"The false self is deeply entrenched. You can change your name and address, religion, country, and clothes. But...the false self simply adjusts to the new environment. For example, instead of drinking your friends under the table as a significant sign of self-worth and esteem, if you enter a monastery, as I did, fasting the other monks under the table could become your new path to glory. In that case, what would have changed? Nothing."
So wrote the Trappist Monk Thomas Keating some years ago. Whatever the merits of Keating's own solution to the situation he describes, his analysis of our basic human condition seems spot on to me. Keating understands that licentiousness and legalism represent not only alternative (albeit de facto related) ways of relating to divine law, and so of laying claim to one's inheritance (whether measured in present or deferred beatitude), but also alternative (albeit de facto related) ways of constructing identity, and so projecting an image of one's self both to one's self and to others. Some define themselves by conquest and consumption; others by strict conformity to moral standards of one provenance or another.
The Gospel, by way of contrast and solution to the "false self," bids us find our identity in our participation in the benefits of Christ's person and work for us (forgiveness and renewal), and so in the vast love of God for us which stands behind our participation in the benefits of Christ's person and work. Thereby it simultaneously invites us to forfeit those identities we have so carefully constructed via conquest and consumption or moral conformity (to precepts divine or human).
Recently I've been thinking about the way in which Margery Williams's classic children's book The Velveteen Rabbit (1922) captures this particular dynamic of the Gospel.
The Velveteen Rabbit has, of course, intrinsic worth. He's made of velveteen after all. Velveteen may not be proper velvet, but presumably it beats polyester or mere cotton as far as materials go (disclaimer: I don't actually know what I'm talking about on this score). Similarly, we human beings have intrinsic worth as image-bearers of God. Our image-bearing ontological/functional status should, at least in principle, go some way towards establishing our sense of self-worth as well as the worth of others. But in our fallen (or in the Velveteen Rabbit's case neglected state), the truth about our origin and inherent status rarely suffices to keep the "false self" at bay. The reality is we're wired for relationship, and questions of self-worth and identity inevitably revolve in the final analysis around the reality of whatever relationships (or lack thereof) we find ourselves in. Because sin has severed the relationship that matters most, we end up feeling lost and worthless; hence the quest to establish identity and worth down those paths noted previously.
The Velveteen Rabbit ultimately discovers his own identity -- and so forfeits his own "false self" as well as any false hope entertained of realizing his eschatological end ("realness") through false means -- in the love bestowed upon him by the Boy. The Boy's love doesn't (initially) change what the Velveteen Rabbit is (i.e, a Velveteen Rabbit). But it does impart previously unrealized value and identity to the Rabbit. Similarly, God's love for us doesn't (initially) change what we are by nature, but it does impart a previously unrealized value and identity to us. God's love, in other words, defines us. God's love -- measurable in the lengths that God has gone to in order to rescue us from the guilt and misery of our sin -- bestows upon us the freedom to stop defining ourselves to ourselves and others by our conquest and consumption (on one hand) or (on the other) strict conformity to moral precepts.
But in the end, love not only defines the Velveteen Rabbit; it also transforms him. The Velveteen Rabbit, true to the prophetic word of the Skin Horse (the Velveteen Rabbit's source of inspired truth), achieves realness on a new level by virtue of the love bestowed upon him, even though that love (and so the path to eschatological realness per se) introduces, whether directly or indirectly, considerable pain and sorrow to the Rabbit's life. God's love (and the realization of his love for us in the person and work of Christ) likewise leads to our own transformation (glorification). But, as every Christian knows and numerous New Testament texts conform, the path to glory is paved with pain and suffering (Rom. 8:17).
Of course, all analogies -- including those based on children's literature -- break down in the end. The Velveteen Rabbit's eschatological end necessarily separates him from the Boy whose very love imparted identity and an inheritance to him. God's love, which imparts identity and inheritance to us, draws us into his presence more concretely in the end (which is to say, God is our inheritance). But perhaps enough parallels between the Velveteen Rabbit and the Gospel exist to extend G. K. Chesterton's apology for the "ethic and philosophy of elfland" (and so all that children's stories stand to teach us) to Williams's classic work, even if it the Velveteen Rabbit (1922) slightly postdated Chesterton's comments (Orthodoxy, 1908).