Facing the problem of finding our true identity in today’s world. The nature of humans as created in God’s likeness but seriously flawed. Finding a new identity as children of God. Our identity in Christ. The choice we must make.
“Who am I?” is an arresting title. It is one of the most relevant questions humanity asks. Dick Tripp does well in addressing this fundamental of all issues. I am delighted that a New Zealander with the reading depth of Dick has tackled this topic because it concerns me that we don’t do enough work on identifying just who we are. Indeed, all societies are consumed with this question of self-realisation. There is an increasing belief that one finds one’s identity in terms of culture alone. It is therefore refreshing to see Dick tackling this assertion and putting the emphasis back on what the Scripture says. I believe Dick hits the nail on the head when he says that the heart of the problem of humanity is “we are morally flawed”. He is right also in maintaining that this is not a popular assertion. The wonderful quote by Hengel provides the balance between guilt and sin and between freedom and responsibility. Dick reminds us that the way back to God provides us with a new identity as “his children”. I like the way Dick doesn’t fudge the issue of homosexuality and the importance of making the right choices. Dick has a great sense of humour in his treatment on this subject. The Anna Russell song exemplifies this. One of the things I love about Dick’s writing is his uncanny ability to find a quote for all occasions and seasons. As a preacher I find these invaluable and will continue to use his quotes and illustrations in sermons and other talks for years to come. This booklet is a much needed one for it asserts that we are created by a loving God who has a plan for us and that our true identity can be found in him. We no longer need to be wandering around in the wilderness not knowing to whom we belong. This is great news. Thanks Dick for your clarity and your passion.
The Rev. Mike Hawke, BA, LTh
Vicar of St. Christopher’s Anglican Church,
Who am I?
Finding my true identity as a human being and as a Child of God
The problem explored
The story is told that Arthur Scholenhauer, the philosopher of pessimism, was sitting one day in the Tiergarten at Frankfurt, looking somewhat shabby and dishevelled, when the park-keeper mistook him for a tramp and asked him gruffly, “Who are you?” To this enquiry the philosopher replied bitterly, “I wish I knew.” A similar story is told of Marlon Brando. When asked “How are you?” he replied, “How do I know how I am, when I don’t even know who I am.” The writer Edward Dahlberg observed, “At nineteen I was a stranger to myself, at forty I asked ‘Who am I?’, at fifty I concluded I would never know. ” Woody Allen put it a little differently. He said that his only regret in life was that he wasn’t somebody else.
The dawn of a new millennium finds us living in an uncharted world where the major conflicts are mapped more by cultural and ethnic than geographic and political boundaries. Harvard political scientist Samuel Huntingdon, as he surveyed the post-Cold War realities in The Clash of Civilisations (1998), warned of a world “anarchical, rife with tribal and national conflicts”. He saw the end of the twentieth century marked by an “eruption of a global identity crisis.”
For whatever reason, it seems that one of the problems many people face in today’s Western society, is finding out where they fit in the scheme of things. Some 100 years ago the artist Paul Gauguin scrawled in the corner of his painting the words “D’ou Venons Nous? Que Sommes Nous? Ou Allons Nous?” (“Where do we come from? What are we? Where are we going to?”) He then swallowed a bottle of arsenic and prepared to die. He actually survived and carried on painting but he had, in that moment, expressed a despair that many are feeling more than ever today as they consider those three big questions.
No doubt there are many reasons for this state of affairs. One must surely be the increasing breakdown of family relationships—with growing divorce rates, increasing solo parenthood and extra-marital sex, and the blurring of sexual boundaries and the definition of what “family” really means. Most people find their first sense of identity, of really belonging somewhere, in close family relationships. However, when these no longer exist, it is no wonder that many feel lost.
A second factor is the crass materialism that exists in our culture, the constant emphasis on the acquiring of things rather than our relationships with people. In a book of essays titled The Culture of Consumption, historian Jackson Lear examines the psychological effects that consumption has had on Americans, effects that are no doubt true of Western society generally. Whereas earlier Americans (when they were citizens, not consumers) were inner-directed, having their identity revolve around a higher principle, modern Americans can be termed other-directed.
Lear notes that the other-directed person is just “an empty vessel to be filled and refilled according to the expectations of others and the needs of the moment.” People’s identities consist of the masks they put on, masks that either make them look successful or help them get success, allowing those around them to define who they are. We have lost our separate selfhood, or at least momentarily misplaced it. Instead of finding it in our rich family heritage, or in the gifts that have surfaced in us, or in the laughter of our children, we have been sidetracked by the consumer culture’s claims that we are incomplete and needy.
A third factor in our computer-and-TV-driven society is the multitude of conflicting messages we are constantly receiving from so many sources. Jim Fidelibus, who has a background in philosophy, theology and psychology, and twenty years experience in counselling and related fields, says in The Death of Truth (ed. Dennis McCallum):
According to postmodern theorists such as psychoanalyst Jacques Lacan, we never really achieve a stable image of who we are. In a seemingly ever-changing contemporary society with media linkages to our homes, cars, schools, and places of employment, the images we are fed—and with which we identify—are so varied and incongruent that we begin feeling like patchwork. The moment we are sure of ourselves, we hear scores of dissenting voices, no longer just from without, but now from within. To take a stand on any issue, be it related to lifestyle, career or marital choice, sexual orientation, child-rearing, religion, or politics, seems arbitrary in the light of so many voices, all of which present themselves as equally valid alternatives. And certainly, claiming “truth” for an arbitrary stand can only be seen as arrogant. So we act without any claim on truth.
A fourth factor is the pervasive influence of postmodern thinking. K. Gergen in The Saturated Self put it like this:
Postmodern psychology argues for the erasure of the category of self. No longer can one securely determine what it is to be a specific kind of person—male or female—or even a person at all. As the category of the individual person fades from view, consciousness of social construction becomes focal. We realise increasingly that who and what we are is not so much the result of our “personal essence” (real feelings, deep beliefs, and the like) but of how we are constructed in various social groups.
It is no doubt that this lack of self-identity is behind much of the increasing violence in many of our societies today. Jim Fidelibus goes on to say:
The loss of self-identity has been associated with some of the most unsettling findings in the entire psychology research literature. When people’s group experience diminishes their sense of self, people tend to behave in ways less restrained and more indulgent. Individuals are also carried into adopting more extreme positions, and favour more radical action than they would take independently.
Some of the most disturbing findings in this area come from the work of Philip Zimbardo of Stanford University. He conducted a prison-simulation experiment in which college students role-played guards and prisoners over a period of six days. What happened was frightening. Participants increasingly seemed to confuse role-playing and self-identity as the basest, most morbid side of human nature was exhibited. Experimenters were horrified to see “guards” take pleasure in cruelty and “prisoners” become increasingly preoccupied with escape, individual survival, and mounting hatred. The experiment, originally planned for a two-week period, had to be aborted before even one week had been completed.
So much for an analysis of the problem. Is there any solution? The purpose of this article is to assist you to find your true identity from a Christian perspective. When we look at the Bible—the New Testament in particular—we find that our identity, first as human beings and second as children of God, is something so wonderful that it is not easy to grasp its full significance. It is an identity that grows out of a relationship to a God who created the universe for your benefit, who was willing to endure infinite suffering in order that you might find your true identity, and who has a purpose for you that will be beyond your greatest dreams.* Other philosophies and religions have their own ideas about who we really are, or who we are meant to be. Speaking from a Buddhist perspective, Buddhagosa, in Path of Purity, says, “I am nowhere a somewhatness for anyone.” In Hitler’s Germany, during the 1930s, many young members of the Hitler Youth would chant these simple words: “You are nothing, the nation is everything.” Or, in the words of one of Pink Floyd’s famous songs, “You’re just another brick in the wall.” However, if the Bible is true, you are something infinitely more than that. My prayer is that what follows might help you sort out who you really are.
*This booklet assumes the existence of this God. If you have any problem with that, you may like to try some of the other titles in this series—perhaps Is Jesus Really God? or Did Jesus Really Rise from the Dead?
Humans—created in God’s likeness
Before exploring the question of who we are as children of God, it is very important that we have a clear understanding of the nature of human beings. What we understand human beings to be will largely determine how we treat them and what we believe about a lot of other things. Professor J. S. Whale, in his book Christian Doctrine, wrote:
Ideologies, to use the ugly modern jargon, are really anthropologies. That is, they concern the doctrine of man…This is the ultimate question behind the vast debate, the desperate struggles of our time.
There has been a long-standing debate about where our superiority to animals lies. Keith Thomas collected a number of quaint suggestions in his book Man and the Natural World (1984). He points out that a human being was described by Aristotle as a political animal, by Thomas Willis as a laughing animal, by Benjamin Franklin as a tool-making animal, by Edmund Burke as a religious animal, and by James Boswell as a cooking animal. Aristotle added the peculiarity that only human beings were able to wiggle their ears. But are humans something more than just superior animals, a little higher along on the evolutionary scale?
The Bible responds with a very clear, “Yes!” According to Scripture, humans are not only the highest of God’s acts of creation, they are created in the “likeness” or “image” of God. “Then God said, ‘Let us make man in our image, in our likeness’…So God created man in his own image…male and female he created them” (Genesis 1:26, 27). The rest of the Bible gives us many clues as to what this “likeness to God” is meant to imply. The Anglican scholar and writer, John Stott, speaking at a National Prayer Breakfast at Westminster, summed this up well.
First, he said, there is our self-conscious rationality. We are able to think and reason, to stand outside ourselves, look at ourselves and evaluate ourselves. It is true that, in terms of the vastness of the universe, we are infinitely small, and yet we are the ones who possess the intelligence to study the universe, its workings and formation.
Secondly, there is our ability to make moral choices. We have a built in moral conscience, even if, sadly, we may fail to heed it. We have an inward urge to do what we perceive to be right and a sense of guilt if we do what we believe to be wrong.
Thirdly, as our God is a creative God, there are our powers of artistic creativity. In consequence, we draw and we paint, we build and we sculpt, we dream and we dance, we write poetry and we make music. We are able to appreciate what is beautiful to the eye, the ear and the touch.
Fourthly, as our God is a God who exists as three persons, Father, Son and Holy Spirit, persons who have always existed together in love relationships,so there is our capacity for relationships of love.* He gave us the capacity to love and to be loved. Our greatest joys in life come from loving relationships, just as our greatest sorrows come through spoiled relationships. We are relational beings. It is not an accident that the first and greatest commandments are to love God and our neighbour.
Fifthly, there is our insatiable thirst for God. Neither the secularism and gross materialism of the West, nor the failed communistic philosophy of the East can satisfy the longings of the human spirit. The human “spirit” is constantly mentioned in the Bible (e.g. Zechariah 12:1 and often in the New Testament). Whereas the term “soul” or “life” is used of animals (Hebrew—Genesis 1:21, Greek—Revelation 16:3), “spirit” never is. God is spirit and we were created for fellowship with him.
In considering the relationship of humans to animals, we could use the analogy of the relationship between a jet plane and a motor car. They have many similarities. Both have wheels, are made of metal, can transport people, and possess engines that propel them forward on the ground. However, when one studies the shape of the jet plane, its engines and the shape of its wings, one gets the impression that it was made to fly. Similarly, though possessing many qualities in common with animals, we were created for something far greater than they. G. K. Chesterton put it like this:
Man is not a balloon going up into the sky, nor a mole burrowing merely in the earth: but rather a thing like a tree, whose roots are fed from the earth, while its highest branches seem to rise almost to the stars.
Alexander Pope, the humanist poet of the Enlightenment, summed up the goal of Western civilisation when he wrote:
Know then thyself,
Presume not God to scan,
The proper study of mankind is man.
However, if it is God who planned our existence before the creation of the universe and who loved us into being, we are going to be stuck in a dead end if we leave him out of the picture. Eugene Peterson, in Run with the Horses, says:
Our lives are not puzzles to be figured out. Rather, we come to God, who knows us and reveals to us the truth of our lives. The fundamental mistake is to begin with ourselves and not God. God is the centre from which all life develops. If we use our ego as the centre from which to plot the geometry of our lives, we will live eccentrically.
John Calvin, in his classic work Institutes of the Christian Religion, said: “It is certain that man never achieves a clear knowledge of himself unless he has first looked upon God’s face.”
John Stott sums up our uniqueness as humans well in The Contemporary Christian:
Our greatest claim to nobility is our created capacity to know God, to be in personal relationship with him, to love him and to worship him. Indeed, we are most truly human when we are on our knees before our Creator.
All we have said so far raises a great problem. If God created us with loving purposes in mind, if we share qualities that have their counterpart in God himself, if we are his personal representatives, put here to care for his creation, and if we are meant to be enjoying a loving relationship with him and with one another, why is the world in such a mess? To deny thatsomething is wrong is simply to be dishonest or bury our heads in the sand.
Leighton Ford, in The Jesus Generation, asks the question:
What is wrong with the world when promises are not enough and we must have contracts; when doors are not enough and we need locks; when laws are not enough and we need police. What is wrong with the world when education has dispelled so much ignorance and raised the literacy rate, yet the worst wars in history have been fought by the most literate nations. What is wrong with the world when government and labour and business produce an affluent society, but cannot deal with the spiralling rate of crime, suicide, drug addiction and moral breakdown.
Whatever the problem is, it is quite obvious that it has something to do with human nature. Any philosophy or religion that ignores this question is no more likely to come up with a realistic solution than a doctor is likely to be able to help a patient when he ignores the reality of that patient’s cancer. How is it that humans can rise to such heights of artistic creation, moral goodness and personal self-sacrifice, and yet sink to such depths of depravity, moral cruelty and self-centredness? The seventeenth century mathematician and philosopher, Blaise Pascal, highlighted the heart of the problem when he declared:
What a chimera is man! What a novelty! What a monster, what a chaos, what a contradiction, what a prodigy! Judge of all things, feeble worm of the earth, depository of truth, a sink of uncertainty and error, the glory and the shame of the universe.
William Barrett, in Irrational Man, imagines someone from another planet being impressed by the amazing scientific advances we have made during recent decades. But if an observer from Mars were to turn his attention from these external things to the shape of humans as revealed in our novels, plays, painting and sculpture, “he would find there a creature full of holes and gaps, faceless, riddled with doubts and negations, starkly finite.”
The heart of the problem
The Bible gives a very clear answer as to what the problem is; the only answer that provides an adequate reason for all we observe of human behaviour. It declares that though we have Godlike qualities that give us a value far beyond the material universe and other forms of life, and that point to a great destiny, we are morally flawed. Here we get on to unpopular ground. However, an understanding of how this came about, and the biblical teaching of the sinfulness of human nature is essential to understanding the amazing goodness and grace of God, and also to finding our true identity and destiny as his sons and daughters. The Bible affirms our dignity as created in the divine image, but also explains our depravity, and we must never affirm one in such a way as to deny the other. In this sense we must be radical realists if we are to get a true picture, both of what we are and what we can become.
Sin is not, as a teenager once said, “something parsons have invented to give themselves a job!” Rightly understood, it is the clue to sorting out our problems. We must make an accurate diagnosis of our human condition before we can come up with the right cure. The Biblical picture of humans, as graphically portrayed in story form in the opening chapters of the Bible, is not of beings who are gradually evolving into a more perfect and better behaved race of people, but of beings who have fallen from a state of innocence. As originally created, man and woman enjoyed a loving relationship with God and were initially content to live in dependence on and obedience to him. However, you cannot have love without freedom and the first true humans chose to go their own independent way. In the Biblical story they were put out of the garden, separated from the “tree of life“, that quality of life which one can only enjoy in a loving relationship with God (Genesis 3:22-24). The consequences of this choice become only too clear when, in the next chapter of the Bible, Cain kills his brother Abel. A wrong relationship with God inevitably results in a wrong relationship with our neighbour. We cannot truly love one without loving the other.
One of the clearest statements of the importance of the biblical doctrine of sin that I know comes from the pen of Martin Hengel in an article in Christianity Today. Hengel is one of the foremost experts on early Judaism and Christianity. He writes:
Among the many reproaches against the Christian faith is the charge of being a religion of guilt and sin that is said to paint a negative picture of men and women. Yet without the possibility of guilt and sin, there will be no freedom and responsibility. This possibility of sinning, the ‘posse pecare’, is an essential part of human dignity, which distinguishes men and women as partners with God, bearing his image, from machines and animals. Only those who have experienced the remission of their own sins know what forgiveness is and can really forgive others. Without the awareness of sin, guilt, and remission there exists no conscience, no duty, and no consciousness of human dignity and rights, indeed no real humanity, which are basic conditions for our survival in this new millennium.
The biblical picture, then, is that we have all become self-centred rather than God-centred. In turning from God we have become locked into an attitude that focuses on self, as we have nowhere else to go. This is the essence of sin as it is described in the Bible. As G. C. Weiss has described it, sin is self-sufficiency instead of faith in God; self-will instead of submission to God; self-seeking instead of honouring God; self-righteousness instead of humility and contrition before God. Montague Goodman, who had a great ministry to teenagers during his lifetime, and through whom I first came to trust personally in the living Christ fifty years ago, relates the following incident. A young man who was leaving for the Far East had come to say goodbye. Montague had sought to commend Christ to him. Without any trace of hostility or bitterness the man replied, “I want to do as I like. I don’t see why I should surrender my liberty to Jesus Christ, or anyone else.” Montague comments:
In so saying he was but expressing the mind of the whole race of which he was a member. For the universal truth concerning mankind is just this: ‘We have turned everyone to his own way‘ [Isaiah 53:6]. This is man’s condemnation before God; he is not prepared to subject himself to the will of God. He is set on having his own way, and resents any interference with it. He says in effect to God, ‘Not Thy will, but mine be done.’ He wills his own will, and this is universally true, whether that will may be vulgar or refined, sensual or intellectual, honest or dishonest, cruel or kind. He claims the right to be master of his fate, the captain of his soul.
One of the best descriptions of this, the most basic of our problems, that I have come across is that given by John Stott inThe Contemporary Christian:
I can remember what a revelation it was to me to learn, especially through the teaching of Archbishop William Temple, that what the Bible means by ‘sin’ is primarily self-centredness. For God’s two great commandments are first that we love him with all our being and secondly that we love our neighbour as we love ourselves. Sin, then, is the reversal of this order. It is to put ourselves first, virtually proclaiming our own autonomy, our neighbour next when it suits our convenience, and God somewhere in the background.
That self-centredness is a world-wide phenomenon of human experience is evident from the rich variety of words in our language which are compounded with ‘self’. There are more than 50 which have a pejorative meaning—words like self-applause, self-absorption, self-assertion, self-advertisement, self-indulgence, self-gratification, self-glorification, self-pity, self-importance, self-interest and self-will.
Moreover, our self-centredness is a terrible tyranny. Malcolm Muggeridge used often to speak and write of ‘the dark little dungeon of my own ego’. And what a dark dungeon it is! To be engrossed in our own selfish concerns and ambitions, without regard either for the glory of God or for the good of others, is to be confined in the most cramped and unhealthy of prisons.
The helpful Christian writer A. W. Tozer described these ‘self’ sins as “the hyphenated sins of the human spirit” and added that “they are not something we do, they are something we are, and therein lies both their subtlety and their power.”
If I seem to be dwelling over-much on what is, after all, a depressing picture, it is simply because it is so neglected in most of the solutions that are given for today’s problems. Without an accurate diagnosis of the problem, there is no hope of a cure. Thank God there is a cure, but let’s look first at the universal pervasiveness of sin, our in-built tendency to blame others and the consequences of our flawed nature.
The all-pervasiveness and persistence of sin
It is easy to recognise the widespread nature of moral failure around us, but avoid facing up to our own failures. In fact, most of us are pretty good at that! In the second volume of Gulag in which he describes his experiences in Soviet prison camps, Alexandr Solzhenitsyn tells how he first began to be aware of the universal nature of sin. He writes:
It was only when I lay there on rotting prison straw that I sensed within myself the first stirrings of good. Gradually, it was disclosed to me that the line separating good and evil passes, not through states, nor between classes, nor between political parties either, but right through every human heart, and through all humans hearts. So, bless you, prison, for having been in my life.
Neither should we think that because we are a little better than some other people, then we will make it with God. The Bible is quite clear on this point. “There is no difference, for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God” (Romans 3:23). “Whoever keeps the whole law and yet stumbles at just one point is guilty of breaking all of it” (James 2:10). After all, it depends on who we compare ourselves with. Jesus is God’s measure of what humans are meant to be. Anyone who thoughtfully reads through the Sermon on the Mount in Matthew, chapters five, six and seven, must realise that he or she comes well short of God’s requirements. Imagine someone standing on the world’s highest building, looking at a person on the street below and exclaiming, “Poor fellow! What chance has he got of reaching the stars?” S. D. Gordon, in Quiet Talks on Prayer, makes the following comment:
Sin is slapping God in the face. It may be polished, cultured sin. Sin seems capable of taking quite a high polish, or it may be the common gutter stuff. A man is not concerned about the grain of a club that strikes him a blow.
And we don’t need to get the idea that human nature is gradually improving. War, according to humanists at the beginning of the twentieth century, was to have been abolished, but during the next 40 years it wiped out as many lives as had perished in wars during the previous 800 years. D. R. Davies, in The Art of Dodging Repentance, puts it like this:
Of all the men who have lived and died since Calvary, we men of today can least pretend to the possession of superior virtue, or a deeper, finer, more responsible morality. The unnumbered millions done to death and the millions condemned to a living death in remote spaces scream denial of any such pretension. No century has more clearly recrucified Christ than the twentieth.
As G. K. Chesterton observed, the doctrine of original sin is the one philosophy empirically validated by several thousand years of human history.
Theologians have spoken of the ‘total depravity’ of human nature. This does not mean that we are all as bad as we could be (though we are none as good as we should be), but it means that every part of our nature has been infected by this moral disease. John Stott, in Christ the Controversialist, says:
Whatever some Protestant theologians may have written, no biblical Christian can deny that man is still ‘made in the likeness of God’, since James says he is [James 3:9]. The divine image in man is marred but not destroyed. Nevertheless it is marred at every point. This is the meaning of ‘total depravity’—the totality referring to extent rather than degree. We do not therefore deny that man still bears the image of God, though defaced, nor that in the new birth the image is restored.
It is not particularly flattering to read that the Bible, in describing human beings, declares that their head is sick (Isaiah 1:5), their eyes are evil (Mark 7:22), their mouth is deceitful (Psalm 36:3), their tongue is full of deadly poison (James 3:8), their throat is an open sepulchre (Romans 3:13), their neck is stiff (Jeremiah 17:23), their ears are dull (Matthew 13:15), their feet are swift in running into mischief (Proverbs 6:18), their bones are full of sin (Job 20:11) and their thoughts are vain (Psalm 94:11)! (As in the Authorised Version).
Our in-built tendency to make excuses
We may well accept the fact that we are far from perfect, but it is an in-built tendency of human nature to blame others for our faults. We are masters at making excuses. We may blame our upbringing, our particular circumstances, or the way we have been treated by others. These days we can even blame our genes.
Anna Russell, a singer with a sense of humour, had a little song which goes:
I went to my psychiatrist to be psychoanalysed
To find out why I killed the cat and blackened my husband’s eyes.
He laid me on a downy couch to see what he could find,
And here is what he dredged up from my subconscious mind:
When I was one, my mommie hid my dolly in a trunk,
And so it follows naturally that I am always drunk.
When I was two, I saw my father kiss the maid one day,
And that is why I suffer now from kleptomania.
At three, I had the feeling of ambivalence towards my brothers,
And so it follows naturally I poison all my lovers.
But I am happy; now I’ve learned the lesson this has taught;
That everything I do that’s wrong is someone else’s fault.
One acute observer of the human condition, who has noticed the disappearance of the word ‘sin’ from our vocabulary, is the American psyhiatrist Karl Menninger. In his book Whatever Became of Sin? he notes that “many former sins have become crimes”, so that responsibility for dealing with them has passed from church to state, from priest to policeman. Others have dissipated into sicknesses, or at least the symptoms of sickness, so that in their case punishment has been replaced by treatment. A third convenient device called ‘collective irresponsibility’ has enabled us to transfer the blame for some of our deviant behaviour from ourselves as individuals to society as a whole or to one of its many groupings. He pleads for a reinstatement of the word ‘sin’ in our vocabulary, and also for a recognition of the reality which the world expresses. For sin is
an implicit aggressive quality—a ruthlessness, a hurting, a breaking away from God and from the rest of humanity, a partial alienation, or act of rebellion…sin has a wilful, defiant or disloyal quality: someone is defied or offended or hurt.
The London Times once asked several eminent authors to write articles on the theme, “What’s Wrong with the World?” The Christian writer and humourist, G. K. Chesterton, wrote this reply:
G. K. Chesterton
The consequences of sin
We may well be tempted to think that because none of us is perfect, and we are all to some extent suffering from this moral disease the Bible calls ‘sin’, and because God is a loving God, then it doesn’t matter too much. He will surely overlook our little faults. Unfortunately, the situation is somewhat more serious than that. Though God loves us passionately, his holiness and justice are such that he cannot live with evil. As the prophets Habakkuk and Isaiah put it, “Your eyes are too pure to look on evil; you cannot tolerate wrong” (Habakkuk 1:13), “Your iniquities have separated you from your God; your sins have hidden his face from you” (Isaiah 59:2).
In highlighting the seriousness of our position the Bible describes us as “darkened in [our] understanding” and therefore blind to spiritual truths (Ephesians 4:18, 1 Corinthians 2:14); “dead in [our] transgressions and sins” and therefore without the life of God in our souls (Ephesians 2:1, 5); and “enslaved” to our sinful nature (Titus 3:3; John 8:34), with hearts that are so twisted with self-centredness that out of them come “evil thoughts, vulgar deeds, stealing, murder, unfaithfulness in marriage, greed, meanness, deceit, indecency, envy, insults, pride and foolishness. All of these come from your heart, and they are what make you unfit to worship God” (Mark 7:21, 22). We are also described as being “without hope” (Ephesians 2:12) and “without excuse” (Romans 1:20).
Finally, we are powerless to do anything about it unless God should take the initiative (Ephesians 2:8; Acts 11:18). In short, we have a past that needs forgiving, a separation that needs bridging, a mind that needs illuminating, a void that needs filling, and a nature that needs transforming. Amazingly enough, these are all things that are amply provided for us through the death and resurrection of Jesus and the ministry of the Holy Spirit.
Francis Schaeffer used the description ‘glorious ruin’ to describe the condition of humans in this world. He used the apt metaphor of an old soiled painting. No one was certain who the artist had been, but so much about the painting seemed to indicate that it was done by a genuine master, someone with superb gifts. It was eventually taken to an expert who lifted the stains, unsullied the canvas, examined distinctive brush strokes, analysed the style, discovered the time period and so on. After careful scrutiny, he was able to declare who the artist was beyond any doubt, even though the work was now in ruins. So, too, when we think carefully about the unique qualities of this creature we call ‘woman’ or ‘man’, we can find ample evidence of the handiwork of some great Artist.
The Bible is the amazing story of what this Artist has done, not only in designing and bringing to full creation the original painting, but what he has done in order to restore the painting to its full glory, a glory in which the character of the Artist will be admired by all who share in the restoration. So let’s turn to this theme.
The way back to God
The history of the human race, as recorded in the Old Testament, gives ample evidence that God has a purpose in it all. The clues are right there in the early chapters of Genesis. This purpose is spelt out in increasing detail in the writings of the prophets from the eighth century BC onwards. The picture is given of a coming period of restoration when the often repeated refrain “I will be their God and they will be my people” will take on a new meaning. The time is coming when God will establish a new covenant with his people, in which their sins will no longer be remembered and their natures will be transformed, so that pleasing God will be the desire of their hearts (Jeremiah 31:31-34). It will be a time of great joy. “Then will the eyes of the blind be opened and the ears of the deaf unstopped. Then will the lame leap like a deer, and the tongue of the dumb shout for joy…Gladness and joy will overtake them, and sorrow and sighing will flee away” (Isaiah 35:5-10). Even nature itself will share in this restoration. “The wolf will live with the lamb, the leopard will lie down with the goat, the calf and the lion and the yearling together; and a little child will lead them…They will neither harm nor destroy on all my holy mountain, for the earth will be full of the knowledge of the Lord as the waters cover the sea” (Isaiah 11:6, 9).
There are also increasing hints that this restoration will centre around the ministry of an individual who will be descended from King David (Jeremiah 33:15, 16), uniquely anointed with the Spirit of God (Isaiah 11:1, 2; 61:1, 2), will suffer for the sins of his people (Isaiah 53) and who would be called “Wonderful Counsellor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace” (Isaiah 9:6).
The New Testament records the beginning of the fulfilment of these prophecies in the coming of Jesus, whose story is told in the first four books, Matthew, Mark, Luke and John. God has at last broken into human history and lived among us in the person of his Son. Through the life, death and resurrection of Jesus he has provided the means for those who will to return to the Father, for the divine image in humans to be restored and for God’s original purposes to be achieved. “God was reconciling the world to himself in Christ, not counting [people’s] sins against them. And he has committed to us the message of reconciliation” (2 Corinthians 5:19, 20)*.
There is considerable emphasis on the death of Jesus in the New Testament, both in the Gospel stories and in the remaining books and letters. In some amazing way, here is God not only sharing our human experiences, even a shameful death, but also accepting full responsibility for our sins. “God demonstrates his own love for us in this: While we were still sinners, Christ died for us” (Romans 5:8). “For Christ died for sins once for all, the righteous for the unrighteous, to bring you to God ” (1 Peter 3:18).
It is not my intention here to describe in detail all that Christ achieved for us by his death and resurrection.** Suffice it to say that when we come now to him with real repentance, acknowledging our need of forgiveness and submitting to him as our Saviour and Lord, two wonderful things happen. First, we are accepted as if we were without sin. The New Testament calls it being “justified”. “Since we have been justified through faith, we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ” (Romans 5:1). It is a legal term which means that we are acquitted of all the charges against us. Second, the Holy Spirit, the third person in the divine Trinity (also spoken of as the Spirit of God or the Spirit of the risen Christ (Romans 8:9-11) literally comes to live in our human bodies. In fact, our bodies are spoken of as the temple in which God has now chosen to dwell (1 Corinthians 6:19,20).
*If you have doubts about the accuracy of the Gospel stories, the picture of Jesus given there, or whether he was indeed fully God as well as being fully human, may I commend to you the booklets The Bible: Can We Trust a Book Written Two Thousand Years Ago?,Did the Writers of the New Testament Get Their Picture of Jesus Right? and Is Jesus Really God?
**I have spelled out the certainty of the resurrection and some of its implications in Did Jesus Really Rise from the Dead?
A new identity as God’s children
It is this experience of receiving the Holy Spirit that is spoken of in the New Testament as being “born again” or “born of the Spirit” (e.g. John 3:3, 5). And it is the Spirit who constitutes us now as sons and daughters of God. “God’s Spirit doesn’t make us slaves who are afraid of him. Instead, we become his children and call him our Father. God’s Spirit makes us sure that we are his children” (Romans 8:15,16). There was a time when God had only one Son (John 1:14, 18). However, when he comes into our lives, Jesus shares with us not only the relationship that he enjoyed with his Father, but also the rights and privileges that come from having that relationship. We are now full members of the divine family. Jesus becomes our elder brother. “Jesus and the people he makes holy all belong to the same family. That is why he is not ashamed to call them his brothers and sisters” (Hebrews 2:11). Our identity is now found, not primarily in our earthly relationships, but first and foremost in our access to our heavenly Father, our friendship with Jesus and the constant indwelling presence of the Holy Spirit, who brings it all together and makes it real. So let’s explore further the implications of this new identity.
Our identity in Christ
If we want to get a picture of what humanity is meant to be like (and can become) we can’t do better than read through the Gospel stories to get a picture of the sort of person Jesus was. Philip Toynbee, reviewer, writer and struggler after truth, expressed it movingly this way in Part of a Journey:
I call myself a Christian because I discern in the New Testament a man whose life, death and central teaching penetrates more deeply into the mysterious reality of our condition that anyone or anything else has ever done. In the Gospels, Acts, and the Epistles, I find a total view of what man is, or what he could be and ought to be, which evokes a response in me such as no other writings have ever done.
In the New Testament, Jesus is presented to us not only as God, the Second Person within the divine Trinity of Father, Son and Spirit, but also as perfect humanity, the one who shed the outer manifestation of his divine glory in the womb of Mary, to be fully clothed with our humanity. You could say that he was still as much God as if he had never been human, but had become as much human as if he had never been God. While on earth he experienced sorrow (John 11:35), hunger (Matthew 4:2), tiredness (John 4:6) and pain (Hebrews 5:8), yet without succumbing to sin or disobedience to his Father (Hebrews 4:15). He demonstrated what true Sonship is all about. God spoke from heaven at his baptism by John in the river Jordan: “This is my Son, whom I love; with him I am well pleased” (Matthew 3:17).
There are a number of ways in which Christians are described in the New Testament. However, one of the most common ways is to speak of believers in terms of their relationship with Jesus. Consider the following examples. Christians are people who:
follow Christ (Matthew 4:19)
receive Christ (John 1:12);
believe in or trust Christ (John 3:16)
stay joined to Christ (John 15:5);
know Christ (John 17:3);
love Christ (Ephesians 6:24);
obey Christ (Hebrews 5:9);
glory in or take pride in Christ (Philippians 3:3).
have Christ (1 John 5:12).
When we welcome Jesus into our lives as Saviour and Lord, then we not only enter into this new relationship with him, but also with his Father. He shares with us this unique sonship. “To all who received him, to those who believed in his name, he gave the right to become children of God—children born not of natural descent, not of human decision or a husband’s will, but born of God” (John 1:12, 13). As children born of God, Jesus shares with us:
all the spiritual resources that belong to him—”All that belongs to the Father is mine…the Spirit will take from what is mine and make it known to you” (John 16:15);
his friendship—”I no longer call you servants, because a servant does not know his master’s business. Instead, I have called you friends, for everything that I learned from my Father I have made known to you” (John 15:15);
his love—”As the Father has loved me, so have I loved you. Now remain in my love” (John 15:9);
his joy—”I have told you this so that my joy may be in you, and that your joy may be complete” (John 15:11);
his glory—”I have given them the glory that you [Father] gave me” (John 17:22);
his risen life—”Since, then, you have been raised with Christ, set your hearts on things above, where Christ is seated at the right hand of God…When Christ, who is your life, appears, then you also will appear with him in glory” (Colossians 3:1—4);
his inheritance—”If we are children, then we are heirs—heirs of God and co-heirs with Christ, if indeed we share his sufferings in order that we may also share in his glory“(Romans 8:17);
his future reign—”To him who overcomes, I will give the right to sit with me on my throne” (Revelation 3:21).
It is in entering into this relationship with Jesus that we begin to discover who we ourselves are. This is very well illustrated from the story of Peter in the New Testament. When Andrew introduced his brother Simon (Peter’s original name) to Jesus, we are told that “Jesus looked at him and said, ‘You are Simon son of John. You will be called Cephas’ (which, when translated, is Peter)” (John 1:42). The meaning of the words Cephas (Aramaic) and Peter (Greek) is ‘rock’. Reading through the Gospel stories, one gets the impression that Peter was anything but a rock. He was very much aware of his own sinfulness (Luke 5:8), an impetuous character, often speaking out of turn (e.g. Mark 8:32, 33; 9:5, 6). Finally he denied his knowledge of Jesus three times, after boasting he would die for him (Mark 14:29-31; 66-72). However, when Jesus looks at us he sees not so much what we are, but what we can become if we are willing to let him manage our lives in his way. And so he gives Simon the new identity of Peter, the rock, and sets about working on him to produce the character that is in line with that identity. Biblical scholar, Hans Urs von Balthasar, describes Peter’s encounter with Jesus like this:
Simon, the fisherman, before his meeting with Christ, however thoroughly he might have searched within himself, could not possibly have found a trace of Peter. Yet the form ‘Peter’, the particular mission reserved for him alone, which till then lay hid in the secret of Christ’s soul and, at the moment of this encounter, was delivered over to him sternly and imperatively—was to be the fulfilment of all that, in Simon, he would have have sought vainly for, a form ultimately valid in the eyes of God and for eternity.
I am sure this is something of the meaning of the ‘white stone’ mentioned in the book of Revelation. “To him who overcomes, I will give…a white stone with a new name written on it, known only to him who receives it” (Revelation 2:17). Thomas Howard, a Professor at Gordon College, Massachusetts, says:
Your identity, perhaps, is a great treasure, precious beyond your wildest imaginings, kept for you by the great Custodian of souls to be given to you at the Last Day when all things are made whole. Some such picture as the above would seem to be indicated in the biblical emphasis.
One lady wrote about how her mother died when she was 11 years old, and how three men had subsequently abused her by the age of 13. She described how long it had taken her “to escape with a sigh of relief into my heavenly Father’s arms.” One entry on her journal says this: “It is not the brokenness of something which motivates us to fix it, but the anticipation of the enjoyment of the repaired article.” After writing about the importance of Revelation 2:17, where Jesus promises a white stone with a new name written on it, she concluded, “I find it a calming thought that I have a new name from the Lord waiting for me when I permanently move house.”
It is when we commit our lives to Jesus that we begin the exploration of finding out who we really are. Blaise Pascal said:
Not only do we only know God through Jesus Christ, but we only know ourselves through Jesus Christ; we only know life and death through Jesus Christ. Apart from Jesus Christ we cannot know the meaning of our life or our death, of God or of ourselves.
In considering the question of our relationship with Christ within the context of finding our true identity, it may be helpful to distinguish between the Christian view of this union with God and that which stems more from a Buddhist, Hindu or New Age philosophy. Adolf Deissmann, in his classic treatment of the subject of Paul’s mysticism, Paul: A Study in Social and Religious History, distinguishes between what he calls ‘union mysticism’ and ‘communion mysticism’. It is a useful distinction. Union mysticism, says Deissmann, involves being absorbed into God or discovering divinity inourselves—the current fashion with New Age religion. In the process we lose our identities. Communion mysticism, in contrast, involves a relationship in which we experience the gracious paradox of ‘I, yet not I’ in our experience of the presence of the risen Christ. Paul says in his letter to the Galatians, “I have been crucified with Christ and I no longer live, but Christ lives in me. The life I live in the body, I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave himself for me” (Galatians 2:20). Paul is saying that the old independent ‘I’, in rebellion against God and out of fellowship with him, no longer exists. It received its death sentence through identification with Christ on the cross. However, in experiencing the presence of the risen Christ in his life, through the Spirit, the ‘I’ of the real Paul, created by God as an autonomous individual with God-like qualities, is more alive than ever. So we discover our true identity in the context of communion with Christ. Because Paul believed and experienced Jesus in communion mysticism rather than union mysticism, he was more concerned with ethics than ecstasy, a transformed life rather than an emotional experience. It is a loving relationship—and friendship—which leads to doing the will of the Father.
The end result is also different in each case. Whereas Buddhists speak of Nirvana, where the individual loses his or her identity in being united with the one all-inclusive being, the biblical view is that of receiving one’s true identity, that for which one was lovingly created in the eternal purpose of God. We will never be more alive or more self-aware than we are then, living in an eternal love relationship with both God and his other children. It is this for which Jesus suffered and we will know and worship him eternally as “the Lamb who was slain” (Revelation 5:12). His risen body will forever bear the scars of his suffering.
A good example of one who found his true identity in Christ is that of Alan Lee, who tells his story in Decision magazine. As a refugee from Vietnam, he arrived in the United States on a cold winter night in January 1979, seeking freedom and a better life. He says, “In the United States, I struggled to find my identity. I didn’t want to be called a ‘boat person’ or to be treated like a refugee.” Eventually, through contact with Christian students and the church fellowship they attended, he attended the Billy Graham Crusade in Tacoma on May 22, 1983. He says:
At the end of the service I wanted to respond to the invitation to accept Jesus Christ as my Saviour but I struggled with letting God control my life.
Then I remembered a Bible passage: “Whoever acknowledges me before men, I will also acknowledge him before my Father in heaven. But whoever disowns me before men, I will disown him before my Father in heaven”[Matthew 10:32, 33]. I took a deep breath, stood and walked down that long aisle. As the counsellor prayed with me, I opened my heart to Jesus, asked Him to forgive my sins. As I trusted Jesus, and with the help of the Holy Spirit and Christian friends, I became more trusting, loving and forgiving.
Now, some years later, he can say:
Today I am no longer confused about who I am. We are God’s children, and our citizenship is in heaven. I am grateful to have found my true identity—my identity in Christ.
A choice to be made
If all we have been saying is true, then the only way in which I am going to find out who I reallyam, and who I am intended to become, is to get rightly related to the God who, in his loving purposes, knows my true identity and longs to impart that character to me which goes with that identity.
It does not mean that my earthly relationships, which may well give me some sense of identity, become unimportant. The family into which I was born and by which I was nurtured may, or may not, be a very important part of my life, depending on my childhood experiences. The country in which I have lived, or the race to which I belong, may mean much to me. I may have gained much in the way of identity from my work or profession, or from my friendships. My sexuality as a woman or a man may be an important part of who I am. However, in becoming a member of God’s family I will find an identity that has a prior claim on who I am. In submitting to that claim, however, I will also find a greater depth to all my other relationships. I will also find a security in the knowledge of who I am that no one can take from me. David Hyman, of the Overseas Missionary Fellowship in Australia, says:
Our identity as Christians is in Christ. If it is not it must be in something else—our nationality, our family, our friends, our possessions, our job. When all these are removed we have nothing, unless we have our identity founded and fixed in Jesus.
How do you help someone find their identity whose experience is that of one graduate of the American School of Zurich? In a poem published in the alumni newsletter and quoted in Christianity Today, this student wrote:
I was born in Switzerland
I lived in Spain, Sweden, and Brazil
My dad’s Swiss
My mom’s American
I’m not Brazilian, Swiss, American, Spanish
One of the most helpful articles I have come across on the subject of homosexuality is ‘Out of the closet and into chastity’, an article by David C. Morrison in This Rock, July-August, 1994. I quote from it as it highlights the problems we face if we choose to define our identity primarily from anything else other than our relationship to Christ. David, a former practising homosexual, tells of his conversion to chastity through Catholicism’s teaching on homosexuality, and the ministry of the Courage movement, providing a ministry of compassion for those in a similar situation.* He describes the view he had come to, after a decade of reflection, of the change in emphasis that takes place when someone moves from being a person with just a homosexual orientation, to being ‘gay’. He writes:
If you are a Christian who has made this choice, I believe there is reason to examine your heart for evidence of idolatry. I have observed that once a person has made a decision that he is not merely homosexually orientated, but is gay, then orientation tends to be a dominant aspect of his identity, and everything else—society, faith, institutions, and even God—will be viewed and judged through that particular lens. Homosexual orientation is not a choice for most people, but being gay is, and it is this choice which motivates homosexual groups ranging from Dignity to Act Up.
Such a wrong understanding of our identity, I believe, is the source of these disastrous errors, because rooting ourselves in anything outside of Christ undermines our efforts at obedience or following him.
In a very thoughtful and sympathetic way, David tells how his own decision to make Christ the focus of his identity and to live in obedience to him, had led to his own inner freedom, growth and ministry, hinting at the long emotional struggle and sacrifice that this had involved. He says:
We are summoned, like the apostle Paul to pour ourselves out for the good of the Kingdom, sharing with many the talents and fruit which, had we been heterosexually oriented, we might have shared primarily with spouse and children.
He finishes his article by quoting from Bonhoeffer’s The Cost of Discipleship:
And if we answer the call to discipleship, where will it lead us? What decisions and partings will it demand? To answer this question we will have to go to him, for only he knows the journey’s end. But we do know it will be a road of boundless mercy. Discipleship means joy.
So a choice has to be made. Am I willing to commit my life and future to him who alone knows fully all that I am and all that I could become? He desires to give me all that he has planned, that identity in which alone I can find complete fulfilment. He suffered on Calvary to make it possible. The missionary statesman, Dr E. Stanley Jones said, “One does not know who he is until he knows whose he is.”
There is a paradox running through the New Testament. Jesus said: “Whoever wants to save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for me will find it” (Matthew 16:25). To find myself, I have to lose myself. To be free, I have to serve. To live, I have to die to my own self-centredness. But in handing my life over unreservedly to Jesus I find the beginning of a new adventure which will one day find its perfect fulfilment in his unclouded presence.
This may sound a difficult choice. But it is important to be aware of the consequences of not accepting what Jesus is offering, a missing out for all eternity of all the good that he had planned for me. The greater the love, the greater the sin of rejecting it. Indeed, R. S. Franks, in The Atonement, wrote:
Sin is the rejection of the Divine Love, alike as a standard of conduct and in its transforming power. There is no need to aggravate the weight of sin by bringing in any other extraneous considerations. Sin is only truly measured by the love which it rejects and refuses. It is failure to trust and obey God.
Joni Eareckson Tada has spent several decades in discomfort as a quadriplegic, through breaking her neck in a diving accident. Through her relationship to Christ, God has enabled her to have a worldwide ministry to others with similar afflictions. In her book Heaven: Your Real Home she writes:
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.
If all we have been talking about sounds a little strange to you and not part of your personal experience, and if you are still wrestling with the question of where you fit in to the whole scheme of things, you may wish to take the step of committing your life to Jesus. The identity he will reveal to you will be a divine original, not some cheap copy. You won’t be disappointed. If this is a step you want to take, you may find it helpful to pray a prayer something like this:
God, I want to be that sort of person for which you created me. I accept that you know who I am, what my gifts are, how my life can count for something meaningful and lasting, and where I fit in to your forever family.
I accept that Jesus died on the cross for my sins to reconcile me to God, because of his great love for me. I thank him for that.
I am sorry for my sins. I repent of them. I now accept your forgiveness.
Come into my life and begin the process of moulding me into all you planned that I should be and directing me in the path you have chosen for me.
Give me the courage and strength to live worthily of your love and to follow wherever you lead, until that day when I shall stand in your presence and know all things fully as now I am known.
If you do make this commitment, then begin to read through the New Testament and explore all those things that have now been given you in Christ. And as being a child of God is a family matter, find a church where you feel at home and get involved with some of your new brothers and sisters in Christ. Meditate often on the promises of God to his people. Your identity is now rooted in his unchangeable character, the one sure constant in this changing world.
“Fear not, for I have redeemed you; I have called you by name; you are mine. When you pass through the waters, I will be with you…for I am the Lord, your God…your Saviour.”
“Rejoice that your names are written in heaven.”
*Information on the Courage movement can be obtained from Courage, c/o St. Michael’s Rectory, 424 West 34th Street, New York, NY 10001.