I REMEMBER watching a funny film that was screened in school in which the inimitable Peter Sellers played the role of a hapless Indian actor. At the party where he was a fumbling guest, someone, obviously irritated, asked him, “Who do you think you are?” The answer is one of those memorable lines – “In India we don’t think who we are. We KNOW who we are!”
In real life, though, the actor said that he did not have a personality of his own and did not really know who he was. People who knew him said that he was whatever role he played in a film. He seemed to lack an identity of his own.
Perhaps most people are like him. They absorb the many roles imposed on them but do not have any real sense of who they are. In their quieter moments, when away from the hustle and bustle of life, when bereft of company, they wonder who they really are. But then, the busyness of life returns quickly to dominate their lives with numbing distraction so that the fundamental question remains unanswered.
The human condition – described in the Bible as estrangement from
God, others and even ourselves because of our sinfulness – can be seen as the loss of identity. We have been driven away from Eden, and have become wanderers on earth, without a permanent address, without a home, without an identity. We have become nobodies – a truth too painful to face.
We then go about trying to be somebody. We think that we can become somebodies through titles, possessions, achievements and fame, and become obsessed with these things. However, these are only cosmetic layers that mask the truth that we really are nobodies.
The solution to help us discover who we really are does not depend ultimately in what we tell ourselves or what society tells us. It depends on what God tells us.
We are set on the right path when we hear God the Father, inviting us to become His children through Christ (Jn. 1:12). When we believe God and are baptised, like Christ, we also hear the Father in heaven declaring that we are His children (Mk. 1: 11). Our healing then begins when we are identified with Christ in His death and resurrection (Rom. 6: 3-4).
For us to grow into our true identity in Christ – we need to hear the Father’s voice regularly, reassuring us that we are His children. This He does, through His Spirit in us, testifying with our spirit that we are indeed God’s children (Rom 8:16).
However, we live amid a crowd of voices that promise to give us our identity. We are tempted daily to embrace power, wealth, superficial beauty, health and worldly knowledge – to become somebody, to find a satisfying and lasting identity. But these have no power to give us our true identity. We should turn our back to them and instead listen to the still small voice from God’s word and Spirit that tell who we really are – or rather whose we are.
If we do not listen to God’s voice through daily discipline, we would be shaped by the world to be self-seeking consumers, whose false identity will distort our lives, and even our faith. On the other hand, if our identity as God’s children grows, our lives will be stable and mature as we negotiate the storms and stresses of life. I WAS in Sri Lanka in 1988, speaking to groups of doctors, medical staff and others. It was a time of civil war, with the country having to deal with both the Tamil Tigers in the north, and the JVP in the south. When I was in Colombo and preparing to travel to Kandy, a curfew was imposed, and I had a first-hand experience of public panic and civil unrest. The curfew was strictly imposed. The streets became empty except for armed soldiers manning numerous checkpoints along the roads. No one could travel without a curfew pass.
The doctor, with whom I was staying, drove out to the police station to apply for a curfew pass. When he returned with the smile of success, I wondered about his safety when he went to the police station – without a pass. That question remained unanswered when he related how several people at the station, including someone from an ambassador’s office, did not get a pass. But he got one – and he attributed it to the fact that he was a child of God, an ambassador of Christ.
Later as we drove to Kandy during the curfew in an old and unpredictable car, my friend demonstrated that this was not an empty claim. We had an eventful journey and faced risky situations, including one that was potentially fatal – but the truth that we were God’s children remained a strong reality. I learned very quickly in those few days what it means to have a strong identity as God’s child in dangerous and life-threatening situations.
Our identity in Christ is not only important in adversity, but also, perhaps especially so, in prosperity. Many writers, such as Joel Shuman and Keith Meador, have shown that modern Christianity, led by American forms, is increasingly driven by consumerism, the latest stage of capitalism. This means that even in religion, the Christian experience is conceived largely in terms of consumerism – the fulfilment of the desires of the narcissistic self. But the biblical view is that it is all about relationship – about loving rather than consumption.
The problem is that if we do not have a strongly developed Christian identity, as children of God, centred on the Triune God, then we will be reduced by our contemporary culture into self-serving consumers both in the marketplace and in the church.
We must instead allow the Father’s voice, our identification with Christ in our baptism, and the Spirit’s witness within us to reinforce our Christian identity. This identity, knowing whose we are and remembering we are the children of God, will help us to remain faithful to God, whether we drive into the danger zones or dwell in the comfort zones of life.
A STRONG CHRISTIAN IDENTITY
‘The problem is that if we do not have a strongly developed Christian identity, as children of God, centred on the Triune God, then we will be reduced by our contemporary culture into self-serving consumers both in the marketplace and in the church.’