“Hello, my name is Steven.”
I have to confess: I really don’t like name tags. When you go to a conference full of people that you don’t know, however, name tags can be helpful. I found myself in just such a situation this week, gathering with colleagues from across the state of Georgia. While I enjoyed getting to know a number of new people, it was difficult having the same conversation over and over – a veritable theme and variations on the question, “Who are you?” There are only so many ways you can tell your 30 second life story before you get bored of hearing your own story for the fifty-third time.
“Who are you?” It’s a question that can haunt you, if you really stop to think about it long enough. What is your true identity? From where does that identity come? Is it something with which you are born? Is it a gift from your family of origin? Is it related to the place of your birth? Does it stem primarily from your relationships? From your experiences? From the schools you attend? From the teams that you support? From the jobs and functions you perform?
The conventional wisdom of our world tells us: “You are what you do…You are what you think…You are what you eat.” Then, there are those of us who know what it is like to feel that your whole identity is irrevocably defined by your biggest mistakes and failures. At the end of the day, are we merely the sum of our life decisions, the product of our environments, or is there something more – something deeper – to the question of identity?
Psychologists tell us that identity relates to our basic values influencing the choices we make each day. These identities are rarely chosen. Rather, more often than not, we internalize the values of those we love (our parents and peers) or we internalize the values of the dominant cultures in which we are raised. The journey toward maturity…the journey of identity formation…the journey of the spiritual life, then, becomes an attempt to answer this question: Who am I?
Who am I in relation to myself? Who am I in relation to others? Who am I in relation to God?
Many in our world today want to manipulate and exploit us based on these identity markers. They will attempt to convince you that buying a certain product, supporting a certain issue, voting for a certain candidate, or being outraged at a certain perceived injustice will make you one of “us” – one of the insiders. Then, you can be manipulated against all those who don’t own said product or support said candidate or advocate for said issue. You can be turned against the “thems” out there – the outsiders, the common enemy. “They” threaten your way of life. “They” threaten your safety. “They” don’t share your values. “They” are not one of you – not one of us. And we fall for it – hook, line, and sinker – over and over again.
In the well-known story of Jonah, the prophet is caught in a great storm along with a boatload of foreign fishermen (a boat full of “thems”). After determining that Jonah is the cause of the turmoil that they are facing, they come to him and essentially ask, “Who are you?”
Jonah responds, “I am a Hebrew. I worship the Lord.” Isn’t it interesting that he places his ethnic identity as a member of the Hebrew people before his spiritual identity as a worshipper of the Lord? If you know the story of Jonah, you know that he is fleeing from God’s presence because God has called him to go to the city of Nineveh, the city of his enemies, and preach. Jonah is afraid that, if he goes, God may very well forgive his enemies and show them mercy. In Jonah’s mind, Nineveh should get exactly what they deserve (and it is not mercy). His ethnic identity as a member of the Hebrew people has taken priority over his spiritual identity as a worshipper of a loving, gracious, and merciful God.
Writing about Jonah, one pastor described the situation in this way: “Everyone gets an identity from something. Everyone must say to himself or herself, ‘I’m significant because of This’ and ‘I’m acceptable because I’m welcomed by Them.’ But whatever This is and whoever They are, these things become virtual gods to us, and the deepest truths about who we are.”
My hope and prayer is that we may all take a few minutes of self-reflection. Whatever your faith background or conviction, take a few minutes to think about the question, “Who am I?” Have you bought into someone else’s story and someone else’s agenda? Are you a pawn in someone else’s game of cultural manipulation? Are you grounding your identity in something temporary or something eternal? Are you worshipping the false gods of nationalism, materialism, or tribalism or are you worshiping the God who is love?
At the end of the day, the wise person builds their house upon the rock – upon the firm foundation. The foolish person builds upon the shifting sand. May our true identities be grounded upon a foundation that will withstand the test of time and provide resources to keep us from being overwhelmed by the current storms that rage around us.
Rev. Steven Norris