“This above all - to thine own self be true...” William Shakespeare
The Bard was not wrong. Being true to oneself is indeed important, that we may live congruent lives. The question is, consistent with what? Being true to myself is to remain loyal to who I am. It’s an issue of allegiance to my own heart’s convictions and desires. As a believer, to what are we called to be true?
Let’s look at Jesus. The uncomfortable, off-putting and the often omitted truth about faith in Jesus, is that it’s not about us. And nowhere do we see this clearer than in Jesus himself, who being God made man, did not act on his own accord or preference. In his own words-
“Truly, truly, I say to you, the Son can do nothing of his own accord, but only what he sees the Father doing. (…) I can do nothing on my own. As I hear, I judge, and my judgment is just, because I seek not my own will but the will of him who sent me.” (John 5:19, 30. ESV) Jesus was true to the One who sent him. God’s will was above his own.
I love words. Since English is my second language, to study their usage helps me to grasp their deeper nuances. I like the word allegiance. It comes from the Old English word “liege.” It connotes loyal service to a superior. It is synonym with obedience. Hence, whatever has our allegiance or loyalty is what we obey.
Most of us genuinely desire to live lives that are aligned with what we hold at the core of our being. Usually, that is us. At my core is my preference, my will, my way. That is what sits there. And my natural inclination is to make it comfortable, to affirm it any way I can.
Not everything that sits at the core of who we are is bad per se. A mother’s love for her child prompting her to care for him when sick is good. But not everything that sits at the core of who we are and feels natural is good either. Think of any time last week when the last thing you felt like doing was to be kind to that person who got on your nerves or was rude to you. The reactions and preferences that spring naturally are very much true to our core, and not always aligned with the way we are called to live. Sin is at our core and thus prevents us from acting rightly even when we know we should.
Allegiance to the kingdom where our ultimate citizenship rests can be confusing amidst the noise of the world. For those of us who are disciples of Jesus, our chief concern is to remain faithful and steadfast to the Truth of the gospel. Said Truth, just as it includes to show compassion for others, and treat with dignity all image bearers (not just the ones we like or those who agree with us); it also includes a call to pick up one’s cross and follow a man of sorrows.
That is not an invitation that any of us want to accept with gladness.
In today’s complicated socio-political climate passions run deep over the causes where we place our loyalty. Race, a political party, gender, and even language are issues that determine where our obedience will take us. How are we to navigate what calls our loyalty to action?
Again, I think the answer is to look at Jesus. How did he live his life?
Reading the gospels is at once sobering, convicting, and encouraging. Jesus never affirmed anybody. Yet he also never denied their plight or personhood. He never questioned or denied when someone struggled. He always brought the Truth to light. A Truth which invariably pointed to the core of the person.
With the rich young ruler we see the young man leave sad because giving up his preference was costlier than he was willing to give. We see the woman caught in adultery leave his presence with her dignity and physical well-being protected, and the mandate to “go and sin no more”. It was a revolutionary behaviour, where the only thing affirmed time and again is the loving and just character of God, speaking in the same breath dignity and compassion while also lovingly confronting with a question or directive, what is wrong, and to turn from it.
So, what are we to do when we feel our allegiance called to action? I think the answer is profoundly simple. If Jesus being God made man, “did not count equality with God a thing to be grasped [and]…humbled himself by becoming obedient to the point of death, even death on a cross” (Philippians 2:6,8), why should we – his disciples, be any different?
There is an allegiance that supersedes all others, to which all other loyalties submit. Since what we are loyal to is also what we obey, submission, however dirty a word in our present day, is the very picture of our salvation. It was submission to the Father’s will that made the cross possible. Jesus’s natural inclination was not to die a horrible slow death. We know this from his agonizing prayer in Gethsemane . Submission made possible the gift that saved you and me.
Submission is a shift of obedience. We are loyal mainly to ourselves until we give our loyalty over to the Man of Sorrows. That is the beginning of dying to ourselves and truly living. And like any other death, it is painful. There is no natural inclination in us to do so.
What enabled Jesus in the flesh to willingly walk to Calvary? His utter dependence on the Father. Trusting that a good God would see him through the unspeakable nightmare that awaited him. It is an insane idea. But one that holds together the how and the why of instructing us in turn, to pick up your cross and follow him.
The choices that we make every day are in turn making us. While our politics, causes, and reactions may vary from one person and culture to another; they will speak of the allegiance to which all our loyalties succumb to, and where we put our trust – us or Jesus? The only way to remain true to Him above ourselves is to let Him do what you can’t; change your heart at the core.