Today, from a young age and throughout their lives, many desperately ask themselves, even if subconsciously, “Who am I?” The question is so common that we forget that it is a peculiarly modern question, one that we ask all the time, even when we don’t use those words: “Am I a nurse, a teacher, a businessman by nature? Does this house fit me? What does my vote say about me?” The identity question is also having a moment, politically. The rise of identity politics – where groups of people from a common background break from traditional parties to coalesce around a movement of their own – is a public instance of this strongly-felt need to find identity.
As Christians, we understand this struggle. In Christ, we have discovered who we are – children of God – a fact St. Josemaría Escrivá, founder of Opus Dei, calls the deepest truth about ourselves. From this truth we strive to live so that our words and deeds match who we are, which is a reflection of who God is. In “The Strictness of the Law of Christ,” St. John Henry Newman calls us to reflect on our nature as human beings and Christians and allow the truth of our condition to guide how we live.
In the very first book of Scripture, we are told that we were made for God, though we have the choice of rejecting Him. In being made for Our Creator, our human nature compels us to worship, and our free will gives us the ability to worship what we will. This fact about who we are and what we were made for explains the various lives of people we meet every day. All of us are seeking, adoring, worshipping something. The urge is so strong it’s appropriate to call it slavery – for we give our money, our time, our whole lives to that thing.
The image of slavery is straight from Scripture. In worshipping other gods, the Hebrew people fell into slavery and bondage to Egypt, Babylon and Rome. But the opposite is also true: Newman explains that when St. Paul says that in being saved we become servants of Christ, “servants” really means “slaves.” “Christians are not their own, but bought with a price, and, as being so, are become the servants or rather the slaves of God and His righteousness; and this, upon their being rescued from the state of nature.” Moreover, “We no longer indeed belong to our old master; but a master we have, unless slaves on being bought become freemen. We are still slaves, but to a new master, and that master is Christ.”
In other words, we are slaves no matter what. Our only choice is what to worship. One need not be a Christian to understand this truth. The brilliant, secular writer and professor of English, David Foster Wallace, had this to say in his 2005 commencement address at Kenyon College: “In the day-to-day trenches of adult life, there is actually no such thing as atheism. There is no such thing as not worshipping. Everybody worships. The only choice we get is what to worship.” In his autobiographical essay, “Good Old Neon,” Wallace explains all the things he tried to worship, all to no avail. Tragically, he committed suicide in 2008.
St. Josemaría says it like this: “We will be slaves either way. Since we must serve anyway, since this is our lot as men, then there is nothing better than recognizing that Love has made us slaves of God. From the moment we recognize this, we cease being slaves and become friends, sons.”
This is how God designed us. Freedom comes when we say “fiat,” “yes,” “Thy will be done” as the Virgin Mary replied to the archangel Gabriel. The secret, in a sense, is to will what happens to us, to will reality, knowing that through all things God works out our salvation. Newman says that “the perfect Christian state is that in which our duty and our pleasure are the same.”
The trouble is that our hearts are not right. We don’t want to say “yes” to all of God’s plans, all the time, with all our heart. We want to hold back something for ourselves, because we do not really trust God to take care of us. Newman explains: “In a word, the state of the multitude of men is this,—their hearts are going the wrong way; and their real quarrel with religion, if they know themselves, is not that it is strict, or engrossing, or imperative, not that it goes too far, but that it is religion.”
But considering more carefully that we are God’s creation – His children – we must examine how we are living. What are we worshipping? What can’t we do without? Where is our treasure? In answering these types of questions, we may find several idols, good things that have become too important. Perhaps our reputation is so important that it prevents us from speaking the truth. Maybe our financial security is so important that we find it hard to give charitably. Whatever the idol or idols are, we know that we cannot just cast them off and worship nothing. We don’t have a choice about that. However, we can replace them with someone who alone can satisfy our worship and free us from our slavery – for whom the Son sets free, is free indeed.