I took up the clarinet in 5th grade. My parents probably wished I hadn’t. I did want to learn—really. But how many times can you play “I Love You Truly” in the expected half hour practice before you start to get a little . . . creative? Or a lot bored.
I don’t remember the teacher at all. I don’t even know if it was a man or a woman. Clearly, I was not inspired. As a result, I was also not very good.
Enter 6th grade and Mr. Leafblad. I don’t remember him ever telling me my playing stunk. (It did.) I don’t recall being bullied, or patronizingly cajoled, or shamed into practicing. I do remember practicing. He had such enthusiasm for leading us. (How anyone manages that in a junior high band I will never, ever comprehend.) He had endless encouragement that I could get better. And I did. In fact, I got to be the best clarinet player in junior high.
I became what I was meant to be, a much better player, because the one in charge accepted me as I was, encouraged me, and saw me as a whole human, not a kid with a clarinet I did, or did not, practice often enough. The desire to do the right thing grew out of love for the person asking it of me.
One of the biggest mistakes we make in trying to figure out our identity in God is to do things that make us acceptable. We hope beyond hope that in doing things we can figure out who we are.
We do too many things that offer us identity.
It worked in school. We figured out early where we fit in. We became the smart one, or the good one. Maybe you were the funny one, the pretty one, the social butterfly, or even the victim. Regardless, we learned that if we kept doing the things that made us whatever we were (getting straight A’s, cracking jokes in class) we had an identity. We were secure.
I spent years proving I deserved my spot in the universe by being the smart one. If I dared let it slip, if (when) I found someone smarter than I was, I would have no idea who I was. It was terrifying.
Don’t we do that in church, too? Don’t we often—usually–approach God that way?
I’ll obey God’s rules. I’ll go do that service project. I’ll come to church, take communion, even go all out and volunteer for children’s church. If I do all these good things for God, I’ll be a good person. That means I’ll know who I am. God will accept me.
You want to know something crazy? Jesus doesn’t call me or you to be a good person. Jesus calls us to be His person. .To get our identity from belonging to him, not from doing good things.
We do this thing backward.
Once we know who we are because of who He is and what He already calls us, we will want to do good things out of pure love and gratitude. When we try to reverse that? Try to obey in order to force-feel acceptance? We get so messed up.
People who try to do this identity thing backward are the ones you meet who are always right. They know what is and is not “approved.” No one else can do it right. Everyone else is a little bit wrong. They are Never. Satisfied. Why? Because we only know who we are–we only feel accepted ourselves–if we’re better at doing good, being good, or toeing line of truth closer than the other guy. If we have to admit we don’t know, that the lines may be more fuzzy than we thought, then we are no longer the best at doing, thinking, and being right. We don’t know who we are.
People who try to do this identity thing backward also become addicted to approval, doing more and more and more, until they burn out. How many of those have we seen? How many have we been? I see that hand. I raised that hand.
There is another way.
Go the right direction. Take our identity from God, freely given, first. We are chosen, beloved, accepted, known, adopted, and so much more. Then, move into obedience. Let the love for the Great Encourager be the motivator to be what we were meant to be. Not the fear that we’ll let Him down.
“For God in all his fullness was pleased to live in Christ,
and through him God reconciled everything to himself.
He made peace with everything in heaven and on earth
by means of Christ’s blood on the cross.
separated from him by your evil thoughts and actions.
Yet now he has reconciled you to himself through the death of Christ in his physical body.
As a result, he has brought you into his own presence,
and you are holy and blameless as you stand before him without a single fault.
But you must continue to believe this truth and stand firmly in it.
Don’t drift away from the assurance you received when you heard the Good News.” (Colossians 1.19-23)
God is not that teacher who won’t ever give the A. He’s not the boot camp sergeant. He’s the one who sees you as what you will be–without fault. Do you really want a label? Try the ones mentioned above: Blameless. Loved. Reconciled. Friend of God. (Because if you’re no longer an enemy, you’re a friend.)
I’ll never get my identity from doing things. Things are things. They can’t offer anything to my soul. Only a person can do that. The Person—the one who asks us to follow, listen, live in the identity we’ve already been given and let good things flow out of that.