“There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free, there is no male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus.”
–Paul’s letter to the Galatians
“But you are a chosen race, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, a people for his own possession, that you may proclaim the excellencies of him who called you out of darkness into his marvelous light. Once you were not a people, but now you are God’s people; once you had not received mercy, but now you have received mercy.”
–Peter’s first letter
Who am I? The identity question underlies all our other quests. Where we find our identity determines our passions and purposes. Being in Christ is an identity so profound and supreme, it swallows up all others.
Who am I? The quest for identity
Look at the pictures at the top of this post. What are each of those persons doing? here is what I see:
Each of them is fervently, passionately, wholeheartedly asserting their identity.
What do I mean by “identity?” Very simply put: they are defining who they are. They are asserting what matters to them. Assertions can be made in many ways. Some use signs, some clothes. Others wear t-shirts or post yard signs or wear hats. Yet, no matter how they do it, they are making their statement.
Identity and passionate worth-ship
Look again at the images. I see passion and intensity. One way to say this is that these are images of people giving their whole being to their identity. Their cause, or sexual identity, or preferred social change, or political leadership is what owns them. When there is passion, there is public action: marches or protests or unusual appearance. In the language of the Bible, this is called worship. When we worship, we are making a statement about what we find most important to us.
Worship is a human expression of what has the greatest worth to us.
If that is what worship is, aren’t all of them worshiping? What I choose for my deepest identity is what I worship and what owns me.
Secular people cannot escape worship
Over the years I have met a few philosophical nihilists. A nihilist asserts that nothing has meaning or value. They make the assertion boldly, until someone puts a dent in something that they think has meaning or value. I remember the man who insisted that we are all corrupt materialists, owned by our possessions. What I remember was how angry he became after someone had scratched the paint on his car. Guess he was a corrupt materialist? It is one thing to say life has no meaning; it is another to act like that is true. We cannot escape attributing worth and value to people or things or causes. In the last year thousands of people filled the streets because of what they treasured . During the same months, tens of thousands used social media to gang tackle people who challenged their treasured identity.
There is no such thing as not worshiping. Everybody worships. The only choice we get is what to worship. If you worship money and things, then you will never have enough, never feel you have enough. Worship your body and beauty and sexual allure and you will always feel ugly. And when time and age start showing, you will die a million deaths before they finally grieve you. Worship power, you will end up feeling weak and afraid, and you will need ever more power over others to numb you to your own fear. Worship your intellect, being seen as smart, you will end up feeling stupid, a fraud, always on the verge of being found out. But the insidious thing about these forms of worship is not that they’re evil or sinful, it’s that they’re unconscious. They are default settings. (David Foster Wallace)
Our good identities are bad
What made the past year unusual was how public this was. Usually what we worship is private, rarely surfacing in our lives. Often it seems innocuous. Why innocuous? Because what we worship is quite often a good thing. Being a good parent is desirable. Wanting justice is a good thing. Because our chosen core identity (who am I? which directs what I give myself to) is often a good thing, it lives quietly in us, until it is awakened. But here is my observation: when we give ourselves to a good thing, even a very good thing, as our highest identity, those good things become demonic. How do I know that? I have been an eye-witness to the awakening of the demons. What do I mean by that? What awakens them? There I am, offering counsel and care to someone in a difficult circumstance, when they morph from quiet Smeagol into a fierce and angry defender of their “precious.” Someone or something threatened their highest identity. From their gut, they reacted in hostility or terror. 1
2020: Identities everywhere
This year has been a year of calling for decision. Every day we were given choices — will we identify with Fauci or Trump? with BLM or racism? with protests or privilege. Every choice before us was binary. No nuance was allowed. This is religion-like. 2. Each cause comes with a demand that we worship X and X alone, with no competitors. In the language of the Bible, here is what we heard:
Choose this day whom you will serve.
2020: Identities at war
2020 was a year of competition between the chosen identities people worship. When people give themselves to differing identities, when their whole being is owned by their cause, they will contend fiercely with anyone who sees differently. I love the way Scripture brings all of this down to very ordinary behavior. God lists it this way:
“Now the works of the flesh are evident: . . . enmity, strife, jealousy, fits of anger, rivalries, dissensions, divisions, envy,” (Gal 5:20–21 ESV)
That sure sounds to me like the political, medical, legal, and ecclesial world I have lived in these last 11 months.
Reflection One: Identity, the Sun, and the planets
I like to point people to the solar system which the earth inhabits. It is an amazingly balanced thing. Each planet finds its orbit around the sun. Despite differences in mass, in rotational speed, and in the time it takes for them to complete an orbit, they remain in their place without veering off course. That is because the sun is 99.9% of the mass of the solar system. All those planets stay in order because of the mass of the Sun. They do not run into each other because of the Sun. So it is with us.
Our chosen highest identity is the Sun around which our life orbits.
That identity, by definition, is our “passion.” If that identity is large enough, it brings order and stability to our lives. I might add that it should bring order to the lives around us too. All of human history is a competition for the center, for the controlling cause or moral value or ideology that will occupy the place around which all lesser causes orbit. These competitions occasionally break into war, whether on the streets or the battlefield. Someone wins and someone loses. But shortly after there is disappointment. The dominance of our central identity and cause does not bring universal flourishing. Those we defeated have not gone away. No, they have mutated into new competitors.
Maybe all our preferred “suns” are not up to the job description of holding all things together?
Reflection Two: Eccentricity
One way to describe a biblically informed perspective of the human race is this: we are eccentric. That means we are off center. There is a weight in the ball so that when it rolls it will not go straight. It wobbles. We are eccentric because we have displaced the highest and best with almost any alternative. God calls this idolatry. Idolatry is not about bowing before statues or even something that is only for religious people. Idolatry is attributing ultimate value to something other than God. That leads to chaos. Whatever that other god is, it is not up to the task of holding our lives together. If the Bible is right and we are made for God, then to reject Him as the center, would lead to disorder and eccentricity. Sure looks like that around here to me.
Reflection Three: My identity in Christ
If you read through the New Testament, you will find that almost every letter to the churches is written to people “In Christ” who live “in a place.” The apostles are telling their original recipients about their supreme and unique identity. They are “in Christ.” This means God has defined them. God has placed them into the Eternal Son of God incarnate, who triumphed over sin and darkness by the sacrifice of himself, and who now reigns as King over all the nations. His kingdom is not of this world. His cause is not political but a new creation. They are being told, if you are a Christian, Christ is your identity. Period.
Reflection Four: In Christ, in location
They also live in this age, at a particular place and time. God calls them to live in that place and time in a way that causes observers to respect and honor Christ. Their center is Christ. Informing others of who he is and what he has done in their message. How they live is controlled by making Him look good, and they avoid anything that gives reason for him to be dishonored. Of course, this identity is built on universal human dignity and universal human corruption now redeemed through Christ. Christianity uniquely levels the ground for every member of the human race. All have dignity, all are corrupt, God’s grace is available to all without cost. Remembering this in the last year was essential for me. It formed my choices and decisions and conversations.
Reflection Five: The war for the center of my life
I have found the last year to be a war for the center of my soul. Many voices and causes surfaced: our tragic history of racism, the cause of freedom of speech, the need for change, a political party or cause, views on the pandemic and public health measures. What was unique to the last year was the number and diversity and sheer loudness of the calls for absolute allegiance. Why do I say absolute? because of the observed response to anyone who refused to swallow the particular cause whole.
Everything was binary.
If I said I think we need to address our history of racism but did not support the whole of the BLM movement, I was called a racist. If I said I believed there were character issues with Trump, I was called an anti-Trumper. If I said I thought all violent protests, no matter who was in them, were evil acts, I was called a . . . well, you get the idea. Only one center has the worth to force a binary choice. That is because He alone is supreme and highest and best.
Reflection Six: no add-ons
In light of this, I have refused to allow any add-ons to my identity. What do I mean by add-ons? I mean hyphenated identity. Here are some examples of hyphenated identity: “I am a Caucasian-Christian”. Or, “I am an anti-racism Christian.” Or, “I am a republican Christian.” Or, “Jesus is my savior and Trump is my President.” Why is that a problem?
First, as soon as you add-on you distract from Christ. No one and no thing can be on the same page, or the same chapter, or even the same book as him. He is incomparable.
Why is it not enough to say, “I am in Christ, and Christ alone will bring about a kingdom in which every person is treated with impartiality and respect”? Why is it not enough to say, “I am in Christ, and Christ has created all races and people, and Christ redeems all races and people. He does not treat me any differently because I am white”?
Second, and far more serious, you corrupt the Gospel. The Gospel is a stand alone message. Nothing may be added or subtracted without changing the message. Paul says those who add or subtract deserve the curse of God (Gal 1:6-9). Here is what that looks like. When someone says “Jesus is my Savior, Trump is my President” he elevates Trump and diminishes Christ. The problem with this is that they are not in the same league. Jesus is the Eternal Son of God incarnate who for us and for our sins died to bring us into an eternal kingdom. Trump is a mere man, a corrupt man, a man who did not die for our sins. To give an example on the other side: if I make the message “Christ plus social justice,” I lower the redemptive work of Christ and raise up a human cause of justice.
Many times this year I observed brothers and sisters of color or whiteness so assert their racial identity that I was unable to have a conversation with them. What mattered to them more than all else was race. That way of thinking diminishes the greatness of Christ and our unity in him. It is attention to the planet and not the Sun.
For another example, as I looked around at many of my brothers and sisters in Christ this year, what I saw and heard and read was their politics and their views of face-masks. Christian leaders, rather than exalting Christ, distracted from the Gospel by making loud statements about public health. Again, unless the Sun is given its full weight, the planets become disordered. As expected, the fruit of this has been division among those who heard them.
Ancient people formed their identities around their sex, their race, their citizenship in the Empire, their social standing, their cultural history, and their religious superiority. Christianity breaks the power of building our identity around such superficial matters. Consider these passages, in which Scripture defines who a Christian is in such a way that all the usual identities we pursue are made null and void:
“There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free, there is no male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus.” (Gal 3:28 ESV) “Here there is not Greek and Jew, circumcised and uncircumcised, barbarian, Scythian, slave, free; but Christ is all, and in all.” (Col 3:11 ESV)
Christ is that great.
This is my opinion as a Christian. It is not a “thus says the Lord.”
Why are we distracted by silly things like masks? Why are we busily tweeting the latest cherry picked article that supports our medical view? This is not our calling.
Let me be as clear as I can be: the mix of the G0spel with public health, social justice, anti-racism, and the cancellation culture on the left — and the counterpoint on the right: the hybridization of the “Jesus is my Savior, Trump is my President” slogan, Christian nationalism, and the Christian panic that we may become minority citizens stripped of our rights — these are perverse distractions from the real purpose of God in this age. The purpose of God in this age is the announcement that the true God has acted in mercy to provide a pardon for the guilty and cleansing for the defiled. He is building his people among all nations and races.
The church is called in some measure to look like the kingdom of God. I think the message of God to the church, within the family of God itself, is this: physician heal yourself. The church has become a collection of isolated and insulated homogeneous units of people of like culture, race, and politics. That is not the kingdom of God.
The word of the cross is the power and wisdom of God. God does not need our help making the message more effective.
God’s people are not called nor do we need to take up the feeble ideologies of the current crisis and adapt them to our purposes. Rather, we should be working out the power of the new creation among ourselves and calling the ideologues to adapt to Christ.
Not only that, the well-being of the church in the USA has nothing to do with the protection of the rights of Christians. God’s purposes and God’s people have prospered when persecuted, when facing discrimination, and when they lose all their rights.
Reflection Seven: no half-truths
Here is my last point: I refuse to ally myself with any movement or cause that positions itself as demanding absolute loyalty. Only Christ is in that place.
I also refuse to link the name of Christ with any political or ideological cause because those causes are always corrupt and full of half-truths. Does that mean I withdraw from being a good citizen in our republic? Not at all.
As a Christian I am called to be independent of the warring factions of humankind. Christ is not allied with any of them. That is why I left the Republican party. That is why I registered as an independent. That is why my call of citizenship focuses on issues of interest to all (such as First Amendment). That is why I, as a citizen, work to nurture candid and civil discourse.
Moving on from ‘who am I’: who are you?
Here’s a test. Where is your identity? What oozes from your pores and spills from your mouth? What provokes you to anger or stirs your passions? God has sent his Son to rescue us from our eccentric worship of false identities. Because He has paid the price to set us free, we can be re-centered in Him. And He brings order and perspective to the warring identities and causes of our day. He has also secured a final day of peace, justice, and righteousness.
- This idea of visceral values is explored more in Jonathan Haidt, The Righteous Mind, from a secular perspective.[↩]
- I am not alone in saying this, see John McWhorter articles[↩]