On Becoming Real
“What is real?” asked the rabbit… “Real isn’t how you are made,’ said the Skin Horse. ‘It’s a thing that happens to you. When a child loves you for a long, long time, not just to play with, but REALLY loves you, then you become Real.’…’It doesn’t happen all at once,’ said the Skin Horse. ‘You become. It takes a long time. That’s why it doesn’t happen often to people who break easily, or have sharp edges, or who have to be carefully kept. Generally, by the time you are Real, most of your hair has been loved off, and your eyes drop out and you get loose in the joints and very shabby. But these things don’t matter at all, because once you are Real you can’t be ugly, except to people who don’t understand.” ― Margery Williams Bianco, The Velveteen Rabbit
In this wonderful children’s story, we follow the Velveteen Rabbit’s journey in search of “realness.” The most seasoned toy in the tale, Skin Horse, helps him to realize realness is a process, a becoming or in other words one might say a spiritual odyssey. What Rabbit wanted is what I hear the Apostle Paul yearning for after his encounter with Jesus and being thrust into ministry: “I keep working toward that day when I will finally be all that Christ Jesus saved me for and wants me to be.”
This assertion of Paul, this commitment to forget those things which are behind and press on to that which is ahead, is his witness to a Christocentric soteriology. He had entered into this new relationship for what it meant to Christ rather than taking a “what’s in it for me” approach. The reductive evangelism that basically says “Come to Jesus to escape hell and gain heaven” wasn’t Paul’s theology. Paul is here affirming an important aspect of the eternal purpose of God in desiring to be fully conformed to the image of Christ. For him, this was the prize of the high calling of God in Christ Jesus. And so, Paul uses such metaphors as athletic events, boxing matches and races to illustrate that salvation is more than a destination, it is also very much a pilgrimage.
Another way of expressing this concept of becoming “real” is in terms of spiritual formation. Robert Mulholland puts it this way:
Spiritual formation is the primal reality of human existence. Every event of life is an experience of spiritual formation. Every action taken, every response made, every dynamic of relationship, every thought held, every emotion allowed: These are the minuscule arenas where, bit by bit, infinitesimal piece by infinitesimal piece, we are shaped into some kind of being. We are being shaped either toward the wholeness of the image of Christ or toward a horribly destructive caricature of that image.
Personally, I like to think of this in terms of being authenticated, or of becoming authentic in my personhood. The word authentic includes the following meanings: not false, real, actual; true to one’s own personality, spirit or character; made or done the same way as an original; conforming to an original so as to reproduce essential features. We can see from the definition how pregnant this word is with the essence of being created in the image of God and being called into conformity with the image of Christ.
God has ordained a fullness of personhood for all his children and that is only achieved in, through and of Christ. We cannot reach the full potential of who we were meant to be apart from him. The Lord’s way of accomplishing this is through interpersonal relationships wherein biblical principles are employed. Paul is very clear in his letter to the Corinthian church that all members are endowed spiritually for the mutual edification in the body of Christ. He expressly teaches that when the body gathers, there should be an orderly succession of ministry that builds up the believers in Christ. In essence, the members of the body are authenticating one another in Christ; they are calling one another into becoming everything in Christ he died for them to be.
The challenge to become authentic in our core beings is horrendous. Everything in the kingdom of the world is working against us. The world is all about appearance, about image. In the kingdom of God, it is about substance, reality. It is about becoming whom you were always meant to be in Christ. The world works 24/7 attempting to conform us to “a horribly destructive caricature of that image.” Satan, the god of this world, will use every ploy he can to deter God from fulfilling his eternal purpose.
In the field of philosophy, Heidegger introduced the term “Geworfenheit,” meaning “thrownness.” to describe the individual’s existence as being thrown into a world replete with morals, values and desires not of his making or choosing. The world’s effort toward social conformity countered the individual bent for personal authenticity since being authentic meant a person’s actions would be congruent with his own values and desires. We literally face Geworfenheit every day of our lives as the world pressures us to conform to its definition of authenticity. So each day, in one manner or another, we hear the voice of the world subtly cajoling us, “Buy this!” “Wear this!” “Accomplish this!” Probably even more destructive is the world’s pressure to believe things contrary to our personal integrity. Mob mentality is a powerful force for altering the individual’s personal belief structure. I have often wondered how many of those buried in the crowd standing before Pilot crying out for the crucifixion of Jesus would have held the same conviction if standing alone.
Basically, the enemy wants you to define yourself by what you do and what others think. He wants to make it about image and performance. Consequently, if we take up his game, we will find ourselves more focused on competing with those around us than on pleasing the Lord and following his will for our lives. There is a fundamental yearning, a deep-seated desire in our lives to realize fullness of authenticity.
When Jesus was taken into the wilderness to face temptation, the Devil offered him instant authenticity by agreeing to grant him authority over and the attending glory of all the kingdoms of the world. There are shortcuts to almost anything we might aspire to or want in life. However, things gained in an illegitimate manner most always exact a cost that we later regret with great remorse. The disciples argued over who might be greatest in the Kingdom of God and desired positions of prominence beside Jesus in his glory while Jesus taught the greatest authentication was in serving. E.E. Cummings said this:
To be nobody but myself-in a world which is doing its best, night and day, to make me somebody else-means to fight the hardest battle any human can fight, and never stop fighting.
In the ‘80’s and ‘90’s, the U.S. Army used the recruiting slogan, “Be All You Can Be.” During this roughly twenty-year period, the Army had phenomenal recruiting success. I believe they were appealing to that inherent inner gnawing, that unconscious wired-in sense in all of us that wants our lives to count for something. We want to make a difference; we need our lives to take on a sense of significance. However, misplaced or misguided aspirations, goals and values ultimately lead to disintegrating hopes and unfulfilled expectations.
When we were created in the image of God, we received a spiritual geneticism that tied our true authenticity to Christ. As free moral agents, we are capable of living in denial of this reality and following our own path. However, regardless of the seeming appearance of success, we will ultimately forfeit what Paul would call the high calling of God in Christ Jesus. As the Skin Horse said, you only become real when someone truly loves you. The only one who can do that for us is Jesus Christ. His death at Calvary in obedience to His Father so loving the world opened the way for us to come into fulness of authenticity in him; an authenticity that will never disappoint, never deteriorate, that will never be jealous or envious, and that will always follow Jesus and only serve his interests and will.
This astounding love that calls us into being all we can be legitimately, has been bequeathed to the church, Christ’s body, and is the essence of its ministry on earth while awaiting the coming kingdom of God. When Jesus called someone to follow, he was in reality calling them to take up his life and become like him. Recall part of the definition of authentic is conforming to an original so as to reproduce essential features. The Greek New Testament word for “follow” is akolotheo and means this: to cleave steadfastly to one; to conform wholly to his example, in living, and if need be, in dying also. Our authenticity, our being fully true to ourselves, can only be realized in what Levi demonstrated: “So he left all, rose up, and followed Him.”
The commandment to “love one another” is found 47 times in the New Testament. We are mandated to love one another as Christ has loved us. To love with a love that doesn’t focus on all the messiness of another’s life; that overlooks another’s foibles, failings and frailties, that treats with graciousness and accepts unconditionally while only seeing one that is worthy because of the blood of Jesus. Loving one another this way is how we serve as Jesus’ emissaries calling one another into the only true authenticity of life and into conformity with Christ.
The authenticity of the world will ultimately break down and leave persons wanting. It has no lasting value and will never carry over into the kingdom of God. But the true realness we find in Christ will be our life even beyond the veil.
As the Skin Horse voiced, “Once you are Real, you can’t become unreal again. It lasts for always.”