The Problem with Self-Actualization



Philippians 2:9

Therefore God exalted him to the highest place
    and gave him the name that is above every name.


“Then they said, ‘Come, let us build ourselves a city, with a tower that reaches to the heavens, so that we may make a name for ourselves; otherwise we will be scattered over the face of the whole earth'” (Gen. 11:4).

They wanted to make a name for themselves. Did you catch the turn in today’s text?

Therefore God exalted him to the highest place
    and gave him the name that is above every name.

We spend so much of our lives striving to become somebody, to make a name for ourselves. All the while, God, our good Father, stands ready to give us a name. In fact, to become a Christian is to be given his name, the one that is above every name. We are baptized into his name. Even better, we are baptized in the name of the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit.

At the very starting line of the Christian faith we receive everything we will ever need for the life we were created to live. We are blessed as the beloved sons and daughters of a Father who is well pleased with us. We are cleansed from the stain of sin, washed in the atoning blood of the Lamb, pardoned from sin’s cruel penalty, and given the gift of eternal life. We are marked, sealed, and gifted by the Holy Spirit, empowered to live a life of holy love. All of this is present at baptism and must be claimed and confirmed over and over again.

We stand, so to speak, at the top of the V, prepared to descend into the valley of the cross, literally clothed in Christ. Now this patterned path must be walked again and again and again, as the Holy Spirit leads us in the way that progressively causes these truths to become enfleshed in our everyday lives.

The challenge is our bent toward climbing, grasping, and otherwise pursuing paths of our own making, for our own glory, to make a name for ourselves. One cannot ascend and descend at the same time. To choose descent, which is to follow Jesus, means all we once held dear as the substance of our identities (our false selves) must be dismantled and discarded.

If I am honest, I loathe equality with others. I want to be better, to have a better name, a better claim to fame, to be more important, sought after, and revered. When I came to the experienced discovery that I was the beloved son of an adoring Father (irrespective of any of my accomplishments and all of my failures), it became clear for me to embrace this gifted identity would mean laying aside every other claim that gave me distinction or disqualified me. Why? Because if this is true of me, then it is true of you too. If I am a beloved son and you are a beloved son/daughter, we can then be siblings without rivalry. We can love one another as we love ourselves.

This quest for distinction runs so deep in us. It often goes by the name of self-actualization, and, depending on how this term is understood, it can be helpful or a great hindrance. I prefer the language of baptismal-actualization or grace-actualization, or the realization of Christ-in-you. We must come to realize that only the unmerited favor and grace of God gives us a true sense of self, one we did nothing to disqualify ourselves from or deserve.

Every other way we attempt to scratch out a self-identity in this world is false, leaving us hopelessly bound in the slavery of keeping up appearances, holding it all together, and otherwise stuck in a self-absorbed existence (no matter how much it may look otherwise).

In short, the reality of the gift of grace in Jesus Christ unravels the slavish economy of our false self. The only way we will ever set our foot on the path of descent comes through the audacity of claiming this gifted identity, this blessed name for oneself. Everything else is just another trip up the mountain and a fall down the other side.


Abba Father, we thank you for your Son, Jesus, whose gifted name is above every name. Thank you for the cross by which he leads us into this gift of sharing in his name and nature. I confess I am so filled with a self of my own making. I am ready to let it go but I need so much help to do so. Come, Holy Spirit, and apply these verities in my innermost being.  We pray in Jesus’ name, amen.


  1. How would you begin to describe your false self, the identity you have constructed apart from the grace of God (one that either distinguishes you or disqualifies you)?
  2. What do you make of this contrast between self-actualization and baptismal-actualization or the realization of Christ-in-you?
  3. Do you compare yourself with others? Why do you do this other than a need to find yourself somehow distinguished from them (for better or worse)? What does this say about your sense of self and identity?

For the Awakening,
J.D. Walt


Farmer. Poet. Theologian. Jurist. Publisher. Seedbed's Sower-in-Chief.


  1. I would describe our propensity to glorify the flesh as proof of our inherited sin nature. “Surely I was sinful at birth, sinful from the time my mother conceived me.” ( Psalm 51:5). As to this contrast between self-actualization and baptismal-actuualization, “Those who live according to the Flesh have their minds set on what the flesh desires; but those who live in accordance with the Spirit have their minds set on what the Spirit desires.” I believe we all tend to compare ourselves to others. I believe that I personally do this because I’m seeking my place in the overall scheme of things. I believe that to place our self-worth or identity in anything other thing than who we are in Christ is a sin. I believe that as baptized believers, we are all blood-bought children of God; no longer Jew nor Gentile, neither slave nor free, nor male nor female, for we are all one in Christ Jesus.

  2. Sometimes, the \/ looks like backing off from everything you thought you were “doing right”, start living one day at a time, develop patience and see what evolves.