Approval of others. Material possessions. Security. Comfort. Power. Status. Influence. Work. Food. Technology. Ministry. The list could go on and on. Some of these addictions are socially acceptable, even publicly praised, which makes admitting we have a problem all the more difficult.
Ultimately, addiction often begins with believing that an external solution can resolve an internal problem. And that is not entirely untrue. A drink, promotion, or a new outfit does prop us up temporarily. That’s why we strive to attain it. But eventually, the euphoria wears off, and we’re once again faced with feelings of insecurity, vulnerability, and shame. And instead of being honest with ourselves, we reach for the next fix. And the next. And the next. Until we are utterly blind to our self-deception and enslaved (addicted) to our false selves—the person we desperately want to be and project to the world.
Deception, including self-deception, invaded the flourishing garden of Eden (Genesis 3). Adam and Eve believed they lacked something good that would enable them to be like God. But the truth was that they were already like God. They were created in his image. And everything they had was good. In fact, that was God’s continuous declaration over all he had made. The only thing they lacked was the knowledge of evil. But rather than taking an honest inventory of who they were, who God is, and all he had provided them, they fell for the lie of scarcity, of lack (an internal problem), and they reached for the fruit (an external solution) that promised fulfillment. And like the blight that slowly creeps in and starves a garden of the life-giving nutrients that enable it to flourish, self-deception crept into the heart of God’s first image-bearers, encroaching on what enables humanity to grow in wholeheartedness. And we’ve been under its spell ever since.
A passage from Isaiah illustrates how comfortably self-deceived we are. In Isaiah 44:6-23, the Lord speaks through the prophet Isaiah, telling the story of a carpenter who cuts down a tree—using some of the wood for a fire to warm himself, some to bake bread, and some to fashion an idol. Then the carpenter, deluded and drunk on the false hope of the idol in his hand, bows down—worshiping the powerless block of wood and crying out to it for rescue. He is unwilling to pause, take an honest assessment, and see that he’s clinging to comfortable untruths. All the while, the Lord graciously waits to extend the very salvation the carpenter longs to receive.
Like the carpenter in this passage, we cling to the well-crafted lie in our hands. We seek to save ourselves through personal achievements and peer approval. We grasp for the false hope of power, status, and money. We build our self-image on platforms and the backs of people. And we turn a blind eye to the truth of our weakness, vulnerability, and powerlessness, clinging instead to our efforts at self-salvation, which is ultimately no salvation at all.
The false self is a fractured self—one in need of the healing God longs to extend to us. But it’s hard to heal from what we cannot (or will not) name. And we cannot name without first being honest with ourselves. Rigorous self-honesty is crucial to wholeheartedness. It requires great courage. Because it means we have to face what we are most afraid of about ourselves and our lives. It also requires great humility—a willingness to own all of who we are in our beauty and brokenness.
Poet and essayist David Whyte captures this in his book, Consolations:
“The fear of loss, in one form or another, is the motivator behind all conscious and unconscious dishonesties: all of us are afraid of loss, in all its forms, all of us, at times, are haunted or overwhelmed by the possibility of a disappearance, and all of us, therefore, are one short step away from dishonesty. Every human being dwells intimately close to a door of revelation they are afraid to pass through. Honesty lies in understanding our close and necessary relationship with not wanting to hear the truth.”
Why do we work so hard to avoid the truth? Fear. We are afraid of losing the illusion of control and the comfort of self-deception. It is hard to see ourselves as we are, to come face to face with all the ways we fear we don’t measure up to our own or society’s standards. Like a turtle without the protective covering of his shell, we fear the vulnerability that comes with relinquishing all the things we use to bolster our security and self-confidence. We fear feelings of powerlessness, exposure, failure, and rejection. And we fear the face that stares back at us—whether in the mirror or in the eyes of another.
But we cannot grow in wholeheartedness without being willing to practice rigorous self-honesty. Self-honesty is not without risk, though, because it forces us to admit our powerlessness and vulnerability, something we are desperate to avoid. And it brings us to a fork in the road—a place of decision. Do we remain on this path—one paved with the promise of temporary comfort and security but yields no long-term freedom? Or do we take the riskier, unknown path—one paved with surrender, discomfort, and vulnerability but results in new vistas of hope, healing, and freedom? Both paths are difficult and have their trials, but in the end, only one leads to a life of true flourishing.
What if you could be honest with yourself in such a way that frees you to live with wide-eyed knowing—fully awake to all your minor quirks and major failures? What if, instead of fighting to protect and preserve the false self, you named your humanity—with all its limitations, imperfections, and weaknesses? What if you committed to living the kind of honesty that grounds you in reality and leads you toward freedom and wholeheartedness?
Surrendering to a life of rigorous self-honesty looks like being willing to:
Surrender control and admit powerlessness
Search yourself and be found lacking
Admit when you are wrong
Name your weaknesses, deficiencies, limitations, and frailties
Receive criticism and feedback from others without immediately dismissing or justifying your actions
Name your wounds and the ongoing ramifications they have on your life, relationships, work, faith, etc.
Confess not just past sin, but current struggles with sin
Be fully known with all your insecurities, fears, hopes, dreams, and desires by trustworthy, compassionate companions who can extend both grace and truth
Face fears of scarcity
It’s a scary thought. But can you imagine how freeing it would be to lay down all the heavy armor of the false self? To finally show up to the world and your relationships with God and others without needing to prove your value or competence? It feels impossible. And on our own, it is. But we aren’t without hope and the power to change.
So what is the internal solution to our internal problem? Love.
“This is how God showed his love among us: He sent his one and only Son into the world that we might live through him. This is love: not that we loved God, but that he loved us and sent his Son as an atoning sacrifice for our sins…And so we know and rely on the love God has for us….There is no fear in love…Perfect love casts out fear.” 1 John 4:9-10, 16, 18 NIV
Perfect love casts out fear! You are free to lay down the false self and be wholly you because you are already fully known and wholly loved by Christ! There is no aspect of you he is not fully acquainted with. There is nothing hidden from his eye. And he chose you to receive his perfect, abundant love.
Because Christ’s love has been poured out on you, you already have all you need, which means you are free to be weak. You are free to fail. You are free to be rejected. You are free to be vulnerable. You are free to be wrong. You are free to be imperfect. You are free to not measure up. You are free to lay down performance, status, power, influence, alcohol, approval, and all the heavy armor of the false self.
His love for us is an invitation to lay down our fear, shame, self-loathing, self-deception, and attempts to prove ourselves worthy of love and belonging. In Christ, we have nothing to prove and nothing to lose. So let’s lay it all down and rest in his perfect love.
I love you guys,
If you’d like to explore this further, schedule some time to work through the following exercises.
Read Isaiah 44:6-23 in a couple of different translations. Then answer the following questions:
In what ways does the Lord describe the carpenter’s self-deception and idolatry?
What do you think the carpenter might be looking for from the idol?
What is the Lord’s posture in verses 21-22?
Explore Your Story:
It’s not easy to face ourselves. But doing so can lead us toward healing and freedom.
What is it you don’t like about yourself? What are you scared to admit or unwilling to see clearly—afraid that doing so will somehow diminish your worth, acceptance, or belonging?
What are you clinging to for value, afraid to live without? Who are you without your family? Your work? Your reputation? Your productivity? Your position of influence? Your ministry? Your children’s success? Your _______ (fill in the blank)?
What feedback or criticism have you received from someone who knows and loves you that you dismissed or justified?
In what ways are you fighting against God instead of cooperating with his efforts to free you from the shackles of your false self?
Read and reflect on 1 John 4:7-21. Then answer the following questions:
In what ways does perfect love cast out fear?
Do you believe that Jesus sees you fully and perfectly loves you? Why or why not?
In what ways could trust in his perfect love free you from the self-protective armor of the false self?
Do you want to be free more than you want to cling to the false hope in your hand?
In Psalm 139, David prays, “Search me, God, and know my heart; test me and know my anxious thoughts. See if there is any offensive way in me, and lead me in the way everlasting” (vs. 23-24, NIV).
Commit these words to memory and incorporate them into your prayer life daily as both an acknowledgment of your vulnerability toward self-deception and an awareness of your limited understanding of all things, including yourself.
Learn how to pray the Examen developed by Ignatius. The Examen has five parts: 1. Ask God for light (clarity). 2. Give thanks. 3. Examine the day. 4. Face your shortcomings. 5. Look toward the day to come. Here is a good resource to get you started. A Simple Life Changing Prayer, by Jim Manney
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