Strive to enter through the narrow gate; for the gate is wide and the road broad that leads to destruction, and those who enter it are many. How narrow the gate and constricted the road that leads to life. And those who find it are few. Matthew 7:13-14
It’s been said that much of American Christianity today preaches the Gospel to the “false self”—the self that Jesus warned can’t fit through the narrow gate. So much of the message currently conveyed in Christian churches is geared at making us feel good about ourselves instead of challenging us to die to ourselves. Hence, our overblown cultural identification with what’s come to be called “Churchianity”—a feel-good system of punching Sunday attendance cards which demands no radical change of its adherents—has yielded a post-Christian culture that is anorexic in its moral fiber yet obese in its habits of pleasure-seeking, consumption and entertainment.
So what, exactly, is this “false self” that’s been fed to the point of implosion? It’s a term coined by Trappist monk Thomas Merton to describe the fallen, sinful self that operates in opposition to the power of the Holy Spirit—the egocentric self who is driven by pleasure, power, popularity, and possessions instead of by imitating Jesus Christ, the man of the beatitudes. This “self” is both sneaky and subtle, and it only comes to light in the burning glare of the Spirit’s hot fire, which both challenges and equips us to die to our fallen self and live as a new creation in Christ.
Merton described the false self eloquently in his book, New Seeds of Contemplation:
Every one of us is shadowed by illusory person: a false self. This is the man that I want myself to be but who cannot exist, because God does not know anything about him. And to be unknown of God is altogether too much privacy. My false and private self is the one who wants to exist outside the reach of God’s will and God’s love – outside of reality and outside of life… All sin starts from the assumption that my false self, the self that exists only in my own egocentric desires, is the fundamental reality of life to which everything else in the universe is ordered. Thus I use up my life in the desire for pleasures and thirst for experiences, for power, honor, knowledge and love, to clothe this false self and construct its nothingness into something objectively real. I wind experiences around myself and cover myself with pleasures and glory like bandages in order to make myself perceptible to myself and to the world. (New Seeds of Contemplation, 34-35)
St. Paul called the false self the “flesh”—the same self Jesus describes in the verses immediately preceding and following his teaching on the narrow gate (Mt. 5:21-Mt. 7:28). This is the self who postures proudly, lusts after people, power and things, and constantly sits right on the fence instead of taking a stand. This is the self that lives for public approval, fasts and prays to be noticed and places its hopes and heart in passing fancies and treasures. This is the self that must decrease that Christ may increase, must die that we may truly live— the self to whom at the end of the day Christ can only say: I did not know you.
As a culture, failing to move beyond the collective false self has placed us directly into the precarious political and social climate in which we now live—a climate that has spawned two representative presidential candidates who incarnate the false self with its accompanying “works”:
Now the works of the flesh are obvious: immorality, impurity, licentiousness, idolatry, sorcery, hatreds, rivalry, jealousy, outbursts of fury, acts of selfishness, dissensions, factions, occasions of envy, drinking bouts, orgies, and the like…let us not be conceited, provoking one another, envious of one another. Galatians 5:19-21, 26
In contrast, we are called to feed the “true self”—the self who sells out completely to Christ, the self who is empowered by the Holy Spirit, the self who produces the fruit of “love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control” (Galatians 5:22-23).
How do we find and fuel our true selves? St. Paul gives us the painful, but absolutely necessary, key. We “(crucify) our flesh with its passions and desires,” using our hard-fought freedom not to gratify the desires of the flesh, but to serve one another through love (Galatians 5:24,13). We trade countless hours of entertainment for committed hours of prayer, rampant materialistic consumption for frequent reception of Eucharist, and endless words of media-driven bantering for lavish meditation on the Word of God. In short, we feed our bodies and souls with Truth: Truth that alone can make us strong enough—and true enough—to enter the narrow gate (Luke 13:24).
This article was previously published at Aleteia.