“This above all else, to thine own self be true.”
This quote from Shakespeare’s Hamlet can be found on inspirational signs and jewelry, or tattooed ion twenty-something bodies. At face value, it seems like good advice. We should live with integrity, be ourselves and strive for authenticity.
You may not like what I’m about to say. You might even think I’m being a bit ungracious. But “being true to yourself” often takes a hard turn towards narcissism and selfishness. In some cases, being true to yourself can even be at odds with a healthy Christian life. Here’s what I mean.
The concept of being true to yourself and Christianity
The idea of “being true to yourself” is frequently used to justify all kinds of decisions that hurt other people. I’ve seen people leave their spouses or quit jobs that support their children under the excuse of “being true to yourself.”
In these cases, personal desires become idols that damage relationships with family and friends. The rationale of “being true to yourself” can even make it hard to follow God because you can’t have two masters — God and yourself.
Sometimes circumstances (e.g., abuse) force us to make difficult decisions. I get that. But I also know that we can convince ourselves that we have to do something when in fact, there’s no threat to ourselves or others. It’s really something we want to do — and we do it at other people’s expense.
The apostle Paul warns against letting self interest guide our thoughts and actions in Philippians 2:3-5:.
Do nothing from selfish ambition or conceit, but in humility regard others as better than yourselves. Let each of you look not to your own interests, but to the interests of others. Let the same mind be in you that was in Christ Jesus …
Rather than living our lives based on a wishy-washy fantasy of being true to yourself, we’re called to being authentic Jesus followers who set aside our own desires for the good of others. We aren’t called to be true to ourselves as much as we are called to be be authentic Christians, people who discover our identities in relation to the Divine.
- Authentic Christians admit their failures. Authentic Christians are honest with themselves and others. When they hurt others they accept responsibility for their words or actions — they don’t rationalize or explain failures away. They easily say they are sorry and mean it, recognizing that repentance is important to maintaining healthy relationships with family, friends and God.
- Authentic Christians are other-oriented. Jesus’ life and ministry was consistently other-oriented. Healing, feeding, comforting, teaching and caring for other people was his life’s work, and ultimately his death was also in service to others. Authentic Christians follow Jesus’ example by living lives that are other-oriented, putting aside their own selfish desires in service to others.
- Authentic Christians put their faith in action. Authentic Christians back up their words with action. They aren’t afraid to get their hands dirty and do the work that needs to be done. Caring for the sick, the poor, prisoners — they don’t just talk about it, they do it. Rather than standing back and saying that someone should do something, they recognize that “someone” could be them.
- Authentic Christians seek unity. Authentic Christians don’t let political or denominational labels define them or prevent them from crossing borders to work with other Christians. They are defined by Christ and his love for all people. They are peacemakers who foster understanding, avoiding gossip and judgement in favor of building bridges.
Ultimately, being an authentic Christian requires being true to Christ and his calling rather than being true to yourself. Authentic Christianity is never easy — it requires discipline and self-sacrifice. But the rewards of authentic Christianity are far greater than the rewards of being true to yourself. As a unified body of authentic Christians we have the potential to bless others and to change the world.