1 John 2:12-14: The Problem of Finding an 'Authentic Self'

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There is no true “self” apart from God. Anything so surmised is caught up in the meaninglessness that is death.

Today there exists deep anxiety about who we really are. Caught up with and underlying the cultural debates about “identity” is a wearying search for the “authentic self.” This authentic self, once discovered, is often lived out veraciously and stands indifferent to any contrary views from outside that seek to inform it otherwise.

But frequently, what is called the “authentic self” today is just an exercise in death. I mean that quite literally since the focus on the search for “self” is already fated to error. Humans are naturally social creatures. They are not islands, and they do not thrive as hermits. The “self” is always situated in a community, a civilization, and a society with its varying cultures. To be a “self” then—if we are to speak authentically—is to exist in a community and, therefore, one who holds responsibilities to that community. Consequentially, a self so embedded and enmeshed in togetherness must find its meaning, its true identity, within this matrix or social reality, and not just as an exercise in self-discovery and inner searching. And such situatedness also means that, because “I” always exist in relation to a “we” or “thou,” what it means to be me must always be somewhat of a surprise—an unfolding awareness that I am more (and less) than my self-understanding can produce alone, no matter how much I feel one way or another. My feelings are not the sum of who I am; they are only reactions to the self which I choose to believe at any given moment.

Frequently, what is called the “authentic self” today is just an exercise in death.

The modern/postmodern move inward—to find the “authentic self” through our reasoning–is a movement of shutting out neighbors—or at least shutting them out as active contributors to our stories. Underlying the search for the “authentic self” is a premise that we find the “self” that is most true in the deep, inner recesses of the mind and feelings—that we are what we “feel” or intuit, or self-reflectively determine ourself to be. Through a web of subjectively surmised conclusions, we search out our inner spaces and come to think what we find there is who we are.

Such a way of being leads to death since it necessarily only uses neighbors to relieve the anxiety of uncertainty and, so we hope, reinforces the identities that we have come to claim for ourselves, identities that we must continually renegotiate. This means our neighbors exist to predominately buoy up our self-esteem, an esteem that increasingly seems more and more fragile. Death comes to us because this egotistical search plunders us of a stable sense of purpose. Ultimately, searching for the authentic self renders our found identity meaningless because that “meaning” is self-produced, subjective, and fluid. I am not whatever I have concluded about myself; I am always much better and far worse. But since I withhold the right of neighbors to tell me who they think I am, especially when it contradicts or challenges my sense of self, I am caught in a whirlpool of death. Attempting to have a meaningful (solitary) self, I invite death to come to me, a social creature, of whom it is said it is “not good” that I should be alone (Gen. 2:18). Death is the final identity for all who not only live a lie but reject the operative social forces that contribute to, and are indispensable for, meaning and happiness.

I am not whatever I have concluded about myself; I am always much better and far worse.

It may therefore come as a surprise to readers that a small section of writing in I John can speak prophetically to this cultural pathology. There, in 2:12-14, John addresses three groups of people: little children, fathers, and young men. Much debate continues in the scholarly community whether these three groups are literal—representing three kinds of age groups–or metaphorically, as code in the ancient church for three levels of spiritual maturity. There is no way to know, and it is not important for our purposes. Whatever is true of fathers (“your sins are forgiven”), children (“you have overcome the evil one”), or young men (“The word of God abides in you”), can be said of all Christians, everywhere. So, determining the exact meaning of these people is not vital to the passage. What is said of each group is true for all.

But what is essential is this: this passage gives us a self! Fathers, children, and young men are designations of different identities. If we were to ruminate for a while, we could produce many characteristics, struggles, advantages, and unique experiences that each of these identities includes. We could, so to speak, identify an “authentic” sense of father or young men. But that is not what John has done. John has reminded them that who they are is given to them by Jesus Christ.

Salvation in Christ is “to know him who is from the beginning” and to have “your sins forgiven.” It is to have “overcome the evil one” in Christ, to have “the word of God abide in you.” Similar to Paul’s famous statement in Galatians 3:28, “There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free, there is no male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus,” John admits to differing identities while not letting them cloud-out the identity that is most important of all: that who we are is caught up in Christ and who he is. We are “in Christ,” and thus, what it means to be human is inseparable from the incarnate life of God in Christ.

This starkly contrasts with today’s world because John’s perception of the self requires joining. We are not independent. We are “one bread and one body for we all partake of the one bread,” as Paul says in I Corinthians 10:17. John’s way of saying this came just previous to our passage: “By this, we may know that we are in him: whoever says he abides in him…” (1:5b).

We cannot overstate the consequences of this joining. If who we are is inexplicable from Christ, then the search for self today is all wrong. To find ourselves, we would have to die to ourselves because finding ourselves means finding God. Our selves are hidden in God, not independently deduced. Again Paul, “For you have died, and your life is now hidden in God” (Col. 3:3). John puts it, “We know we have passed out of death into life…” (3:14). This means that there is no true “self” apart from God. Anything so surmised is caught up in the meaninglessness that is death.

But, you may ask, if John’s children, young men, and fathers all share a single identity in Christ, why does John address them as distinct identities in the first place? Why not just say “my little children” like he began the letter, his endearing term for the whole community to which he is writing? The answer is simple: while it is true that all three groups share the same promises and identity given by Christ, it is not true that, as individuals, we can remember who we are on our own.

To be a person is to be gifted a name.

The trap of modern thinking is that the self is only really known through an experience of self-awareness. This is an unfortunate, exaggerated heirloom of psychotherapy. But the biblical witness proposes that while there is a place for self-reflection (primarily for repentance and thanksgiving), it is not the central locale for discovering our identities. That place is only Christ and his cross where we stand crucified with him. Yet, the lesser identities we hold, like father, sister, friend, or businessman, remain essential for the self as it seeks to live out Christ. In the creation account, it is God who names Adam, not himself. We cannot name ourselves because we do not know who we are. We cannot know because to be a person is to be gifted a name.

As we live and face many temptations, we learn we need our fathers (and mothers) to speak into our lives and tell us that our sins are forgiven, despite how bad we feel inside. We need our little children to remind us of the kingdom of heaven and Jesus’ welcoming arms, especially in a world that alienates, abuses, and can be uncaring. We need our young people, vigorous and optimistic, to remind us the mission is still active, that we can still contribute, and that youth sees potential where old age often is weighed down by past wounds and creaking bodies. The young remind us we “can” where old age often relinquishes us to “cannot.”

The Christian self is not properly construed as an authentic self; it is a shared self—both shared with Christ and neighbor.

John shows that each identity has a truth to contribute to the other; the other who would struggle and forget who they are if left to themselves. John also shows that no identity possesses a self apart from Christ, that there is no designation to which we can claim a self separate from Christ or each other. And it is to this self that the contemporary world desperately needs a retelling. The Christian self is not properly construed as an authentic self; it is a shared self—both shared with Christ and neighbor. It is the opposite of the world’s self that can never hope to find grounding because it constrains the self in a death of its own subjectivity. The preaching of the gospel saves us not only from sin and death and hell but also from meaninglessness that impoverishes our lives. That is why we must keep preaching the gospel to everyone, showing the world that a shared self is a self hidden in Christ and given to the world. And that is why John is so apt to call us to love in his letter. For in love, we reach outward, not inward. In love, the self finds meaning in Christ (who is love) and from our neighbors to whom we are connected. This promising reality is the opposite of death; it is assurance, a surplus of meaning hidden in the loving arms of the Author of Life. And is something the world desperately needs to hear.