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Written by Alexander W. G. Seidel

When we hear the word self, it evokes discomfort. This happens for a variety of reasons. As Christians, many of us have not learned much about the self, or more specifically, our own self. We also fear discussion of the self because we have confused a strong sense of self with selfishness, or egotism. More generally, many of us have had varying traumas in our early development that have compromised of confused our sense of self. None of this bodes well for us as we seek to understand our own needs and express the resulting boundaries in our relationships.

As we consider the self, we must consider how it develops. We are born in the Imago Dei or the image of God. Aside from genetic factors and the foundational wirings that God has built into us, we largely develop the self in relation to our early caregivers — hopefully, our parents. Think of what a baby does when she is hungry, angry, tired or has a full diaper. She screams, at times inconsolably. In the baby’s own primitive and vulnerable way, she is asking for needs to be met. To the extent that her parents respond with loving and necessary care is the extent to which she begins to develop a healthy sense of herself.

This continues on in more sophisticated levels as the child ages. She learns that she can have distress, express her needs and then get them met. She can feel the discomfort of being in her crib alone and learn to live with the discomfort of her parents not being in the room and then experience them coming back to offer care and comfort. Also, she can learn to see smiles and feel attitudes and reflect them back and react. I am oversimplifying the wondrously complex dynamics that are at play here. All of these interactions are part of forming the self. Put a bit more simply, it is in relation to other selves that we will gain our own sense of self.

Problems arise in these early interactions of attachment. All parents struggle with selfishness, impatience, weariness and frustration even in the midst of the common parts of our lives. Some families experience separation through death or divorce, vastly affecting attachments. Yet others experience drug abuse. Others have parents that abuse their children, horrifically defining parts of the self for years to come.

What occurs when children, early in their development, have anxious, addicted or abusive “selves” to rely on as they strive to develop their own selves? On one level, these children learn how to relate in the maladaptive ways of their immediate caregivers. On another, since they have no strong “selves” to glean from and interact with for needs to be met, they turn inward. They have a framework upon which to build their character, but no character to complete their own entire picture of self. So then, they grasp for outward solutions to find their sense of self. For lack of effective attachment and healthy early care and interactions, they seek identity in externals: status; a compulsion to appear perfect in the eyes of others; grandiosity; strong defensiveness when criticized; and striking out at others that don’t tow their line of perfection, among other traits.

You may recognize these as traits of a narcissist. From the mild to the extreme, we’ve all had our self-identities compromised. In a sense, we are all, on some level, narcissists. Think of this as the nature of original sin. Mankind refused to interact in pure fellowship with God to have intimate needs for significance met. As a result, they sought the grandiose scheme of knowing what only God could know. Then they hid, blamed and defended their sin. We as a result, while having been created in the Imago Dei, have compromised ourselves by getting our needs for significance met in all manner of harmful ways. And some that appear to be good but that we misuse, like becoming pastors or missionaries.

How does this apply to church leaders or missionaries? To answer this, it might be fruitful to consider some basic questions:

Why did you choose ministry as a vocation?

What makes your heart leap in your ministry? Attention? Status? Power?

To what extent are you using your ministry involvement as an external means of garnering significance for yourself?

How is your family system with all its sin-tainted interaction informing your motivation for ministry?

Have you explored your past trauma or separation and the resulting shame, anger or guilt?

How are you hiding from these very messy emotions?

How are you using ministry to build yourself rather than honest with yourself?

Are you feeling defensive about the above question?

We pray that you would spend some quality time with these questions. We also pray that you are doing your ministry with authenticity and pure motivations, not as a means to hide and avoid the lack of a healthy self-identity resulting from the hard stories of your life. Please know that you have grace and God desires that you become your true self and thus more fully human. We’d love to support you on your journey , even if you’re in the midst of the muck of crisis. Drop us a line. We’ll love and listen.

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