The Gift of Being Yourself
This is a book about the spirituality of originality and authenticity – how our calling from God starts with who we are in our uniqueness. It is, therefore, the book in which I discuss work quite extensively with the concepts of the true and false self – or, as I prefer to put it – living our truth versus being caught up in the cul-de-sacs of our various false, even if adaptive, ways of being. It is a call to discover and actualize our true-self-in-Christ. Nothing is more important. For, as Thomas Merton reminds us, “There is only one problem on which all my existence, my peace, and my happiness depend: to discover myself in discovering God. If I find Him I will find myself and if I find my true self I will find Him.”
Identity and Authenticity
It is a profound irony to write a book promoting self-discovery to people who are seeking to follow a self-sacrificing Christ. It might well make you fear that I have forgotten—or worse, failed to take seriously—Jesus’ paradoxical teaching that it is in losing our self that we truly find it (Matthew 10:39). As you read on I think you will see that I have done neither.
While concepts such as self-discovery, identity and authenticity are easily dismissed as mere psychobabble, each has an important role to play in the transformational journey of Christian spirituality. Even in the Matthew passage just referenced, Jesus talks as much about self-discovery as self-sacrifice! But there is no question that the journey of finding our truly authentic self in Christ and rooting our identity in this reality is dramatically different from the agenda of self-fulfillment promoted by pop psychology.
The absurdity of a pop psychology approach to the self is epitomized in a cartoon I recently saw. Addressing a stranger at a party, a woman says, “I don’t know anybody here but the hostess—and, of course, in a much deeper sense, myself.” Quite obviously, there are many profoundly non-Christian and often quite ridiculous ways of pursuing self-discovery and authenticity!
Still, Christian spirituality has a great deal to do with the self, not just with God. The goal of the spiritual journey is the transformation of self. As we shall see, this requires knowing both our self and God. Both are necessary if we are to discover our true identity as those who are “in Christ” (2 Corinthians 5:17), because the self is where we meet God. Both are also necessary if we are to live out the uniqueness of our vocation.
In all of creation, identity is a challenge only for humans. A tulip knows exactly what it is. It is never tempted by false ways of being. Nor does it face complicated decisions in the process of becoming. So it is with dogs, rocks, trees, stars, amoebas, electrons and all other things. All give glory to God by being exactly what they are. For in being what God means them to be, they are obeying him. Humans, however, encounter a more challenging existence. We think. We consider options. We decide. We act. We doubt. Simple being is tremendously difficult to achieve and fully authentic being is extremely rare.
Body and soul contain thousands of possibilities out of which you can build many identities. But in only one of these will you find your true self that has been hidden in Christ from all eternity. Only in one will you discover your unique vocation and deepest fulfillment. But, as Dag Hammarskjöld argues, you will never find this “until you have excluded all those superficial and fleeting possibilities of being and doing with which you toy out of curiosity or wonder or greed, and which hinder you from casting anchor in the experience of the mystery of life, and the consciousness of the talent entrusted to you which is your I.”
We all live searching for that one possible way of being that carries with it the gift of authenticity. We are most conscious of this search for identity during adolescence, when it takes front stage. At this stage of life we try on identities like clothing, looking for a style of being that fits with how we want to be seen. But even long after adolescence has passed, most adults know the occasional feeling of being a fraud—a sense of being not what they pretend to be but rather precisely what they pretend not to be. With a little reflection, most of us can become aware of masks that we first adopted as strategies to avoid feelings of vulnerability but that have become parts of our social self. Tragically, we settle easily for pretense, and a truly authentic self often seems illusory.
There is, however, a way of being for each of us that is as natural and deeply congruent as the life of the tulip. Beneath the roles and masks lies a possibility of a self that is as unique as a snowflake. It is an originality that has existed since God first loved us into existence. Our true self-in-Christ is the only self that will support authenticity. It and it alone provides an identity that is eternal.
Finding that unique self is, as noted by Thomas Merton, the problem on which all our existence, peace and happiness depend. Nothing is more important, for if we find our true self we find God, and if we find God, we find our most authentic self.
Becoming Your True Self
Being yourself would not make any spiritual sense if your uniqueness were not of immense value to God. But each person is exactly that—of inestimable value to God.
We should never be tempted to think that growth in Christ-likeness reduces our uniqueness. While some Christian visions of the spiritual life imply that as we become more like Christ we look more and more like each other, such a cultic expectation of loss of individuality has nothing in common with genuine Christian spirituality. Paradoxically, as we become more and more like Christ we become more uniquely our own true self.
As we shall see in what follows, there are many false ways of achieving uniqueness. These all result from attempts to create a self rather than receive the gift of my self-in-Christ. But the uniqueness that comes from being our true self is not a uniqueness of our own making. Identity is never simply a creation. It is always a discovery. True identity is always a gift of God.
The desire for uniqueness is a spiritual desire. So too is the longing to be authentic. These are not simply psychological longings, irrelevant to the spiritual journey. Both are the response of spirit to Spirit—the Holy Spirit calling us home to our place and identity in God.
Being most deeply your unique self is something that God desires, because your true self is grounded in Christ. God created you in uniqueness and seeks to restore you to that uniqueness in Christ. Finding and living out your true self is fulfilling your destiny.
This book is about the transformational journey of becoming our true self-in-Christ and living out the vocation that this involves. After the case for the interdependence of knowing God and self is laid out in chapter one, the book is organized around three broad needs faced by all Christians who seek to put themselves at God’s disposal:
1. The need for a transformational knowing of God that comes from meeting God in the depths of our beings. This is the focus of chapter two.
2. The need for a transformational knowing of ourselves that comes from discovering how we are known by God. This is the focus of chapters three, four and five.
3. The need to find our identity, fulfillment and vocation in our hidden self in Christ—the focus of chapter six.
The transformational journey is not as linear as this implies, so actually the discussion will weave back and forth among these topics. Furthermore, the dimensions of the journey are interrelated. As we shall see, true knowing of our self demands that we know our self as known by God, and true knowing of God demands that we know God not just as an abstraction or as objective data but in and through our lived experience.
I pray that what follows will help you discover the uniqueness of who you were called from eternity to be. I trust that it will help you know both yourself and God more deeply, and thus discover the gift of truly being yourself.
“Perhaps the best book on Christian identity I’ve read and the best book I’ve read this year. Benner drives home the profound yet paradoxically simple nature of our relationship to self and others through our relationship with the Divine. In The Gift of Being Yourself, Benner outlines practical ways to improve your relationship with the Divine and through relationship with the Divine begin to understand our true self and calling.”
~ A Customer (Amazon.com)
“The Gift of Being Yourself is an exceptional investigation of the subject of self-identity. Benner masterfully bridges the Biblical paradox of death-to-self and self-discovery. The small investment of time you spend reading the book may provide just what you’ve needed to begin the journey of self-discovery through an encounter with God.”
~ Todd Hudnall (Amazon.com)
A copy of this book literally fell of a library shelf a year or so ago and ever since then I’ve been such a fan that I’ve recommended it to nearly everyone I know. We are currently using the book in an adult study to rave reviews. I recommend this book to anyone who wants to go deeper, not in their knowledge about God, but in their knowing of God.
~ R. McCracken-Bennett (Amazon.com)
“While this book is relatively thin, don’t let the size deceive you! You will want to read this one several times (with a journal in hand). Written by a Christian psychologist it goes deeper than the first glance. Highly recommended.”
~ R. Dale Labrum (Amazon.com)
“I found Benner to be a man of spiritual depth who has walked with God long enough to grasp more deeply than most the level of acceptance and grace He offers. It’s an easy read but full of challenging thoughts and personal exercises to deepen one’s own experience of God’s unchanging grace.”
~ Richard W. Reaves (Amazon.com)
“This is a short book, but it needs to be read slowly to digest all the points Benner makes about going on this inner journey. He talks about the contemplative life the Desert Fathers might have sought after, but puts it in modern terms. Daydreaming on a gospel story, reflecting on your day to find where God was, embracing all of who we are because God does are all salient points and exercises that lead one to accepting the gift of being yourself. The book goes against our present church culture of producing for God and reminds us that God already loves us and wants us to slow down and spend time with Him.”
~ Jennifer Butz (Amazon.com)
“It is so good to find this gem of a book. I highly recommend it.”
~ David I. Donovan, S.J.
“Wise, compassionate and accessible, David Benner’s The Gift of Being Yourself is truly a gift to the dedicated seeker.”
~ Margaret Guenther
“It is a rare book that combines wisdom about faith and understanding about the self. This is that kind of book.”
~ John Ortberg
“Like his others, this book is powerful because it comes out of deep personal experience which the good doctor courageously shares with his readers. It is also a very challenging book. If we listen to it fully and seek to implement it in our lives, it will lead to transformation through the death of our false self. David’s book has just begun to do its work within me. I shall spend many more hours with it.”
~ Dom M. Basil Pennington, OCSO
“David Benner’s The Gift of Being Yourself is the best treatment of the journey to becoming one’s true self that I have ever read.”
~ Gary W. Moon
“[Benner] offers a clear and practical outline for those seeking to begin the lifelong process of knowing God and knowing themselves in an authentic way.”
~ Publishers Weekly