Surely this is a brilliant appeal for authenticity, right? Actually not so much. The popularity of this sentiment may mostly reveal how shallow and self focused our culture is. The quote is originally from Hamlet. It is uttered by a character named Polonius as a part of a long monologue of advice to his son, Laertes. However, what so many miss is that Shakespeare depicted Polonius as an old windbag who was impressed with his own “wisdom.” Actually he was a pompous old man who could “speak no sense in several languages.” In other words, he thought himself smart, but in truth he was a foolish blowhard. The great English critic and essayist, William Hazlitt, said Polonius is “wrong in every judgment he makes” in the play. Shakespeare evidently though advice like this is shallow, pretentious pablum.
It certainly is good to listen to our conscience, and we know that continually trying to please other people is a recipe for disaster. But there are serious problems with the “This above all else: to thine own self be true” approach. The biggest of them is that we are fallen people. The Bible says every aspect of our being has been affected by the Fall, even our conscience. Jeremiah 17:9 says, “the heart is deceitful above all things.” All we need do to see the flaw in “being true to yourself” is to ask if we have ever witnessed someone doing that very thing while missing an obvious and ugly truth about himself or herself. In other words, have you ever seen anyone rationalize something in a ridiculous way and somehow not notice the absurdity of the justification? That person is being true to himself, for sure, but he’s also kidding himself. Unfortunately Steve Jobs’ inner voice, while certainly enabling him to be a brilliantly creative maverick, also allowed him to treat people abominably. Sadly we have all seen it many times, and we have also done it ourselves. Our consciences are warped by the seemingly ever present tendency to serve self and its desires. All too often being true to yourself means nothing more than serving self whatever the cost.
Thomas Kelly in his book, A Testament of Devotion, pointed out that being true to yourself is difficult because “each of us tends to be, not a single self, but a whole committee of selves.” We have many different roles we play and are a slightly different “self” in these roles, and so very often “we are not integrated.” In other words, we are not whole. What we need is something that can integrate our “selves” into a whole and speak with a voice that is true rather than deceitful. What is it that can integrate us and speak truth to us? It is the Spirit of Christ in us. If we truly wish to do that which will bring authenticity, freedom from sham and deceit, what we must do is not “to thine own self be true,” but “to your Lord be true,” for only in him do we become holy. Wait, who cares about holy? We do, for a core concept in holiness is “wholeness” or health. If we wish to have peace and health at the heart of who we are we must let the Lordship of Jesus Christ be what integrates and rules us, from the inside out. Yes, by all means we must listen to our conscience and we must strive to be authentic, but that begins with letting Jesus Christ be Lord.