One could argue that modern society’s defining motto is Polonius’ quote in the play Hamlet: “To thine own self be true” (Act I., Scene III). Popular culture and self-help methods affirm the value of authenticity and living one’s life according to what is “real to you.” In the modern world, the self has become the standard for happiness, love, worth, and morality.
Before examining if being true to ourselves can become an idol, we will look at what this phrase means. Then, we will have a better understanding of the philosophy behind this phrase and how it could morph into the worship of self. Finally, we will also look at what the Bible says about this topic.
What Does it Mean to Be True to Yourself?
The phrase undoubtedly traces back to the famous play, Hamlet, by William Shakespeare. In context to the rest of the play, Polonius gives his son, Laertes, advice for college. He encourages his son to be true to himself, which seems like a worthy endeavor.
However, Polonius is not a wise or likable character. Knowledge of his character and questionable actions throughout the play does not give much credibility to this quote about authenticity.
In modern terms, the motto, “Be true to yourself,” can refer to many different meanings. For some people, the phrase refers to authenticity and non-conformity. Instead of following the crowd, people should instead be themselves. In this sense, a person embraces their uniqueness and refuses to be someone they are not to please others.
Another predominant use of the phrase refers to a person being their own authority. Within this use of the motto, people create their own truth according to what they believe and feel to be right.
A person’s feelings determine if they are staying true to themselves or not. This version of the phrase can be mixed into other philosophies and practices, such as yoga and meditation to achieve inner balance.
When Being True to Oneself Becomes Idolatry
God has created everyone unique (Psalm 139:14). Individuals should seek to maintain their God-given personalities with the understanding that diversity is a gift. Everyone is not meant to be the same. In this way, people should be true to themselves.
However, there is the danger of becoming our own idol if we place ourselves as the ultimate source of truth. If we follow our natural inclinations merely because it is “true” to who we are and what we feel, we risk sinning against the Lord.
Following one’s desires can be a form of idolatry since human desire is marred by a sinful nature. People in the secular world do not acknowledge sin as a factor in the discussion of being true to themselves. However, this aspect should not be ignored.
All people are sinners (Romans 3:23). In humanity’s state of sinfulness, they can only be “true” to the sin that enslaves them. Even if they desire to do good, unsaved humans are captive to sin and cannot live in righteousness (Romans 6:20-21).
Even believers must realize that sometimes the desire to be “true” to themselves is a product of sin. Christians have been made new by the salvation of Jesus, but they can still wrestle with the sinful flesh (Romans 7:18-23).
The believer’s inner sinful self is regularly at war with the Holy Spirit (Galatians 5:17). To live in the new, true life that the Holy Spirit gives, believers must obey Him (Galatians 5:16). When Christians do not follow the Spirit’s promptings, they risk submitting themselves once again to the sinful nature.
The Worship of Self
Especially in places where relativism reigns, Christians need to be aware of the false view that individuals can choose their morality based on preference. Non-Christians may enjoy the relativism of being true to their standards, but such a stance on morality has no solid foundation.
Only God, the Author of morality, can tell humans what is right and wrong based on His holy standard (1 Samuel 2:2; Jeremiah 10:23). Saying that a decision or action is right because it felt “true to myself” is not a reliable philosophy. Instead, this type of thinking can quickly lead to the worship of self.
Oftentimes, people want to develop their “true” selves because they do not want to follow the crowd. They do not want to be like “everybody else.”
In a world where information and consumerism are constantly competing for people’s attention, it is understandable why people are interested in choosing their values. They want to be free to make decisions without the influence of others.
The danger of idolatry comes when we set ourselves up as the authority in life. By setting our own standards of right and wrong, we steal moral authority from God. Choosing our own standards and beliefs, we stop listening to what God says in His Word and instead follow the idol of self.
The worship of self may be subtle at first, as we focus on our goals and priorities. Eventually, though, our desire to be the “truest” form of ourselves becomes sinful. We fall for the lie of Satan, believing we can be God (Genesis 3:5).
Seeking to be true to themselves, believers can also fall into the trap of idolatry of the self. A decision may “feel” right, or an opportunity could seem desirous. However, acting upon the desire to be true to oneself, believers are not turning to God to find out the right way to go (Proverbs 3:6).
Instead, they are worshiping themselves and following their own heart. Scripture says the human heart is deceitful and cannot be trusted (Jeremiah 17:9).
Rather than asking, “Is this true to me,” believers should ask, “Is this true to who I am in Christ?” In this way, Christians will be better equipped to walk in a way pleasing to God (1 Thessalonians 4:1).
Finding Our True Selves in Christ
Humans need to find their true selves in Christ, who is the only one who can give life (John 10:10). By placing faith in Christ’s death and resurrection, individuals can receive new life, which is more authentic than any life humans conceive by their own making (2 Corinthians 5:17).
Even after a person places faith in Christ, they must constantly look to Him about matters of morality and truth, for Jesus is the Truth (John 14:6).
Christians should be skeptical of society’s view of “being true to oneself.” As Dr. Brian Rosner wrote in his article for Public Christianity, “Looking beyond ourselves in order to be found, might just be the key ingredient if we are to avoid an ocean of confusion and anxiety, and an industry of well-meaning but ultimately inadequate self-help.”
Only when believers find their identity and worth in Christ can they live in a way that is true to themselves. Then, Christians can live confidently in who they are in Christ since they have been crucified with Christ and He now lives in them (Galatians 2:20).
Being True to Yourself in Christ
On their own, people will always gravitate to who they really are inside. Scripture tells us that this “true” self is sinful and in rebellion against the Lord. Christians must realize this when they encounter the “be true to yourself” philosophy since the Holy Spirit is always at war with the sinful flesh.
Furthermore, the worship of self is related to the desire to be God, which was the first temptation of mankind.
Instead of merely “being true to yourself,” believers should seek to be true to themselves in Christ. Followers of Jesus already have an identity in their Lord and Savior, who defines truth in His Word.
God has made everyone unique, which makes authenticity a worthy goal. However, believers should not follow the world’s philosophy that teaches that the self is the highest moral good or creator of truth.
For further reading:
What Is Idolatry in the Bible? Its Definition and Significance
Is Manifesting Our Lives for the Better Biblical?
How Are We Created in the Image of God
How Do Your Desires Fit with God's Will?
Photo Credit: ©iStock/Getty Images Plus/Lyndon Stratford
Sophia Bricker is a freelance writer who enjoys researching and writing articles on biblical and theological topics. In addition to contributing articles about biblical questions as a contract writer, she has also written for Unlocked devotional. She holds a BA in Ministry, a MA in Ministry, and is currently pursuing an MFA in Creative Writing to develop her writing craft. As someone who is passionate about the Bible and faith in Jesus, her mission is to help others learn about Christ and glorify Him in her writing. When she isn’t busy studying or writing, Sophia enjoys spending time with family, reading, drawing, and gardening.