I am known by many people for being good at theology. I am good at explaining theological ideas and biblical concepts. I can quote verses and other things people have said, to illustrate points about being godly and Christlike. I can tell people why the kingdom of God is central to Jesus’ life and teaching. And that can be a problem.
You see, being Christian and having my sense of identity come from that can be an idol. And, as has been said by many people over many years, that which we worship we become.
The problem with having our identity in the fact we are Christian is very subtle. We can be comfortable in the fact that we know all the Christian stuff, but our identity might not be in God.
There is a sense of course in which our identity is never fully in God. Until the day we die we will always be drinking from wrong wells. But we can spend years thinking our identity is in the truth of God’s unconditional love for us but actually be relying on something other for our sense of wellbeing.
Let me give you an example. Last year I lost my job and went through a divorce. Needless to say, it wasn’t the best year of my life. Looking back though, I can genuinely see God at work. I had a choice between chucking it all in in some way, or leaning ever more into God. I chose the latter.
My job was with World Vision, a place I had always wanted to work. Who World Vision is aligns with my values and with who I am as a follower of Jesus. So, working there gave me a sense of identity the likes of which I had never experienced before. After a while it was like I had a sense of entitlement to work there, almost like World Vision was me. When I sometimes imagined working somewhere else, I found myself unable to come to a place in my heart where I could ever voluntarily leave.
It was similar with my marriage. I found my sense of wellbeing in the fact of being married. It was somewhat of a status symbol.
Now of course there is a sense in which finding identity in things like our jobs and relationships is ok. But the extent to which I found my identity in these things was like metaphorically building my house on sand. I did have a growing relationship with God, but, again, looking back, God was calling me to something deeper. I would never have left World Vision of my own accord, so it was like God had to do something drastic in order for me to keep growing.
So, in March 2014, my job at World Vision was made redundant. As I’ve explained elsewhere, I was devastated, but I kept it together mentally right until the day I actually left. From that very day though, my sense of self-worth started to unravel.
Sometimes kindness is cruel, and it was like God was saying to me, “if you’re not able to leave of your own accord, I’m going to have to take you out of there. It’s going to hurt like hell, but you’ll be better for it.” God, of course, was right. It hurt like hell, but I became better for it. I was reminded of an old saying,”the truth will make you free, but first it will make you miserable”.
At World Vision I was popular, I was a go-to person, and I was known for being a specialist in my field. Now, all that had been ripped out from under me and I didn’t know who I was anymore. I was still a Christian, I was still pursuing my relationship with God with a passion, even moreso now, but I was lost. Many would ask, how could this be? If you’re asking that question, read your Bible and you will see that it is full of people who experienced what I did. I was in good company, but that was little consolation.
My divorce experience was worse. Even though it was amicable all the way, it hurt even more than losing my job. It has been said that losing a job can have as much or even greater impact on your mental health than a divorce or the death of a spouse. From my experience, all I can say is, give me a job loss any day!
So, there I was, my identity shot to pieces. I had to rebuild my life from the inside out. The question, “who am I in your brave new world?” rang loud and true.
Since that time in the middle of last year, I have found my place in a new job, and my divorce has been finalised. Healing is coming to me through different avenues. One of those avenues has been through much work with a spiritual director who knows how to touch a nerve in my inner being, nurturing my hurt inner child.
The road to recovery is proving long and painful, but the point is that it is the road to recovery. There have been many, many tears, and along with them, the assurance that everything I have been experiencing has been normal. I experienced a death, and it takes a lot of work to come back from that. But come back you can, and coming back I am.
They say that time heals all wounds. I don’t agree with that anymore. Well, I do, but it has to be qualified. Time only heals when effort is put into the healing.
For me, my healing is coming through realising my sense of self-worth again, but this time ultimately in the unconditional love of God. Whether or not I have a great job or a great relationship or anything else that is wonderful in my life, they are secondary compared to the surpassing value of knowing God.
I like the fact that I am good at explain theological concepts. I like the fact that I have a gift in writing. And I like the fact that I have a job in which I can express both of these gifts. But relying on these things for life is like building a house of cards. When the storms come and my life is built on relying on them, my sense of identity will come crumbling down like the walls of Jericho all those years ago.
Life is only found ultimately in surrender to the One who created us. That is where freedom, love and meaning are found. The only way we ever grow more into the “Imago Dei” – the image of God – is through surrender to God, total surrender.
It is in recognising our weakness, our inadequacy, and abandoning and repenting of our self-sufficiency that we come to know God. Finding our identity in the fact that we are Christian is more like knowing about God rather than knowing God. But surrendering our very selves to God brings us the life of the ages, the life we are all looking for, the life that is truly life. That’s what I want for my life.