A Question of Identity

Unfocused and distracted, we need a foundation.

“If God’s presence and work are not understood to define who we are and what we are doing, nothing we come up with will be understood and lived properly.” — Eugene Peterson, Christ Plays in Ten Thousand Places

Jillian McWhinnie
Jillian McWhinnie

Who is Jesus? Who am I? Who is the church of Jesus Christ? None of these questions are straightforward to answer; indeed, many spend their entire lives pondering them. It is not by accident either that I write these questions side-by-side. It seems to me that, from the standpoint of a Christian worldview, these questions go together. One cannot be answered without the others also being addressed in some way. I also find that, amidst the noise and busyness of our world today, it is very easy to neglect wrestling with these questions on both personal and corporate levels. (And I’ll be the first to admit that when I wake up in the morning it takes a while for my brain to stop buzzing, and a considerable dose of willpower to not immediately turn on my phone to see if I’ve missed out on anything while I was asleep!)

This observation that we tend to be a distracted and unfocused society is primarily based on my own experience and conversations with others, but I don’t think I’m alone in having this view. Given certain conditions, it’s not very hard for us to lose sight of our identity as individual Christ followers, and as the church.

The word identity comes from the Latin word idem, which means “same”. Thus, one’s “identity” — although abstract in nature — might be described as the essence or substance of one’s personality. This essence is consistent, united and the same, through and through. Beyond this internal consistency, there is also a sense that one’s identity can be known only through comparison to something external to which it may or may not bear resemblance. If this is indeed the case, then whatever this external “something” is, it is also probably important to pay attention to. I don’t think it will surprise most readers that, for many Christians, this external “something” is the Triune God. From the creation account in Genesis, we read that God’s intent is that humankind is to be made in His image. From the very beginning, God made human beings to be like Him and to be in relationship, or communion, with Him. Of course, in Genesis 3, the tide turns when humanity mistrusts and disobeys God, leading to sin and the fall. One of the consequences of the fall is that we tend to forget our identity as God’s image bearers and instead rely on our own ability to determine who we are. We so easily forget the God who made us, and we often fall into conforming ourselves to the image of other “gods” and other idols of this world. And it doesn’t stop there. Our identity shapes all that we think, say and do. Our interactions with our world and with each other are shaped by our identity and our oneness (or lack of) with God, whether we are aware of it or not.

So if we believe our identities are tied to who God is, perhaps we would do well to first reflect on the question, “Who is God?” (And, as mentioned above, this reflection process is a daily, lifelong pursuit of coming to know God). We come to know who God is through God revealing Himself to us most definitively in Jesus, but we also have the words and stories of the Old and New Testament which attest to God’s character. God is also still active and speaking in the world today through His Holy Spirit. And what do we know about God? We know that God is love. He loves with a self-giving, self-sacrificial love and He cares for the sick, poor, weary and outcast. We know that God is just and merciful. He doesn’t ignore our sin, but we trust that, through Jesus, He has rescued us from the sin and death that so easily entangles and invites us to follow Him into life.

When we truly know who God is, it helps us to know who we are — beloved, image-bearers called to love and obey God, and to love our neighbours. When we don’t know or remember who God is, or who we are, we can be quick to respond to the social and political issues of our day in ways that actually aren’t helpful or loving. In a culture that is on edge and in which issues are highly politicized, it is so easy to react and to start name-calling and blaming. And, slowly and subtly, we may find that our life and faith in Jesus erodes such that we are consumed only with asserting our own beliefs, leading us to become bitter and empty as we engage in futile attempts to change how other people think, and all the while neglecting to love God and our neighbours on a daily basis. This is a real danger that exists for any of us, regardless of what “side” we might find ourselves on in relation to any particular issue.

The social and political issues of our world can also be so polarizing and complex that we can become uncertain and even paralyzed by fear. “What if I say or do the wrong thing? What if I get criticized for sharing my views on a particular issue?” Sometimes it can be very difficult to discern what it means to be a loving Christ-follower, so we opt for the easy way out and hide or do nothing. Yet the voice of Jesus, if we are listening, says to us over and over again, “Do not be afraid. I am with you.” And if Jesus is with us, we can trust that He will show us the way — His way. If we pray and listen, I believe we will find that Jesus guides with a wise and steady hand. Father, Son, and Holy Spirit have the power to lead us, so we would do well to trust them and to participate with them in prayerfully, thoughtfully, and lovingly addressing the difficult situations and issues our world faces, as individuals and as the Church. I would also venture to say that Jesus’ way is probably not the way we might have chosen, or even thought of, to begin with. Indeed, when we rely on our own abilities, we are prone to proceed in ways that put others down and elevate ourselves. In the kingdom of heaven, we are called to live in exactly the opposite way. We are called to love, and put others’ interests and needs first.

All of that said, my main point is this: Without a sure and growing knowledge of Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, and who we are in relationship to God, living lives of love that honour God and that seek God’s justice and mercy for the marginalized becomes difficult, if not impossible. Without Jesus as our foundation, we can be so easily swayed by the world’s whims, or we can find ourselves worshipping ideologies and beliefs instead of the person of Jesus Christ. Or we might find ourselves cowering in corners, too fearful and motivated by self-preservation rather than trust in the one who has already conquered sin and death.

So what can we do? Well, I think there are some practical things that may help. First, I think we would do well to listen and pray to God. When we pray, we can ask Him for His love to fill us and to overflow as we love others. We can also ask Him to show and convict us when we start to follow wherever the culture leads, or if we are becoming stubborn, callous, or afraid. Regular Bible study and reading, as well as worship and participating in the sacraments, also are wonderful ways in which we can be reminded of who God is and who He has called us to be. And in the midst of all this, in the tension of the now and the not yet, we can rest and experience God’s grace for the journey. We can rest knowing that God is God and we are not. We can be at peace knowing that Jesus is already the victorious King.

The complex, and often divisive, questions and issues of our day deserve our attention and action. I do not presume to have all the answers or solutions to these concerns although, like most, I do have thoughts and opinions about them. However, the purpose of this essay is not to get into those details, but rather to suggest that we must remain rooted in Jesus Christ to avoid becoming overly focused on our own way, or confused and uncertain about what to do next. Father, Son, and Holy Spirit are the most capable to lead us to the light when we find ourselves confronted with darkness.

Jesus, we pray that you would grant us humility, courage, and wisdom as we seek to follow You each day. Help us to remember who You are and that we are found in You. Amen.

One thought on “A Question of Identity

  1. “Who is Jesus? Who am I? Who is the church of Jesus Christ?”

    Jillian, thank you for sharing your thoughts. I like that the article starts with questions that focus on who we are in Christ. This is a powerful reminder of our identity as Christians.

    I would add that deepening our relationship with Jesus is an active pursuit. It means asking the worldview questions posed at the start of the article in a myriad of situations and contexts. Who we are in Christ shapes our understanding of not only ourselves but also the world around us. Everything from science to sports to the arts to history is and should be understood through our relationship with the Triune God. This is not an intellectual exercise but involves action on our part as we continually discern God’s will.

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