Who do you think you are?
In 2004, the BBC launched a genealogy documentary which has proved one of its most successful series in the last decade.In each episode, a celebrity goes on a journey to trace his or her family tree. The programme attracted what was then the highest audience ratings for BBC2 and was immediately transferred to its premier channel and then adapted for export to a number of countries overseas. Celebrities featured have been amazed at the discoveries unearthed from records and certificates and from oral history. Some guests have been overcome with joy on learning that they belonged to a higher social class, to nobility - and even to ancient royalty; others, who themselves are normally very controlled in public, have been brought to tears by the knowledge of the sufferings of their ancestors; while others, not usually devoid of a sense of humour, have been less than amused to discover that their roots extended in the not too distant past to the criminal fraternity.
The programme tapped into what has become an increasing desire to know who we are. The search for identity has been given impetus by the loss in so many areas of the certitudes which gave a framework to the lives of so many up to the 1980s, which saw the development of the postmodern world in which we live. To establish their place in the world of those around them many have enquired into their personal family history.
A false identity
If we are asked to identify ourselves we might start by giving our name, describe what we do, what we have achieved (usually the highlights – the lowlights are - parents, spouse and/or children, or extended family, as appropriate - focussing probably more on what we do rather than what we are. Now in an image-conscious age there is considerable pressure to appear other than we are. The fact that thousands in different countries queue up to appear on X-Factor shows often a dissatisfaction with who they are and a longing for popular acclaim. At auditions, the media expose the folly of some misplaced aspirations.
While there is nothing wrong in self-improvement, and while, in fact, Christ exhorts us to strive to do better than what we have done previously, there are dangers in trying to impersonate others, in trying to be something or someone we are not, and in not developing the gifts, talents and character that have come from God. Oscar Wilde flagged up, from a secular standpoint, the problems of personality-suicide:
Most people are other people. Their thoughts are someone else’s opinions, their lives a mimicry, their passions a quotation.
I recently came across a story which exposes, on a lighter note, our attempts at being someone we are not:
An unemployed man took on an unusual, but well-paid position in a zoo as a temporary replacement for a gorilla who had died. He sat at the back of a large cage, clad in a very credible gorilla costume, and pretended to be asleep. But being bored with sitting, he jumped up and down and tried a few gorilla noises. When the crowd clapped and cheered and threw peanuts (which the man liked) he became more adventurous. He tried to climb a tree, then a vine. Egged on by an increasing crowd he climbed higher and higher – and then all of a sudden, the vine broke! He was catapulted out of the cage into the lion’s cage next door, landing not twenty feet away from a hungry-looking lion. Abandoning his persona the man started to scream and yell: ‘Help, help! Get me out of here! I’m not a gorilla! I’m a man in a gorilla suit!’ The lion quickly pounced on the man, held him down and said: ‘Will you shut up! You’re going to get both of us fired!’
(Nate Barbour, abridged and adapted)
Most of us would probably not want to imitate a gorilla but we can all adopt other poses in our daily living. The problem of false identity is a major issue in Christian life and service. We can so easily forget who we are and have an identity crisis not dissimilar to that experienced by so many in our postmodern world.
A true identity
In our Sunday morning series in John’s gospel many of the headings for the passages have included the word ‘true’ or ‘real’. Finding our true identity in Christ involves, however, a paradox, best summed up by Jesus Himself:
Whoever wants to save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for me will find it. (Matthew 16:25)
and by Paul:
I have been crucified with Christ. It is no longer I who live, but Christ who lives in me. And the life I now live in the flesh I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave himself for me. (Galatians 2: 20)
To discover my true self, I have to lose myself. To live, I have to die to my own self-centredness. But that does not mean that I lose my spiritual DNA, and that I deny what makes me what I am. It is not Christ instead of me but Christ in me.
One of the key issues in the re-establishing of the centrality of the Word of God in the Church of Scotland in the 1950s, a work led notably by William Still and James and George Philip, was a focus on the liberation of personality brought about by the handing over of our lives to Christ. This does not mean the release of the anarchic self for which Oscar Wilde was searching, but our realising the new identity of the redeemed self, free from the hang-ups brought about by sin.
This liberation does not guarantee that there will not be limitation. But as Joni Eareckson Tada, who since 1967 from the age of eighteen has had to endure pain and disappointment as a quadraplegic after breaking her neck in a diving accident, has acknowledged, her death to self and to becoming more and more like Jesus has given her an identity which will last for all eternity:
Somewhere in my broken, paralysed body is the seed of what I shall become. The paralysis makes what I am to become all the more grand when you contrast atrophied, useless legs against the splendorous resurrected legs. I’m convinced that if there are mirrors in heaven (and why not?), the image I’ll see will be unmistakably Joni. So much so, that it’s not worth comparing [...] I will bear the likeness of Jesus, the man from heaven.
(Heaven: Your Real Home)
Who does God think we are?
Nevertheless, whatever we might think about ourselves, God’s assessment is the one that matters. In that sense, the identity question for the Christian is not who but whose we are. As Paul said,
For it is not the one who commends himself who is approved, but the one whom the Lord commends(2 Corinthians 10: 18).
One of the problems is to accept and believe what God says about us. We can so easily define ourselves by our feelings, by our circumstances, by how others see us, or by our successes or, more frequently, our failures. These can give us a false identity, leading to excessive self-satisfaction or self-rejection, to thinking that we’ve arrived or that we are worthless. Understanding better who we are in Christ will help us in our relationship with others and in our service. If we could take time (such a valuable commodity) to look at some of the many passages which tell us how greatly God values us we will know increasing liberation from all the self-doubts or from the need for self-admiration. Meditating (a lost art in itself) on just a few of the very many statements regarding our true identity in Christ will help us become more effective Christian servants: For example, we are:
- redeemed and forgiven (Colossians 1: 14)
- dearly loved by God (Colossians 3: 12)
- a new creation (2 Corinthians 5:17)
- children of God, with full rights as heirs (cf: Ephesians 1: 5-6)
- joint heirs with Jesus, sharing His inheritance with Him (Romans 8:17)
- a friend of Jesus (John 15: 14)
- an ambassador of Christ (2 Corinthians 5: 20)
- a fellow-worker with God (2 Corinthians 6: 1)
- a member of Christ’s body (1 Corinthians 12: 27)
- seated in heavenly places with Christ (Ephesians 2: 6)
Underpinning all these statements is the cross of Christ which lies at the centre of our Christian identity. Seeing Christ’s willing surrender of His life gives us a perspective on ours: no boasting (it is all of grace); but no inferiority complex, either. Reminding ourselves of God’s view of who we are in Christ and His pleasure in us should give us even greater joy than that experienced by those in the TV series who discovered that they were descendants of royalty. The royal family to which all who trust in Jesus belong is the oldest of them all; it goes back to before the world began. But unlike many monarchies it is still ruling. May God help us to live as if we are children of the King, who is alive for all eternity.
With very best wishes
Noël Peacock, Session ClerkView All Letters