Who Am I? Heaven Knows!

Simon Swadling 3 weeks ago
Blog 3 mins
Found in: Identity

I hadn’t realised what a weight it had felt like until it was gone. I remember that realisation distinctly. I had spent the better part of 20 years keeping my experiences with same-sex attraction completely secret, or at least secret from most people. After deciding to release the secret, the relief struck me. I was less exhausted around people, less anxious. I felt free.

Before being open about my sexuality I would do everything I could to ensure no one guessed. As soon as I discovered a stereotype, I would do my best to avoid falling into it. I loved musicals when I was younger. Once I learned how much of a stereotype that was, I let it drift (until much more recently when I became unashamedly into them again. Thanks Hamilton!). As I shared my experiences of same-sex attraction, I realised there was no need for any pretence anymore (not that there truly was in the first place). I no longer cared if I fitted a stereotype, it didn’t matter anymore. As I realised this, and sighed a breath of relief, I was suddenly haunted by new questions:

Who would I be if I hadn’t spent the last 20 years keeping this a secret?
How much of who I am now has been formed around trying to hide something?

The thought gripped me, am I just a persona I created? As a millennial, the arch-crime is pretence. Was I betraying my generation’s modus operandi? A new weight had just replaced the old one. It was lighter than before, but still I was not free.

In part, these thoughts led me to do a thesis at Bible college on identity and Christian anthropology. I wanted answers. I wanted to understand myself. I wanted relief from this new burden too.

I realised that my maker knew my nature as a human being, and my unique personhood as Simon, better than I could ever understand it.

That year was a process of significant reshaping of how I think about myself, and who we are more broadly. I opened doors of our cultural narratives and found gaping holes behind them. I realised I had smuggled in worldly ways of thinking about myself that had nothing to do with how God made us and what the Bible had to say. It was thrilling and disorientating. As those narratives fell apart, I began to find a deeper, more satisfying narrative for the self. I realised there wasn’t some objective me out there somewhere. That I couldn’t possibly have created myself from nothing. I realised that I didn’t have to understand it all. I realised that my maker knew my nature as a human being, and my unique personhood as Simon, better than I could ever understand it. And in that I found immense freedom.

I found particular comfort spending time in Augustine’s Confessions. Across the intimate and vulnerable books of Confessions, Augustine lays himself and his past bare. It seemed to me on initial reading a great task of self-discovery. Surprisingly modern, an understanding of the self gained through internal reflection. But as I read further, I realised that I had it all wrong. The Confessions is not an internal journey of self-discovery.

No, instead it is all about who he is writing them to: the Lord.

‘Indeed, Lord, to your eyes, the abyss of human consciousness is naked. What could be hidden within me, even if I were unwilling to confess it to you? I would be hiding you from myself, not myself from you.’1

There is nothing hidden from the Lord, only things that are hidden from one’s self. He is utterly sovereign, completely omnipotent. The Lord sees in full what Augustine only sees in part. Augustine knows that he is held together not by his own understanding, but held together in the eyes of the one to whom he confesses. It is his relationship with God that holds him together, not his own self-understanding.2

What a comfort that was to realise. My quest for an authentic me was the wrong one; I had been set free from it. There is no abstract ‘me’ out there to find. I don’t have to do the work of assembling a ‘real me.’ I am whole only in my relationship with my creator and redeemer. He sees all of me. His sovereignty and clarity of vision frees me to just be. My past, present and future are all seen by him. My relationship with him is my true anchor, not my understanding of who I was or am now. If I had made choices in the past to conceal parts of myself from others, and those choices impact my present, that is ok because I cannot conceal any part of myself from God.

The loving powerful hands that made me, are the same hands that hold me together now. No pretence, no hiding, just his loving eternal presence. This was the true freedom I was looking for.

  1. Augustine, Confessions, trans. by Henry Chadwick (OUP, 2008), p.178, X-ii-2.
  2. I’m indebted to Rowan Williams’ observations on this in On Augustine (Bloomsbury, 2016).