I think the biggest challenge is stepping up and claiming our role in the work of God’s kingdom – whether that be in our own personal lives or in the corporate life of the faith community – is that in order to define our role, we must first define ourselves. To know oneself is perhaps the greatest challenge in this modern day, a time where everyone around you is seeking to define you, often without your input. In our society, a society defined by fast paced living and social media, perception has become king. What others perceive about you, whether it be true or not, becomes the expected reality. That expected reality often becomes a lived truth, even if it isn’t true.
Pastor Kyle Idleman, of Southeast Church in Louisville, Kentucky, makes a connection between our expected realities and a sociological term called “nominative determinism.” The hypothesis of nominative determinism, as first published in 1994 in the New Scientist magazine, is that people tend to gravitate towards areas of work that fit their name. This trend should not be a huge surprise, it’s a very biblical model – names have significance. But, to give a few examples, we have people like Dr. Richard Payne, who is recognized as an expert in pain relief. Jennifer Justice serves in the music industry as a lawyer. Dr. Russell Brain is a British neurologist who wrote and edited a medical journal dedicated to neurology titled, Brain.
The hypothesis seems to be lived out, as people take on careers or life styles that have significant connections with their names. Perhaps one you know better, Usain Bolt, the Jamaican track star, is hailed as the fastest main on earth. Some connections are just downright silly, like Dr. Randall Toothaker – I bet you can guess his profession … right, he’s a dentist. Then we have Amy Freeze and Larry Sprinkle who work as a meteorologist and weatherman in New York City and North Carolina respectively. And finally, I was speaking with some close friends of Ernest Earman, a church member who died at the age of 95 last weekend. They said if there were a word to define him, it would be his first name – he was quite the earnest individual.
“Researchers have shown that our names take root deep within our mental worlds drawing us magnetically toward the concepts we embody.”[i] This is where our expected realities begin to define our actual reality. We allow the definitions and perceptions by others, even something as simple as our given name, to shape our lived experience, because those definitions and perceptions start to be assumed as the base of our identity.
Over the coming month, we’re going to be looking at the different definitions and perceptions that often take over our assumed identity. We’re working with an assumption that our identity is the truest thing about us – our identity will shape who we are, and thus will shape every thought we have, every word we say, and every act we live out. However, what happens when the identity we allow to define us is not the right identity at all? Then we have huge problem, because we begin to think, and speak, and act out of an identity that, while mentally we have allowed ourselves to think as truth, is actually false.
Proverbs 23:7 says, “For as one thinks within their heart, that is what they are.” What we think about ourselves, deep down in our core, becomes our lived reality. Behavior flows from identity, so if you want to know why you’re acting a certain way, it’s most likely because of where you find your identity at that given time.
Let’s be honest with ourselves – when we start to think about our self, when we start to look at ourselves in the mirror, we often identify ourselves by our most visible and often worst traits. When others try to identify us, they often seek to identify us by the same perceptions we have of ourselves in the mirror. These visible perceptions are, more times than not, false perceptions – they are Fake IDs. Just to name a couple quick examples: growing up, I loved playing baseball and football. I played football all the way through my freshman year of college. I had this expected reality to identify as a jock. The expectation of this identity as a jock was that my behavior would match that of a jock; there were expectations that I would participate in bullying others around school and engaging in locker room talk with all my jock friends. However, I also played in the band as a percussionist, so I also had this expected identity to live as a band geek. The band drumline in my school had a certain expected identity for itself – they were known to be partiers and loudly obnoxious people. Yet, I also was very involved at church, and that brought a whole new level of expected behaviors because of my identity as a church kid. From my church friends, who knew I played sports and played the drums, I was expected to be this cool jock who loved to party … but from my school friends, who knew I was involved in church, I was expected to be this goody-two-shoes Christian boy who never liked to have fun or party. I never felt like I knew my identity growing up, because I had so many expected identities. In truth, reflecting back, I not even sure I know which identity I claimed to truly define myself.
So I say this with some lived experience, in order to live out faithfully from an identity that accurately defines us, we must first reject the false perceptions and expectations of others to free ourselves from the power of those false identities. In the coming weeks, we’re going to look at some of these false identities in more detail, but today … as we begin to consider our true identity, as we look for our Valid ID, we start with scripture’s claim on each of our lives.
Paul says in Ephesians 4, going back to verse 1, “I, Paul, a prisoner of the Lord, beg you to lead a life worthy of the calling to which you have been called.” Paul knew that our lived behaviors would follow what we claimed as our identity. So he says, “live a life worthy of your identity, an identity that is defined as one who has been called by God.” In fact, if we back up even further, to Ephesians chapter 1, verses 3 to 4, Paul better defines our identity. He says, “Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ … just as he chose us in Christ before the foundation of the world to be holy and blameless before him in love.” Even before the foundation of the world, God had given us an identity as chosen people, beloved people, holy people.
So back in Ephesians 4, Paul, wise as he was, knew that our behavior would be defined by our identity. His assumption is that we know our identity has been defined for us by God as holy and blameless people. And because we are living out of this identity, because our behavior is shaped by our identity as God’s holy children, Paul goes on to define what our behavior should look like. In other words, Paul says, “Here’s who you are, and because of who you are, here how you should be living.”
We pick up in verse 25 if you’re following along in the text:
First, our words should be truthful. “Let us speak the truth to our neighbors, for we are members of one another.”
There’s a change in Paul’s wording here from what he uses when talking about the church community. Usually, with Paul is talking about the church community, he refers to it as “the body.” We see this in 1 Corinthians, chapter 12, when Paul talks about the necessity of the multiple members of “the body.” Yet here, in Ephesians 4, Paul is saying you must be truthful to your neighbors. He is broadening the scope. This call is to be truthful even to those who are not members of the body – not members of the church. “No genuine community can be built on deception. It must be built on truth.”[ii] So the first behavior of one whose identity is a called child of God is to speak truthfully to all persons.
Second, do not allow your anger to turn in to sin.
The text is not saying that faithful people, who are living out their identity as claimed and beloved children of God, can never be angry. “When we see the poor oppressed, we should get angry. When the ‘other’ is demeaned or insulted, we should get angry. But anger can be an occasion for sin, for seeking revenge instead of justice, for holding a grudge instead of seeking reconciliation. It is sin that is renounced.”[iii] When living out our identity as claimed children of God, we are expected to be angry at such injustices. However, we are not called to retaliate. Instead, as Paul says in the letter to the church in Rome, “if you enemies are hungry, feed them; if they are thirsty, give them something to drink.”[iv]
For those whose identity is a called child of God, we learn to handle anger differently. “Peaceable difference does not mean indifference to the injustice that hurts or harms another.”[v] However, it does mean finding a more faithful way to respond.
Third, do not steal, but work honestly and share with the needy.
To live out of an identity rooted in God’s claim on your life, as a called child of God, Paul lays out an expectation that you are putting to use the gifts, talents, ideas, and passions God has given you. One commentary notes: “The advice commends work without glorifying it. Work itself is a good thing, but it is not God. Some of us are tempted to make it a god, making it the center and foundation of our lives, staking our identity upon it. And some of us are tempted to make ourselves gods in our work, as if we were the Messiah and our work messianic. Against such temptations it is important to say that there is a God, and our job is not it, and that there is a Messiah, and we are not him.”[vi]
Furthermore, Paul once again roots our identity and the behavior that stems from that identity, to have a central focus on the community – not on us as individuals. The named purpose of work is that we have something to share with the needy. For those who identity as children of God, we work not for ourselves, but so that we can share and help provide for those with needs.
Forth, Paul goes back to the use of the words we speak. The first focus was on speaking truthfully. Here, Paul says do not speak of evil things, but only say those things that are necessary for the building up of other people. Let the words that you speak be as grace to those who hear. Focus on your speech, “for words are the index of a person’s character.”[vii] The words you speak are a direct result of the identity you claim. When you claim your identity as God’s beloved, your words will be used for building up others, not tearing them down.
Fifth and finally, Paul says do not be bitter, do not have wrath toward another, put away all anger, put away all slander, and put away all malice. Paul says, indicative of our identity as a called and claimed child of God, we should be kind to one another, tender-hearted, and forgiving of one another. Going in to chapter 5, Paul sums this up by saying, “Be imitators of God, as beloved children, and live in love, just as Christ loved us and gave himself up for us.” By claiming your identity as a child of God, you will live a life that imitates the love of God in Jesus Christ.
For a lot of people, claiming an identity as a Christian means having to follow this “grand rulebook.” But the reality is, the scriptural text is not offered for us as a list of rules to follow, where, if we follow the rules, we get to be called children of God. No, it’s quite the opposite. The scriptural witness is a historical and faith-based account of what life looks like for those who identify as children of God. It’s a testimony to the behavior we will exemplify when we claim our identity as those who are beloved children of the Almighty God.
Our behavior should mark our identity … If we claim our identity as Christians, as the beloved children of God that scriptures claim we are, then we should act out of that identity. So I challenge you today, and over the coming weeks, listen to what God has said about you in Scripture. As you listen to these texts and to the voice God, as you hear God’s claim on your life, I want you to consider, what would be different about your life if you lived out of this identity as a called, claimed, beloved, and holy child of God. That is your Valid ID, may you claim it and live it. Amen.