P.T. Forsyth thought “being true to ourselves” is a bad idea


That great theologian of the cross, P.T. Forsyth (1848-1921) was a persistent critic of a kind of precious religiosity that flourished in his day and continues into ours.  His Victorian and Edwardian version was Romantic and aesthetic, human-focused and “spiritual” in that vaporous sense so popular still.  This brand of religion sought to reduce Jesus into a heroic religious genius and to see his cross as the apotheosis of human sacrifice.  Forsyth was having none of it.

And what would he have made of our time, when “self-centered” is no longer a slur but a widely approved lifestyle?  This section from The Preaching of Jesus and the Gospel of Christindicates that he thought that “being true to ourselves” is not such a good idea:

“. . . taking the Cross as the completion of Christ’s personality, I would distinguish between such completion, taken aesthetically, as the finest spectacle of self-realization by sacrifice to man’s tragic fate, and taken ethically, as the final moral act for man’s conscience and history before God. The one idea is artistic, like so much of our modern religion, the other is dynamic and evangelical. The one is a moral marvel, the other a new creation. We have had much to say in the name of religion about developing to flower and fruit all that it is in us to be, realizing ourselves, rounding the sphere of our personality, achieving our soul, being true to ourselves, and so forth.

That it is morally impossible that a real personality should be developed on any such self-centred lines, or made spherical or symmetrical by rotating on its own axis. To shrink your personality work at it; take yourself with absurd seriousness; sacrifice everything to self-realization, self-expression. Do this and you will have produced the prig of culture, who is in some ways worse than the prig of piety. So also if you would lose holiness, work at it. Do everything, not because it is God’s will, but because you have taken up sanctity as a profession—shall I say an ambition? Be more concerned to realize your own holiness than to understand God’s. Study your soul freshly and your Bible conventionally. Cherish a warm piety and a poor creed. But if you really would save your soul, lose it. Seek truth first, and effect thereby. Beware of ethical self-seeking. To develop your personality forget it. Devote yourself not to it but to some real problem and work, some task which you will probably find to your hand. The great personalities have not laboured to express or realize themselves, but to do some real service to the world, and service they did not pick and choose but found laid upon them. Their best work was ‘occasional’— i.e. in the way of concrete duty. They did not live for set speeches but for business affairs. They found their personality, their soul, in the work given them to do; given them because of that soul, indeed, but never effected by petting it. They found their personality by losing it, and came to themselves by erasing themselves. Their ideal was not, ‘I must become this or that’ or ‘I must produce my impression, and leave my mark’, but ‘I must will, I must do, this or that obedience’. To effect something is the way to become something. So Christ’s purpose, whether in His preaching or in His Cross, was not primarily to stamp His whole personality on the world in one careful, concentrated, and indelible expression of it, but to finish a work God gave Him to do; than which there is nothing more impressive for men. His purpose was, with all the might of His personality, to do a certain thing with God for the world. He was at the last preoccupied with God, which is the final way to command man.” (The Preaching of Jesus and the Gospel of Christ, New Creation Publications, 2000, p. 17-19.)

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