The Reflected Sense of Self

The Bible is truth. It cannot be minimized into a user manual for life. Nor it is a guide for a more prosperous life. To say it is a science book would also be a mistake. It is the truth about our relationship with God. Man’s search for significance and God’s desire to impart it to us.

It is with that belief that a passage in the book of James helped me shed light on a psychological concept that I just became aware of: the reflected sense of self.

We all want significance and will try to find it in Christ or outside of Christ. When we seek it outside of Christ, we form what spiritual theologians call the false self. An identity that allows us to define our significance. Yet, while we would call ourselves free, in reality it is the opposite of the freedom that God intends for us.

One of the ways that we experience this bondage is that the false self must be continually propped up in order to be convinced of its significance. We become a slave to securing our identity. Significance requires comparison, so the false self attempts to define who we are in relation to others. Among others, the question “what do others think of me?” becomes of paramount importance as we attempt to feed the false identity outside of Christ.

This is where we pick up with the idea of the reflected sense of self – that out of our own lack we take on the emotions that are reflected to us by others. It is as if we become an emotional mirror and are dependent upon how others respond to us.

I’ve admitted before that my false self desires affirmation, to feel chosen, and I spent my share of time being ruled by that desire. Even firmly rooted in Christ, there are shadows of that desire. Until recently, I was unable to understand why someone not embracing an idea of mine or advice felt like a personal rejection. What I was seeing mirrored to me was disapproval and I did not have the ability to separate the disapproval for an idea from disapproval of me.

So that you won’t think too much of me, here is a ridiculous example from my relationship with my wife of how this played out in my life. Hopefully this illustrates my point, because I really can’t believe I’m about to type this out.

I’m one of those guys who don’t mind shopping for clothes. My wife is beautiful and I enjoy buying things for her and also appreciate being involved in the selection process. So I scour the racks for deals and things that I think my wife would make look amazing. This goes well until it is time for me to present my armload of selections to said wife. Then what took so much time to find is usually rejected down to, if I’m lucky, one item. Her looks of rejection for these items of clothing mirrored rejection on me. And rather than understand her framework for making decisions – different color preferences, comfort choices, fabric selection – I bore the rejection. If she loved me, after all, she’d trust that she really does look good in that shirt!

That is how the false self works. It doesn’t take much to reveal the cracks in the foundation of what we are seeking our worth. Shifting sand. Affirmation for me. Maybe it is social status for you. Sexuality for someone else. Outside of Christ, or during the times we are off center from Him, we all have some self built quest for significance.

From situations like this and others with my wife and within other relationships, what gives me the ability to break free is not passively saying “just stop”, “don’t be hurt” or “it’s not about you” but rather being active in telling myself the Gospel. In particular, that is that God notices me, I have been chosen, my life is significant regardless of my circumstances.

But, what does all this have to do with the book of James?

James 1:23-24 says – “Anyone who listens to the word but does not do what it says is like a man who looks at his face in a mirror and, after looking at himself, goes away and immediately forgets what he looks like.”

When we look at ourselves in the mirror of Christ, we see the true self, our identity as God intends it to be. That is the Gospel Christ came to proclaim, or as James refers to it a couple verses before, the word planted within us, that can save us. So, if I hear the word that God loves me, I’m adopted as His son through Christ, that I’ve been chosen, then I have had my true self mirrored to me in Christ. This brings freedom because I am no longer dependent upon others to build me up. I can love freely and need or expect nothing in return.

But if after hearing the Gospel truth about who I am in Christ, I return to feeding the false self, I have forgotten what I looked like. I’m settling for something less. The reflection that I see will be the dim one reflected to me by others. I’ll return to the desperate needing of others to prop up my false sense of self.

We are to have our sense of self reflected to us. Only God has intended it to be reflected in Christ. Through the truth of the good news. Along with freedom, that brings the stability of an unchanging God. He is faithful not circumstantial. He is the foundation made of rock.
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