Viewing Ourselves in the Third-Person
I’ve heard people tell self-centered kids or those who otherwise feel entitled that “It’s not all about you.” We might not be that blunt, but I think all parents that are trying to raise selfless and grateful kids try to convey this message to them in one way or another.
Like many from my generation, my parents had more subtle ways of conveying this message; like when we didn’t eat all the food on our plate, they’d remind us that people in China were starving. Or when we asked for new shoes they would tell us about African children they saw in National Geographic that have never even worn shoes (I don’t know if my mom brought up the African women in National Geographic when my sisters asked for a new bra).
Regardless of how it’s said, the message is that we should be grateful for what we have and that the world doesn’t revolve around us; we have to view lives in the context of the whole world.
I thought about this recently while reading the Bible. I hadn’t really noticed it before, but I now believe this “It’s not (just) about us” message is Biblical. I think this is the reason that most of the New Testament, including all four Gospels, were written in the third-person.
For instance, Mathew wrote the following (about himself) as if he was a casual observer watching this unfold from fifty feet away: “As Jesus went on from there, He saw a man called Matthew, sitting in the tax collector’s booth; and He said to him, “Follow Me!” And he got up and followed Him.” (Matthew 9:9)
In his Gospel, John adds some mystery to his third-person account by referring to himself as “The disciple whom Jesus loved.” John never reveals that he’s the author of the fourth Gospel until the end of the last chapter.
But my favorite example of this third-party writing is the Apostle Paul. If you didn’t know his writing style and something about Biblical history, you might think he’s schizophrenic when you read the following: “I know a man in Christ who fourteen years ago…was caught up into Paradise and heard inexpressible words…” (2 Corinthians 12:2-4) It’s only when you read the whole chapter that you discover this mystery man that Paul was referring to was himself. It seems that Paul had what people today would call an “Out of Body experience.”
Paul wrote about everything that God did in and through him in the third-person. As he says in the first verse (of the same chapter) that “Boasting [in the first person] is foolish.” But he goes on to say that speaking (in the first-person) about his “weaknesses” (sins, temptations and overall human frailties) is good and necessary (in order to relate to others). A few verses later, Paul gives God’s answer to his prayer about one of his weaknesses. It’s one of my favorite verses, but it can only be fully understood if read in the context of this whole chapter:
By speaking and actually viewing themselves in the third-person, I believe that Paul and the other Apostles were following the example of Christ. Jesus referred to Himself (in the third-person) as “The Son of man” or “The Son of God” when speaking of His mission and when He performed miracle etc (“For the Son of Man has come to seek and to save that which was lost.” Luke 19:10), but He spoke in the first-person in regards to His human weaknesses; while hanging on the cross, He didn’t say “The Son of man is thirsty;” He said “I thirst” (John 19:28).
I thought about how different this was from many people today. We hear many people (think politicians) boasting about their accomplishments in the first-person and speaking about their human frailties in the third-person – as if some literal third-person was to blame.
Here are a few other things that I learned from this study:
- First-person thinking is natural; third-person thinking is intentional.
- Those who view their life in the third-person filter everything through the eyes of God and through the eyes of others; this is why John identified himself as the “The disciple whom Jesus loved.”
- To fulfill verses like the following, we must take a third-person view of ourselves “In everything, therefore, treat people the same way you want them to treat you…” (Matthew 7:12)
- Hypocrisy and self-righteousness are sins only committed by those who view themselves in the first-person.
- Legalism/religion is for those who view themselves in the first-person; grace comes to and through those who view themselves in the third-person.
- Those who view themselves in the third-person (through the eyes of God and others) have a much easier time ignoring their negative first-person thoughts.
I think Christians should follow the example of Jesus and His disciples – we should own our weaknesses and credit God for the good He does in and through us. To be a Christian is to be a servant of God and of others; It’s not (just) about us.