Essential Identity

November 29, 2013

The social situations of Thanksgiving week, not to mention the daily high-quality conversations with rotating home helpers, have caused me once again to reflect on some of the assumptions we make in life.  In particular this week, the question is How do I see myself, my essential identity, in light of what has been happening lately?

The references to “my friend with cancer,” “she’s a fellow cancer victim,” and other designations that define me (or others) by our ailment have been bothering me a bit. I think I newly appreciate one of the sensitivities my husband has demonstrated for years. As staff scientist for a medical devices company, Andy designs products destined to help people who have diabetes manage their disease effectively. You notice I said “people who have diabetes” instead of “diabetics.” It diminishes people with a chronic disease or condition to be named by it, when they really are characterized by something far more fundamental, an essential identity uniquely their own. So from a medical inventor’s perspective, the idea is to provide tools that help people— school teachers, truck drivers, business managers, or community activists, moms or dads or children—live their lives defined by far more powerful realities than diabetes.

Or cancer. And by the way, no one has used this term in reference to me, but just so we’re clear, I am not a “victim” of cancer, or of anything.

But what or who am I?

The question is an important one for Christians who have placed their full faith and trust in Jesus Christ. We vacillate between a triumphalist designation—the Elect—and a woe-is-me mantle—totally depraved. We Presbyterians wear our Calvinism on our sleeves sometimes. Among evangelicals of all stripes, I think the most common identities in contention are “child of God” and “sinner.”

Some might feel that the name Sinner discouragingly labels us. Are we really defined by our fallen nature before God? Is this an essential part of our character: to be flawed and sinful, weighted down by confused motives and ungodly behavior? From a biblical standpoint, the Apostle Paul’s conviction of sinner as his essential identity only grew as he aged and became more acquainted with his own spiritual struggle. In his earlier letters he refers to himself as “least among the saints” (Ephesians 3:8), but by the time he writes the pastorals he is “chief among sinners” (1 Timothy 1:15). It was he who declared, “All have sinned and fall short of the glory of God” (Romans 3:23). So yes, we are Sinners. This is our reality and we cannot escape its truth, even now.

But as we say so, in Christ, there is a huge “And” to follow:  “And [we] are justified freely by [God’s] grace through the redemption that came by Christ Jesus.” We are not only sinners, but we are redeemed. That means that, by God’s action on our behalf, we have been lifted out of the dead-endedness of sin and into a hopeful and restored life made new in Christ. This too is our reality: “But to all who received him [the Word], who believed in his name, he gave power to become children of God” (John 1:12). So yes, we are Children of God. This is also our reality and we cannot escape its truth either.

The designation Sinner is like the identifier Sick. It represents a reality but points to a path toward restoration: the Sinner is redeemed by the Savior; the Sick is healed by the Physician. You can’t experience salvation without the recognition of your sinfulness, just as you can’t experience healing without acknowledging first that you are sick! [Jesus had fine things to say to his Pharisee roadies on this subject—Matthew 9:12 with parallels]

So when I say “I have lung cancer,” I am admitting I am sick and in need of healing. But I am not referring to myself in a permanent way as a cancer victim, because a) nothing about this situation ultimately threatens my identity; b) God is moving mightily to heal me, and I gratefully receive the help; and c) my illness has not changed essentially who I am. One of my visitors this week even said so, and it thrilled me to hear it. “Mary, I am so happy to see that you are fully yourself.” And so I shall be, in Christ: wife and mother, teacher, quilter, blogger, mentor to the next generation of pastors, and a redeemed sinner and a child of God, who is contending for the moment with a Beast that will be slain.



2 Responses to “Essential Identity”

  1. Floyd Rhoades Says:

    Right on sister!

  2. emd5542 Says:

    Amen! And thank you.

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