There are several modern axioms that sound lovely and praiseworthy, but have death hiding beneath there shiny skin.
An easy one would be “Follow your heart”
Another might be “What’s true for me…”
And perhaps one more subtle and more dangerous, “I have the to right to…”
But there is a particular set of phrases—a miniature lexicon of what matters to the modern (particularly western) individual—that fall into this category that are especially deceptive. They all revolve around identity.
For instance: “This is just who I am.”
Or: “Just let me be me.”
“I can’t change who I am. Deal with it.”
The contexts in which the above phrases are used are, by nature, defensive. We use such phrases when we feel that our very sense of self is being attacked. It makes sense that we would respond with that seemingly freeing statement, “this is just who I am” when we feel that something about the core of who we are is being maligned or belittled. It’s our identity.
To state the obvious, identity is fundamental. It is essentially the atomic structure off of which our whole functioning self is built. It dictates our “properties”; our behaviors, our capacities, our reactions.
It is no small wonder, then, that we are obsessed with defining our own identities these days. Personality tests. Political affiliations. Social groups. Apparently it is very gratifying to constantly tell ourselves and constantly be told who we are, whether it has to do with our taste in food, our modes of expression, or our emotional processes. We seem to thrive on constant identity analysis and affirmation.
Almost as if that very thing that is supposedly “ours” without question, is very much in question.
Why is that so?
There are, I think, several ways of approaching that question and I’m not going to deal deeply with all of them. Some of the explanations will seem obvious at once: people feel lost and disconnected. Families are increasingly patchwork affairs. Tribes are not a traditional feature of western society, except in a metaphorical sense. Nations alternately disappoint and globalize.
Suddenly these sundry and formerly peripheral social identities begin not only to have an outsized importance, but to lay all claims on us. The claims of family—loyalty, partiality—the claims of tribe and nation—sigil, service, self-declaration. One fights tooth and nail in defense of the symbols and rituals associated with that identity. We progress from identity patriotism to identity jingoism. One takes pride in the ‘local dialect’ of their particular identity, to the point of imposing it on others. Then we have reached identity imperialism, as it were.
This is no surety in this. There is no rest. There is no home. All these identities—whether wisely or unwisely cherished, whether our job, our nationality, our political affiliation, our philosophical bent, our activist or special interest group—they are not strong enough or good enough. Influential as it may sometimes be, my skin color is not ultimate. My desires and affections are not sacrosanct.
There is no bedrock here. In such things, we are fighting for an island paradise which, as it turns out, is only a sandbar. We will find ourselves trapped on it and, with it, we will be submerged. Perhaps we felt that we were willing to die for it, but in reality we may well die from it. And not the holy kind of death.
I am reminded of a scene in the book Perelandra where the antagonist, Weston, becomes possessed. The identity he thought he was claiming, claimed him, until he himself was swallowed down (not up), used by that diabolical entity as a mere tool, his intellect and body cast aside like a horse ridden ruthlessly into the ground by a rider who cares for nothing and for no one.
These piecemeal social identities at which we throw ourselves, far from making us whole, rive us down to far less than the sum of our parts.
Any foundation but God—be it race, nation, activism, sexuality, political party, profession—will eventually crumble. They are only sand, and they wash away. We’ve been told this by Jesus Himself.
Of course it is easy to see that this is true when the thing in which we have placed our identity is false, or wrong, or shallow, or destructive. But this applies even to those things which seem inherently good.
One day a mother wakes up and her children no longer need her or, in a tragic case, do not want her. Who is she now? What happened to all those years of sacrifice?
One day a noble social movement has no place for you anymore. Where, then, did you place your soul?
One day you are no longer making the kind art that matters like you used to. Do you still matter?
These things may be good—even very good—but they too may fall away, and it is vital that there be something left when they do.
If we set our hearts on these non-God identities, even the best and truest of them will begin to turn, and inch by inch, they will force us to give up God in order that they may maintain primacy and relevance, or in order for us to feel satiated by them (even for a moment), or in order for us to remain part of the “group” that we held dear unto the point of worship. This is how we know we have not found our real identity in God; our social identity has eaten us up, corroded our morals, blurred our vision. Ultimately even truth will be thrown overboard so as to save a ship that is nevertheless going to sink.
Back to the Beginning
Again we come down to those ancient, perplexing words: "Whoever seeks to preserve his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life will keep it."
The more we live in perpetual fear of losing our social (or professional or political or philosophical) identities, the less abundance of life we have. We live in incessant reactiveness against any actual or theoretical slight upon that identity, guarding it with increasing viciousness, and decreasing rationality.
Paradoxically, in relinquishing our whole self--absolutely every last drop of our identity--to God, we are given it back enriched and reconciled. That which we cling to, we will lose, along with everything else; that which we give to God we will receive back "pressed down, shaken together, and running over." It may not look like what we wanted, or what we thought, and there is certainly a dying in it--a crossing of the cold, dark river of submission--but it will be the truth. And it will be whole. And nothing anyone says or does, not even the laws of the land, can take it away.
All those threads of our identity that are really true will be sanctified so that they do not--cannot--take precedence over God. All that which was false, confusion, sin, and wound...these will be washed away. Indeed, your identity once submitted will be salted. The true savor will be awakened.
It amazes me how long and far we'll go to defend and preserve our brokenness under the guise of "this is who I am." Just like sometimes the distinctive way someone walks is due to a muscle strain, an ache, or an injury, sometimes that which we think is our identity is just the way we've learned to walk to compensate for a grievous wound. To take pride in it and plant our flag in it is a deadly folly.
I am reminded of a scene in the recent film Moana. Admittedly, I wasn't really impressed with that movie the first time I watched it. I thought it was merely 'okay.' I was in and out of the room taking care of my newborn son when we saw it and, as it turns out, I missed a crucial scene. It was the scene where the people of the past are voyaging across the sea, singing "we know who we are."
Now this is a Disney rendering of a people's real history, but in this particular version the reason the people 'forgot' who they were was because they feared losing what they had. They clung to their island (identity) thereby losing themselves, day by day, abandoning a very great calling in the process.
Later those words "we know who we are" come back in a different form. Moana sees the raging, burning, angry monster Te Ka; the fiery monster is defending her territory with a violent ferocity. She is defending it...and it's not even there anymore. The rage and defensiveness has kept the truth of her identity far, far away. It isn't until Moana sings the words "This is not who you are. You know who you are," that the rage begins to ebb. The echo of truth. A real identity, not this one of violent fire and hardening shell.
And in order for Te Ka to get her true identity back, she has first to let the fire go out. She has to yield. To die.
A hard and terrifying thing. But then...
The hard shell breaks open. There is new life, and life abundant, overflowing to everything around it.
Now I am not saying that the above scene is a unassailable metaphor for what I am trying to communicate, but there is in there—as in all good stories—a rich taste of truth.
We cannot be salt and light if we hoard ourselves, nurturing those sundry, shallow ‘identities’ about which the world so obsesses. We categorize and define ourselves to death, scribbling incessantly in our internal margins about introversion or extroversion, privilege or marginalization, activism or patriotism or any other ism you can think of so that we can “have” ourselves the way we want ourselves, so that we can scream that others acknowledge our definitions of ourselves. And it will be the worst pyrrhic victory imaginable for, “the one principle of hell is—‘I am my own’” (George MacDonald)
So the questions becomes: which is really freedom?
“Well that’s just who I am. This is me. Get over it. ‘I am my own.’”
or is it “I don’t have to be ‘me’ anymore. I am bound by none of this. I am free to give it ALL to Him.”
It is the person who is not afraid to lose anything who can walk sure and confident, who is without fear; we cannot lose what we have already freely given. We can dive, headfirst, into the refiner’s fire, into the salting.
How generous, then, and how humble we will be able to be with ourselves. How wholly unconcerned.