The core of who we are

One of the courses I teach is an introduction to what’s known as family systems theory, which is actually not a single theory but a collection of perspectives. One of the earliest of these was created by the late Murray Bowen, whose central concept was that of differentiation.

Bowen noted that some families were far more anxious in the face of potential conflict than others. To stave off that anxiety, family members resorted to a number of unhelpful strategies that would eventually become entrenched in hard-to-change patterns of relationship. At the root of such defensive behavior was a sense that their self-identity was being threatened. Poorly differentiated people, one might say, are perpetually plagued by the question, Do I have to give up being me to be accepted by you?

The ancient world did not have the whole panoply of psychological theories we take for granted today. But that’s not to say that one can’t observe such dynamics in Scripture.

As discussed in the previous post, John wraps up the narrative of Jesus’ public ministry with the sad observation that despite the many miraculous signs Jesus performed, the people still didn’t believe. But then John adds a qualification:

Even so, many leaders believed in him, but they wouldn’t acknowledge their faith because they feared that the Pharisees would expel them from the synagogue. They believed, but they loved human praise more than God’s glory. (John 12:42-43, CEB)

Well, it’s not really that nobody believed, John seems to say. Some did, even amongst the leaders in Jerusalem. But they didn’t believe in a way that would give them the courage to stand up for their belief. And why? Human glory was more important to them than God’s glory.

Perhaps we could number Nicodemus among this lot, as well as Joseph of Arimathea. Perhaps, too, the Twelve, including John himself.

What about us?

In his explanation of differentiation, Bowen made a distinction between our core self and our pseudo-self. The latter is the part of our identity that’s negotiable, the part that bends and flexes depending on who we’re with, the part we hide or give up when we feel the pressure to conform to someone else’s expectations. Core self is everything else: the part of our identity that is non-negotiable under any circumstance.

To be clear: the threat of being expelled from the synagogue was no small matter. For most of us, if we were asked to leave one church, we could join another one nearby. For a first-century Jew, being kicked out of the synagogue meant being excluded from the community that anchored their very existence as Jews. The threat was real, as we’ve seen in the case of the man born blind, driven out of the synagogue for daring to stand up to the religious establishment (John 9).

But the challenge, in Bowen’s terms, is to ask whether our identity as followers of Christ is part of our non-negotiable core self. Frequently, in a world that continues to walk in darkness, it is neither convenient nor safe to be a Christian. The good opinion and goodwill of others may be at stake. But which is more important: for us to get the praise we want, or for God to get the praise he deserves?