Your new life

“Once upon a time, there was a woman who discovered she had turned into the wrong person.” It sounds like the beginning of fairy tale, but it’s the first line of Anne Tyler’s novel, Back When We Were Grown-ups. The woman is Rebecca Davitch, a 53-year old grandmother asking herself, “Am I living my own life, or is it someone else’s? How on earth did I get like this? How did I ever become this person who’s not really me?”

Have you ever looked at your life and wondered, “Is this me?” It’s a mid-life question, very different from the “Who am I supposed to be?” of our teenage years and the “Who am I?” of young adulthood. We all constantly try to find that line between fitting in and being accepted by others on the one hand and remaining true to ourselves on the other. Some of you may remember the very moment you looked at your life and said to yourself, “Is this the person I was supposed to become?” There’s an underlying suspicion that we might lose ourselves in the daily routines and demands of life, and we wonder what it might be like for a woman or a man to miss themselves so completely that they feel like they are living someone else’s life.

In Ladder of Years, another Anne Tyler novel, 40-year old Delia Grinstead is acutely aware that she is living her own life, but it is one she loathes. While on vacation at the beach with her husband and three almost-grown children, Delia is out on a walk by herself and she decides to keep walking. The beach stretches ahead of her, and she keeps walking, alone with her thoughts and the wide horizon of the sea. Eventually, she settles in a little town and invents a whole new life for herself: an unencumbered woman with no responsibilities, no past, no relationships. She likes the thought of beginning again from scratch.

Don’t we all; life with an undo button. To be able to point the cursor to an earlier chapter of our life story and rewrite things from there.

“You have stripped off the old self with its practices and have clothed yourselves with the new self,” Paul tells his readers[1] and for a moment we are tempted to believe that we can leave the old life behind like a pile of clothes on the beach and put on the new self like a new pair of designer jeans. Bag those old rags, find a new self that suits you better and put it on! Changing your life as simple as changing your clothes – you could re-invent yourself every season! You will like the way you look, I guarantee it.

The Apostle Paul does indeed speak of a profound change of who we are, but he also insists on reminding us repeatedly that we are not the authors of that change. When we look at our own life as enfolded in the life of Jesus, when we hear the story of Jesus not just as another man’s story but as the story of our redemption, we begin to grasp that we are indeed living a stranger’s life unless we live fully who God made us to be. Scripture tells us, “God created humankind in his image, in the image of God he created them.”[2] Again and again we tend to forget that we are created and loved, and that our being created and loved is the most important part of who we are. “Our highest perfection and blessedness is to bear the image of God,” is how John Calvin said it.[3] Our true self is not what we make of ourselves or what has become of us – for better or worse – but whom God has made us to be. We are made to be in love with the One who made us and to know ourselves and each other as bearers of the image of God.

You may not have read any of Anne Tyler’s novels, but I trust that every last one of you has watched Shrek at least once. Not one of the sequels, but the first one that introduced us to the fairy tale world of Shrek, the ogre, and this sidekick, Donkey. They have been drafted by Prince Farquahr to go rescue Princess Fiona from the big, bad dragon who keeps her locked in a tower. Prince Farquahr needs a perfect bride because he wants a perfect kingdom, but he is not quite brave enough to make the dangerous journey himself. Fiona is a sleeping beauty, but she is living with a curse: for as long as she can remember, she has been under the power of a spell that makes her beautiful by day and ogre-like at night. She hides this from everyone because she has been told she will be freed by “love’s first kiss” and she doesn’t want to blow her chance; her true love might be put off by what happens to her every night! Shrek and Donkey, after a fierce battle with the fiery dragon, rescue Fiona, and on the long journey back the ogre falls in love with the princess. Donkey discovers her secret, and she vows to tell Shrek the truth but it is too late. One misunderstanding leads to another, and in the end Fiona stands at the altar with Prince Farquahr. At the last minute, though, Shrek steps in and declares his love just as the sun goes down and Fiona turns into an ogress. It’s a big surprise, but all ends well and the two live happily ever after.

What does the princess have to do with living your own life or someone else’s or with Paul’s contrast of old self and new self? Fiona believed the beautiful princess she presented during the day to be her true self, who she really was. Fiona believed she had to speak in the stilted fairy-tale language she had absorbed. Fiona believed she could only act according to what she believed her role to be. But then she discovered that her daytime self was actually her curse, that she had been locked into the life of a stranger, and that for as many years as she could remember she had been safe to be herself only under the shelter of  night.

When we create an image of ourselves solely from the expectations of others or from our own ideas, we lose our highest perfection and blessedness and live under a curse. Our redemption is to remember who and whose we are, created and loved, made for communion, bearing the image of God. Our highest perfection and blessedness is not to be who others want us to be but to bear the image of God.

Jesus tells us the story of a very successful man. He was rich for his land had produced abundantly, and at night, before he went to bed, I imagine he sang, “All I have needed my hand has provided. Great is my life’s success; all this for me.” And he thought to himself, “What should I do, for I have no place to store my crops? I will do this: I will pull down my barns and build larger ones, and there I will store all my grain and my goods. And I will say to my soul, ‘Soul, you have ample goods laid up for many years; relax, eat, drink, be merry.’”

He had all his heart desired, and it never occured to him that he could gain the whole world and lose his soul.[4] Didn’t he have a family? Didn’t he have neighbors? Didn’t he hear the news we hear of droughts, floods and war that destroy farms and crops and leave so many neighbors facing famine? He thought to himself. He spoke to himself. He lived by himself. He lived for himself. He had completely forgotten that he was made for communion, and nothing in the story indicates that he had even noticed, amid all his abundance, how he had cut himself off from life. Once upon a time, there was a man who discovered he had turned into the wrong person; but it was too late. “You fool!” God said to him.

Jesus tells us the story because it’s not too late for us to remember who we really are and what the true purpose of our life is. All of us have turned into the wrong persons, or in the words of Paul, all of us fall short of the glory of God[5] because we forget or ignore the most important part of our identity: we are created and loved, we are made in the image of God, we are made for communion with God and with each other. But becoming who we really are is not a simple matter of re-inventing ourselves and choosing yet another costume for yet another season. Paul, in Colossians and elsewhere, reminds us that it is a matter of death and resurrection. “You have died,” he tells us, “and your new life is hidden with Christ in God.”[6] The wrong person we have become dies with Christ, and our new self is being renewed in Christ, according to the image of its creator. When Christ who is our life is revealed, then we also will be revealed with him in glory.[7]

Renewal in Christ – what might that look like? “In that renewal, there is no longer Greek and Jew, circumcised and uncircumcised, barbarian, Scythian, slave and free; but Christ is all and in all!” Circumcision and uncircumcision were among the dominant identity markers in Paul’s day; Greek and Jew the most influential cultural scripts in the early church; slave and free the polar opposites in describing socio-economic reality in the Roman empire. We have other terms today but similar patterns of claiming or assigning identity based on ethnic background, wealth, gender, education, or language. All that makes us who we are in a world where we have forgotten who we really are.

And all that, in our renewal in Christ, is no longer what defines us. We are instead beginning, finally, to become who we were created to be: human beings bearing the image of God, in all our wondrous variety.


[1] Colossians 3:9f

[2] Genesis 1:27

[3] Commentary on Colossians 3:10

[4] Luke 9:25

[5] Romans 3:23

[6] Colossians 3:3

[7] Colossians 3:4, 10