William James and the Four Selves
In Principles of Psychology, William James outlines four aspects of the self:
- The material Self; (this is constituted by your physical body, clothes, property, and family)
- The social Self; (this your perception of the recognition you get from your fellows)
- The spiritual Self; (our estimation of ourselves as active players in reality)
- The pure Ego. (over all sense of I-ness)
I’m interested in the first three.
We usually put tremendous effort into maintaining our material and social selves. Some maintain the body by seeking to perfect it and others through giving it as much pleasure as they can without killing it, but it is maintained. We do the same w/property, clothes, etc.
The social selves are selves we put a great deal of effort into maintaining. We won’t tell the truth to keep from being criticized, we don’t do what we perceive to be right, we’ll buy things we cannot afford, and so-on to maintain our various social selves.
And for both of these selves we use, rightly, a mirror. The mirror tells us of what’s wrong wrong, how to hide it, or how to fix it. Some of us avoid mirrors because we either fear the effort it would take to change and some of us obsess over the mirror to cover up what’s wrong so we don’t have to change. But all of that is to say that we use the mirror to clean our various selves.
Hiding from the Spiritual Self
But what of our spiritual self? The Bible makes a point rather early on about the embarrassment of an unclean spiritual self:
So when the woman saw that the tree was good for food, and that it was a delight to the eyes, and that the tree was to be desired to make one wise, she took of its fruit and ate, and she also gave some to her husband who was with her, and he ate. Then the eyes of both were opened, and they knew that they were naked. And they sewed fig leaves together and made themselves loincloths. (Genesis 3:6-7 ESV)
Sometimes when we see what our real self is like, it gets the better of us and we hide. Just like the people who avoid the mirror, refuse to look at their bank statements, or won’t go into a messy room in their home. Other times, we go into hiding mode. We don’t just avoid the mirror. We, like Adam and Eve cover up! Imagine the examples earlier, except the person who looks in the mirror, buys baggier clothes. The woman who looks at the her bank statements, buys pricier items to look rich. Or the depressed father uses the messy room for “storage” instead of cleaning it. In other words, we hurt ourselves to maintain an illusory self. In Adam and Eve’s case, they hurt themselves by lying to God and hiding from him. When we do this to our spiritual self, we call it hypocrisy.
James’ Mirror and God’s Word
Another James, the brother of Jesus, wrote of this very issue, but proposed a solution:
Know this, my beloved brothers: let every person be quick to hear, slow to speak, slow to anger; for the anger of man does not produce the righteousness of God. Therefore put away all filthiness and rampant wickedness and receive with meekness the implanted word, which is able to save your souls. But be doers of the word, and not hearers only, deceiving yourselves. For if anyone is a hearer of the word and not a doer, he is like a man who looks intently at his natural face in a mirror. For he looks at himself and goes away and at once forgets what he was like. But the one who looks into the perfect law, the law of liberty, and perseveres, being no hearer who forgets but a doer who acts, he will be blessed in his doing. If anyone thinks he is religious and does not bridle his tongue but deceives his heart, this person’s religion is worthless. Religion that is pure and undefiled before God the Father is this: to visit orphans and widows in their affliction, and to keep oneself unstained from the world. (James 1:19-27 ESV)
Observe the connection between the mirror and the spiritual self. We can remain defiled, stained, filthy, and even deceive ourselves if we just walk away from the mirror! Similarly, our moral self might be in fairly shabby condition. In response we might avoid the mirror (in this case the Scriptures) to avoid seeing our true selves. Or we, like the Pharisees, use the mirror to hide our stains rather than clean them.
James’ solution is so simple it beggars belief! Like the person who notices a stain on their face in the mirror and washes it, so expose yourself to the word of God and practice it. We can theologize all we want about how justification, election, atonement, faith, and so-on fit into the equation, but James says to hear the word [which implies thoughtful understanding] and to do it.
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