Sometime between our annual Sabbath, you know the Christmas holiday, and the great American religious sacrament, which ushers in the turning of the spheres—the Super Bowl—there’s a little footnote known as The Golden Globe Awards. In 2016, Jim Carrey introduced the nominees for the best comedy motion picture and said . . . ah . . . I’ll let him say it himself [Roll Clip].
“Thank you. I am two-time Golden Globe winner, Jim Carrey. You know when I go to sleep at night I am not just a guy going to sleep, I am two-time Golden Globe winner, Jim Carrey, going to get some well needed shut eye. When I dream, I don’t just dream any old dream. No, sir. I dream about being three-time Golden Globe winning actor, Jim Carrey. Because then I would be enough. It would finally be true. And I could stop this terrible search for what I know won’t ultimately fulfill me.
But these are important, these awards. I don’t want you to think that just because if you blew up our solar system alone you wouldn’t be able to find us or any human history with the naked eye . . . but from our perspective this is huge.
One more time here are the nominees for best motion picture, comedy.”
Did you catch when Carrey said? The awards and accolades he yearns for won’t fulfill him and he knows it.
Who am I? Where do I fit in? What am I suppose to do? We’ve all asked these questions. We’ve all felt restless or unfulfilled at times. But why? Why do we have this identity crisis? This morning I’ll show you that the identity crisis comes from trying to achieve it from what we do, rather than receiving it from what Jesus has done.
The first hint of who we are comes to us when we’re young, and often it’s unhelpful.
I think my oldest memory of rejection is from I was three or four years old. I walked down the block and knocked on a playmate’s door. He lived with his grandma, and she said, “He has a friend over. Go home,” then she closed the door. I walked away, but not before pressing my face up against the basement widows and watching them play for awhile.
I’m the third wheel, the disposable one. Who are you?
Are you the funny one, like Jim Carrey? The chubby one; the athletic one; the first one; the artsy one; the nerdy one; the pretty one; the wounded one; the proficient one?
A few years ago I realized that I’d earned an officer commission in the military and collected academic degrees, in part, to give the world reasons no to dispose of me.
Who you understand yourself to be drives what you do. So who do you think you are?
We’re going to be walking through the book of Ephesians beginning next week, looking for answers. Pausing for holidays, I plan to conclude the series before the Super Bowl. Today’s message is a preface to the series.
Our Identity, Confused by Lies
The apostle John tells of of three dominant voices that lie to us about who we are: the World, the Flesh, and the Devil (1 John 2:15-26). It’s really hard hear anything but these voices.
The world is all of the messages you get from parents, teachers, peers, neighbors, colleagues, coworkers, and acquaintances. Some of those messages aren’t helpful.
Then, there is is your flesh. I’m not talking about your skin. I’m talking about your old nature that’s opposed to God, focused on yourself, longing for your glory, and preoccupied with your satisfaction and success. The flesh says, “Me, me, me.”
And finally, the devil. The Bible tells us that this fallen angel is the father of lies, a deceiver, a tempter. He wants to separate you from God, by causing you to doubt and distrust God.
The book of Genesis relays a conversation between Eve and the devil. When she told him her understanding of God’s prohibition of eating from the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil, he twisted her thoughts into a pretzel, getting her to think God was hiding something from her: “Oh dearest Eve, ‘You’ll not die if you eat or touch the fruit . . . God knows that it will only open your eyes, and make you like him, knowing good and evil’” (Gen 3:1-5).
What’s that temptation with? Identity! “You’ll be god-like. If you DO something, then you’ll BE something.” Humanity has fallen for that lie ever since.
In the first chapter of Genesis, right at the beginning, God said something you need to hear:
“Let us make man in our image, after our likeness. And let them have dominion over the fish of the sea and over the birds of the heavens and over the livestock and over all the earth and over every creeping thing that creeps on the earth. So God created man in his own image, in the image of God he created him; male and female he created them. And God blessed them” (Gen 1:26-28a).
Your identity doesn’t come from what you do; it is given to you. You receive it from God. Then, it’s your identity that drives what you do. Your identity is received, not achieved.
Adam and Eve didn’t need to eat to be like God, he made them image bearers, to reflect his light like the moon reflects the sun. But they forgot and tried to re-create themselves so they could be like God.
Crisis! Conflict! Chaos!
I can summarize world history in one sentence: Everyone running around trying to establish their own identity; therefore, crisis, conflict, chaos.
Any sin you could possibly think of boils down to: “God is enough for me!” Sin says, “I must create, then guard who I am. I am strong enough, able enough, smart enough, bold enough. I’m a god!” And that flies in the face of what God has said: “You shall have no other gods before me” (Exod 20:3)—idolatry!
Our Identity, Shaped by Idols
The book of Romans tells us something about idolatry. I’m putting this in the first person so it gets personal:
“God’s invisible attributes, namely, his eternal power and divine nature, have been clearly perceived, ever since the creation of the world, in the things that have been made. So we are without excuse. For although we knew God, we did not honor him as God or give thanks to him, but we became futile in our thinking, and our foolish hearts were darkened. Claiming to be wise, we became fools, and exchanged the glory of the immortal God for images resembling mortal man and birds and animals and creeping things” (Rom 1:20-23).
Few us grasp at carved images, but our heart certainly grasps at things other than God as the root of our joy and the center of our hope.
I’m going to lay an acrostic on you to help us truly see ourselves. Brace yourself . . . this will get in your business. You’ll want to defend your idols.
I — Items
Okay, first letter . . . I – Items. We are conspicuous and competitive consumers.
I buy things that I don’t need because I think it will make me stand taller and feel prouder: technology, clothing, any material item you can think of. My ex-father-in-law gave me a Rolex watch as a wedding present. I used to strut when I wore that watch. That is, conspicuous consumption.
Competitive consumption is when we look at others, and feel the the pressure to keep in step, to stay up to date.
When I first met Brittany she looked at my closet and said, “We have to take you shopping, cause you’ve got clothes in here from the 1990s.” I said great! I looked forward to the shopping spree. But she was wrong. Half of those clothes in my closet were from the 1980s.
Years ago a woman came and asked for help with her electric bill. The church helper her. She came back a little while later for marriage counseling and over the following month it came out that she had a cottage, a boat, and operated a small convince store at the lake. Adjustments to her assets so she could keep her lights on, however, was out of the question. Why? Because her identity was attached to stuff and how people perceived at her.
When you look at stuff to tell you who you are, you’ve discovered an idol.
D — Duties
“D” is for Duties.
In 1999, the Air Force sent me to war, and stationed me in Turkey. My commanding officer was rather political and one day she went golfing with another woman from the base engineering squadron who I knew well. The engineer was a civilian, but second in command of the engineering squadron. While they were golfing my commander asked her multiple times what she did on base. The engineer said she worked in engineering but didn’t give additional details. She told me later on, “Your commander was playing politics. She would’ve treated me different based on whatever answer I gave—so I avoided the game and played golf.”
When we meet a new people, it’s standard to ask two question: (1) What’s your name?, and (2) What do you do? Why those questions? Because they’re identity questions. And we’re so used to identifying ourselves by what we do: I’m a stay-home dad; I’m in sales; I’m a musician; I’m college student; I’m a truck driver.
I hate telling people that I’m a pastor. Every time I do they get weird and start apologizing for slouching.
What do you is how you get to glorify God and serve our neighbors. When it become that which you derive our identity from, it’s become an idol.
O — Others
I’ve touched on the letter “O” a bit already; so, I can be short here. We really do care what other people think about us. The person who says, “I don’t care,” is a liar.
I use social media a lot. But it scares me. When I post something, then find myself looking back to to see how many people have responded to it, I know I’m on thin ice.
But receiving praise is like taking heroine. It get’s you high and addicted at the same time. Criticism, on the other hand, make you run for cover.
We idolize people and groups.
L — Longings
Items can be an idol, duties can be an idol, others can be an idol, and our longings can also become an idol.
When our heart gets filled with naïve optimism, longings become an idol. We say things like, “Today is a loss, but tomorrow will be a win!” “ I’m unemployed now, but my train is coming in!” We quote Maria from the Sound of Music, “When God closes a door, He opens a window”
Friends, just so you know, that’s not in the Bible.
Then sometimes we put spiritual sprinkles on top of our optimism and say: “I have verses; I’ll claim the verses.” It doesn’t seem to matter if we take those verses out of context or confuse God for a vending machine.
So your mood, your emotions, your well-being get’s tossed to an fro by the success of failure of achieving your longings. If something leverages control over you like that, which isn’t God himself, then it’s an idol.
S — Sufferings
The last letter of our acrostic is “S” for sufferings.
All of us have suffered in someway: physically, emotionally, psychologically, financially, relationally. It’s a broken world with broken people.
But sometimes we confuse our brokenness with our identity: “I’m an alcoholic,” “I’m an adulterer,” “I’m an abuse victim,” “I’m a foster kid,” “I’m a cancer patient,” “I’m a single-parent.” Compassion comforts those who have and are suffering. But if you want to be loving, empathize with you suffering friend, but also guard them from wearing their suffering as a prison uniform.
Suffering becomes an idol when it gains a priority position in the heart. You have cancer, but you aren’t cancer. You experienced a divorce, but divorce isn’t your identity.
My friend Sara was diagnosed with breast cancer in early 2008. It was stage 4, but she went on to beat it. But at the very end of 2010 the cancer was back, this time in her brain. It was inoperable and she died in 2016.
But during her battle it was as if she was in a different world. She was at peace, she was happy, and she said: “The Lord has a story that he wants me to tell.”
It wasn’t a story about conquering cancer. It wasn’t about fulfilled longings. It was about the sufficiency of God, how he sustained her in the midst of the storm. She told God’s story through the illustration of her own.
Sara’s husband, Chris, said at her memorial service:
“What you don’t know is that when Sara sat here and told you some of what God had been teaching her over the previous years, is that at that time the doctors had told me that Sara had two to three weeks to live.
And the doctor at NIH tried an experimental drug on her that was not suppose to work on her type of cancer. But it did. And she got out of that wheel chair and started using that sparkling blue cane. And even then, the doctors at NIH told me—and only I knew—that she only had about 4 months. That was 16 months ago.
So for the thousands of people who have prayed for healing over the nine years of cancer, I want you to know that God answered that prayer. Not in the full healing that we hoped for, but he did provide healing. He gave us another year and a half—a good year and a half—with Sara.
Three and a half years ago, Sara and I sat in her oncologist office. Dr. Wilkinson accounted the news that the cancer had moved to her brain and there were these two good sized tumors up there. And after the doctor said that, Sara turned and looked at me with eyes filled of tears and fears.
What do you say? What could you say in a moment like that?
And what I said was: “It is going to be okay.”
She looked at me like I was crazy. And she said, “How do you know it is going to be okay?”
And of course I didn’t know what was going to happen. I didn’t know medically what was to come. I didn’t know what the future held. But what I told her was:
“We are firmly held in the grip of the sovereign King of the universe who is our Father and is all-powerful and loves us. He will never ever, ever let us go. And therefore, by definition we are ‘okay’. And we will always be ‘okay.’ And I don’t know what that ‘okay’ is going to look like. I don’t know what form ‘okay’ is going to take. But we will be okay. And not ‘okay’ in the usual sense of the word, but this word shalom. Shalom means peace, prosperity, wholeness, fullness of life. And that is what we have experienced through all of the twists and turns. And Sara is now eternally ‘okay,’ experiencing that shalom because she is with Jesus.”
There’s a false gospel message out there. It’s on the radio, you can hear it coming from many pulpits, you and read it in books from the grocery store, and it says: “God wants you to be healthy, wealthy, and prosperous. That’s your right as a child of the King. Name and claim your inheritance. All you need to do is be positive, and do your best, and God will do the rest.”
Why does that message tickle the ears? Because we like ten tips to total triumph. We like being in control of outcomes.
That message sounds good, but it’s from the pit of hell and smells like smoke.
If you park your heart on it and you don’t get the desires of your heart you’re left thinking either: (1) God doesn’t care, or (2) God isn’t all-powerful. And if those thoughts are out-of-bounds, then (3) you must be the problem—you didn’t do the rain dance correctly.
But the message of health, wealth, and prosperity has an even more insidious problem: It fastens our heart to items, duties, others, longings, or the sufferings we’ve erected our identities on, by saying life is all about your achieving that stuff. You’re the center of the solar system, and the Lord is the largest planet revolving around you. That’s idolatry!
Christianity isn’t first and foremost about you. It’s not about your getting stuff, it’s not about your fulfillment; it’s not about your success; it’s not even about your sinning less.
Christianity is about Christ; it’s about what God has done for you in Jesus. And you get to spend a lifetime learning how to trust and rest in what Jesus has done as you walk up every hill and down into every valley.
What makes Jesus look wonderful, what reflects the light of his image, isn’t stuff that glitters or successes that shine. What reflects his light, his all-sufficiency:
“Is when you smash your car and your little girl goes flying through the windshield and lands dead on the street and you say, through the deepest possible pain, God is enough. God is enough, he will take care of us. He will satisfy us. He will get us through this. He is our treasure. Whom have I in heaven but you and on earth there is nothing that I desire besides you, my flesh and my heart, and my little girl may fail, but you are the strength of my heart and my portion forever. That makes God look glorious!” (John Piper).
Peace came to Sara as her heart was gripped by the gospel that came through Chris’s mouth:
“We are firmly held in the grip of the sovereign King of the universe who is our Father and is all-powerful and loves us. He will never ever, ever let us go. And therefore, by definition we are ‘okay’. And we will always be okay.”
Friends, that’s abundant life. Abundant life isn’t lived through gifts that may come or go; abundant life is lived through the very life of the giver. Abundance is when your heart is weaned from gifts and welded to the giver. “The Lord is the strength of my heart,” says the psalmist (Psa 73:26)—that’s more than print on a coffee cup.
Our Identity, Redeemed by Christ
How do you know who you are? Earlier I read from Romans 1, so let me return there. In verses 16 and 17, Paul says:
“I am not ashamed of the gospel, for it is the power of God for salvation to everyone who believes. . . . For the righteousness of God is revealed from faith for faith, as it is written, ‘the righteous shall live by faith.’”
This passage confused the dickens out of 16th century theologian, Martin Luther. In his day not many read the Bible and those that did read the Latin translation called the Vulgate. In that translation “righteousness” was translated as “justice.” And if you read the passage through the lens of the Roman legal system you’d come to the conclusion that God “justifies”—puts in a right relationship with himself—those who perform the acts of faith, which the church understood to mean the sacraments. In other words, what you do determines who you are.
But, and it’s a big but, one day Luther was sitting on the throne a dark and drafty room—if you catch my drift. He wasn’t reading Popular Science; but the New Testament in the original Greek. When he came to the word “righteousness” he blown away, but the Greek word, dikaiosune, didn’t mean “justify” as the Latin read. It meant “to declare one righteous.”
Luther said, “Oh my . . . Paul isn’t talking about the righteousness by which God himself is righteous, but the righteousness that God gives freely by his grace to people who don’t have a righteousness of their own . . . Whoa! The righteousness by which I am saved isn’t mine, it’s alien to me, it’s Jesus’” He went on, “When I discovered that, I was born again of the Holy Ghost. And the doors of paradise swung open, and I walked through.”
Yes, Martin, you got it! “For by grace you have been saved through faith. And this is not of your own doing; it is the gift of God” (Eph 2:8). God created you in his image, and redeemed you in his Son.
Who you are is received, not achieved. It’s found in the Father’s heart for you!
There is a story of a woman who in a moment of self-awareness at a discipleship conference awakened to who she was in Jesus. Her story is this . . .
One day when she was very young, she saw her older sister hanging up her father’s wet business shirts on the clothesline to dry. She was suddenly filled with the urge to hang up one of her daddy’s white shirts. He was her daddy too, and she wanted to express her love for her daddy. But she couldn’t reach the clothesline. But she saw a wheelbarrow in the yard. It’s handles were just the right height for her. So she joyfully pinned the shirt to the handles, not noticing how rusty they were.
When her dad got home and saw the shirt on the wheelbarrow, he became very angry, and punished her severely for ruining his shirt. Before the conference she’d never realized the impact that the event and others like it had made on her.
As she recalled these scenes from her past, she saw that her view of God had been that he was the same as her earthly father. She really hadn’t believed the gospel, that God loves her in Jesus. That he forever delights in her.
The next morning at the conference she recounted to a mentor, and said, “I guess if God the Father saw me standing next to the wheelbarrow with the ruined shirt on it, he would forget the shirt and hug me.”
“You still don’t understand fully,” the mentor told her. “God would not overlook the shirt, but take it, put it on, and wear it to work. And when someone commented on the rust marks, he would say, “Let me tell you about my little girl and how much she loves me.”
That’s what the Father is like. And who you are is who God says you are in Jesus—redeemed. You’re not an orphan turned out to the streets. You are his beloved! Remember that.