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What Is True Self-False Self?

Only with a single-minded attention to Christ can we give up our fears and face our own true nature. As we come to realize that it is not we who live, but Christ who lives in us, that he is our true self, we can begin to experience freedom as children of God–Henri Nouwen

Every one of us is shadowed by an illusory person: a false self. This is the man I want myself to be but who cannot exist, because God does not know anything about him. And to be unknown to God is altogether too much privacy—Thomas Merton

I learned the terms “True Self” and “False Self” from reading Thomas Merton, James Finley, and Richard Rohr. These are words they use to clarify Jesus’ teaching of dying to self or “losing ourselves to find ourselves” (see Mark 8:35).

True Self

Merton’s understanding of True Self refers to our truest nature, who we really are, or that which we are meant to be. It is our basic and unchangeable identity in God, living fully and freely in the attributes of Divine Love. Your True Self is the self that is one with God, the self that God loves and wills into being at creation, the self that is the image and likeness of God. Merton sees that God’s love is the reality of who we really are, and apart from that love we are nothing. True Self then is an expression of our oneness with God’s love. Your True Self is Love….Christ living within you. When you live outside of the Infinite Love of God in Christ, you are not living from your truest Being, or your truest Self. We are being our truest self when we are being loving and thereby giving witness to our true God-given nature. And, oneness in love with God is our truest nature.

False Self

Merton’s sense of the False Self is that it is the unreal self, the self that is apart from God’s love. The manifestations of the False Self are the inverse of the manifestations of the True Self, such as attitudes of attachment, control, fear, and exploitation. It is all that isolates us from others and our True Self. The False Self, or what Rhor calls the “shadow self” or “separate self,” is disconnected from Divine Love and is simply a substitute for our deepest truth, that love is what God made you for and love is who you are, your true identity. Rohr says that if we do not let go of our False Self, we remain stuck, trapped, and addicted. Unfortunately, many people reach old age still entrenched in their egocentric False Self.

Merton rightly recognized in Mark 8:35 that it was not the body that had to “die” but the “False Self” that must die for the “True Self” to emerge. Every one of us is shadowed by an illusory person: a False Self. Our false and private self is the one who wants to exist outside the reach of God’s will and God’s love. Our false or shadow self is how we define ourselves outside of love and divine union.

 Reflections And Observations On True Self/False Self

It is by reflecting upon these True Self/False Self definitions that we come to see contemplative spirituality as the path along which we discover and learn to be our True Self. Or inversely, it is the path along which we learn to recognize and to die to identifying with our False Self.

And, by closely observing nature we see that everything around us is perfectly doing the will of God by being just what it is meant to be. Trees, flowers, animals, and insects are all being their truest selves, all doing God’s exact will.  Nature then serves as an invitation for us to join them in doing God’s will by being present, open, and awake to what it means to be our Truest Self in the midst of being a human in God’s world.

Only our True Self lives forever and is truly free in this world. It is only after we have lived into our True Self, we are able to say with the mystic Rumi (1207‒1273): “What have I ever lost by dying?” In dying to our False Self we discover the true freedom and liberation Jesus speaks of.


Posted on November 10, 2020
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Jim Baker

Jim is a Church Organizational Leadership and Management Coach, Consultant and Trainer. Throughout his career Jim has demonstrated a passion for showing Pastors and Ministers how to use organizational tools for church and personal growth and health.

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“For I may be absent in body, but I am with you in spirit, rejoicing to see how well ordered you are and the strength of your faith in Christ.” Colossians 2:5