Mar 17, 2014

What is Identity?

The first two chapters of Genesis suggest that identity is built upon two foundational layers: 

1.    I am a human being.
2.    I am a man or a woman.

Now, those with a Christian monotheistic worldview would generally add to the first that I am united with God because He is my creator, and that I am mysteriously filled with His breath, which produces potential, and resemble His image, which produces value. To the second, one might add, whether as a man or as a woman, that I thus demonstrate a unique aspect or set of aspects of God’s character. 

But those additional definitions aside for now, in which there is much more that can and has been discussed within volumes of literature; for the one who does not identify with God, what is the next layer?
Perhaps it could be summarized thus:

3.    I belong.

There are a few other expressions or words that would also suffice. Regardless, what is the point? What does “belong” mean?

The Merriam Webster Dictionary defines belong as “to be suitable, appropriate, or advantageous.” In other words, to belong means to be honest or truthful, which is where “suitable” and “appropriate” synonymously lead, and to care or love, which is where “advantageous” synonymously leads. I belong when I am truthful and loving. At the surface, this can be directed to creation. Deeper, it finds greater fulfillment when directed toward God, toward something beyond the senses. This is meaningful because God first offered or directed truth and love to man. He did this because it is His nature, YHWH, “I am.”

Considering the beginning of Genesis once again for a moment: before chapter 2, verse 18, this conclusion seems sound—that these three foundational layers are enough. But then God Himself adds a caveat to man’s identity, a fourth layer:

4.    I need people.

In community, we form or fulfill - at our greatest potential - the most dynamic expression of God’s character. In community, we exemplify unity. We give love and receive love. Even without a consciousness of God, most people usually acknowledge that they cannot survive on their own. If honest, no one is holistically strong enough to truly and ultimately live alone. 

Artwork by Joshua D. GrubbUnity is an important result of living in recognition of these fundamental layers of identity. Unity produces peace. Unity fosters hope. Unity strengthens purpose. Granted, I believe that God unites and directs identity better than anything else. Still, without God, I can find a degree of unity with the world because I am simply part of it. Yet that can eventually lead to questions about origin. Without God, I can find unity with men and women because of an understanding of our basic similarities and differences. Yet when those definitions are muddled, that can lead to questions about the importance of male and female being a foundational layer of identity in the first place. Furthermore, without God, I can find belonging because there is a basic universal understanding of truth and deception as well as right and wrong. Yet when that universality is reduced to subjectivity, that can lead to questions about meaning. Finally, without God, I can recognize that people are important because human experience generally supports that people affect my life, whether for good or ill. Yet precisely when trust is broken, I can find myself questioning whether I really need people after all.

Round and round the stories go, in the silence of the cold.

When it seems that God is silent, when the chaos of evil seems to dominate all perspective, all these layers seem to crack and crumble. If honest, I will come to acknowledge that I am in some way broken inside, that my identity lacks wholeness. This is a pivotal revelation. Without it, there can be no progress—no restoration of identity.

The Enemy often wants me to think that I am whole or perfect, that I need nothing—that I have everything to live to the fullest.

But then Jesus came. 

"In the cross and resurrection of Jesus we find the answer: the God who made the world is revealed in terms of a self-giving love that no hermeneutic of suspicion can ever touch, in a Self that found itself by giving itself away, in a Story that was never manipulative but always healing and recreating, and in a Reality that can truly be known, indeed to know which is to discover a new dimension of knowledge, the dimension of loving and being loved." (N.T. Wright, The Challenge of Jesus). 

Another Way to Think about Identity 

Jesus revealed our need for mending. He affirms that our humanity, gender, relationship with God, and relationship with others must not be forgotten or neglected. He challenges that these layers of identity reveal how unity, strength, purpose, and ultimately peace are indeed possible in life. They are possible. Dynamic, growing love is possible. But because the world, like me, is also fallen, I experience none of this flawlessly. That is where Jesus’ promise begins to stir: the hope of the Kingdom of Heaven. The Kingdom will come to full fruition when Jesus returns. The Kingdom has already begun. Jesus began it on the cross. He demonstrated it in his resurrection. Thus we pray, “Let your kingdom come, let your will be done, on earth as it is in heaven” (Matthew 6:10). Disciples of Jesus Christ desire for God’s goodness to reign right now, and because of Jesus, it does so—at least in part. It has begun, but it is not yet complete. The Enemy still holds a lot of territory and power. There is some mystery in this. There is much war. 

Without Jesus, it is not difficult for me to see good and evil at work in the world. Yet questions can arise because, without an awareness of God, or the narrative of His love for the world and vision of the Kingdom of Heaven, I do not understand the source of that good and that evil. Thus I grow disheartened to the point of despair. Thus I lose strength. I lose hope. I lose peace. I lose a sense of identity.  

Conclusion = Action

So, how is a disciple of Jesus Christ to respond? Perhaps it is best to first be able to acknowledge that everything is in some way broken. Humanity, gender, belonging, community—they are all broken. If that can be acknowledged, if the rubble and dust can be recognized, then purification can occur. Identity can begin to be rebuilt. 

As already mentioned, it can begin without God. But ultimately, the only really satisfying answer to the cleared spaces of identity will be Jesus Christ himself, God incarnate. Joseph Ratzinger writes, "Only the man who is reconciled with God can also be reconciled and in harmony with himself, and only the man who is reconciled with God and with himself can establish peace around him and throughout the world. . . . The struggle to abide in peace with God is an indispensable part of the struggle for 'peace on earth'" (Jesus of Nazareth).

Living in the identity of Jesus Christ, in the power of his Spirit moving in us, those of us who are his disciples have a powerful opportunity to journey together and in relationship with those who do not know God. This is our purpose:

"To tell the story, to live by the symbols, to act out the praxis and to answer the questions in such a way as to become in ourselves and our mission in God’s world the answer to the prayer that rises inarticulately, now, not just from one puzzled psalmist but from the whole human race and indeed the whole of God’s creation: 'O send out your light and your truth; let them lead me; let them bring me to your holy hill and to your dwelling.' . . . It is a matter of sharing and bearing the pain and puzzlement of the world so that the crucified love of God in Christ may be brought to bear healingly upon the world at exactly that point." (N.T. Wright, The Challenge of Jesus)

Thus identity begins to be renewed. Thus it can continue on, by the grace of God, to find the confidence and vision that the Gospel of Jesus is all about. Soli deo gloria.

Mar 5, 2014

We Will Overcome

This is our Story

We all wrestle at some point, or what feels like constantly, with a daemon—our self, another person, a messenger from Satan, maybe even an angel of God. There are so many questions, so many uncertainties—so many frustrations. Life is full of struggle: disappointment, heartache, more confusion.

Each thorn in my side is a distraction that I do not want. It hurts. It steals my resolve, sometimes even suffocates my courage. Fear preys upon the soul persistently, tearing off bits of flesh while I gasp for air under the weight of its heavy talons. Life is suffering.

And yet the self is not as strong as I think; the other person just as insecure, the demon less cunning, the angel more benevolent. There are so many answers, so many certainties. Life is full of hope: Love, the Spirit of God that is joy—confidence born from the faith of courage. Life is warfare, suffering translated to passion.

“The war that we’re fighting has already been won.”[1]

And they overcame him by the blood of the Lamb, and by the word of their testimony.”[2] The prince of this world, the Enemy, “the accuser”, Lucifer, has been overcome. Human frailty has been overcome. That wound—that broken identity, that lust, that distraction, that thorn, that fear—everything has been overcome.

How? How is this possible?

Jesus of Nazareth, the Son of God. The “I am.” YHWH.

God knows exactly what our suffering is. He knows it because he lived it. He knows physical suffering. He knows the questions, the hatred, the rejection, the abandonment that devastates us. He knows all of it. He knows it better. And he overcame it. Death is crushed under the feet of Jesus, feet that were pierced by a nail on a cross. With a heart burning with the purpose of the Kingdom of Heaven, he rose from the dead, and gazed at the injustice of the world as a conqueror. Nature groans. It is overcome. The echo of God’s coming cracks the enemy’s spiritual strongholds—gravestones, a stone blocking the tomb. They crumble. The enemy is overcome. The defenses of our hearts shudder at the song of Jesus’ love. We are overcome. Everything is overcome.

Therefore, we who answer the call of Jesus to follow him, who surrender control of our concerns at the foot of his lordship: the stable, the river, the mountain, the cross, the empty tomb; before the Throne of God, we can find hope. I can embrace it in intimacy, cherish it, let it rise within me to overflow from a heart saturated with the love of Jesus’ vision; until it is ignited with the passion of God’s victory. That through His call for me to live in faith and obedience, the Holy Spirit thus quenches the thirst of others and warms the cold of cultural conventionality.

I will overcome by the blood of Jesus and the word of my testimony. You will overcome. We will overcome.

Soli Deo Gloria.

This is our Song

For me, “Overcome” is one of the most inspiring worship stories that I have ever participated in.

I heartily encourage you to take twelve minutes to listen to it completely through, uninterrupted, reflectively, prayerfully. Turn the volume up to eleven. Listen to the words. But before you do . . .

I realize that on the surface, at first, the song may sound like any other U2-influenced, Hillsong-esque worship song. At a glance, it may seem like another pretentious example of charismatic emotional mongering. It may seem like many things, or nothing. And without a story, you would be absolutely right.

But there is a story.

Below the surface, there is the story of a church called New Life in Colorado Springs, Colorado that was racked by a scandal concerning its founder and lead pastor. There is a story of a church that, having just found some healing, lost two of its young members on campus to a gunman. This church knows hardship. It knows uncertainty, painful change. It knows what it means to stand united, arms locked together, backs to the fire, and face the night. They know what it means to overcome. In this life, in its chapters, in its days. “Overcome” is its anthem.

“Overcome” is its anthem because, still further beneath the surface, churns another current—another story. More expansive and mysterious than the Church, it is the Kingdom of God. It is the story of God’s love for humanity, for each of us. It is Jesus. Nothing can overcome that love. Nothing. Therefore, we will not be defeated. We will rise. We will stand. We will overcome. To God be all glory, now and forever. Amen.

Now listen . . .

[1] Sleeping at Last, “Dreamlife”, Keep No Score (2006).
[2] Revelation 12:11a (The Bible, King James Version)