Shaping the True Self

Every one of us is born with all the potential we need to become a happy, mature person. We all
begin with the makings of an effective personality. We have what is necessary to learn to deal
effectively with the situations of our everyday life. The makings are there, but the need to be
developed. They form a kind of image of the true person we are meant to become.
This image of our true self contains all the outlines of the very best that we can be. In fact, it
reflects the very qualities of God: love, knowledge, creativity, wisdom, strength, goodness,
kindness. From our beginning these qualities of God are like seeds in us. This is what it means
to be made in the image of God (Gn 1:27). We are born with an inner capacity and disposition to
become more like God. These inner tendencies are something like genes in our body. At
conception there are already patterns present which determine how we will grow and what we
will look like. — the color of our eyes, the pigment of our skin,our sex, and so on. Our genes
orient our development in a certain direction. So it is with the true image of ourselves as a
person. God created us in this image, and it forms the foundation and orientation toward the
best we can possibly become. It is an image which points to the development of our personality
in a particular direction.

Even though we are created with tendencies toward a perfect personality, we have no virtues
when we are born. They are developed as we grow. I remember as a child being inspired by the
pictures of lush vegetables and colorful flowers in garden magazines. My parents encouraged
me to plant seeds and watch the plants develop. Only then did I realize that a person must
prepare the ground, cultivate the plants, fight insects, water when it doesn’t rain, and see the
vegetables and flowers only later. Virtues are like this: they do not come to us already develop,
and they do not grow by themselves. But what a thrill it is to help them grow and finally come to

Becoming our true self is a wonderful adventure of growth. Growth means developing in
ourselves something new or something better. There is a deep joy in the experience of growth,
especially when the growth makes us more the person we are really meant to be. Because we
have at the core of our being the basis for becoming a congenial and happy person, we
experience joy growing into the potential God has placed within us.

In the virtues of Jesus we have a portrait of what the true self looks like in real life. Jesus had an
impressive and influential presence because of his inner qualities. Wherever he was, his
presence made a difference. Those same virtues are precisely what makes our presence
significant for others and gives us our sense of worth. Jesus shows up in himself the qualities of
God; he is for us the “image of the invisible God and the firstborn of all creation” (col 1:15).


Being “firstborn” means Jesus is the pattern of our own development into full maturity in
complete inner freedom and self-worth.

Growing in the virtues of Jesus in not a burdensome chore. Striving to take on these virtues
does not simply lay another expectation on us. When we grow in the image of true self, we feel
a newness in our lives. Perhaps this is why Saint Paul speaks of the change which takes place
as putting on a new self: “Put on the new self, created in God’s way of righteousness and
holiness of truth” (Eph 4:24). In taking on these virtues, we simply collaborate with the
tendencies of the image in which we were made and with the grace of God already at work in
us. Growing in the virtues of Jesus is not just an imitation of his good qualities; it is a personal
union with Christ. In this union our small efforts and his boundless grace work together to
fashion our new self. This is why growing in the virtues of Jesus gives us such inner peace and
new energy.

Our endeavor, then, it is to take on the virtues and attitudes of Jesus which build up our true
self: a vibrant, engaging personality filled with a sense of self-worth. As you go through this
study, you will recognize more and more the characteristics of a person shaped in the image of
God, the image in which all of us are made. Taking on the virtues of Jesus and leaving your ego
behind in the sand, you will sense that you are building on rock, precisely because you are
growing is union with Christ.


Once visiting a parish in a barrio in Bogatá, I noticed one house on the street near our parish
which stood out from the others. It was small and simple like the rest, but not shabby or dirty. It
was freshly painted and attractively clean. I remarked to the pastor, “That family seems to be
better off than the rest.” He said, “That house used to look like all the others, and there was
strife and unhappiness in the family. The husband did not practice his faith; he spend his
weekends in the tavern. But somehow, by the grace of God, he started to attend prayer
meetings, and Christ came into his life. He began to change his habits. Now instead of drinking
up his earnings on weekends, he uses the money to fix up the house. His kids help him, and his
wife keeps things clean. They spend lots of time together now, and are one of the happiest
families in the parish.”
The new virtues of his true self allowed Christ to give him new life — abundantly.


Themes for Prayer and Meditation

  • 1. Reflect on what Jesus has come to bring to you through living the virtues.
    ✝ “I came so that they might have life and have in more abundantly” (Jn 10:10).
    ✝ “Peace I leave with you, my peace I give to you. Not as the world gives do I give
    it to you. Do not let your hearts be troubled or afraid” (Jn 14:27).
    ✝ “Until Now you have not asked anything in my name; ask and you will receive, so
    that your joy may be complete” (Jn 16:24)


  • 2. Saint Paul presents in bold outlines the process of growth into the new self.
    ✝ “Be renewed in the spirit of your minds, and put on the new self, created in God’s
    way in righteousness and holiness of truth” (Eph 4:23-24).
    ✝ “[You] have put on the new self, which is being renewed, for knowledge, in the
    image of it’s creator… Put on then, as God’s chosen ones, holy and beloved,
    heartfelt compassion, kindness, humility, gentleness, and patiences, bearing with
    one another and forgiving one another” (Col 3:10, 12-13).
    ✝ “Until Now you have not asked anything in my name; ask and you will receive, so
    that your joy may be complete” (Jn 16:24)


  • 3. Jesus wants us to enjoy being the very best person we can be. This is why he tells us to
    aim for the best that is in us, to reflect in our own personalities the very qualities of God.
    ✝ “So be perfect, just as your heavenly Father is perfect” (Mt 5:48). (Be careful not
    to misunderstand this beautiful urging! He is telling us to “be” perfect, but not a
    “perfectionist.” There is a difference. One is grounded in the will of God, the other
    in self will.)


Questions for Group Sharing

1. What particular attitude or virtue of Jesus would you like to acquire?
2. Have you ever noticed the awareness of God’s love for you changing you in some way?
Describe the experience.
3. Describe some experience of yourself that was a change from acting out of your ego
(false self) to acting more of the self you really want to be (true self).



Contending with Our Ego Self

When we try to live out of our true self by the virtues of Jesus, we find there is already a false
self established and operating. We call it our ego. It is a different image of who we are, and it
has its own demands and needs. It works against the true self because the two are basically
opposed in the values around which they build our self-worth and the meaning of our lives.
Fundamentally, our ego or “false self” is the result of our fallen nature, while our “true self” is a
result of God infusing our soul with supernatural grace to help heal the wound in our self caused
by the fall. In essence God helps us to return our “true self” to the way it was created to be.
“Ego” is often used here to mean a deep-seated feeling in me that somehow I am the
mainspring of my own worth. I am somebody to the degree that I cause something good, that I
originate the idea, that I possess certain qualities. My ego builds up its false feeling of self-worth
by being in some way the originator or the contributor to things that matter, or by appropriating
to itself credit or merit which it really does not have. When we live out of ego, we feel worthwhile
only to the degree that we can attribute ourselves — or get others to attribute to us — come
achievement, merit or credit. But this gets us in deep trouble, for we fashion a life goal which is
simply not achievable. Our ego is a self-image built around its own claims. It has no possibility
of ever being fulfilled because it does not reflect reality. Yet our ego easily becomes the guide of
our life.

We do not like to deal with people with a big ego. The ego not only gets in the way of living the
truth, but it is unpleasant and burdensome. Someone who spoke with Mother Teresa of Calcutta
told me she was the most attractive person he had ever met. I asked him what made her so
attractive. After a moment he said, “She is a woman without an ego.” She has a fascinating
presence because she does not act out of her ego; her behavior is rooted in another, truer self.
Mother Teresa is a person who has put aside her ego in collaboration with Christ to bring about
to its fullest her true self, made in the image of God.

It is burdensome to maintain our own ego (and others certainly are not inclined to maintain it for
us). We must continually feed our ego to keep it satisfied. Unconsciously we put subtle
demands on others to build us up. For example, if I see myself as a good parent, my ego
expects my children to act in a way to affirm that image. If I see myself as a good teacher, my
ego expects my students to perform in a way that proves it. If I see myself as a good business
manager, my ego expects those under me to work in a way that I think good managers inspire.
My ego never gives in. You can see the kind of world my self-created ego tends to foster. It is
doomed to failure because it has no foundation in reality except its own needs.
Unfortunately, we all have built an ego and to some degree have identified our self with it. We
tend to experience our ego as who we really are. Mistakenly we formed a sense of who we are
that is often centered in a self-made image rather than the image in which we were created. (cf.

Gn 1:27). Saint John tells us that if we do not build our life in God and develop our true self, we
naturally turn to the “world” as our reference. By “world” we do not mean the created world in all
its beauty and goodness as God intended it. We mean rather that collectivity of
self-centeredness which leads us to attribute to ourselves merit or qualities which belong to
others. The “world” in this sense opposes whatever cannot serve its own purpose or affirm its
worth. It formulates its own values and builds itself up on them — pleasure, possessions, fame,
power. (cf. 1 Jn 2:15).

Our ego begins to form very early in our existence. We are not aware of what is happening in
those first months or early years, but we are already building an “image” of who we are and
what makes us worthwhile. Without being able to put into concepts, we sense when others are
happy with us or irritated with us. We have a diffused experience of when others are proud or
ashamed of us. We have a subconscious intuition of when we are secure and when we are
threatened. All of this contributes to to an image by which we live and measure our self-worth.
After all, we all want to be accepted and feel worthwhile.

If we are fortunate enough to have parents who bring us to life and care for us in an atmosphere
of love, our true self grows more than our ego. But even the best parents cannot meet our every
need, nor can they keep us from contact with the “world,” which has its own appeal. So as we
grow up we make choices about ourselves, often based simply on makes us feel good or
satisfies the cries of our wounded nature. We are not aware that we are building either our true
self or our ego by what we choose. As we begin to notice the society around us, we broaden the
image of self-worth by drawing on the culture we live in. We are “somebody” if we have what
others do not have, if we achieve more than they do, if we are better than others in some way.
Winning in almost anything builds our ego up, while losing tears us down. Much depends on
what brings us more attention and more affirmation — achieving or being weak, staying healthy
or getting sick, being kind or getting angry, and so on. We gradually build up an experience of
who we are around those kinds of values. And they form the self-image out of which we relate to
others and even to ourselves. Along with this image, we develop a number of habits to acquire
and sustain the ever increasing appetite of our ego.

Our ego makes deceptive demands which often keep us from feeling and acting the way our
true self wants to feel and act. The demands of our ego can make themselves felt even we are
trying to develop the virtues of our true self. Because our ego, we get upset when we do not
want to. We say things we regret, we feel resentful toward people we like. At times we feel
dissatisfied without knowing why, or we feel bored when we seem to have everything we could
want. Something keeps us from that peace of heart and inner freedom, from contentment which
seemingly should be readily obtainable. Regardless of our good resolutions and sincere efforts,
we cannot seem to get beyond a certain feeling of disappointment in trying to be who we really
want to be.

The ego also gets in the way of our relationship with others. A lady once told me she was
seeking a good spiritual director but could not find one. I asked her, “What about Father X?” She
looked at me in surprise. “Have you ever been in his office?” “No I haven’t.” “Well, go in there

some time and you will understand. He has pictures of himself all over the wall, along with every
certification or award he has ever received. I don’t want to talk with an ego. I need a person for
a spiritual director.”

Our ego is largely unconscious; we are generally unaware of what it demands and how it is
influencing us. This is why we have to become aware of it to put it aside. As Saint Paul says,
“You should put away the old self of your former way of life… and put on the new self, created in
God’s way” (Eph 4:22, 24). The two efforts go together. We cannot put on the new without
putting off the old; and we cannot put aside our ego without building up our true self in the
virtues of Jesus.

As the habits of our ego diminish, the virtues of our true self can become strong. And this makes
all the difference. The secretary of the president of a prestigious institution was singing the
praises of the new president who had recently taken office. I asked her what made him so great.
She said, “I don’t have to go through his ego to get to the real issues.” Like all of us, she wanted
to deal with a “real” person.


How difficult is it to learn to recognize when we are acting out of our ego and when it is
our true self?

A religious sister was participating in a Family Renewal conference. One day toward noon she
met a little four-year-old girl bouncing out of a session which had just finished. To make
conversation, the sister greeted her and asked, “and what did you do this morning?”

“Oh we learned about the old self and the new self.”

The sister was astounded by this vocabulary from Saint Paul, so she asked, “So what did you
learn about the old self and the new self?”

“Well, when I’m selfish, that’s my old self. And when I love others, that’s my new self.” And she
skipped off singing.

Out of the mouths of babes…


Themes for Prayer and Meditation

  • 1. Reflect on what prevents you from having the peace of heart and inner freedom to find
    joy in all aspects of your daily life. Is it something you are seeking? Or perhaps
    something you are refusing to give up?
    ✝ “For whoever wishes to save [their] life will lose it, but whoever loses [their] life for
    my sake will find it” (Mt 16:25).
    ✝ “All nations of the world seel these things, and your Father knows you need
    them. Instead, seek first [God’s] kingdom, and these other things will be given to
    you besides” (Lk 12:30-31).
  • 2. The following description will probably sound familiar, like your own ego at work. See
    what reactions it stirs up in you.
    ✝ “I cannot understand my own behavior. I fail to carry out the things I want to do,
    and find myself doing the very things I hate… For though the will to do what is
    good is in me, the performance is not, with the result that instead of doing the
    good things I want to do, I carry out sinful things I do not want” (Rm 7:15-18).
  • 3. Try to catch the meaning of what Jesus means by the “self” which he says we must
    deny. In this study we equate that self with our ego.
    ✝ “Then Jesus said to his disciples, ‘Whoever wishes to come after me must deny
    [themselves], take up [their] cross, and follow me” (Mt 16:24).


Questions for Group Sharing

1. Think of something you find very hard to do — for example, admit a mistake, apologize,
keep from boasting about an achievement, confess your sins, etc. What do you think
your ego is resisting that makes it hard to do?
2. What are some ways you spontaneously react when your ego does not get what it
wants? (For example, anger, criticism, brooding, self-pity, blame, excuses…)
3. Describe something of the “self” which you think Jesus is asking you to leave behind
(deny) in order to grow in your true self.

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