[Adapted from Sunday's message: "The Vital Importance of Knowing Who You Are." Listen to the full sermon here.]
A couple weeks ago, I was with some new friends, and we were introducing ourselves, and the cue was
What do we need to know about you to know you?
That’s another way of asking, “Who are you?” If someone were to ask you that question, how would you respond? How would you identify yourself?
- By your job?
- By where you’re from?
- By whether you’re married or single, a parent or a grandparent?
- By how old you are?
- By what you like to do?
How would you talk about your identity, about who you are?
Psychologist James Marcia proposes that there are four statuses (not stages) in identity development:
- Identity diffusion is when a person is unable or unwilling to explore or commit to any particular identity. The least complex and least mature position. Apathy.
- Foreclosure occurs when a person embraces clear commitments, but they’re just inherited from parents or culture, chosen without serious thought or exploration.
- Moratorium (sometimes referred to as “crisis”) is a time of exploring options of who a person wants to be.
- Achievement occurs when a person resolves their explorations, works through crisis and make clear commitments.
According to psychologists and sociologists, young people nowadays are taking more and more time to commit to who they want to become, more time to cultivate an identity. Kara Powell and Chap Clark, who work at the Fuller Youth Institute and interact with a lot of adolescents and teenagers, write:
The breadth of peer relationships that young people experience means they get a wider variety of feedback about how they are perceived. Because friends’ opinions matter so much during adolescence, the result is a delay in identity formation. Quite simply, kids receive inconsistent and too much feedback in response to what they say and how they act, so they often postpone committing to who they want to become.
Over the last few weeks, I’ve had some great conversations with the guys in my small group about what it means to follow Jesus—what it means to be a guy who follows Jesus, what it means to be a 20-something or a 30-something or a 40-something here in DC who follows Jesus, what it means to be a single person or a married person who follows Jesus. All of these conversations revolve around that issue of identity—of who we are.
Because here’s what I think:
who we are determines how we live.
Who you are will determine:
- how you respond when something bad happens—whether it’s small like losing a key or stubbing your toe, or whether it’s big like having your heart broken, losing a loved one, getting sick;
- what you feel called to, what you are willing to do, and what you will do even if you don’t want to do it;
- what you do with your money, what you spend it on, how much you give away, and whom you give to;
- what you spend your time doing and who you spend it with;
- how you engage in friendships and in dating relationships;
- how you think about marriage and whom you choose to marry.
Who we are determines how we live.
But the thing is, many of us don’t know who we are. That “delay in identity formation” feels like it applies not just to teenagers nowadays, but also, still, to some of us: there are so many voices clamoring for our attention, so many opinions, so many perspectives, so many people telling us so many different things, and because we want people to like us, because we want people to affirm us, because we do what we think they want us to do, we end up not knowing who we are, and so we end up not knowing how to live … at least not with consistency and stability.
Pastor and author John Ortberg says,
The soul without a center finds its identity in externals.
Maybe you’ve tried to find your identity in your work, in romantic relationships, in how many people you’ve slept with, in athletic ability, in your families, or in educational achievement.
Maybe you’ve crafted an identity: a work identity—the hard worker, the one who gets things done; a relationship identity—the smooth talker, the one who’s hard to get; a social media presence that doesn’t quite match reality because you only post about the good times; an online dating profile in which every picture of you is flattering or you say you love sports (which is technically true but honestly you’ve watched more sports than you’ve played sports); a LinkedIn page that makes you sound a lot more accomplished than you are or feel—especially because now people can recommend you for the skills they think you’re good at.
Maybe you’ve distracted yourself so you don’t have to figure out who you are (at least that’s what you’re telling yourself): serial dating, assuming every time it breaks down that it was the other person’s fault; sleeping around or just “hanging out” so you can get some sort of affirmation—they may not love me but at least they like having me around and that’s better than nothing, isn’t it?
If we don’t know who we are, we won’t know how to live with consistency and stability and integrity. That word “integrity” carries notions of wholeness, of not being divided. That is the kind of life Jesus lived—where his words and his deeds lined up—and that, I believe, is the kind of life Jesus invites us to live with him.
And so, in talking about our identity, I want to talk first about Jesus’ identity—who Jesus was, who Jesus is—because who Jesus is has everything to do with who we are, and in three ways in particular:
- we are humans, created in the image of God, created to show God to the world, and Jesus was the most human of us all, the truest image of God, the fullest embodiment of God the world has ever seen—so if you want to know how to live fully, look at Jesus;
- we are redeemed by Jesus in order to work with Jesus to reconcile all things to Jesus—so if you want to know your purpose in life, Jesus is pretty important to that too;
- for those who have made the decision to become a Christ-follower, to acknowledge Jesus as Savior and Lord, we are called to be like him.
So knowing who Jesus is, is an indispensable part of knowing who we are.
Let’s look at Luke 3:21-23:
When all the people were being baptized, Jesus was baptized too. And as he was praying, heaven was opened and the Holy Spirit descended on him in bodily form like a dove. And a voice came from heaven: “You are my Son, whom I love; with you I am well pleased.” Now Jesus himself was about thirty years old when he began his ministry.
Many of your Bibles probably label this passage as “Jesus’ baptism,” but the funny thing is, the baptism is not the main point here. Matthew and Mark, in their gospel accounts, spend more time narrating what actually happens at Jesus’ baptism; Luke just says, “When all the people were being baptized, Jesus was baptized too.”
John the Baptist was calling people to repent and be baptized as a symbol of cleansing and entering into a new way of living. People were coming to John to repent of their sins and be baptized, and Jesus was baptized, too. Only … he didn’t have any sin; he didn’t sin—that’s part of why, according to the Christian story, Jesus was able to be the One to save us, because he was without fault, because he never did anything wrong, because he lived life as truly and as fully as a human being was created to. So why, you might ask, did Jesus come to be baptized when he didn’t ‘need’ to be baptized? This is what Scottish theologian William Barclay wrote—and I like this a lot:
In the life of each of us there are certain definite stages, certain hinges on which our whole life turns. It was so with Jesus, and every now and again we must stop and try to see his life as a whole. … When John emerged the people flocked out to hear him and to be baptized. Throughout the whole country there was an unprecedented movement towards God. And Jesus knew that his hour had struck. It was not that he was conscious of sin and of the need of repentance. It was that he knew that he too must identify himself with this movement towards God.
Jesus was saying, “This is my life-direction. This is the time to make public my identification with what John has said, with what John is doing, and, more importantly, with what God is doing at this time and in this place.” It was a hinge-point in his life, a juncture at which he sensed God’s calling to a new chapter.
Luke tells us Jesus was about thirty years old. Thirty meant something for the people of Israel: thirty was
- how old you had to be to become a priest;
- how old Joseph was when he entered the service of Pharaoh (in Genesis 41);
- how old the prophet Ezekiel was when he was called to ministry;
- how old David was when he became king.
Now, you may be thirty—or you may not be. Either way, maybe you’re at a juncture in your life where you’ve sensed God calling you to step out in faith: maybe to trust in him for the first time, maybe to commit your finances to him by giving to the church or another organization that’s seeking to see the kingdom of God here on earth—more of up there down here, maybe to commit your future to him by breaking off a dead-end relationship situation or by making a lifelong commitment to somebody.
Wherever you are, I pray that your ears and your heart will be open to what God is saying, and that, like Jesus, you’ll respond and move into that.
Throughout his gospel, Luke presents Jesus as a man of prayer, pointing out many incidents when Jesus would withdraw to commune with God. That’s all prayer is: taking time to talk with God about what we’re doing together.
I want to be a man of prayer; I want to be in constant contact with the One who knows what’s going on—because much of the time, I don’t! I want our church to be a place of prayer, a place where people commune and communicate with God. I want our community to have a culture of prayer: in the midst of the busyness and activity of DC, I want The District Church to be and be known as a haven of consistency and stability and integrity and peace—“the rest of will that results from assurance about how things will turn out,” as Dallas Willard puts it, because it knows and trusts the One who, in all things, is working for our good. That’s why prayer is important; that’s why, even though I think I’m terrible at praying, I keep working at it, I keep trying to grow in it, I keep asking God to help me be a better pray-er—and even that is praying!
So Jesus, after he’s been baptized, prays; after this definitive moment in his life, he talks with God … and “heaven was opened.” The opening of heaven was symbolic of God’s revelation, God’s showing of himself to his people; it was an indicator that God was about to do something big. After hundreds of years of silence, a voice comes calling in the wilderness; John comes as a prophet of the Lord, having received the word of the Lord, to call all people to the Lord. That’s a sign that something is stirring. And now, after the baptism of Jesus, heaven is opened. Something is happening. Winter is coming. (That’s a Game of Thrones reference, in case you didn’t get it.) The King is returning. (That’s from Lord of the Rings … and from the Bible.) God is about to do something amazing.
I don’t think it’s a coincidence that this happens as Jesus is praying. There have been times in my life where I’ve wondered why I haven’t heard from God, and then he reminds me that I haven’t been listening, that I haven’t been spending much time with him lately. It’s hard to hear when you aren’t listening; it’s hard to have a conversation if you aren’t willing to make time for it.
the Holy Spirit descended on [Jesus] in bodily form like a dove.
Jesus is anointed by the Spirit of God. It’s a sign that he has been chosen by God for a mission, an indicator that he has been commissioned by God for a task and equipped by God for this purpose. It was the Spirit of God that would enable and empower Jesus to do everything he did—signs and wonders; words of truth and love and grace. It was the Spirit of God that would raise Jesus from the dead. And that same Spirit of God, if you put your trust in Jesus, that same Spirit of God lives in you. That same Spirit of God is part of who you are, part of your identity. That same Spirit of God continues to be at work in and through and with you and the larger body of Christ—the Church—to bring life to the world. None of what we want to do—seek the renewal of our city; live good, Christ-imitating lives; love God and those around us with integrity—none of that is possible without the Spirit of God.
And yet so many of us try. So many of us try to change the world/ourselves/other people through our own efforts, apart from God. But God is already working, by his Spirit, in and through people who have dedicated themselves to see God’s renewal on earth—and sometimes even through those who haven’t. What we’re asked to do is be a part of that, to partner in that, to open ourselves up, to trust in Jesus—to trust that what Jesus says is true, to trust that what God says is true.
And a voice came from heaven: “You are my Son, whom I love; with you I am well pleased.”
This is the foundation of Jesus’ identity: Son of God. Beloved by God. Pleasing to God. The language harks back to Psalm 2, the royal psalm, where God says to the king, “You are my son …” It harks back to the words of the prophet Isaiah in 42:1:
Here is my servant, whom I uphold,
my chosen, in whom my soul delights;
I have put my spirit upon him;
he will bring forth justice to the nations.
This is who Jesus is: Son. King. Beloved. Servant. Chosen. Spirit-empowered. Justice-bringer. This is who Jesus is, and this is what Jesus is about. Who he is determines how he lives.
I don’t think this was the first time he had heard the voice of God. I don’t think this was the first time he realized that he had a higher calling. In Luke 2, we read about him spending time at the Temple as a boy and telling his parents, “Didn’t you know I had to be in my Father’s house?” (Luke 2:49)—he was twelve; it was another hinge-point in his story.
We don’t hear from him for another 18 years, during which time he is presumably taking up his father’s trade as a carpenter in Nazareth, being faithful in the mundane, being faithful in the small things—plugging away at work, taking care of his family, loving his neighbors—just as he would later be faithful in the big things. Next week we’ll hear about the temptations Jesus faced before he began his public ministry, and there as well he was faithful because he knew who he was. Or to put it another way, he knew whose he was. Because God had told him: “You are my Son, whom I love; with you I am well pleased.”
You know, Jesus is the only person in the New Testament of whom God says, “I am pleased with you.” That’s because even at this point in his life, even before he embarked on his public ministry, even before the public acclaim and the crowds flocking to hear him speak and see him do miracles, even before all of the celebrity, he was completely faithful—he had loved God with all of his heart, mind, soul, and strength; and he had loved his neighbor as himself—throughout the course of his life thus far; and that’s why God said to him, “I am pleased with you.” Paul wrote, in his second letter to the Corinthians, about making it his goal in life to please God.
I also want to please God; I want to be faithful; I want to do things that make God happy. But I also do things that I know don’t please God—that’s where repentance comes in; that’s where forgiveness comes in; that’s where grace comes in.
Let me be clear here: I don’t try to please God in order to earn his love; I try to please God because I already have his love. Grace is not opposed to effort; it is opposed to earning. For instance, I don’t do things for my wife so that she will love me; I do things for her because she loves me. It’s a very fine line, but it’s a crucial distinction.
God loves us—more than we can ever know—and nothing can change that; but that doesn’t mean God is always pleased with us—especially when we do things that run counter to what he knows is good for us, or when we turn away from him, or when we hurt ourselves or other people. That’s why it does matter how we live. That’s why it does matter whose we are.
Pastor and author Jo Saxton writes:
Contrary to the many mantras of our day, our identity is not found deep within us: it’s given.
It’s given by God, our Creator, the One who made us in his image, the One who knit us together in our mother’s womb, the One who knows what’s best for us. It should not be a surprise, then, to discover that what God says about us and who we are in relation to God are the most foundational aspects of our identity. And yet … global activist Lynne Twist says:
For me, and for many of us, our first waking thought of the day is “I didn’t get enough sleep.” The next one is “I don’t have enough time.” Whether true or not, that thought of not enough occurs to us automatically before we even think to question or examine it. We spend most of the hours and the days of our lives hearing, explaining, complaining, or worrying about what we don’t have enough of. … Before we even sit up in bed, before our feet touch the floor, we’re already inadequate, already behind, already losing, already lacking something. And by the time we go to bed at night, our minds are racing with a litany of what we didn’t get, or didn’t get done, that day. We go to sleep burdened by those thoughts and wake up to that reverie of lack. … This internal condition of scarcity, this mind-set of scarcity, lives at the very heart of our jealousies, our greed, our prejudice, and our arguments with life.
What these voices, this culture, this world, maybe even our loved ones, have said to us about our identity is that we are not enough, that at the foundation of our identity exists a lack, a not-enough, and therefore we must strive—for affirmation, for acceptance, for all that we don’t yet have.
But because of what Jesus did on this earth, because of what Jesus did on the cross, because of what Jesus did in overcoming sin and death, the Apostle John is able to write, “See what great love the Father has lavished on us, that we should be called children of God! And that is what we are!” (1 John 3:1). Because of Jesus, God says to those who say yes to him: “You are mine. I love you.” And then as we get to know him, we learn more and more how we can please the One who not only loves us but the One whom we love in return.
The words that God spoke to his Son:
You are mine. I love you. With you I am well pleased.
These words grant identity; these words speak of home; these words tell you where you belong and whom you belong to. We seek those words too; we desire to hear them; we glean affirmation from them. We wish we heard them more often.
- Maybe from your father or your mother: “You are mine. I love you. With you I am well pleased.”
- Maybe from your husband or your wife: “You are mine. I love you. With you I am well pleased.”
- Maybe from an ex or a significant other: “You are mine. I love you. With you I am well pleased.”
- Maybe from an older brother or sister: “You are mine. I love you. With you I am well pleased.”
In some form or other, from some person or other, we seek these identity-affirming words—“You are mine. I love you. With you I am well pleased.”—because we want to know who we are and whose we are. But the only person who will tell it to us in a way that will bring lasting peace and assurance to the very core of our beings is God. It doesn’t matter how many hundreds of other people tell it to us; the only person whose voice carries eternal weight in this regard is God.
When I was in college, I recommitted my life to Christ; and for the first year or so after that, when I would pray, what I sensed God saying to me most often was “I love you.” And I would be puzzled; I’d say to God,
I know that! Everybody knows that. Jesus loves me, this I know for the Bible tells me so. Tell me something new! Tell me what to do!
But the same thing: “I love you.” Day after day: “I love you.” Week after week: “I love you.” And one day, I realized that God was telling me he loved me so often because that was the most important thing about who I was, and that was the thing that was most easy to forget.
When something goes wrong, when something bad happens, when someone gets mad at you, when someone hurts you, when things don’t go the way you want them to go, when things are out of your control, or even when things are going really, really well—any time, any place, the thing that’s easiest to forget is also the thing that changes everything: God loves you. You belong to God.
Marguerite Shuster, a preaching professor at Fuller Seminary, wrote about a Christian kindergarten teacher she knows. In her class there was a young girl, whose parents were in the middle of a vicious divorce. “Climbing into my friend’s lap, the girl said, ‘Tell me again that Jesus loves me. I keep forgetting.’ The girl knew in her head that Jesus loved her, but she still needed to hear it from the outside.” C.S. Lewis puts it this way:
People need more to be reminded than to be instructed.
God loves you. Whatever hand 2014 has dealt you; whatever hand your life has dealt you; whatever has happened to you, in spite of your best efforts; whatever this week has thrown at you; whatever today has dumped on your doorstep—he says to you, “You are mine. I love you.” Even if your work colleague hates your guts, even if your students don’t pay attention to you, even if the patients you treat couldn’t care less about you; even if you aren’t sure if you’re in the right job or the right place or the right relationship or the right marriage—he says to you, “You are mine. I love you.” Because Jesus is who Jesus is, we can be who we were made to be. God says to you, “You are mine. I love you.”
Maybe you aren’t seeking God, or you wouldn’t call yourself a follower of Jesus, but you too know that longing for affirmation, which you’ve sought
- in the arms of the next guy or the next girl,
- by throwing yourself into work,
- by crafting an identity that people think is you but you know, deep in your heart, is not even close to being true, and certainly not close to where you want to be.
Your Creator God longs to be in relationship with you; the One who loves you and cares for you, desires to call you his own. The God who knew you even before you were born yearns to establish you in the unshakeable, consistent, stable foundation of his love.
In Creation, this God made all things to be good, with a purpose; after we turned away at the Fall, he sought us; he sent Jesus to show us the way—to be our Way and our Redemption; and he desires that all would know him, that all would love him, that all would discover the life and beauty and power in the connection for which we were all made—the connection with the one true God, the God who said to Jesus, “You are my Son, whom I love; with you I am well pleased,” the God who whispers to us, sometimes with tears and sometimes with great barreling laughter, “You are mine. I love you.” And he longs for us to join with him in the work of Renewal, which is that all might know him and that all might be made right, and as we do this, the Father may one day say to us too,
Well done, good and faithful child. With you I am well pleased.
 Powell, Sticky Faith, 56; quoting from “Development and Validation of Ego Identity Status” and “Identity in Adolescence.”
 Powell, Sticky Faith, 54.
 Ortberg, Soul Keeping, 103.
 Barclay, Luke, 45.
 Saxton, More Than Enchanting, 29.
 Twist, The Soul of Money, 43-45.