The Culture vs. The True Self

Mar 07, 2011

If our goal is to become whole, integrated people, “perfected” in the sense of the New Testament Greek word teleo[finish, complete, fulfill, to be completed, fulfilled, perfected, ended][1], if we want to fulfill our created purpose, then the major task of our lives is to separate ourselves out from the culture in which we were raised. By the time we become adults we have been so acculturated that we don’t know where we end and the culture begins. That process means that we are attached to the culture’s goals, the culture’s methods, and the culture’s way of thinking.

If we want to live the Life of the Spirit, our task is to disengage from the cultural norms and attach ourselves to God and the vision of the person God created us to be.  In Biblical terms we cannot “serve two masters. Either you will hate the one and love the other, or you will be devoted to the one and despise the other.”[2]

Until we attach ourselves to God and God’s image of us, we are at war within ourselves.  The true self(soul) is trying to gain a foothold in a person whose devotion is to the cultural norms. If the cultural side wins, then there is a denigration of the true self. If the true self wins out, then we can relax into the vision God holds for us.

The church can also be a part of the culture that holds our true selves at bay. If the whole story about God is not told, as I experienced in a hell-fire-and-damnation church which never talked about God’s love, then who a person in that culture can become is limited, and who God can be to that person is limited.

I first became aware of the grip the culture has on how I think when I saw Marilyn Monroe in “Some Like it Hot!” on television in the 1990’s, long after I had seen it on the big screen.  MM was the epitome of what a woman should be when I was growing up—beautiful and curvy. On that TV screen my first reaction to her was this: “She’s fat!” In the 30 odd years since the film was released, the advertising and television industries had, oh so subtly, changed my thinking about how a sexy woman should look from a size 14(Marilyn) to a size 2 today.  How could this sea change in my thinking have happened without my awareness?

How else have I struggled against the cultural norms? My natural style is to meander towards goals, to do a little bit of work here, a little there and eventually I get to the goal I’ve set. The cultural directive is direct and logical.  You set a goal and you follow a logical sequence to achieve that goal. It has taken a long time for me to allow and to value my own way of approaching goals.

I have had to fight against an either/or mentality. For years I struggled with the question of whether Jesus was a man or God. An amazing amount of energy went into that interior dispute. Now I can hold seemingly paradoxical positions as true.

Impatience is another cultural norm I’ve struggled against. In America we want something and we want it now. God, on the other hand, seems oblivious to our needs for instant gratification. I have worked hard to practice patience in all things; I have come to believe that there is a right timing to everything. If I try to speed up the process, then I am frustrated. I have not changed the timing one iota, but I have expended a lot of energy in anxiety and frustration unnecessarily.

I have struggled against the need to be busy, to justify my existence by doing or having an identity that easily classifies who I am. I was a stay-at-home mother and school/church volunteer for years and felt that I was lacking—I should have had a profession, made a lot of money, done something important—all cultural goals.

I value all things religious and spiritual. I am a deeply religious woman. I can’t name one cultural value that supports what I value so much. I think our culture values doing “good,” but not the beliefs and practices of a religious person. It’s alright to be spiritual as long as it’s not serious. And we Americans are such staunch individualists, how could anyone possibly consider surrendering their life to God? Even commitments today are not considered forever. Marriages last  through a few challenges, but couples no longer believe in “until death do us part.”

I have had to disengage from the materialism so rampant in our culture and to opt for simplicity. This is not an easy choice when every newspaper, magazine and TV advertising is trying to get you to spend more and more, always putting the value on what is new that will replace what may still be functional. For me this has been a harder task, because I thought for a long time that if I just had the right clothes, the right house, decorated in the right way, then I would feel better about myself. Of course this was a false belief, but it took a long time to disengage from it.

Today my life focuses on my work: writing, spiritual direction and leading retreats and small groups, my family which includes four grandsons, and a few friends. I am content with what is in my life and don’t miss what is not. My choices reflect my stage of life and only the things that are important to me.

I am sure there are more cultural influences to purge along with other stuff for God to transform, but that is my path: to identify the things that get in the way of being true to my God and lift them up to God for healing.



[1] Edward W. Goodrick & John R. Kohlenberger III, Zondervan NIV Exhaustive Concordance, Grand Rapids MI, 1999, p. 5399

[2] Matthew 6:24 NIV

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