Trinity Church York


The self-defeating lie of Self

By Matthew Roberts, 29 Mar 2017

The self-defeating lie of Self

Suffering the perennial curse of parents of young children, that of having to watch the beginning and end of countless films of animated non-human creatures with American accents, I was treated recently to this piece of dialogue between Papa Smurf and the Smurfette:

Smurfette: ‘Papa, every year, on my birthday, I have these horrible dreams about where I come from. And it makes me wonder – who – I – really - am’.

Papa Smurf: ‘And every year I remind you: it doesn’t matter where you came from. What matters is, who you choose to be.’

And there you have, in the comforting, bearded and homely tones of Papa Smurf, the great lie of our age. What defines us is not where we come from (say, a creator who made us in his image to glorify him and enjoy him forever) but who we choose to be. The Smurfette’s creation by the evil wizard Gargamel for his nasty purposes does not define her (no philosophical agenda to see here; move along please); for she has chosen to be kind, loving and happy. Our identity is self-defined; we are self-created. I am who I choose to be and no-one else.

Glynn Harrison in his new book ‘A Better Story’ helpfully identifies individualism – the doctrine that my identity is self-created – as at the heart of what has turned the morality of western society apparently on its head in the space of fifty years. There are things to take issue with in the book, but on this he is right. The revolution has not been fundamentally sexual but philosophical, indeed religious. It is a belief in what defines us, what gives us our identity, that has changed. We used to believe we were defined by our background, by our human nature, by God; but now we believe that we are defined by nothing and no-one but ourselves and our own choices.

And of course this message is everywhere. It’s appearance in the central premise of this particular children’s movie should not surprise us, since in one form or another it is now the central premise of every kids’ movie. The ‘gay moment’ in the forthcoming Disney version of ‘Beauty and the Beast’ ought to surprise no-one, for every Disney movie for thirty years has had as its central premise that to be happy, we must follow our hearts; for only in being what we ourselves choose to be is happiness to be found.

But of course it is a lie. It is a lie as old as the serpent’s words in the Garden of Eden. Indeed, Papa Smurf’s words would serve as a perfectly serviceable paraphrase of the serpent’s. Eve, you don’t have to be defined by where you came from; by God who made you from your husband’s side. You can choose to be someone else, to have a wisdom God did not intend for you, to decide yourself to be good rather than simply conform to the goodness your creator has told you to have. It’s not where you come from, it’s who you choose to be.’

And it’s a very powerful lie. It was then, and it is now. Not only because it is culturally everywhere, and increasingly seems to have the weight of national laws behind it. But because it so perfectly charms our proud and rebellious nature. Here is a call to refuse to accept that we are made by another, for his glory, and to believe that we can make ourselves, for our own. And thereby it provides a shining green light for us to indulge every twisted desire of our hearts, for if we believe this, we are no longer rebelling against a good God but now throwing off the straitjacket of a tyrant and embracing a future of glorious opportunity.

Now, it only takes a moment’s thought to see that it is a very thin lie. ‘It’s not where you came from, it’s who you choose to be.’ But who is this ‘me’ who makes choices? That ‘me’ must have come from somewhere, must have some pre-existing reality which at the very least strongly influences the choices we make. If there is no pre-existing ‘me’ who does the choosing, then my choices are no more than the turning of cogs in a machine or the roll of a dice; neither has any meaning whatsoever.

But this lie is not just thin; it is entirely self-defeating. For, like the old advertisers’ trope ‘Buy now, because we’re selling out fast’, if it were true it would never need to be said. If truth originates within myself, why would anyone else need to tell me that it does? The sheer pervasiveness of this message everywhere – in the pronouncements of every pop culture A-lister, spoken by every mainstream politician, as well as on the lips of the goodies in pretty much every children’s movie – far from confirming it, itself shows how utterly untrue this lie is. Why the need for this vast cacophony of instructing voices telling us the truth is inside us, if indeed truth is already inside us? Why do our children need this idea drummed into them in their PSHE lessons, their ‘young adult’ books, and yes, their movies, if the truth is inside them? They would, we all would, by definition, know it already.

In fact it’s worse than that. For the statement ‘you must think for yourself’ is itself a command for you to conform to someone else’s way of thinking; the call to ‘find truth inside yourself’ is itself a statement of truth coming from outside of yourself; the exhortation ‘what matters is who you choose to be’ itself demands acceptance of a particular understanding of human identity. So the lie of individualism is not just one that reveals itself to be a lie the moment it is spoken. It is a lie which announces its mendacity in the very action of being spoken. The whisper of the snake to Eve, ‘you shall be like God’, could never have been true; not only because mankind could never be like God, but also because God needs no-one to whisper to him.

Which means that we are left with the reality that where we come from does in some sense define who we are.  Now that is multi-layered. Our family, race, nation, humanity and createdness all condition who we are in different ways. But the two layers that matter most are these. Firstly, we are made as images of God, male and female. That is why our choices matter; they are choices of creatures who are made to think, know, understand and decide in a way which mirrors God himself. We cannot be God, but we are certainly God-like. Our task is to recognise the God who made us and work to be like him as much as we can, in the way he designed us to be. Secondly, we are sons and daughters of Adam, the man who abdicated that task and sought to be God. Which explains why we repeat the lie that we can be God to each other and ourselves all the time; why, despite its transparent untruthfulness, we insist on holding on to it and urge it on our children.

And it shows how utterly compelling is the gospel of Jesus Christ. Jesus tells us not to find the truth inside ourselves but to deny ourselves (Mark 8:34); and to cease the futile quest to establish our own identity and instead find our true identity in him (Matthew 11:28-30). For he is the true image of God, the eternal Son of God in human flesh.

Do not lie to one another, seeing that you have put off the old self with its practices and have put on the new self, which is being renewed in knowledge after the image of its creator.             (Colossians 3:9-11 ESV)

Only in Christ, not in ourselves, do we find freedom from Papa Smurf’s – and the snake’s - lie about our identity and therefore find our true selves.