AfterWords | Sin & the Insidious False Self (October 9, 2022)
AfterWords is a series of community-contributed reflections intended to further the conversations that begin during Parish sermons.
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A 3-Minute Read
by Eric Seidel
On Sunday, Jordan continued his incredible sermon series on God’s universal story by continuing the conversation around love and sin.
He shared with us a thought from George Herbert—”There are two vast, spacious things: sin and love.” These two forces, while not equals, exist in a zero-sum tension. Where one grows, the other recedes. If one flourishes, the other subsides.
Love is the creative, operative force behind God’s work in the world. God created all things out of a desire to love and for love to be experienced. Referencing 1 John 3, Jordan said this love is “self-giving, for the sake of others, and love is the image we were created with.” God’s creative force instills an imprint upon creation that is good and is teeming with abundant love.
Sin, however, is a state of discord, a disunion with God that manifests itself in our decisions to disobey God’s will for us. It’s the other operative force in the world, the one that restricts love’s growth. Jordan described Sin (big “S”) and sin (small “s”)—there’s the state of Sin and the act of sin.
What struck me during the sermon was the question, “Why do we keep coming back to sin?”
We know that God freed us from the state of Sin. So, why do we so often act on sin? What I’m referring to is the act of sin—the sin choices we make even though we dwell in communion with God through Christ. I spent a lot of time working with individuals in addictions recovery in seminary. It always struck me how the knowledge of one’s freedom from the state of Sin does little toward one’s willpower to refrain from sinning. Paul aptly identified this tension by saying, “For I do not understand my own actions. For I do not do what I want, but I do the very thing I hate… For I know that nothing good dwells in me, that is, in my flesh. For I have the desire to do what is right, but not the ability to carry it out” (Romans 7.15-25). This tension is ever-present for every human person. Why is that?
The idea I kept returning to is an idea that’s often discussed at The Parish and was discussed at length during our Emotional Healthy Spirituality class. It’s the idea of the “false self.” In his book Intimacy with God, Thomas Keating describes the false self as “the image we carry of ourselves to cope with the emotional trauma of early childhood… basing itself on cultural self-worth or group identification” (Keating, 192). In other words, the false self is the image we carry of ourselves and present to others in response to hurts, pains or burdens that we don’t want people to see so that we can gain acceptance or approval. It’s an image constructed from pains we’re trying to protect ourselves from. The false self tells us lies about ourselves, and we believe them. (See Robert Mulholland’s The Deeper Journey or this great abridged blog post on the false self.) These pains can be holdovers from childhood but can also be burdens we’ve come to carry later in life. We’re always trying to hide those unresolved hurts and lies from others.
When presented with a decision, the false self can assert itself over us by deceiving us into choosing the thing that further hides the hurts and lies. That choice often comes at the expense of others or at the expense of following God. The false self is so insidiously powerful because it works as a force that we often don’t realize is affecting us.
The church has a men’s softball team. We’re playing way out of our league, but we’re having a great time! We’ve played some close games, won a couple, lost more than a few. But overall, it’s great community-building for the men in our church. We’re all really getting to know each other and serving as great support for each other. I haven’t played baseball since I was five. That’s basically the same as saying I’ve never played baseball in my entire life. That fact is definitely reflected in how I play. There’s no sugarcoating it: I’m not that great at baseball. I think I’ve had maybe 15–20 at bats. I’ve gotten two base hits all season. Yeah… I have a general idea of the math. Please don’t make me calculate my batting average. It’s OK though. I’ve come to terms with it. That’s not why I’m there.
Still, knowing that I’m not the best at baseball, my false self produces lies that quietly want to shape my will. Lies like, “You’re not that great. You should find something else to do on Mondays. Your wife and son want to come see you play; you should tell them not to come. Save yourself from looking so bad. In fact, you really should just run from the community you’re a part of.” The false self is telling me the lie that my value to the community is based on my baseball skills. That’s unequivocally false. But that lie festers under the surface, ready to shape my will and drive me away from God’s love. The false self facilitates sin by enticing me to lie to the team about my availability, or pushing my wife and son away from their expressed love. The sin here isn’t grave; it’s not breaking any commandments. But sin is given room to grow, thus reducing God’s love from being experienced and expressed.
God knows this struggle within us. God didn’t just deal with our state of Sin. God dealt with our struggle over the acts of sin. In fact, God’s work in the world in Jesus is God’s great initiative to nullify and dismantle sin’s power over us. Jordan said on Sunday, the only thing that can defeat sin is love and love’s expression, which is forgiveness. Forgiveness is a grace from God that allows us to name the sin in our lives with courage and release it… because God has.
Someone once told me that grace is accepting that you’re accepted by God in spite of yourself. You are loved and accepted by God regardless. No matter what you carry, no matter what you’ve done, no matter what lie you believe and have acted on… God loves you and forgives you. Love and forgive yourself.
There are a number of prayer practices that can help us look inwardly to identify the things happening inside our own hearts (Centering Prayer, Examen Prayer), but the real work is forgiveness. That’s how love is able to conquer sin and allow us to return to God’s operative force in the world.
The greatest thing about our men’s softball team isn’t that we’re the best team on the field. It’s that our team truly honors each other with God’s love. We celebrate each other after a great hit or a good catch. We encourage each other after a strikeout or an error. That kind of grace allows me to dismiss the false-self lies that are telling me to run from the community. That kind of grace empowers me to run toward the community. That same love and forgiveness can be used to disempower any false-self lie that has control over your will.
So why do we keep sinning? Hmm. I suppose it’s because we give it a place to live inside our hearts, and we don’t even know it’s there. Sin is allowed to persist because false-self lies assert themselves over our will, pulling us away from God’s love. God invites you to name those lies, cover them in love and forgiveness, and continually run toward God’s love by remembering that you are loved, you are forgiven, you are accepted.