Personal Identity 4: To ‘Imitate Christ’.


Robb asked me to contribute to his blog because a lot of his recent writings about identy are the culmination of years of conversations we have had together.

I remember as a teenager starting to read ‘The Imitation of Christ’ by the Christian mystic Thomas á Kempis, and giving up after about 4 pages due to feeling completely disheartened – no way could I ever live up to this ideal! I probably should have learned more about the mystics first before starting to read it, but that’s a whole other subject… In both my personal experience and in my professional work as a clinical psychologist, I have found that many Christians have highly unrealistic expectations of themselves, which has a significant impact on their sense of self and on their emotional wellbeing and functioning. This seems particularly so in some churches or Christian families where it is unacceptable to be sinful in any way, or where even the briefest unkind or unpleasant thought is ‘as bad as committing the sin itself’ (based on a complete misunderstanding of Jesus’ words in Matthew 5:21ff).

During my training I came across ‘Self-Discrepancy Theory’ (Higgins,1987), which came to mind again during my discussions with Robb and got me thinking about identity and these struggles faced by myself and many other Christians. The theory proposes that we have a number of distinct domains within our identity, including the ‘Actual Self’ (how I view myself now), the ‘Ideal Self’ (how I hope to be), and the ‘Ought Self’ (how I should be, according to my sense of duty, obligation and responsibility). The theory also suggests we have a domain for each of these Selves from the standpoint of a significant other (e.g., how I believe my mother actually sees me, or how I believe my husband ideally wants me to be – no comments Robb!!).

The theory goes on to suggest that the greater the difference, or discrepancy, between an Actual self-state and an Ideal or Ought self-state, the more likely the development of negative emotional states, including low self esteem, shame and guilt, depression and anxiety.

So what does this mean for Christians? The difficulty is for many of us, especially those like myself who are ‘cradle Christians’, is that we are taught from a very young age that our Ideal Self is Christ himself. And with this self-state representation, who would not have a huge discrepancy between their sense of self as they are, and the self that they believe they should be? And even more troubling, what are our beliefs about how our fellow Christians perceive both our Actual Selves and our Ideal/Ought Selves? No wonder many Christians become guilty, anxious and depressed.

But what does it really mean to imitate Christ, or to have him as a representation of an Ideal self? I can’t believe that it means I should strive to be a Jewish male itinerant rabbi! Nor do I believe I should be striving for perfection – I constantly see the serious psychological consequences of such attempts in my therapy room. This may be a question better left to the theologians than for a simple psychologist like myself, but I am drawn to the narrative of Christ in the garden of Gethsemane – a moment where He too experienced anguish and uncertainty, and questioned God’s call. It is in this, and many other recorded moments of intimacy, genuineness and authenticity that we might see how we too could discover God’s call on our own lives.

Furthermore, perhaps some of the key areas for psychological therapy for depression or anxiety, based on Self-Discrepancy Theory, may also guide our thinking:
1. Identifying and challenging any unhelpful representations within Actual Self;
2. Developing acceptance and self-compassion;
3. Exploring Ideal and Ought Selves, and developing new and more realistic/helpful future-self representations. This is particularly important where there have been significant life changes due to trauma, loss, illness, etc.

If we can start to be more realistic and authentic about who we really are, develop both acceptance and self-compassion about the things we can’t change or feel less positive about (or worry that others feel less positive about), and have a more realistic and helpful sense of who God is calling us to be, maybe we can stop feeling so guilty, anxious and depressed, and start living ‘life in all its fullness’ instead.


7 Responses

  1. Thanks for writing this Ruth. Many Christians hold themselves up to an impossible ideal and then struggle when they realise they cannot achieve it. Being Christlike is not the same as being Christ.

    • In theology that leans towards the more Catholic there tends to be a strong sense of being a sinner, that this is normal, OK, and that is why we need God and are given his forgiveness. I wonder if other traditions have less of an emphasis on being a sinner or on confession and this could affect some of the points you raise? – just an idle thought. Have you seen the excellent new book by Richard Rohr – “Immortal Diamond”? its all about what he calls the True Self and the False Self. Its a good read, recommended.

      • There is both good and bad in most theological cupboards. There is the very good “Confessing Our Sins” by N Stebbing CR and yet still a Wikipedia entry for “Catholic Guilt”.

        As Fr Andrew CR spent many years explaining to me before he died, there is a big difference between guilt and shame. Guilt leads to repentance. Shame leads to hiding ones sinfulness. I don’t think any particular brand of theology has a monopoly on either commodity.

      • Thanks Ruth, I’m sure you’re right – Christianity isn’t doing its job if we are left with guilt and sin weighing us down. Its meant to be the answer not the problem! Indeed it is the answer.

      • Thanks, Matthew, for your comments, very helpful – certainly confession can be a very useful part of these sorts of processes for many people.
        I wonder, though, if across most if not all traditions, there have been times/places where human sinfulness has been emphasised with a lack of similar emphasis/promise of God’s mercy and forgiveness, leading to excessive guilt that has not been dealt with, resulting in significant shame. Shame impacts more on identity than guilt, because it emphasises “I am bad” rather than “I have acted badly” and leads to withdrawal rather than the acts of confession/contrition and reparation/restoration which more normal guilty feelings can prompt us towards.
        Have added the book to my wishlist!

  2. Hello Ruth, thanks for writing. Many Christians would like to think they appear to ‘be’, but many put on a facade. We are all full of human baggage, some are better at dealing with it than others.

    I also think that many ‘expectations’ are projected onto those whom carry the ‘Christian’ label, be it good and bad. I refer to the muslin community whom label us all as drunks and sexually loose. We have adopted the term ‘Christ followers’ in preference.

    As a Mum with older children I see them, and their friends come to terms with life, and the impositions of being in a Christian family, although we dechurched when my son was a baby for a good few years, my second child bringing us back to the fringes of church as she became baptised, and even a Cathedral chorister.
    I guess we are unique, my husband is a psychotherapist, and one of my kids has gone off religion for philosophy, the final nail in that coffin was a ‘soul survivor’ week away.

    I guess we have to create a safe environment for their emotional and spiritual growth. To develop mindfulness and sense of self, rather than project onto an unobtainable ‘other’, and what others see us as.

  3. Thank you for this whole series of posts but especially this one, which resonates with things I’m grappling with myself and I observe in those I journey with.

    In my own experience, this requirement for perfection has been most strong in conservative evangelical environments where ‘behave, believe, belong’ mindsets are often still the norm and take on a slightly sinister ‘big brother-ish’ aspect in some leaders. ‘Be ye perfect as your Father in heaven is perfect’ could be their mantra. I am reflecting and journaling through this and the effect it has had upon my journey, and my view of God.

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