By Justin Rossow
I have had a song stuck in my head for over a week, humming it to myself since we we sang it in worship a Sunday ago: “Love the LORD your God with all your heart, with all your soul, with all your mind, and with all your strength” (the Lincoln Brewster version). The text, of course, comes from the Great Shema:
Or, perhaps more accurately, the text comes from the way Jesus quotes Deuteronomy 6 in Mark 12:
I’m not surprised that Jesus adds some vocab in translation; the Hebrew word nephesh, usually translated soul, or self, or even life, is a tricky word to get across. The theologian Jesus is talking to in Mark 12 gives us the word “understanding” instead of “soul and mind,” but he’s quoting the same Scripture verse and agreeing with Jesus.
“Love Yahweh your God with all of who you are, everything that makes you you.” I think the command has something like that in mind. And God’s commands are intended as blessings. So I’m on board. I want that.
I want to be like that. I want to love God with all of who I am. And I’m discovering, as I get older, my concept of who I am gets more and more complicated. How do I love the LORD my God with all of who I am, if I don’t even know who I am?
You could chalk it up to being in my early 50’s. You can call it a midlife crisis if you want. You could even notice that some experience of self dis-integration is a common theme of our angsty times. But the reality is, with five decades of being me, I’ve discovered “being me” is a kind of tricky proposition.
Brain science has some good ideas why this might be so. Research into how the mind works can demonstrate fairly clearly that the concept of a single consciousness, or single mind, or single self is one of the helpful fictions we tell ourselves to make the complexity of our actual lives more manageable.
Forget the thousands of competing self-interests you have to manage on a minute to minute basis: your left brain and your right brain are basically two different people living inside your head! (Watch the short and accessible video “You are Two“ by CGP Grey and tell me that doesn’t freak you out, at least a little! It gives a whole new meaning to don’t let your left hand know what your right hand is doing!)
As I get older (boy, do I hate that phrase), I find the problem of self intensifies. I not only have all of my present hopes, dreams, desires, wishes, and impulses to deal with, I’m living with the memory of all the things I desired and got (or didn’t) from all the earlier versions of me. It’s like I’m living with the remnants of all my past selves. And sometimes the goals and dreams and failures and shames of a whole host of “ghosts of Justin past” can keep me awake at night.
Why didn’t I end that relationship more gracefully? Was I such a coward? Why didn’t I make a different decision? Was I so deluded? Why were those years and decades so disjointed? What was I running from? Who was I trying to be? Why didn’t I do better?
If my past (and present) selves sometimes appear foreign to me, the way other people see me can be even more disorienting. I remember an old Scots language poem (one of my past selves was an English major) with the line:
Which, when translated, means: “O, would some [divine?] power give us the gift of seeing ourselves as others see us!”
The poem is about seeing a louse (singular of lice) on a “lady” dressed up in her Sunday best. But the fancy lady is also just “Jenny” to the poet, and “dinner” for the louse; and doesn’t that just put everything into a different perspective…?
That external perspective can be helpful: how do other people perceive my words and actions? But considering how others see me can also lead to a kind of performance anxiety in just being me: am I coming across as too vain, or too strong, or overly intellectual, or too casual, or …, or …, or …?
Repeatedly, if not often, the way other people experience me is a complete mystery to me. Another past self—or maybe, the same guy who was the English major?—did theatre in college. The week after a performance, I made a startling discovery outside the mail room. (Yes, people over 50 remember a time when you actually had to walk to a specific place in a specific building to open a tiny little locker with your name on it to pull out paper copies of correspondence.)
On that particular day, the most recent copy of our college magazine had just come out, and as I went to throw my literal and physical junk mail into a literal and physical trash can, a discarded copy of the magazine caught my eye.
You see, I was on the cover, as this issue contained a review of our recent theatre production, and I had a leading role. But this cover was distinct: whoever trashed this specific copy had first scribbled all over my face.
They didn’t just draw glasses and a mustache. It wasn’t simple caricature or vandalism. Some anonymous censor had forcefully and repeatedly scrubbed at my face with their pencil until they tore a hole in the cover of the magazine.
I was shocked. It felt like anonymous violence directed at me in a very personal way. No other face was scratched off in the entire issue: but wherever I appeared, in two or three more action shots from the play, by myself or in a group, my face had been thoroughly and aggressively expunged.
The hatred was palpable.
And I had no idea who had done it. Or even who could have done it.
My list of suspects was bare. I had no idea that anyone could possibly hate me that much, let alone who; and not even a guess at why.
The shock and hurt and confusion in that memory are still strong. I still don’t understand how I could have evoked such deep and personal animosity without knowing or being able to imagine who it was I so offended.
It felt like revenge, but I had no clue for what.
“To see ourselves as others see us.” Maybe. Maybe that can help give us perspective, sometimes. But I remember Zoom haircuts too well to think that what others see in us, or what we choose to show them, is a reliable version of the truth about who we really are.
I have learned (and taught) that humanity’s fall into sin broke our relationship with God, with creation, and with other people. But I think I have sometimes forgotten one important implication of living in a fallen word: my own broken relationship with myself.
Now that I think of it, I remember the old Bethel Bible Series picture of the effects of sin in the world. (Are you old enough to remember the Bethel Bible Series? My dad taught it to adults, way back when I was very, very young…) The image for the Fall shows a grieving Adam shouldering a shattered and jagged music bar, which stood for harmony, now broken. (Bethel was always highly image-driven. And highly allegorical.)
The picture clearly details the broken relationship between humanity and God; between humans and creation; and the broken relationship between people.
I had all but forgotten: one of the black and jagged fragments of that broken music staff is piercing Adam’s own side. Sin in the world means a broken relationship, even with myself.
Which, I take it, is normal. This side of the Resurrection of the Dead and the Life of the World to Come, each of us is a tangle of competing and incomplete personalities who suffer not only from self-delusion, but from the delusion that the Self is a discrete, integrated, and consistent entity.
As long as there is sin in the world (which won’t be always), we’ll all know what’s it’s like to feel our sense of identity unravel. We aren’t as stable as we like to pretend. Integrating the competing values, needs, goals, fears, and priorities of the boiling hotpot we call the Self is an exercise in self-delusion most of the time. Demons aren’t the only ones who deserve the name Legion.
The Apostle Paul experienced that self dis-integration: “I don’t understand my own actions!” he writes. Looking at my past (and present), man, can I relate!
But if I can relate to Paul’s question, I can relate to his answer even more:
Already now, I am joined to Jesus and his death and resurrection.
Already now, I am participating in the life of the world to come.
Already now, I am starting to look like who I am going to be, because the Spirit is shaping me to look more like Jesus.
Jesus is the one who loved the LORD his God with all his heart, soul, self, and strength. Jesus is the one who loved his neighbor—who loved me—enough to take on the jagged consequences of sin in the word. Jesus is the one whose face was violently disfigured, who received in his own body the senseless violence and hatred and revenge directed at me; and from me, at others.
Jesus is the New Adam, whose pierced side brings all my relationships back into tune. Jesus is the Firstborn of the Dead, whose empty tomb means Satan can’t have me, and death can’t hold me.
Even my complicated, confused, and confusing relationship with myself is held under the grace of his cross and empty tomb.
Sometimes, it still seems like I can’t figure out who I am or what I am doing. The competing Justins of my past and present drown out my own sense of identity. I want to love the LORD my God with all my heart and with all my mind and with all my strength and with all my self. But I don’t even know who this “self” guy is half the time!
I do have a promise to cling to, though: not just about who I am, but who I am in the process of becoming. My relationship with all of those contradictory Justins, past and present, is caught up in my relationship to Justin future, the Justin the Spirit is shaping to look more like Jesus.
If I look through the eyes of that future self—if I look back, even at the versions of me that cause me the most guilt or shame or confusion or regret, and I see those Justins through the eyes of the Mercy and Love and Delight that went to the cross and rose from the dead for me, then I can sometimes catch glimpses of what already now makes my Father sing for joy.
Even the worst me’s, baptized and redeemed, shine something of eternity.
I can’t always see it. But my Jesus can.
And that is enough for me.
O that God the grace would give us,
To see ourselves as Jesus sees us.