John Newton, the author of “Amazing Grace,” once wrote: “I am not what I ought to be, I am not what I want to be, I am not what I hope to be in another world; but still I am not what I once used to be, and by the grace of God I am what I am.”
Newton did not, apparently, think of himself as a fixed or static, still less as a completed, person. He was a person in process, a being in the making. Although he operated from a fixed, static point – the “I am” of the present moment – Newton realized that he was in some respects incomplete. His true self awaited fulfillment.
Newton was not alone in expressing this idea. The Danish philosopher Soren Kierkegaard famously said, “And now, with God’s help, I shall become myself.” John Lennon expressed a similar view in the Beatle’s song “All You Need Is Love” when he optimistically wrote, “You can learn how to be you in time; it’s easy.”
The idea that we are not fully formed in this lifetime offers opportunity for reflection. If it is true, I can never use the word “I” without doing so provisionally. “I” – whatever else I may be – am conditional, which implies the possibility that the conditions necessary to become fully “me” may go unmet. And that thought leads me on to wonder what those conditions might be.
Go further: If I am not yet “I” (in the fullest sense of the word), what, if anything, needs to happen before I can truly become myself? And if something does need to happen, whose responsibility is it? Is it someone else’s – a supernatural “soul sculptor” of sorts – or is it mine? Or is it possible that the work is neither all his nor all mine, that the divine artist has given me the great honor of contributing to the work of sculpting my true self?
This seems to me to be the case, for it corresponds well with Christian teaching. The apostle Paul described the cooperative nature of this work in these famous words: “…work out your salvation with fear and trembling, for it is God who works in you…” (Philippians 2:12-13). The divine artist works in the living medium of human souls, which, unlike all other artistic media, is capable of collaborating with the artist or of resisting his efforts.
If that is true and I fail (or worse, refuse) to collaborate with the artist, is there a chance that I may fail to become my true self? It seems a terrifying possibility. And what happens to a person who misses himself – eternally? Is hell simply the un-resting place of the unformed, the people who never truly became themselves? Or is it the destiny of the deformed – the people who rejected the artist’s design and followed their own?
Contemplating these possibilities motivates me to discover the divine artist’s original design for my life. It also instills within me a desire to understand his artistic method so that I can cooperate with him. But it does more than that: It leads me beyond thoughts of myself to thoughts of my neighbor, for if I am not yet complete, neither is he.
The idea that my neighbor is still a work in progress serves me in two ways. First, it helps me place my neighbor, with all his fault and foibles, in a broader context. When I remember that he, with his short temper, long stories and ridiculous habits is like me – still unfinished – I am able to bear with his foibles and failures as I bear with my own, knowing that there is more to him than meets the eye.
Likewise, the realization that the teenager who is getting my coffee at Macdonald’s – the one with all the piercings – is a work of art, cherished by the artist, deepens my appreciation for him and reminds me to relate to him with respect and humility. I do not know what the divine artist is making out of him – this tattooed and pierced guy behind the Macdonald’s counter – but whatever he has in mind is worthy of my admiration and respect. And if there is a way to assist the great artist – with a prayer, a smile or a kind word – I will want to give that too.
Published first in the Coldwater Daily Reporter, July 13, 2013