MORE THAN RULES AND RITUALS:
DOES GOD ACCEPT WHO I AM?
Think back to your first day at university – setting out on the new adventure of living away from home, cooking your own meals, meeting new people. I remember the mixed feelings of exhilaration and apprehension at my newfound independence. But I also recall the advice some friends offered: “This is your opportunity to reinvent yourself” –. I couldn’t help feeling offended – why wouldn’t people accept me for who I am already?
Fast forward 13 years: today we are caught in the vortex of changing attitudes and ideas about identity. Identity is considered “fluid” rather than fixed. We have to “invent” our value, rather than inherit it. We’re almost like plastic Lego people – you can customise and change yourself at will.
Let me suggest there are two smaller questions hidden within the title:
- The ME question: Who am I?
- The GOD question: Does HE accept ME as I am?
- WHO AM I?
Our sense of identity is our “inner narrative”, which describes our REAL SELF (who I am) and SELF-WORTH (why I am valuable). But where does it come from?
Here in the western world, we are told to LOOK WITHIN OURSELVES to discover our true self. We grow up hearing: “Be True To Yourself” – “You are the author of your own destiny”. Sociologist Robert Bellah famously called this phenomenon: “expressive individualism”. It insists that we should be authentic to ourselves: following our desires, and resisting the pressure to conform to others’ expectations. This the philosophy of Disney movies. For example, in ‘Frozen’ - princess Elsa’s theme song celebrates her liberation to be her authentic self: “Don't let them in, don't let them see; Be the good girl you always have to be; Conceal, don't feel; don't let them know… Let it go, let it go; Can't hold it back anymore… No right, no wrong, no rules for me, I'm free”.
However, LOOKING INSIDE isn’t the only way to answer the identity question. Interestingly, in non-western societies, an individual’s identity and self-worth is defined OUTSIDE THEMSELVES by their community, especially in meeting their family’s expectations. If you're anything like me that sends a chill down your spin, because it sounds like the ideal recipe for repression and suffocation. But then again, on what basis can we say that the western world’s view of identity is any more valid?
A crucial reason for this difference is down to the West’s Christian heritage. In his mammoth work “The Sources of the Self” philosopher Charles Taylor traces the history and argues that Christianity inspired our respect for individual freedom and choice. Christianity broke with paganism in saying that the individual matters– because every single person has been created by God in His image, with inherent dignity and unique characteristics to cultivate. We have good reasons to be thankful for this heritage! Secular western society may have severed itself from its roots of belief in God, but still enjoys the fruits of that Christian worldview.
Nevertheless, it is endangered today! Having denied any divine foundation, instead we have to self-construct our own identity and value. And psychiatrist Prof Glynn Harrison has warned about the resulting “fragility of the modern of the self”. Two common ways people try to answer the ME QUESTION….
- BE GOOD AT SOMETHING
You can seek to construct your identity and value on your performance. I’ve tried this one before – I call it “treadmill life” – you’re constantly pushing yourself to do more and achieve goals. In academic life, it can mean you feel good about yourself when you get the good essay mark back, but feel crushed when the exam doesn’t go as well as planned. It’s exhausting and can result in “performance anxiety” – haunted by the question: am I doing enough? Am I good enough? Someone who knows all about that anxiety is the international rugby player Jonny Wilkinson. In his biography he tells the story of what happened a few hours after his world cup winning kick. He was alone in his hotel room, not celebrating but worrying – he explains: “I’m only as good as my last kick. I’m terrified of failure”. It is unstable and unhealthy to base your identity and value on your performance.
- BE SEEN BY SOMEONE
The other tactic is to construct your identity based being respected and approved of by other people. The social media revolution has made it easier to pursue external affirmation to feel good about yourself. If anything like me, you’ll have posted a status update or picture – and checked 10 minutes later to see if people have liked or commented on it. This isn’t all harmless. It can fuel the worst of our insecurities and self-absorbing tendencies. In 2014 the university of Pittsburgh did a study that suggested a link between the most prolific users of social media and a 3x greater likelihood of struggles with anxiety and depression. It can make you feel miserable and isolated – when you see all the fun others are having. Social media is also powerless to deal with the negative sides of our identity – the stuff we want to filter out so people won’t think badly of us. We always try to present ourselves in the best light – the best angle in selfies, the wittiest comments, the most exciting parts of our otherwise dull days. Truth be told, we care a lot about other peoples’ perceptions of us. Before we even think about God - it’s almost as if we struggle to accept ourselves fully – afraid that other people won’t accept us if they saw the REAL us warts and all. Because if we’re honest, there is a gap between our IDEAL SELF and our ACTUAL SELF. For many of us, in-between there’s a gulf filled with guilt, shame and regret that we hide away.
Today I want to share with you that there is SOMETHING MORE than these fragile self-constructed identities. Our identity is not simply to be found WITHIN the self, or constructed BY the self – it is REVEALED TO the self, by God our maker. There is power in Christianity as not only a positive source for identity but as a power to deal with the negative sides of our self. At its heart is what philosopher Charles Taylor calls “its central promise of a divine affirmation of the human”.
That takes us to the second question:
- DOES GOD ACCEPT ME AS I AM?
To help answer the question, let me tell you the story of Jean Valjean in the classic story “Les Miserables”. He’s a man haunted by his past. Released after 20 years imprisonment, everywhere he goes he carries a yellow passport that marks him as an ex-convict. He is not welcome anywhere. In the musical he sings “Who am I?” – can he ever escape the curse of being prisoner 24601??? Well the turning point for Jean Valjean comes one night after an elderly priest gives him a bed to sleep. Under cover of darkness Valjean steals the silverware. But his escape is blocked by the police and he is frogmarched back to the church. But shockingly the priest tells them – the silver was a gift to Valjean and he forgot to take the valuable candlesticks too. This elderly priest becomes a channel for Valjean to have a life transforming encounter with God’s undeserved grace and lovingkindness.
That doesn’t just happen in fiction – but in real life too. The gospel of John records the true story of Jesus meeting a Samaritan woman at a well. She has many skeletons in her closet. Her backstory was she had sought to find her identity in being loved and desired by men. This had spiralled into a string of broken relationships and sexual adulteries – a source of shame and scandal in this traditional culture. She is an outcast, rejected by everyone. However, not by Jesus! He has travelled miles out of his way, crossing all the racial, social and gender barriers to connect with her.
To her surprise, Jesus reveals that He knows everything about her scandalous past. But he sees the real reason beneath it all. Just as she comes daily thirsty for water and draws a bucket full – that satisfies her for a time but then runs out. Likewise her soul is thirsty for love and acceptance. And that’s what Jesus has come to offer: “living water” – meaning a fresh, unceasing fountain that can satisfy her deepest needs and can wash away her shame. She sought her identity in relationships with men, when she needs a restored relationship with God the “fountain of living water”
This encounter with the undeserved grace and lovingkindness of God transforms her life. Overwhelmed, she runs back into town, publicly telling people about Jesus “the man who told me all I ever did” – no more shame or hiding – she has been set free to be her true self – child of God!
He was able to forgive this ashamed and thirsty woman at a well, because He ended His life thirsting and dying on the Cross in her place – bearing her guilt, shame, and the penalty that her sins deserved. He did that for all of us - taking them down to death and the grave. Then Jesus rose again offering us the gift of new life – a true identity and infinite value.
This answers our question: Does God accept me as I am?
Jesus shows us that God sees us as we are – both the good and the bad – and yet chooses to love us. Indeed He loves us too much to leave us as we are. He intends to restore us to be more fully human, not less. He has grand designs for each of our unique individual selves!
For me personally, the question: WHO AM I? Isn’t as important as the question: WHOSE AM I? Let me finish telling you about a German Christian called Dietrich Bonhoeffer. He was arrested for opposing the Nazi regime and helping lead an underground Christian community. He was brutally dehumanised, tortured and had everything else taken away from him. In his final poem written from prison begins: “Who am I?” But he concludes with these words: “Who am I? They mock me, these lonely questions of mine. Whoever I am, Thou knowest, O God, I am thine!”