What do we do when our self-examination brings us to the point of discouragement? How do we respond to our own brokenness? Do we condemn ourselves, or do we respond with compassion? For many Christians, these are complicated questions. We recognize that practicing self-compassion is an important part of supporting mental health, but we are wary of the secular narcissism that can so easily compromise our practice. In his newly-released book, Rhythms for Life, pastor, church-planter, and PhD student Alastair Sterne invites readers to “move at the pace of grace” and allow the love of Christ to ground and transform the journey towards self-compassion, mental wellbeing, and mission.
Adaptation from Rhythms For Life by Alastair Sterne
Adapted from Chapter 8, “In—Inward to Self”
Turning our attention toward ourselves for the purpose of self-examination isn’t easy. We prefer illusions of ourselves. But it’s also difficult because it can be hard to understand ourselves. Saint Augustine wrote, “I find my own self hard to grasp.” He was in good company with Saint Basil, who said, “We are more likely to understand the heavens than ourselves.” Although I am well aware that I’m a finite creature, when I look within, I can feel like I’m peering into the darkness of a bottomless well. My “authentic self” is nowhere to be found.
Moreover, the inward journey is sometimes met with suspicion or even discouraged altogether. Sometimes I’m skeptical toward it too. It is possible to pay too much attention to ourselves, especially in our image-driven age of selfies and social media. Too much introspection can become narcissistic. But this doesn’t mean we should run in the opposite direction and ignore self-examination.
Christianity is unashamedly a religion of the heart: the entirety of our inner lives. And Scripture speaks of our innermost self. David declared to God in prayer, “Yet you desired faithfulness even in the womb; / you taught me wisdom in that secret place” (Ps 51:6). The apostle Paul rejoiced that even though our physical bodies slowly decay, “inwardly we are being renewed day by day” (2 Cor 4:16). Jesus expressed deep concern for our heart—the center of who we are (Mk 7:14-23). It’s from the heart that sin originates and it is from within that Christ begins our transformation. As Paul asked, “Do you not realize that Christ Jesus is in you?” (2 Cor 13:5).
The inward rhythm is not a call to discover ourselves in ourselves. There is not some true version of yourself buried deep within you that you have yet to unearth. Rather, “your life is now hidden with Christ in God” (Col 3:3).
The inward rhythm is about discovering ourselves in Christ by discovering him within ourselves. This may feel a bit like mental gymnastics, but it is the beautiful mystery of Christian inner life. This rhythm embraces practices to learn how to behold Jesus in our innermost being as we discover our hidden life in him.
Our Whole Selves
We cannot know ourselves apart from God.
God reveals his identity as the triune God so that we can know who we are. But have you thought about it the other way? We cannot know God apart from ourselves either. John Calvin grasped this point, explaining, “Without knowledge of self, there is no knowledge of God. Without knowledge of God there is no knowledge of self.”
If we know a lot about God but do not know him within the depths of who we are, God might only be an idea or abstraction. Yet if we focus exclusively on ourselves without looking to God to reveal who we are, we will inevitably settle for self-authorship and misguided stories. We will have a distorted view of ourselves. We need to know God in ourselves and know ourselves in God. A healthy approach to the inner life is neither obsessed with nor neglectful of ourselves.
There are three things we immediately learn about ourselves in light of the story of God: we were made in his image, we were declared very good, and shortly thereafter we fell into sin (see Gen 1–3). Any genuine self-examination must come to terms with the fact that we are not merely imperfect or broken. We are not just people who happen to sin. We are sinners. And our sin is never contained to just one part of our lives.
The inward journey is not merely embracing our good parts and ignoring our bad parts. Nor is it compulsively identifying our sin to the neglect of any good in us. Instead of embracing ourselves selectively, Christian self-acceptance embraces the whole picture of who we are.
God doesn’t shrink back from our failures and mistakes, our sins and transgressions. He always moves toward us, even the darkest parts of us, with love.
Grace allows us to muster the courage to stand before our true self-portrait, no matter how disturbing, ugly, broken, and sinful, and accept it as authentic.
Love is why Christ was crucified. Love paved the way to the cross, endured the cross, and brought life through the cross. We crucify our sin, but not with self-hatred. We crucify our sin with the love of Christ.
Self-acceptance isn’t the end goal. As we embrace our whole selves, Scripture invites us to identify our “old self” and “new self.” Some authors describe this as the “false self” and “true self,” or the “pretend self” and “actual self.” We bring our old self before Christ to experience grace, redemption, forgiveness, death, and resurrection, because accepting ourselves doesn’t mean excusing or justifying these old and sinful parts. We bring every part of ourselves to Jesus. And in this process, we receive the gift of our new self in Christ. We are becoming ourselves before God.
But this is also not about self-authorship. We do not become our new selves by picking and choosing which characteristics of ours we like best. Rather, we become who we are in Christ by fixing our attention and hearts on him.
There is something so beautiful about becoming ourselves in Christ. We’re already seen and known by him. And even if we don’t fully understand ourselves, Jesus does. As he walks with us, he calls who he sees and knows into existence.
The inward rhythm helps us focus on beholding Jesus in our innermost being. It’s a movement toward our identity in Christ, discerning and expressing our spiritual gifts, discerning and living in alignment with our values, and fulfilling our personal vocation. As you think about inward practices, ask yourself: Who am I in Christ? What disciplines and practices invite me to accept my whole self? When in my week am I able to slow down and dwell in Christ’s abiding presence? The practices of the inward rhythm are different approaches to accepting our whole selves as we become ourselves in Christ.
Alastair Sterne is the founding and lead pastor of St. Peter’s Fireside in Vancouver and serves as canon of church planting for the Anglican Network in Canada. He previously worked in communications and design. He is a graduate of Asbury Theological Seminary and is currently working on a doctorate in intercultural studies at Fuller Theological Seminary. He also serves on the board of Always Forward, the church planting initiative of the Anglican Church in North America. He lives in Vancouver with his wife and children.