“For several years, I had been bored. Not a whining, restless child’s boredom (although I was not above that) but a dense, blanketing malaise. It seemed to me that there was nothing new to be discovered ever again. Our society was utterly, ruinously derivative (although the word derivative as a criticism is itself derivative). We were the first human beings who would never see anything for the first time. We stare at the wonders of the world, dull-eyed, underwhelmed. Mona Lisa, the Pyramids, the Empire State Building. Jungle animals on attack, ancient icebergs collapsing, volcanoes erupting. I can’t recall a single amazing thing I have seen firsthand that I didn’t immediately reference to a movie or TV show. A commercial. You know the awful singsong of the blasé: Seeeen it. I’ve literally seen it all, and the worst thing, the thing that makes me want to blow my brains out, is: The secondhand experience is always better. The image is crisper, the view is keener, the camera angle and the soundtrack manipulate my emotions in a way reality can’t anymore. I don’t know that we are actually human at this point, those of us who are like most of us, who grew up with TV and movies and now the Internet. If we are betrayed, we know the words to say; when a loved one dies, we know the words to say. If we want to play the stud or the smart-ass or the fool, we know the words to say. We are all working from the same dog-eared script.
It’s a very difficult era in which to be a person, just a real, actual person, instead of a collection of personality traits selected from an endless Automat of characters.
And if all of us are play-acting, there can be no such thing as a soul mate, because we don’t have genuine souls.
It had gotten to the point where it seemed like nothing matters, because I’m not a real person and neither is anyone else.
I would have done anything to feel real again.”
That’s Gillian Flynn, writing in Gone Girl. It’s such a powerful picture of jadedness, isn’t it?Can anything be fresh and authentic?
I wonder if that’s the sort of thing that was going through the mind of Nicodemus when he encountered Jesus (in John 3), or through the mind of the woman at the well (in John 4) or Pilate (in John 18, 19).
John gives us three encounters between Jesus and people who might be described as jaded, worn down by life, cynical and world-weary.
Nicodemus is described as “a Pharisee, a man … who was a member of the Jewish ruling council.” That means that he was well-connected, and probably well-to-do. It means he was educated and sophisticated. Jesus called him “Israel’s teacher.”
By total contrast, the “woman at the well” (the Bible doesn’t even record her name) met Jesus not by the cool of the night but in the heat of the day. She had three strikes against her that should (according to the customs of the day) have prevented Jesus from having any conversation with her whatsoever.
The first “strike” was her gender. An Orthodox Jewish male would not customarily address a female in public (even his own wife!).
The second was her ethnicity. She was Samaritan, a half-Jew, an outsider, and John notes: “The Jews had no dealings with the Samaritans.”
The third was her reputation. She had had five husbands and was living with a sixth.
It’s probably fair to say that if Nicodemus had grown world-weary through his intellect, this woman had grown cynical through her life-experience.
And Pilate (in John 18 and 19) was cynical through political expedience. He registered Jesus’ innocence and then had him crucified. He was too worldly to recognise the truth even when it stood before him in human form. “What is truth?” he said. And the only one who could have told him was not given space to answer.
Maybe all three might have said, with Gillian Flynn, “It’s a very difficult era in which to be a person, just a real, actual person, instead of a collection of personality traits selected from an endless Automat of characters.”
Maybe, no matter what your “era”, it is always difficult to be real. Maybe we all stick on the personality traits that our lives and situations give to us, until we don’t really know if there’s anything underneath at all.
Maybe we hide behind the masks because we are ashamed of what we think we really are.
Many of us feel very small indeed and are only too conscious of our own shortcomings. But, according to the Bible, that’s not the full story about who we are inside. We are made in God’s “image” (Genesis 1), with a parental resemblance about us! We are “fearfully and wonderfully made ” (Psalm 139). We are loved, chosen, accepted, blessed, nourished, approved of, listened to, enjoyed….
Our spiritual identity is rich indeed.
And so to Nicodemus, the tired old intellectual, worn out with stale thinking, Jesus offered baby-life, the chance to be totally, invigoratingly new.
To a woman in the hot dusty heat of the day, dried out inside and out by failed hopes and expectations, he offered cool fresh water, so that she would never thirst again.
And to Pilate he offered authenticity itself. He gave Pilate the chance that he craved, to be real amidst all the phoney baloney of political fakeness. The choice that Pilate had was stark indeed: he could continue in the lie (and stay “friends with Caesar“) or take his stand with the Truth as it stood before him.
Either way, the choice would cost him his life.
As Gillian Flynn put it: “It had gotten to the point where it seemed like nothing matters, because I’m not a real person and neither is anyone else.
I would have done anything to feel real again.”
So what would you do to be real, to be completely, radically yourself? That was the unspoken question that Jesus asked of each person he encountered.
What would you do?
Of course, the thing is, the “real you” might not be admirable or wonderful at all. It might be damaged and broken and needing repair. It’s daft to think that you can just strip away the layers until you come to this genuine true self, honest and clean.
That’s why Jesus brought something new to the table: a baby for Nicodemus, a drink for the woman, a choice for Pilate. And the Bible continues to astonish me with its message of hope for change. God is introduced in Psalm 103, as one who “forgives all your iniquity, who heals all your diseases, who redeems your life from the pit, who crowns you with steadfast love and mercy, who satisfies you with good so that your youth is renewed...”
And a thousand years after that was written came one who exemplified it, who enacted it. He forgave sin with a scandalous freedom, not in a theoretical kind of way, but revelling in it, taking meals with the “sinners” and outraging public decency in the process. He said “I am come that you might have life, and have it more abundantly.” And this abundance was demonstrated in the healing of the sick, the raising of the dead and through a teaching that liberated and through a life that sang.
And in the following years, Paul said “In Jesus Christ, I am a new creation; the old has passed away and all things are become new.”
It’s not a hope or an aspiration. It’s a fact of the new life in Christ.You have begun again with a clean slate.
And that means your inner self too.
Of course, this has to be worked out, bit by bit.In Romans 12, Paul explains the re-learning process that has to go on, as you learn to live in this new Jesus-oriented way.
“So here’s what I want you to do, God helping you: Take your everyday, ordinary life—your sleeping, eating, going-to-work, and walking-around life—and place it before God as an offering. Embracing what God does for you is the best thing you can do for him. Don’t become so well-adjusted to your culture that you fit into it without even thinking. Instead, fix your attention on God. You’ll be changed from the inside out. Readily recognize what he wants from you, and quickly respond to it. Unlike the culture around you, always dragging you down to its level of immaturity, God brings the best out of you, develops well-formed maturity in you.”
And it doesn’t stop there. Paul takes things to their logical, glorious conclusion: “One day, Christ, the secret centre of our lives, will show himself openly, and you will all share in that magnificent denouement.” (Col 3:4)
This is J.B.Phillips’ paraphrase of Colossians 3:4. It has two exactly opposite halves: the “secret centre” and the “magnificent denouement.” It’s a somewhat parallel thought to Col 1:27 “Christ in you (the secret centre) the hope of glory (the magnficent denouement.)”
The real you, the inside you is now “Christ in you.” It’s the Superman reality within the Clark Kent persona. “We have this treasure in jars of clay.”
Paul is astonishingly Christ-centred, isn’t he? He goes further than we often dare. We have a humanistic trait that would see the reality of “Christ in you” as something of an alien presence, but Paul would see it as the truest thing about you, the real you. I’m hidden with Christ, baptised into Christ… In fact, I myself no longer live; and the life I live by the power of God.
Also I’m “crucified with Christ.” (I need to ponder that one, for sure.)
So, yes, there is no greater comfort than settling into who you really are. And, yes, it is absolutely true, in Kurt Cobain ‘s words, that: “Wanting to be someone else is a waste of the person you are.”
But my real self, my secret self, is in Christ.
Lord I come to You
Let my heart be changed, renewed
Flowing from the grace
That I have found in You
And Lord I have come to know
The weaknesses I see in me
Will be stripped away
By the power of Your love
Hold me close
Let Your love surround me
Bring me near
Draw me to Your side
And as I wait
I will rise up like the eagle
And I will soar with You
Your Spirit leads me on
In the power of Your love
Lord unveil my eyes
Let me see You face to face
The knowledge of Your love
As You live in me
And Lord renew my mind
As Your will unfolds in my life
In living every day
By the power of Your love