That’s In The Bible Somewhere…: To Thine Own Self Be True
Lake Wales, Florida, which is between Tampa and Orlando is home to Bok Tower Gardens a 250 acre beautiful garden and bird sanctuary that was built in the late 1920s. This lovely spot to visit is called the Tower Gardens because in the center of the property is a 200 plus foot bell tower. The tower is affectionately called the Singing Tower because of the beautiful music that comes from it. Near the base of the tower is a plaque that says this: “I come here to find myself. It is easy to get lost in the world”. (The Twenty Third Psalm: An Interpretation, Charles Allen, Revell, 1953, page 30)
“I come here to find myself. It is easy to get lost in the world.” Of course, this statement and plaque affirm the garden and bell tower as a place for quite and contemplation in the noisy, chaotic, busy world in which we all live. But, there is also something universally true about this statement. All of us need places in our lives where we “come to find ourselves”. For indeed, it is easy in so many different ways to get lost in this world.
As people of faith, part of what we seek to communicate with our lives, our priorities and our commitments is that our faith, worship and God’s community is the place where we come week after week to find ourselves. It is here that we gather at the first of the week to get our bearings. And, truth be told, this is a critical decision to make particularly in a world that constantly suggests that we can find ourselves and our way, on our own, with no help from God needed.
This is the danger of a statement like the one that we focus on today which says “To Thine Own Self Be True”. This old saying originates in Shakespeare’s Hamlet and not in the Bible. Yet, despite our ability to understand that this phrase is not Biblical, it is safe to say that we remain tempted by it nonetheless and in all honesty, there is good reason to be tempted.
What makes so many of these statements that we have looked at over these six weeks feel like they could or should be in the Bible is the simple fact that virtually all of them have an element of truth in them. Last week, I mentioned the writer Adam Hamilton and his work on this subject. The title of his book is interesting. It is Half Truths. There is a level of rightness in “every cloud has a silver lining”, “God helps those who help themselves” and “Cleanliness is next to Godliness”. None of these sayings are in the Bible and none of them are exactly true but all of them are partially true which again makes them so difficult to resist.
This is also an accurate assessment of the saying “To thine own self be true”. Again, there is something right about our need to follow our heart, to pursue our goals in an unwavering fashion and to remain committed to those ideas that we believe in. We should never be someone who betrays ourselves in an attempt to impress or win over other people. Nor should we give up easily or quickly on those things that we believe in deep in our heart. In that regard, we are right to whisper to ourselves “to thine own self be true”.
But, where this idea falls apart is when we seek to live life in control, on our own with the idea that the most important thing for us to do is to get what we want and to follow our heart.
Yet, what our faith says is that the most important thing we can do is to first and foremost be true to God not ourselves.
Like some of you, I heard Mike Ayers, the retired Wofford Football Coach speak at the Laurens County Touchdown Club this past Thursday. As he shared, Ayers suggest that the definition of JOY is found in turning the three letter word into an acronym JESUS, OTHERS, YOU. “This is where we find JOY”, Ayers said, when we live life in this order. The problem is that the last word You, is always trying to sneak in front of the other two words. The You always wants to come first.
This is the reason that the plaque from the Bok Tower Gardens could easily be attached to the doorway of every church in American, “I come here to find myself. It is easy to get lost in the world.”
The famous 23rd Psalm helps here too and particularly so in verse 3. “He leads me…” I don’t lead myself. I am not the captain of my own ship. My job is not to chart my own course. Life is not about being true to myself. My job is to let Christ lead me.
This statement and this whole psalm, Psalm 23, comes out of the shepherding culture that dominated Israelite life in the Old Testament world. So many people of that period and region were shepherds themselves. And, if they were not shepherds, they knew shepherds and were surrounded by them. Further, this imagery influenced how they talked about their leaders. They wanted kings who shepherded their people as a common shepherd took care of his flock. And, over time, God came to be seen as the Good Shepherd who cares for humans with the same shepherding mentality.
If a shepherd is a good illustration for God, sheep are even better illustrations of us. Sheep were notorious for not being very smart and for having bad eyesight. Both characteristics – lack of intelligence and poor vision – meant sheep were prone to get lost. To say in verse 3 that “God leads us” is to affirm what shepherds did for their sheep. If sheep depended on their own ability they would take the wrong path and they would struggle to see things clearly. This reality meant they were better off led than attempting to lead themselves. (as it relates to Sheep’s eyesight, Allen, pgs 32-33)
Truthfully, we are the same. We are prone to get lost and to take the wrong road. Further, we are prone to have poor vision and to see things inaccurately. Like sheep, we are better off led than doing the leading. Rather than affirming Shakespeare’s “to thine own self be true” we are far better off with Psalm 23’s “he leads me” as the theme of our lives.
Let me be very clear. I think that in 2019, one of the biggest daily battles that we face as modern people and as believers is choosing which of these two sayings will set the trajectory of our life. On Monday, Tuesday, Thursday, in meetings, football games or at school, with our spouse or our children, around our buddies or when no one is looking, will we give ourselves over to “to thine own self be true” or will we be defined by “he leadeth me”? Will we act as though we have 20/20 vision or will we humbly admit that we are blind and in need of sight from God’s Holy Spirit?
Over the last year, two of my visits home to Alabama have included being at my parents house as they went through cataract surgery. Last spring I was there on the day when my mom had a procedure and this summer Caleb and I were there a day or two after my dad had a cataract removed. Many of you in this room know all about that. With time and age a film develops over the lens of our eyes that leads to a blurred or foggy vision. Having cataracts has been described as looking through a smudged or dirty window. We can see but not extremely well. The good news is that if we submit ourselves to the skilled hands of a good doctor, general speaking the cataract can be removed and we can see clearly again.
No matter how old we are, no matter how smart we are, no matter how good our vision might be, we all live with spiritual cataracts. Our spiritual cataracts are not a one time issue but grow back almost daily. Our human quest to manage life on our own and the world’s temptation to be the boss of our own lives is fertile ground for these spiritual cataracts to grow swiftly, strongly, abundantly. Oh, we can still see with them, but mark my word, we can’t see well.
The good news, the hopeful news, the gospel news is that in the hands of the great physician as we daily let go of “to thy own self be true” and embrace “he leadeth me” our spiritual cataracts can also be surgically removed that we too may see well again.
And so, we come to this place and back to God to find ourselves. For the good Lord knows, it is easy, on our own accord, to get lost in the world. Amen.