“Identity is never simply a creation. It is always a discovery.” So writes David Benner in his excellent book, The Gift of Being Yourself (IVP Books, 2004).
I read this book after I told Jack, a friend of mine, that I was preparing a podcast on the theme of identity. Immediately he offered Benner’s book as one of the best he’s read on the subject. Jack is one of the most widely read and wise men that I know. Naturally, I ordered the book and put it at the top of my reading list, as I do with all of Jack’s recommendations. As usual, I was not disappointed.
This short book—only 110 pages—lucidly covers a topic that others have written tomes about. To be sure, this is no academic work. It’s more like a spiritual essay on the “sacred call to self-discovery” as the subtitle promises. Benner opens his introduction to the subject by pointing out the irony of the need for self-discovery to those “who are seeking to follow a self-sacrificing Christ.” Yet, he rightly points out that the discovery of self and God are intertwined. Not because we are own god, but because God made us in His image and it is His Spirit that dwells within us to transform us more and more into Christlikeness. Benner agrees with the Trappist monk, Thomas Merton:
“There is only one problem on which all my existence, my peace, and my happiness depend: to discover myself in discovering God. If I find Him I will find myself and if I find my true self I will find him.”
The pursuit of self-discovery, Benner points out, brings us inexorably back to the love of God: “The inextinguishable love of God is the only hope for our fulfillment,” he writes. “Love is our identity and our calling, for we are children of Love. Created from love, of love and for love, our existence make son sense apart from Divine love.”
Most of us can accept this about God’s love, even if we will never, this side of heaven, fully grasp the extent of it. What many of us, myself included, have a harder time accepting is ourselves. Self-acceptance, however, is essential for genuine spiritual transformation. Benner points out that “until we are prepared to accept the self we actually are, we block God’s transforming work of making into our true self that is hidden in God.”
Perhaps the most difficult thing to accept about ourselves is our desire “to preserve an image of our self…and how we want others to see and think of us.” This is our false self—one that we spend an inordinate amount of energy to preserve and promote. Transformation and growth is dependent upon our willingness, as Richard Rohr puts it, to be willing to be something other than the image we seek to project. Benner reminds us that it’s much easier to spot falsity in others than it is in ourselves. But he suggests two clues that may suggest we’re living less than an authentic life: defensiveness and compulsiveness. The first arises out of our need to protect an image of ourself. The latter points to a excessive attachment we may have. In either case, we try to preserve our false self in order to the get the life and meaning that only rightly comes from being deeply loved by God.
While the entire book is an excellent read, I found Benner’s last two chapters on false self and true self particularly helpful. You can get through it quickly, but I recommend giving it a slow, reflective read.
Have you read Benner’s book? If so, what were your thoughts about it?
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Leary, I am glad you read this book and shared it with your constituency. You captured and summarized the major themes very well. I especially liked how you brought out the dynamic of defensiveness and compulsion as it relates to the true and false self. I believe as you do that we never quite discover and complete our true identity this side of eternity. But we can encourage each other to do so. Since I have known you, you have made made great strides in this fundamental human task. Thanks for encouraging us to do so as well.
Thanks Jack. You’ve been a sage guide for me in this quest. Hmm. Maybe a good name for a company, right?