"Finding your identity in Jesus" is very popular right now. It's the topical sermon series of choice, the convention title, the women's breakfast talk. Is it just me, or is this subject wheeled out at "women's events" much more than men's?
I see it a lot in Christian bookshops. Flicking through the women's devotionals I commonly witness a good cop, bad cop approach. One day you should really get your act together and become a woman of substance/ humility/ excellence/ gentleness/ boldness/ baking, etc. The next, while you're still reeling, you're reminded how your identity is independent of your achievements, you're a princess and you really must learn to rest in that.
Now here's something weird, 'learning how to rest in my Christian identity' is almost always experienced as more burdensome than admonishments to 'godliness'. Why? Well, here's a guess - because whether your devotional is on a carrot day or a stick day it's basically about you! Can you look within and find enough strength to be godly or enough peace to be content? Answer: No, but no-one wants to let the side down, so we march on.
And in the absence of serious reflection upon Christ the reader of such devotionals has to use their imaginations to appreciate their Christian identity and how it all applies to them. Verses are deployed in order to spur you on or prop you up, but not to show Christ off. It's about grabbing a sweet verse from Psalms today to help yesterday's medicine from Proverbs 31 go down.
So what's wrong with all this.
Well, first of all, when this search for identity becomes the goal rather than the fruit of our union with Christ, it's using Jesus to feel better about me. So that's a bit off. Think of it this way, you might like the way your spouse makes you feel, and that's a nice fringe benefit of the relationship. But if your goal in marriage is to get that feeling, you're an emotional gold-digger. And seeking that security (rather than trusting it) always back-fires. The assurance: "Of course I love you" is less and less convincing the more you've had to ask for it.
You see it just doesn't work. Maybe I'm wrong - contradict me in the comments. But have you ever met someone who's found a rock-solid, contented sense of Christian identity by searching for "identity"? I haven't. And I think it's because it's psychologically impossible.
It's unconvincing when you repeat human affirmations to yourself "You're good enough, you're smart enough and doggonnit, people like you." But, psychologically speaking, it's rarely any more re-assuring when you mentally sign God's name to the bottom of them.
Why? Many reasons, but perhaps mainly because we imagine God's basically like us anyway. And without really opening up the word of Christ we're never going to dethrone the God of our imaginations who - surprise, surprise - thinks of us just like we think of ourselves. So signing His name to the bottom of some lovely sentiments only adds to the sense that this is basically wish-fulfillment.
Want a good sense of self? Forget self. That is precisely Jesus' teaching on the matter:
Whoever finds his life will lose it, and whoever loses his life for my sake will find it. (Matthew 10:39)
The search for yourself can never work. Because finding a lost person is never any help. Lost people don't need to find themselves. If they do, they'll only find that they're lost. Which is no great find.
If you're lost you need to find home. The good news of Jesus is that He's come from Home to find us (Luke 19:10). It's as we're swept up into His life - like a sheep hoisted onto the shepherd's shoulders - that we'll find ourselves. When we're completely knocked off our feet by Jesus - then we are found. And none of it happens through our own grand quest. Only through His.
You want to know the Shepherd hoisting you onto His strong shoulders? Keep looking at the Shepherd. Keep looking at how He seeks and saves. Allow yourself to be told of His coming, His doing and dying. The Spirit applies the word of Christ to you as you look to Him.
As the Issues Etc motto goes: "It's not about you, it's about Jesus for you."
Now notice this crucial point: this isn't your cue to play the noble martyr. You're not abandoning self-regard because Jesus is so self-centred and you need to get on board with His ego-trip. (Well done you!) No, you're abandoning your self-image because you're no good at it. Entrust it to Jesus, because He really is for you. And the more you see His self-giving love, the less you'll need your self-accomplished identity.
So often I'm tempted to complain: "I know I'm meant to feel God's love, but I just don't". But right there I'm casting myself as a victim. I've tried ever so hard but God's love just hasn't made contact with me, poor me! This is a lie and a great affront to the One who's loved me to death. The problem is not that I've failed to appreciate my belovedness, I have failed to appreciate His mighty, blood-earnest love.
Knowing your belovedness is not the point. Knowing His lovingness - His cross - is. Aim at Christ and you'll get your identity. Aim at your identity and you'll get neither Christ nor identity.