The Leaky Cisterns of False Selves: Vocation, Repentance, and Lent

false selfThis is the seventh reflection in the Missio Lent series. Read the rest here.

Frequently spiritual leaders remind us that we are more than our professions. Rarely though, are we called to repent of our identification with our jobs. Lent prompts us to repentance, to the subduing of the flesh by the Power of the Spirit. We are strongly tempted to make our vocations a work of the flesh where we find the source of our life. We may be tempted to identify ourselves with any or all of our multiple vocations: our professions, families, or ministries.

Identifying myself with my profession requires repentance because it is false. My life and my identity are not found in my career, my job, or even in my varied vocational commitments, but in Christ. My life, my gifts, my talents, and even my relationships were not created by me, but given to me. The flesh is that part of me that attempts to live life for its own purposes and in its own power. It wants to be self-made. Contemplating Christ’s crucifixion in the Lenten season, we acknowledge our identification with him (Gal. 2:20) and seek to put to death our flesh (Rom. 8:13).

Vocations and False Selves

Identifying myself with my vocation creates a false self. The false self is a kind of self-deception in which I form beliefs about my self-identity and act unconsciously from this self-perception. I see myself as competent, serious, punctual, spiritual, generous, artistic, physically fit, or whatever. I view these prized traits as uniquely my own and as being the attributes that make me special. The attributes may be true, but they are not my identity. David Benner explains that the problem does not arise from the possession of unique qualities, but from the inordinate attachment we have toward them. The false self is fictitious, yet I act and react according to its role assignment as if it were my true life. I deceive myself by choosing to believe that I am something other than what I really am.

Basil Pennington suggests that the false self arises by believing that my value depends on what I can do, what I have, and what others think of me; he links each of these to the three temptations of Christ. Christ was tempted to solve his own hunger problem, to obtain power over the kingdoms of the world, and to gain recognition as the Messiah. Jesus was tempted to identify himself falsely with doing, having, or reputation. We find each of these temptations in our vocations.

Temptations to feed the growth of the false self are everywhere. It is not just that when I introduce myself, I am asked what I do. I receive rewards and accolades for what I do, and I quite like those. The false self succeeds. I am praised for my competence. I am given a raise for my good work. I am told that my kids are great (and they are!). People rave over my beautiful house or yard or tattoo or pet or shoes or man cave or, . . . you get the picture.  My reputation and that of my company, ministry, and family take on an aura that I am invested in protecting. Many of the strategies of the false self have the appearance of godliness, goodness, and of American cultural values.

Our religious vocation is just as susceptible to becoming a work of the flesh and to feeding the growth of the false self as are our other vocations, perhaps even more so. We wish to be viewed as godly and are rewarded for it. We are prone to ignore the ugliness and frailty of our lives and grow out of touch with the true self that is loved by God even in its sin.

False selves are leaky cisterns (Jer. 2:13). They need constant replenishment, and they fracture easily. If I retire or lose my job, if my kids move out of the house, if my ministry crumbles, the source of my vocational identity will be lost. My cistern will no longer hold water.

Symptoms of False Selves

What are the symptoms that I am seeking to find the source of my life in my vocational false self?

My compulsions reveal places where I find my identity. “Strive for perfection; settle for excellence.” Attributed to NFL coach Don Shula, this quotation masquerades as a kind of wisdom, until perfectionism displaces other goods. Can the work I do be good enough without being perfect? Excellence is praised and the compulsion to be perfect will bring me much success, along with agony and distress.

The false self can be found in any pattern of behavior I find difficult to break because it conforms to whom I believe myself to be. Perhaps it is the inability to say no to projects and tasks, because I am the agreeable team player. Perhaps I can’t say yes to new ideas, because I am the conservative risk-avoider. Perhaps I won’t take the advice of others because I am the dominant leader.

The false self does not bear criticism well. The greater my level of investment in my vocation in the form of training, experience, value, and meaning, the more I will be inclined toward defensiveness in the face of question, threat, or rejection. When I believe in the significance of my vocation, I seek to be right, and my success depends on it. Being wrong threatens the very existence of the false self and my existence, insofar as I identify myself with the false self.

The false self will find reasons to fault others and will be unable to perceive their good qualities. Even those who do the good we ourselves endeavor to do in ministry will be seen as rivals, rather than as co-laborers. We become territorial, insisting that our way is best.

The false self seeks to protect its reputation at all costs, working the PR machine to its best benefit, even when that may mislead or misrepresent.

The people with whom I most wish to be associated can reveal the values of my false self. C.S. Lewis describes this as seeking to be part of “The Inner Ring” (in an essay of the same name). We desperately want to be inside: to have, to do, and to be perceived as they are. The characteristics of this supposed ring can reveal my own aspirations. Tragically, rings are just as false as selves; entrance into one always reveals another into which I have not yet been admitted.

Although many of our temptations in the development of the false self are in the direction of inflating the significance of what we have, what we do, or how we are perceived, we may also be tempted to dismiss the value of our vocations. A friend of mine taught public school in south central Los Angeles for years while wondering whether he had missed his calling and believing that what he did was not valuable. He falsely believed his vocation was valueless.

Dying to the False Self in our Vocations

Rather than grasping our identity through doing, having, and reputation, our true identity is a gift. The tragedy of sin is that we try to manufacture something that has already been given to us.  In the garden, Adam and Eve were given an identity (image-bearers) and a vocation (have dominion, forming and filling the earth). In sin, they sought to make themselves after their own image, prompting God to ask: “Where are you?”

When we come out of hiding from behind our false self, we find who we truly are, we find God, and we find the meaning of our vocations.

It might be natural to think that the correct approach to avoiding the formation of the false self is passivity: simply sitting back and receiving God’s grace. Yet the consistent theme of Scripture is that those who are graced share that grace with others (Eph. 2:8-10). The solution is not passivity, but cooperation. The mystery of providence is that I work and God works (Ps. 127). From his inexhaustible supply, God fills our cisterns with living water (John 4:10-14) that we use to refresh others. We gratefully steward the owner’s property until he returns. Empowered by the Spirit and directed toward God’s purposes, the exercise of my vocation is measured by faithfulness, not success.

The repentance of Lent can help me die to self-construction in my vocation. By the Spirit, I may enter into the true freedom of a God-empowered and God-directed vocation and find my identity in the Crucified One, who set aside what he did, what he had, and his reputation (Phil. 2:5-11) to love me and give himself for me (Gal. 2:20).

Jason McMartin is associate professor of theology in Rosemead School of Psychology and Talbot School of Theology, Biola University, where he focuses on the doctrines of humanity (anthropology) and of sin (hamartiology). His other vocations include father of two wonderful boys, husband, and pastor at Maple Evangelical Church in Fullerton, California.

Photo: Kay Pat

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