The idea of “finding oneself” has come up a lot in my life recently. For the last 6 months, I have spent a great deal of my time trying to escape myself. Why? I try to escape myself because my “self” (hereby referred to as “flesh”) is depraved and desolate and desperate for a Savior. My flesh is not a thing to be sought. Self-actualization is a tricky concept that entangles itself in Scriptural commands. What self are we trying to actualize? The flesh? Or the Spirit?
“For those who live according to the flesh set their minds on the things of the flesh, but those who live according to the Spirit set their minds on the things of the Spirit. For to set the mind on the flesh is death, but to set the mind on the Spirit is life and peace. For the mind that is set on the flesh is hostile to God, for it does not submit to God’s law; indeed, it cannot. Those who are in the flesh cannot please God.” (Romans 8:5-8, ESV)
It is clear by these verses that seeking to self-actualize in a worldly sense is unbiblical. When we seek this feeling of achievement from our flesh, we are being hostile towards God. We seek “autonomy.” But, autonomy is a severely unbiblical concept that we affirm, at least insofar as we understand it. I have long struggled with this idea, as a guy who has always valued independence and autonomy to the point of pretension. If you’re like me, then you probably don’t even realize that autonomy is flesh-feeding. If that’s the case, these verses should stop you dead in your tracks. When we value our self-actualization and self-dependency so highly as to seek it with every fiber of our being, we have already set our minds on the flesh. However, Paul issues this encouragement to the reader immediately after:
“You, however, are not in the flesh but in the Spirit, if in fact the Spirit of God dwells in you.” (Romans 8:9a, ESV)
Paul assures us that, if we have the Spirit of God within us, we are not in the flesh. Does this mean that we will constantly have our eyes set on the Spirit? Of course not. We still battle our flesh, but as F.B. Meyer puts it:
“As the living bird, obeying the laws of flight, is superior to the down-pull of gravitation, so where the life of Jesus is wrought and sustained in the heart by the incessant communications of the Holy Spirit, victory is given us over the perpetual down-pull of sin.” (F.B. Meyer’s commentary on Romans 8:1-9)
Just like the laws of flight allow a bird to resist gravity, the Spirit of God allows us to resist sin. He dwells within us and generates the upward pull. But, just like a baby bird may be too naive as to know how to use its abilities of flight, we are often too naive to know how to use the Spirit. That’s because we still assume the Spirit is something to be “used.” But, He’s not. He is the indwelling Spirit of God. We don’t use Him: that’s autonomy. That’s grievous to Him. We allow ourselves to be used by Him. We lose ourselves in Him so that we are not ourselves anymore.
“But that is not the way you learned Christ!— assuming that you have heard about him and were taught in him, as the truth is in Jesus, to put off your old self, which belongs to your former manner of life and is corrupt through deceitful desires, and to be renewed in the spirit of your minds, and to put on the new self, created after the likeness of God in true righteousness and holiness.” (Ephesians 4:20-24, ESV)
Our old self is the flesh. It is the autonomous being that lives within us and places its desires in our minds to be chased after. The irony is that it’s not even autonomy. We are being drawn into our flesh by a primal desire that we actually are not controlling. Self-actualization is not autonomy. It is physionomy, “being controlled by nature.” We crave self-actualization because it is so natural that we think it’s right. But, the fact that it is natural is the very reason it is not autonomy. So, we must put off our old self. We must lay aside physionomy. For what, though? If this feeling of self-actualization isn’t actually autonomy, what is?
The answer lies in the new self. Paul says that the new self is created after the likeness of God. Then, what is the new self? The answer is just as obvious as you might think: the Spirit. The new self — the true self — is the self that is so entangled with the Spirit of God, that it can’t help but reflect His nature and character. So, then, the key to actual autonomy and proper self-actualization is autotheonomy, “self being controlled by God.” We must reside in the Spirit and be under His control to experience real freedom, real autonomy, real self-actualization. By being under His control, we are resisting nature, that which has a compelling grasp on our self. That which is actually far easier to do than we might allow ourselves to think. It is only when we submit to God’s control that we are resisting the nature and, in a sense, reclaiming our self.
However, the main point is that true autonomy is not reclaiming ourself, but allowing our self to be claimed by Someone else. Autonomy is defined as “free from external control or influence.” So, truly, autonomy is non-existent. We are all slaves to either sin or righteousness. To the flesh or to the Spirit. But, the tragic part about being a slave to sin is that it is a delusion of autonomy. We don’t realize that, when we think we are free, we are actually the slaves of a bastardly master. I continually thrive for freedom, no longer in autonomy, in self, in flesh, but in autotheonomy, in Spirit, in God. I seek to submit to the Spirit and allow Him to claim my life so that I may be under His wing and experience the joy of being in Him. In order to truly find ourself, we must lose ourself. But, we aren’t even finding ourself… We are coming to God so that He may give us our true self, after we have lost our old self.