by: Denise Robinson
To Thine Own Self be True
This is the final message in our series, “Is That Really in the Bible?” So far, we’ve considered several statements often attributed to the Bible: God helps those who help themselves, God will never give you more than you can handle, God works in mysterious ways, and cleanliness is next to godliness. If this series, and our weekly Bible quizzes, have taught us anything, it’s that we need to read and study the Bible more so that when someone says, “The Bible says...” we either know the truth or know we shouldn’t accept such a statement at face value. When in doubt, do some checking before accepting it as coming from the Bible! And then, as we’ve also learned from our quizzes, pulling out one verse alone can be confusing. We need to dig further to understand the context.
Today we’re going to examine the saying, “To thine own self be true.” No, it’s not in the Bible. It comes from William Shakespeare’s Hamlet, in which Polonius is giving some fatherly advice to his 18-year-old son, Laertes, before he leaves for Paris. Polonius has just told Laertes, “Neither a lender or borrower be” and in the next lines he comes to the pinnacle of his fatherly wisdom as he says, “This above all; to thine own self be true.”
I’ve saved this one for last because I believe it has become the motto of our modern world. It’s very similar to the phrase we began this sermon series with, “God helps those who help themselves,” in that the Bible really says the opposite. This phrase combines two concepts: self and truth. When it comes to self, we, as a society, are involved in a love affair with self. Our mantra has become: Take care of #1. Know yourself, love yourself, and look out for yourself. But more than all of that, self has become the basic standard for truth. Your truth is good for you, my truth is good for me, and who’s to say what is right. Objective truth is gone and it’s all subjective. What feels right for me must be right for me. And the same is true for you.
How does this viewpoint impact the church and faith? I did another of my scientific surveys (you know what I mean) and found a study by the George Barna group inquiring into the moral and spiritual beliefs of Americans and here’s what they found: (1) 72% of Americans believe: “There is no such thing as absolute truth; two people could define truth in totally conflicting ways, but both could still be correct.” (2) 71% of Americans believe: “There are no absolute standards that apply to everybody in all situations.” (3) 64% of Americans believe: “Christians, Jews, Buddhists, Muslims and all others pray to the same God, even though they use different names for that God.” (4) 64% of Americans believe: “All religions are equally good.” On the surface, this sounds very inviting, but how does it hold up to biblical teaching?
(1) First, it certainly isn’t consistent with the words of God in the Old Testament.
In the days and months after the people of Israel were led out of Egypt, they were coming to grips with who they were as a people and what was expected of them by God. They had been slaves in Egypt for 400 years and during that time had lost their sense of identity and the knowledge of much of their religious heritage. Now that they were free from the Egyptians their individualism began quickly to assert itself. They complained continuously, disagreements broke out between families and tribes, they questioned Moses’ authority, and they rebelled against God by worshipping idols including the worship of idols made of Egyptian gods. The book of Deuteronomy tells the story of how Moses brought the people together and explained what God expected of those claiming to be God’s people. I am reading from Deut. 5:32-33: “You must therefore be careful to do what the Lord your God has commanded you; you shall not turn to the right or to the left. You must follow exactly the path that the Lord your God has commanded you, so that you may live, and that it may go well with you.” God, through Moses, didn’t say, it’s okay so long as you are sincere. Go ahead and worship any god you please. Or yourself for that matter.
Hundreds of years later, King Solomon wrote the book of Proverbs. In the intervening years, God’s people had largely gone their own way. They still had the temple to God, but in practice they lived life on their own terms, ignoring the words of the prophets and the teachings of Scripture. Solomon, known for a time for his devotion to God and for his wisdom, wrote down a series of proverbs or wisdom sayings beginning with these words in Prov. 1:7: “The fear of the Lord is the beginning of knowledge.” In Prov. 14:12, Solomon wrote: “There is a way that seems right to a person, but its end is the way to death.” Wait a minute – is he really saying if something seems right to us, it isn’t? If our way is the way to death, then what is the way to life? The answer is in Prov. 3:5-7: “Trust in the Lord with all your heart and do not rely on your own understanding or insight. In all your ways acknowledge God and he will make straight your paths. Do not be wise in your own eyes; fear the Lord and turn away from evil.”
(2) Second, no such thought as “to thine own self be true” are found in the teachings of Jesus.
In Mark 8, Jesus is beginning to share with his disciples what he came into the world to do. So far, it’s all been exciting and amazing. The disciples have watched as Jesus healed the sick, the deaf and the blind, calmed a storm with just a word, walked on water, and fed thousands with just a few loaves of bread and a couple fish. Certainly, it’s only going to get bigger and better for Jesus and for them. Then Jesus sets them down and tells them that he will undergo great suffering and be put to death. Peter can’t bear to hear these words and so he takes Jesus aside to tell him to stop talking about such things. In response Jesus tells Peter, as we heard read from Mark 8:34: “If any want to become my followers, let them take up their cross and follow me. For those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake and for the sake of the gospel, will save it.” Not long after Jesus spoke these words, in Mark 9, Jesus and the disciples were walking along a road in Galilee headed towards Capernaum. Jesus notices that as they walk, the disciples are arguing among themselves. When they get to their destination and settle in for the evening, Jesus asks them what they were arguing about. The disciples don’t want to tell him, but Jesus of course knows; they were arguing about which of them would be the greatest when Jesus came into his kingdom. They had already forgotten Jesus’ words about death and a cross; they were fixated on the glory they were convinced would become theirs when Jesus took up the sword and defeated Rome. In response to their desire for greatness, Jesus says to them in Mark 9:35: “Whoever wants to be first must be last of all and servant of all.” Jesus will repeat these words to the disciples again and again before his death and after his resurrection he returns to remind them that their mission is to go out and proclaim the good news, the gospel, so that the world might be saved by believing in him.
In response to Shakespeare’s statement, be true to your own self, Jesus says, “Deny yourself” and “Put yourself last and others before you.”
(3) Finally, no such words exist in the New Testament in the teachings of the church.
The Book of Acts is the story of the early church. Jesus has ascended into heaven, leaving in charge those same disciples who just months before were arguing about which of them would be the greatest. Just before leaving, Jesus tells them, “You will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth.” Notice the words in that verse. You will be my witnesses. Not witnesses to your own selves or to your own desires or for your own glory, but you will witness for, and about, me. The way of those who follow Christ, the way of the church, is not the way of self or the way of the world – it is the way of Christ. That belief was so much a part of the church that the community of believers in the first century was simply called The Way. In Acts 9, the Apostle Paul, when he was still called Saul and was a persecutor of Christians, went to the high priest and asked for authorization to arrest any men or women who belonged to the Way. In Acts 24, Saul, now a Christian himself, has been arrested and is on trial. He is brought first before Felix, the Roman governor, and then before King Agrippa and he says, “But this I admit to you, that according to the Way, I worship the God of our ancestors….” Paul then speaks of his faith in Jesus Christ. When the king asks Paul if he is trying to persuade him to become a Christian, Paul says, “I pray to God that not only you but also all who are listening to me today might come to believe.”
“To thine own self be true” has a nice ring. There is something right about our need to follow our heart, to pursue our goals, and to remain committed to the ideals we believe in. It’s important we take a stand and work for what we believe. In that regard, we are right to whisper to ourselves “to thine own self be true.” But this phrase fails us when the ideals we believe in are about us, what we want, and what seems right to us. It falls even further apart when we tell ourselves that there is no truth for everyone – that we can all live according to our own truths. Our faith says that the most important thing we can do is to first and foremost be true to God not ourselves. And our faith also, if we are Christians, tells us that Christ is the way, the truth, and the life, and that no one comes to God except through faith in him. We must be true to that message and no other.
There’s a song I happen to like. Frank Sinatra sang it and made it famous, and I’m sure most of you know the words. It’s called, My Way. I like the tune, I love Frank’s voice, especially when he was in his prime, and the lyrics are catchy. But, the theology of the song, its life message, is just plain wrong. “And now the end is near and so I face that final curtain. My friend I'll say it clear, I'll state my case, of which I'm certain. I've lived a life that's full, I’ve traveled each and every highway
And more, much more than this, I did it my way. Regrets, I've had a few, but then again too few to mention. I did what I had to do; I saw it through without exemption. I planned each charted course, each careful step along the byway.
And more, much more than this, I did it my way. For what is a man, what has he got? If not himself then he has naught. To say the things he truly feels, and not the words of one who kneels. The record shows I took the blows and did it my way.”
There are a lot of “I’s” in that song. King David wrote in Ps. 95: “Come, let us worship and bow down. Let us kneel before the Lord our maker.” We read in the gospels, that Jesus knelt and prayed to God. Peter knelt at Jesus’ feet. Paul knelt and prayed with fellow believers from Ephesus. And we read in Philippians 2:9-11: “For this reason, God highly exalted Him (Jesus), and bestowed on Him the name which is above every name, so that at the name of Jesus every knee will bow, of those who are in heaven and on earth and under the earth, and that every tongue will confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father.” We are called to say the words of one who kneels: to give praise to God and to proclaim that Jesus Christ is Lord and that believing in him leads to eternal life. We are called to do it Christ’s way rather than our way: to take up our cross and follow him. We are called to deny self and proclaim the gospel of Christ. We are called to love others and seek justice and work for the kingdom of God. That’s what is in the Bible.
Let’s pray together.