Book review: The gift of being yourself, by David Benner

Transformation, according to Benner, cannot be achieved without a thorough knowledge of both self and God. Benner states, “truly transformational knowledge is always personal, never merely objective. It involves knowing of, not merely knowing about.” Benner uses the example of the Apostle Peter to explain transformational knowledge, as Peter is the disciple readers have the most intimate details of his personal struggle regarding accepting God’s call on his life. Benner concludes his chapter by stating, “the authentic transformation of the self… is at the core of Christian spirituality.” Knowledge has the ability to inform, but only God has the ability to transform.

To truly know God, however, means that one must be embrace God at the in the “depths, not in the abstraction of dusty theological propositions.” Benner emphasizes experience over knowledge, and believes that prayer and meditation are the keys to unlocking true transformation in Christ. Objective knowledge will never be as powerful as relationship-based knowing, as evidenced by the personal time the disciples spent with Jesus rather than spending that time as a school, much like the Jewish elite such as Saul. Before Saul truly understood himself, he had an experience with Christ, and so must anyone desiring the same.

The first step to knowing oneself, however, is to recognize that God’s knowledge is far-surpassing and deeper than any other, even personal knowledge of the self. Benner states, “The generative love of God was our origin. The embracing love of God sustains our existence. The inextinguishable love of God is the only hope for our fulfillment.” Therefore, Benner claims, God must be at the core of the self, but to allow God into the self means to accepting oneself in all the beauty and darkness. Acknowledging the sin nature of the self is tantamount, but equaling recognizing the love of God as important. Benner uses the example of a young Jewish woman who found Christ only after she embraced the courage God gave her in acknowledging parts of herself she had long been ashamed.

However, Benner believes, it is not enough to face darkness, but God’s desire is for the darkness to be fully embodied, embraced, and sanctified through that personal relationship. In order to face darkness one must recognize God’s love, as Benner states eloquently, “sin is more basic than what we do. Sin is who we are. In this regard, we could say that sin is fundamentally a matter of ontology (being), not simply morality. To be a human is to be a sinner.” Benner suggests the Enneagram, a personality profiler used to reflect on one’s “sins”, but instead of approaching as a psychological tool, he uses the tool to help one face deep, raw truths and through that profound process attain a mastery of the self so that one can approach God’s love with humility and transparency.

One of the terrible dangers, however, of confronting sin is that human beings have a habit of creating false selves. False selves are created so that sins are shielded, not recognized, or at worst, held in honor. Benner calls this “listening to the serpent,” a reference to the story of Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden. Often, false selves are created not because of fear of authenticity, but because of the desire to be more like the Creator God but without God as a figure of authority. Benner states, “paradoxically, Adam and Eve got what they wanted – to be like God without God, likeness that was based on independence rather than surrender.” A similar example would be if a child wanted desperately to be like his physical father; he wanted his strength, his intellect, and his kindness, but he did not want anything to do with his father and wanted to stay as far away as possible. “The false self is the tragic result of trying to steal something from God that we did not have to steal. Had we dared to trust God’s goodness, we would have discovered that everything we could ever most deeply long for would be ours in God.” The false self clothes man in illusion, and that illusion creates a circular necessity; only by revealing the false self and embracing vulnerability with God can one take the first step towards tearing down self-inflicted idols.

Once the false self is revealed, the next step Benner says is to “become your true self.” However, Benner is strong in stating that “the foundation of our identity resides in our life-giving relationship with the Source of Life. Any identity that exists apart from this relationship is an illusion.” Benner uses the example of Jesus needing solitude and meditation in order to find his true self, even though he understood clearly his purpose on the earth, even to the point of accepting death as a sacrifice for those who wished to kill him when he could have fled or returned to his family trade without incident. Benner explains that for the Christian, vocation is more than just a career or job, but must be grounded in identity, community, and an expression of the gifts God gave that person.

Our self-in-Christ is a self that fits perfectly because it is completely us. It is a self that allows us to be free of all anxiety regarding how we should be and who we are. And it allows us to be absolutely our self – unique not by virtue of our strivings for individuality but profoundly original simply because that is who and what we are.

I found Benner’s insights to be valuable, especially as I have always had some difficulty with setting time aside for prayer and meditation. Benner has encouraged me to take time throughout the day or the week to consider carefully my own experience with God, especially with regards to how God has gifted me in a unique way. I have always viewed my life holistically, as well as taken seriously the gifts God has given me, although I have had some trouble learning where and how to use those gifts most effectively. For example, my love of writing and my love of the imagination have often found a focus in writing stories, although the amount of discipline and solitude required for such an endeavor has been a constant challenge, one that has not benefited from a lack of solitude with God. I deeply want to serve God with the gifts I have been given, but some of my many “false selves” (as evidenced by the Enneagram) is my need to be special (fours) and my need to be perfect (ones); strangely enough, both Paul and Joseph are two of my strongest Biblical heroes, and Benner states that they suffer from the same false selves as I do. I am encouraged however, because both Paul and Joseph turned out as not only paragons of faith but through their deep flaws, transformed those around; Benner has encouraged me to study more about how they conquered their false selves.