Is your self-image holding you captive?

Photo by Mario Azzi on UnsplashPhoto by Mario Azzi on Unsplash

A picture can hold us captive, and this is never truer than the picture we possess of ourselves. The philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein made the comment about the picture holding us captive. He meant that we grapple with what are rather complex realities by way of very simple, mental pictures. So, if the picture is poor, our understanding will be impoverished. The upshot is that we could perceive more with multiple, even somewhat contradictory, pictures. But that is asking a lot of our imaginations.

A picture can hold us captive, and this is never truer than the picture we possess of ourselves.


Still, the Gospel asks us to try, especially with the picture that we draw of ourselves. Remember, picturing a future need for oil is all that separated the five wise virgins from the foolish. So, ask yourself: What picture presses in when you think of yourself? Hard worker? Devoted parent? Loving friend? But notice that if we ask about different areas of life, we will summon up diverse images. Politics: intelligent liberal or sensible conservative. Sports: New England Patriot or Dallas Cowboy.

Yet the truth is, our self-images, the pictures we peruse about ourselves, do not just vary because of the aspect of our life under consideration. No, a pentimento, a shadowy picture, ought to emerge in any given area of life—if we take the time to look for the duality. For example, maybe you are a loving parent but also one who demands center stage. Maybe you are an intelligent liberal who is also quite condescending to those who disagree with you.

Consider the case of Senator John Hemphill of Texas, a Confederate politician, who died in 1862. Careful, do you really want to draw your moral picture of the man on the basis of one sentence? Maybe sometimes—but not most times. John Hemphill was the son of a Presbyterian minister—and a Scottish Covenanter minister at that, which means that his family did not even accept the U.S. Constitution because it failed to acknowledge the lordship of Jesus Christ. For these early fundamentalists, how could a government be called good if it failed to acknowledge the savior’s rule?

A pentimento, a shadowy picture, ought to emerge in any given area of life—if we take the time to look for the duality.

Here is another curious feature of the Scottish Covenanters, who immigrated to America. Although they were biblical literalists, they firmly rejected slavery as immoral. How did they manage that, as the Bible appears to condone slavery? By pointing out that Americans were not Hebrew patriarchs. Therefore, God had not sanctioned slavery for us.

Return to our picture of John Hemphill. It requires more brush strokes, especially when we learn that he rejected his faith-based upbringing—and on so many levels! Hemphill studied law rather than theology. In Founding Sins (2015)¸ Joseph Moore tells us:

The young lawyer rejected his father’s piety with a vengeance. He survived multiple stabbings and duels, killed at least one Indian, and fervently supported nullification (a state’s right to reject federal law) and slavery. His knife fight with a Unionist-leaning opponent in the 1830s precipitated a riot in Sumter, South Carolina, that filled the streets. His political rise came after he immigrated to the new nation of Texas, where he became the chief justice of the Texas Supreme Court and was twice considered for the presidency. In 1859, he took Texas hero Sam Houston’s seat in the US Senate, where he spoke out strongly for the southern right to secede. Elected a senator in the Confederacy, he helped write the Confederate Constitution and died in office in Richmond in 1862.

Have you drawn a positive picture of Hemphill’s upbringing and a negative one of his career? But human life is almost always more complicated than that, even within ourselves. In some parts of our lives we yield to God and grace. In others, we resist to the point of blindness, to that point where we can no longer even see our own stubbornness.

Are you really as good or as bad as you picture yourself to be?

Moore continues, painting a shadow side of Hemphill:

But even in his rejection of the family faith, all was not as it seemed with John Hemphill. Though he renounced Covenanter doctrine, Hemphill could never completely shake off his heritage. Hemphill’s judicial rulings on issues of race displayed a surprising racial parity. His was one of only two southern courts to rule that blacks, whether slave or free, held common law rights. He overruled Texas laws that prohibited manumission and that required free blacks to leave the state or re-enter slavery.

A picture can hold us captive. No doubt, John Hemphill’s own mental pictures kept him from seeing some of God’s own truth about slavery, about his times and about himself. Yet it is the same with us. A solitary image, of ourselves or others, is often more misleading than life-giving.

Resplendent and unfading is wisdom,
and she is readily perceived by those who love her,
and found by those who seek her (Wis 6:12).

To seek wisdom, examine the picture album of your beliefs, about yourself and about others. Then ask yourself, is there a shadow image, trying to surface? Are blue and red colored states really as ridiculous as they seem to each other—or do those who live in different ways see different things? Maybe all of our pictures should be colored purple. And what about your self-image? Are you really as good or as bad as you picture yourself to be?

To draw better pictures, try to get a sense of how others see you. We can look outward by ourselves, but we need others to help us look within. I suspect that is something John Hemphill also learned.

Hemphill, who never married, was in love with his black mistress, Sabina, with whom he had two daughters. As the Civil War approached and he left to write the Confederate Constitution, he sent his girls away to attend the fledgling Wilberforce University. Wilberforce was an abolitionist institution in Ohio named for Britain’s most famous emancipator.

Clearly, John Hemphill wanted his daughters to see a broader vision of the world than his own. Is it possible that looking in their eyes and those of Sabina, John Hemphill saw, at least a little, how inadequate his own pictures really were?

Readings: Wisdom 6:12-16 1 Thessalonians 4:13-18 Matthew 25:1-13

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Thomas Severin
11 months 1 week ago

I think that most of us have a tendency to overestimate our goodness and to minimize our badness. We all have blind spots as regards our sinfulness and have a tendency to compare ourselves to the worst people in society which, by comparison, makes us look pretty good.

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