Book Notes: The Gift of Being Yourself


Christian psychologist and spiritual director David G. Benner has written an intriguing but too-brief inspirational volume, The Gift of Being Yourself: The Sacred Call to Self-Discovery, whose premise is that knowing God is inseparable from knowing yourself.

This might sound like New Age self-deification, but Benner’s orthodoxy is solid. Relationships require authenticity. If we are afraid to be our true selves, he says, we are also afraid to encounter God in prayer. This observation rang true for me because fear of myself has been a major obstacle to my prayer life. Sometimes it’s that I don’t want to know my own sins; other times, I’m afraid that I couldn’t process the intense emotions of prayer without losing my mental balance. Then the people whose affection I want to retain will reject me, saying, “Who is this depressing person who cries all the time even though her life is so fortunate? Obviously, whatever she believes, it doesn’t work.”

And then there’s the Psalmist’s question, “What is man that Thou art mindful of him?” I look at my weakness, the mundane concerns that so easily overwhelm me, and imagine that God must see me as, well, a schmoe.

Some strains of thought in Protestant theology are less than helpful for this problem. I do believe that Christ died for my sins. However, some ways of talking about substitutionary atonement and human depravity make the transaction appear formalistic, almost false: I am actually loathsome, to the extent that I am myself, but God accepts the legal fiction that He is looking at Christ when He looks at me. This sets up a dynamic of God in opposition to the self, which can perpetuate the feelings of shame and self-avoidance that I always thought the gospel was meant to cure.

Becoming aware of my inability to cope with my sinful nature was the prelude to my conversion, but it was not conversion itself. Conversion was the realization that my deepest self was separate from that sin, cherished by God and somehow protected from ultimate worthlessness, but not through my own efforts.

Hence Benner’s well-chosen title. We are meant to be ourselves, but our personhood is a gift, not an achievement. Moreover, the unique talents and inclinations we discover in ourselves are clues to our God-given vocation. (This insight also reassured me, as I’ve found it hard to root out the Kantian anxiety that God will prevent me from finishing my novel because my enjoyment of it is idolatrous.)

 

Much of the book is spent discussing ways we construct a false self. In language reminiscent of the Buddhist doctrine of “non-self”, Benner suggests that we become overly attached to particular personality traits and preferences, which we adopted out of habit, or because they were pleasurable, or helped us manipulate others. We assume that these traits are our fixed “self” when perhaps they are things we do in order to protect our egos, and could be changed.

Whenever we act as if it’s our responsibility to create a unique personality for ourselves, we end up shoring up the false self and hiding from our flaws. By contrast, accepting that our uniqueness is given to us by God, and that our primary identity is being a person loved by God, frees us to discover who God meant us to be.

This worldview is appealing enough that I wished Benner had included narrative examples of what a person’s life might look like before and after giving up the false self. He briefly outlines the Enneagram, a list of nine personality types and their characteristic sins, but doesn’t give specific guidelines for working with it, nor explain why Christians should take it as authoritative. The book is the first in a series that includes Surrender to Love and Desiring God’s Will. I will continue to explore his works in search of more practical advice.

 

One comment on “Book Notes: The Gift of Being Yourself

  1. Alegria Imperial says:

    Thanks, Jendi, for constantly feeding sand to oysters which even if grudgingly, turn out bits called ‘pearls’ even if only the size of rice grains. Thanks for sharing Benner’s ideas on the self as a sacred gift. I think this exercise is not much of value if it ends with self-love. We must sink deeper into the void, to our true birth. It’s a scary thought indeed–what if the void just slurps us? But again, perhaps it won’t.

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