"Then Jesus said to His disciples, 'If anyone desires to come after Me, let him deny himself, and take up his cross, and follow me.” Matthew 16:24-26
For those of us who identify as Christian, it can sometimes feel tricky to nurture our authentic self while also trying to “deny” the self. How can we be authentically Christian and also be authentically ourselves if Christianity requires a denial of self? What does it even mean to deny yourself? These are common questions and tensions that we are going to get into here.
First, what does it mean to be your authentic self? We were all made with unique preferences, personalities, strengths, weaknesses, and quirks. However, our uniqueness can sometimes feel blurred by fear, pain, trauma, or life circumstances. Uncovering the truth of who we are is a lifelong process and may feel very confusing at times. It can be helpful to reflect on when you feel most like yourself. Is it when you’re making jokes, dancing, working, taking care of children, spending time with family, spending time alone? What interests are you drawn to? When and how do you feel the most grounded and the most liberated? Asking yourself these questions can help you understand what makes you uniquely you.
But here’s where it can get confusing – as Christians we are supposed to become Christ-like. That is what many would consider to be the goal of the Christian life. There are many different ideas about what it looks like to be Christ-like or holy. It’s important to remember that becoming holy is not about a career choice or personality – it’s about growing in virtue. What values did Christ embody? Generosity, compassion, mercy, humility, courage, etc. The way that one person embodies courage may be very different from another. When we embody values, not only can it look a variety of ways, but it does not require that we change the core of who we are.
When we are asked to deny ourselves, we are not being asked to lose our unique personality. Rather, denying ourselves is about saying “no” to those parts of us that are in opposition to the virtues we are trying to obtain. That is, we are to deny our selfishness, pride, hatred, etc. The hard work of the Christian life is learning how to grow in virtue AS YOURSELF.
Are there aspects of yourself that you find you’re constantly trying to change in order to be holy? A question you might ask yourself is whether or not that part of yourself is in opposition to the Christ-like virtue you desire. Are you silly? Can you be silly and virtuous? Is silliness in opposition to love, mercy, courage, patience, self-control or kindness? If the answer is no, then by all means, be your silliest you. This can apply to many different personality traits and even interests.
For example, let’s say you love fashion and want to work in design. It makes you come alive and draws on your creativity and your love of beauty. However, somewhere along the way you came to believe that the world of fashion is selfish and “worldly.” Ask yourself the same question: Can I work in fashion design and still remain merciful, kind, patient, just, humble, and courageous? (There are many other virtues, just naming a few here!) If the answer is yes, then it is possible to become Christ-like and be your authentic self in the world of fashion design. If the answer is no, then it might be helpful to discern which virtue feels irreconcilable with that particular path. Are you thinking of working for a company that pays unfair wages or goes against some part of your conscience? You may want to consider working for a different company instead of deciding that who you are and what you like is inherently wrong.
Take time to reflect on the Christian virtues you want to embody. Is it faithfulness? Temperance? Wisdom? There are a lot to choose from. Once you’ve created a list, think about all those things that make you uniquely who you are and then ask yourself: Can I be ______ and practice virtue? Ex. Can I be introverted and courageous at the same time? Can I be spontaneous and also practice prudence? It's possible that you may need to tweak a few behaviors after reflecting on the list you've made, but you don't need to fundamentally change who you are. And the reality is, you can't even if you wanted to!
The self that we are asked to deny is the self that keeps us from being our truest, freest, most authentic self. Christianity subscribes to the idea that it is through exercising the virtues that Jesus embodied that we become our most authentic self. Holiness, then, is not about becoming someone different but about becoming more of who we are.