In ministry to youth since my college years, there have been many psychologists, sociologists, neurologists, and even parents who have attested to the teenagers’ quest for “self” discovery. Throughout adolescence, floods of hormones and new/heightened neurological abilities for cognitive and social connections (the ability to “think” from anothers’ perspective) allows young people for the first time to be more fully aware of the self they not only are – but the self they are perceived as by others. The fact that the “self” perceived by others might be different from the “self” they believe themselves to be – becomes realized. (For more on this, here’s an awesome article you might be interested in.) This ability actually grows and deepens throughout adolescence, and combined with modern technology can become a labyrinth from which young people need – not rescue, but guidance. I’m also convinced that many of us “adults” (myself included) are sucked back into our adolescent years, in terms of the practices evoked by these opportunities.
This goes back to our very first presentations of a crafted “self-image”, as human beings. Today, we see it in the duck-faced 13-year-old girl or the 15-year-old male flexing in a mirror – both affixed as a “Profile Picture” or even just an update. The statement is implied by sharing (even if not understood), “This is the image I’ve chosen to represent the ‘self’ I’m curating for you to perceive me as.” This is not a new desire. Our first attempts at this are found in Genesis 3:7, as Adam and Eve sew fig leaves together out of a desire to cover up their true “self” which they’re shamefully aware has been marred. They want to be perceived without the humiliating nakedness and vulnerability, and so they put on leaves and say, “This is the image I’ve chosen to represent the ‘self’ I’m curating for you to perceive me as.”
To this, God responds with the hard truth about what has happened. He also replaces their garments of leaves which cost nothing, with garments of skin which we can assume cost the lives of animals. God seems to suggest, “You may cover up, as this level of vulnerability is a heavy burden. But it comes at a price also.” We see here a prophetic illustration, that the “wages of sin is death” (Romans 6:23). Not as payment, but as a direct result – living in a way that chooses our own presentation of “self” above the “self” God has created us to be, will always lead to death – whether of relationships or literal. This is not something that weak people “fall into” as an activity, but rather something we are each born into as a state.
Thomas Merton wrestled with this same concept in thought & prayer: “To say I was born in sin is to say I came into the world with a false self. I was born in a mask. I came into existence under a sign of contradiction, being someone that I was never intended to be and therefore a denial of what I am supposed to be. And thus I came into existence and nonexistence at the same time because from the very start I was something that I was not.” (Merton’s Palace of Nowhere, 1978) (Note that “sin” here is less about morality and more about ontology.)
We are not left to struggle with this tendency toward the “false self”. We believe and proclaim that Christ has provided a New way of being (ontology again!). Galatians 2:20 declares that our “self” is “crucified with Christ” so that “I no longer live, but Christ lives in me. The life I now live in the body, I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave himself for me.” (NIV) Scripture reveals to us this Freedom is not only something offered to us, but invites us to understand that the very activity of sacrificing our “self” in order to receive the “self” that is alive in Christ is our act of worship! (Romans 12:1) It is in this New-Creation-living in the life of Jesus that we discover and move toward the “self” God has created us to be. (2 Corinthians 5:17)
So how do we guide young people, and how do we respond to a technology culture that constantly invites us to purposefully curate our own “self” for the sake of how we’re known by others?
- Understand where the desire for “multiple-selving” comes from. A certain level is healthy and expected: What foods do I enjoy? What music/culture/comforts/fashions do I prefer? What art do I appreciate/contribute? During the adolescent years especially, our cognitive abilities develop in ways that allow us to “try on” variations of who we might become. Most of us even continue into adulthood with more than one “self”, and seek to balance these expressions of our identity.
- Understand where the desire for a “false self” comes from. Scripture reminds us we are born into a state of sin that brings death (Romans 5:12). To deny this is our nature, and just try to “be good” or “be strong/successful/attractive”, etc. is to throw on fig leaves and hope for the best. We come to God, confessing our naked vulnerability, and accept the price He has paid-to reconcile us in relationship – offering a restored “True self” that exists in the Love of Jesus by the power of the Holy Spirit.
- Offer every expression of our “self” to be an opportunity to worship God, not bring glory to our “self”. Whether on social media, in classrooms, in the living room, or wherever we find ourselves. “Offer your ‘self’ as a living sacrifice…” (Romans 12:1) This means daily (and a life of) prayer where we bring our whole “self” into the presence of God.
- Pray. Together, and individually. In prayer, we enter into a redeemed time and space where we discover the Loving God whose image we were created to bear, and are shaped/empowered by His Spirit toward how that can happen today. Here we become less and less influenced by how we might be perceived by others, and in declaring Jesus as Lord – give weight to who God has declared we are becoming in Christ.
- Love. Love God as the source of our True Self. Love others, not as the “selves” they might curate for better or for worse, or as the “false self” ascribed to them by others, but as the “True Self” they are in the light of Jesus Christ. Finally, love the True Self God has set you free to become – united with God in the Love and power of Jesus Christ by the power of the Holy Spirit.