The False Self
Is it possible that a mistaken sense of self can account for how apparently sincere Christians who deconvert were never saved?
Psychologists (and experience) tell us that self-identity develops throughout our lifetime; but not at the same rate. Self-identity refers to how we define, conceive or understand ourselves.1 Self-identity is fluid, especially throughout our teens and twenties. In other words, there really is something to the feeling that many experience in late adolescence which is they need to "figure out" who they are.
It's in adolescence that we first begin thinking about who we are and discover what it is that we value and believe. What is it that makes us, us? When we're young we see ourselves largely through the lens of the communities we're a part of; our family, friends, and church or social groups. As we transition into adolescence we gain the ability to reflect on whom we think we are apart from those influences. This period lasts throughout our life but the period of its greatest intensity is approximately between 15 - 30 years old.
As we move into middle age our self-identity continues to evolve but usually only in minor ways. For most people in middle age, their sense of self will not undergo any more massive shifts but stabilize. Another way to say this is that people in middle to old age know who they are and are comfortable with themselves.
Given the fluid and flexible nature of how we perceive ourselves, we shouldn't be completely surprised when a person between 15 - 30 years old takes a drastic turn in their interests, goals, or beliefs. To see this consider how many college students change their major two or three times before they graduate. And after graduation pursued jobs in fields unrelated to their degree. I know, I was one of them. When I was a freshman in university my major was Recreation and Leisure Services. I then transferred to a second university and studied Sport Management. And then a third university, majoring in Elementary Education. Today I have a Ph.D. in Intercultural Studies and teach graduate-level philosophy and theology at college. In hindsight, I can see that a philosophy/theology guy is who I was all along. But back in my early twenties, I had no idea who I was, or what my real interests were. It took time for me to figure that out.
The second insight offered by psychologists regarding our self-understanding is that sometimes in the process of forming our identity we can, under certain circumstances, prematurely adopt a false version of ourselves. Doing so involves committing to an identity prematurely without exploration or choice. This might occur, for example, when traditions are compulsory or parents are insistent on a particular identity.2 Firstborns are especially prone to this given their penchant for pleasing and rule-following. For some, it will be accompanied by intense zeal. If an individual does prematurely adopt an identity that is not true to who they really are, it may take a long time before they develop the self-awareness and inner strength to recognize that they have taken on an identity that is untrue. The result of doing so is what is known as a false self.
The idea of a false self is complex and difficult to summarize. But the basic idea is that as we grow up from children to adults we unconsciously alter our behavior and repress feelings or beliefs in order to fit in with others, such as our family and those whom we look up to who form the primary groups we need to feel acceptance from.
One way of doing that is to unconsciously adopt and affirm those beliefs and practices that are important to those whose acceptance we need. But over time, and as we grow in our self-confidence and sense of who we are, we lack the need for that acceptance. When that happens the beliefs and feelings that are in line with our true self, begin to emerge. In saying that a person has developed a false self, psychologists are not claiming that the person has committed a morally blameworthy act, or is intentionally deceiving others about who they really are. Rather, psychologists are merely pointing out that it is normal for individuals raised in certain environments to adopt an identity that is more reflective of that environment than of who they are as individuals. To see this, consider Craig.
Craig grew up in a very politically conservative home. His parents were involved in supporting conservative candidates, advocating on behalf of conservative political causes, and donating to conservative organizations.
They taught Craig the virtues of limited government, free markets, individual liberty, and a strong military. They taught him affirmative action was wrong, the death penalty was right, fewer restrictions on gun control are good and higher taxes are bad.
Craig adopted all of these views and was quite committed to them. He volunteered with conservative organizations and donated money to assist conservative political candidates. By all accounts, he was a true believer in conservative ideologies.
Today, Craig is no longer a conservative. In fact, he identifies with its political opponents. He is the leader of the liberal political party in his community. How could such a thing happen? Well, if the false self theory is true, the answer is he was never really a conservative. At the core of his being, Craig wasn't conservative, his false self was. It just took time for him to discover that.
If this theory is correct it can help shed light on how it could be that deconverts can feel they really believed in Christ with the utmost sincerity but were never really saved.
The reason is:
it was the false self, that construct which is not reflective of who they really are and which acts out a need to find security, acceptance, or a variety of other reasons that adopted Christian beliefs. Over time the false self gave way to the true self and deconversion occurred. False selves can never produce authentic, saving faith for an individual because false selves do not reflect the true identity of the individual. Thus, despite appearances to the contrary, they were never saved.
If you think that the idea of a false self makes sense, then the doctrine of eternal security and the existence of individuals who gave every appearance of being born-again, but in reality were not, are compatible.
In this, and the previous section we have looked at two ways that a person may fall short of having a biblical, and thus saving belief in Jesus: having a false belief and being a false self. The next question is, does the Bible support these concepts? Can a person be mistaken about what they believe and whom they are, biblically speaking?
The next section will address those questions.
2 Marcia, J. E. (1966). Development and validation of ego identity status, Journal of Personality and Social Psychology 3, pp. 551-558.