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On Identity, Part 1

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When I (Michael) used to work in Uganda, it was not uncommon to be faced with how much I stuck out. Part of my work was meeting with community leaders hours off the road, in places where few white people venture throughout the year. Though I was used to being obviously different, I still had a sense of purpose and who I was, why I was there. This changed when I took my redheaded wife with me.

Very quickly, the anomaly of how we looked was more defined. Moms were grabbing their kids and pulling them outside to see this person with red hair (some kids then promptly crying out of fear). Kids who were brave were constantly asking to touch her hair. I didn’t think much of it until months later when I returned to continue some of the work and entered the grounds of a school. The headmaster approached and said, “Ah! The redhead's husband! How is she?”

Those of you who know my wife know that this is indeed a compliment for me to be described in terms of my relationship to her. But until that moment, I’m not sure I had consciously thought about my identity as such.

The Complexity of Identity

How often do we consider all the pieces that make up our identity? Typically, until it causes problems, we exist in terms of how we see ourselves. I know I’m the “redhead’s husband” but I do not regularly define myself that way to other people. But how does that influence how I see myself? How I see God?

This series will focus on how our identities are formed, what contributes to them, and how we avoid the parts of ourselves born out of pain and brokenness.

As believers, it is difficult to have a discussion about identity because it is naturally born in conflict. We know our sinful nature, and we know the beauty of what Christ did on the cross - he saved us from this nature. But we also deeply understand Paul’s words in Romans 7 - we keep doing the things we don’t want to do and know we shouldn’t do! We are torn between who we were created to be, who we have been, who we are today, and who we know we are becoming in Christ.

This is a struggle, in part, because of our lack of understanding and awareness of what makes up our identity. This series will focus on the pieces that we believe contribute to our identity and how an awareness of these pieces holistically can change our engagement with God, others, and ourselves.

Theologically, we understand that our core identity is the Imago Dei - we are image bearers of God. We were created in His image and reflect that image in all of the many facets of our complex beings. We are creative...we feel...we love...we hurt...Our finite minds comprehend this sense that we reflect something greater, something beyond description. I would argue that we don’t sit too deeply with this. We know it intellectually but we are more deeply impacted by our identities in the work of Christ on the cross. It is more difficult to connect with our pre-fall identities - our deep, relational, image-bearing identity from the garden - none of us were there. So we connect more quickly with the work of Christ.

This can lead to a focus on where we are going versus where we have been. Our new identities are filled with hope, promise, renewal, redemption - finally being made complete as we were intended to be. The promise of the Gospel is that this change is not only happening but the means by which it happens are already completed in Christ!

But something is lacking if our focus is solely on this new identity.

We have somehow lost a sense that in this ‘new creation’ we forget the old completely. It’s gone, forever forgotten, almost as if it was a faint dream of another world...one that seems vaguely familiar but vanishes the deeper we think about it.

We so deeply want to focus on the new that we fear what any view of the old will do to us. And I think this happens for a lot of good reasons: we don’t want to dwell on our sinful nature so as not to give it power...we don’t want to slip into works-related legalism…the list goes on.

The Old and the New

I fear only focusing on the new creation prevents us from fully understanding the process through which God takes us in order to understand him and ourselves more fully. Our stories, though filled with brokenness and sin, are still a part of our new identities. Jesus carried the scars of his crucifixion with his new, resurrected body. Paul likely visited a church where members remembered him as the one who murdered their father. The demon-possessed man who had broken through the chains had to face the owner of the pigs that had just been driven into the sea. The paralytic man whose friends lowered him through the roof likely had some experience with the owner of the house who now had a hole in his roof.

Our stories provide more DNA to our identity than many of us would like to accept. Once you find hope in Christ, looking back to the ways you were once more hopeless, depressed, selfish, filled with rage, and hard-hearted can feel like an unhelpful exercise in self-deprecation.

But I have sat with many people who have such deep confusion about their stories. They insist that the person they used to be has completely gone and they are focused now on Christ. There is some fear that by going back and mining the depths of who they really are, they will somehow lose sight of their identity in Christ.

Those of us who grew up in the church especially are guilty of treating our faith as a ‘how-to’ manual, instructing us on the best ways to be married and be in community. Unfortunately (and most likely unintentionally) what this seems to communicate to many is “If you come from a broken marriage...or have been hurt by community...then just read this and see how you did it wrong and can do it better.”

Those of us with difficult pasts can then start to wonder how to make sense of it all. If my marriage broke down but I’m supposed to be forgiving because of what Christ has done, how do I make sense of what happened with my spouse? If I was abused growing up but I’m this new creation, how do I make sense of the anxiety and panic I feel around certain people? If I have struggled with addiction for most of my life, how do I trust that I have freedom in Christ when I am still in bondage to this addiction?

Unfortunately, many people like this have been told to have more faith - to simply focus on Jesus more and then change will start to happen. And I don’t want to be unfair - this comes from an earnest place of believing that Jesus truly is Lord over all and can heal the brokenhearted (which is true!). But our avoidance of approaching the difficult pieces in our stories gives us a false sense of redemption. We begin to believe that what Christ requires is for us to show up only looking forward. It is a false sense of security that these experiences in our past will somehow not impact how we see ourselves, others, and even God. Not acknowledging this hinders a deep and real connection to Christ. Not acknowledging this pushes us into the lies that there are parts of our hearts that can never be minded. Not acknowledging this keeps us from moving toward each other when we need the body of Christ most.

Tony Stoltzfus, an executive coach and author puts it this way:

"...the biggest reason Christians in general experience so little transformation in their lives is that they ignore the Bible's relational mandate for how to affect change. We were never meant to live the Christian life alone. Christianity is an interdependent, community-oriented faith. And yet, when we set out to improve our prayer life, or deal with our anger problem, or increase our income, or become a better father; most of the time we work on it completely alone."

We hide the parts of our story that we feel shame over because we don’t know how to make sense of them in light of who we are in Christ. We pull back from sharing with each other these pieces of ourselves because without having it nicely tied up with a bow, we feel like there is no use to sharing it. And yet, we experience so little transformation.

As we dive deeper into what makes up our identity, we will spend time defining the various pieces - the beauty of our identity in Christ, but also the pain of brokenness and sin. Our hope is to encourage a deeper conversation on who we are, and how to bring that more authentically before Christ, and those with whom we live life.