Identity Outside the Gospel

Theres a wrestle in our hearts to live out the identity that God has given to us because theres a temptation to demand fulfillment out of the things we buy and the things we do. For the Christian, this is a core issue. It is a battle that we can easily suppress in our waking hours sitting behind a desk or in front of a screen.

Topics: The Gospel | Identity

There’s a wrestle in our hearts to live out the identity that God has given to us because there’s a temptation to demand fulfillment out of the things we buy and the things we do. For the Christian, this is a core issue. It is a battle that we can easily suppress in our waking hours sitting behind a desk or in front of a screen.

Desiring God has produced a new podcast, hosted by Tony Reinke, titled Authors on the Line. The podcast premiered in fall 2012 with Kyle Strobel discussing a new edition of Jonathan Edward’s Charity and Its Fruits. Strobel was followed shortly by Timothy Keller regarding his new work, Every Good Endeavor.

When asked about the tendency of young adults to look for identity in status, Keller responded:

There have been a lot of great books written recently on the idea that we live in a consumeristic age in which your identity is seen in the products you consume. I’m the kind of person that wears this kind of clothing, owns this kind of electronics; these are the accessories I use, so you actually get your identity from the brands that you use. I’m afraid what’s happened here is that jobs are like that, too. And there is no doubt, that (a) I see plenty of people taking jobs that don’t fit their talents very well, and (b) very often the jobs don’t necessarily fulfill them because the jobs aren’t really helping people very much, but the jobs are high status. And because they are high status people, they feel like they need to be in that job so they feel good about themselves, so it is an identity marker. So people are very often not choosing jobs on the basis of vocation, not saying, “What gifts do I have and how can I be useful to other people through my work?” but, “How do I take a job that gives me the same kind of sense of self worth that I get when I am driving a particular kind of car?”

How do you define yourself based on these terms? What do you own, what are you working toward buying that you believe will give you value? Is the status of your job an identity marker for you?

Borrowing the idea of a ‘god of Options’ from Mark Dever, Reinke describes those individuals who never want to commit fully to one thing for fear of closing down other options. In effect these individuals are always half-in wherever they are. This especially shows itself in marriage and job decisions.

When asked if he saw this as an issue, Keller replied:

Yes. I can just add this: People are looking for the more fulfilling thing. Very often they say, I would like something, a job, that is just a little more exciting to me, this job is just a little boring to me. And better paying. I think the Christian understanding of vocation is, if you produce a product, you produce something that makes people’s lives better, even if it is a rather boring process to do it – you are doing God’s work. You’re caring for God’s creation – you are serving people’s needs. Why does the process have to be so incredibly fulfilling when you know that you are doing something that helps people? And I do think that that’s part of what I mean when I say that we’ve lost the idea of calling and we are now looking at work as ways of fulfillment, and that actually in the end crushes you so you’re always half-out, as you said.

Have you placed the full weight of your fulfillment on what you do between the hours of 9-5? Or do these hours bleed over to look more like evenings, your Saturdays – stealing time from those in your home? With this desire for fulfillment, are you perpetually discontent with what is before you? Are you always striving after something that seems a little more exciting?

Regarding discontentment, Keller addressed how it comes out in our attitudes toward and at work:

The gospel is brought to bear on our work in a couple different ways. One of them is the heart. One of them is that by the grumpiness and the anger and the only doing what I have to do to get by; that means there is a lack of a gospel character. The gospel is supposed to make you grateful, make you humble, supposed to give you inner peace, supposed to make you generous in your spirit, and if you just don’t show those things at work, it means you’re not letting the gospel change the heart the way it ought to.

It is this gospel-changed heart that brings about peace in the life of the believer – a peace that outlasts and absorbs the stomach-churning pangs of trying to grind out your own identity.

Edwards scholar Strobel spoke toward our need:

When Edwards talks about sins, he likes to use the image of the heart as a tempestuous ocean. Edwards, highly visual, gives this image of a stormy sea. The problem is that sin brings chaos to the heart, whereas love brings stillness, and that stillness is a hard thing to describe. A very helpful term is recollection, and the way that’s used is not to remember something, to recollect it, but to be re-collected so that your whole person is caught up in who Christ is. And so, for the Christian, practically speaking, if a pastor subconsciously forgets what his calling is and tries to start generating change through his own self-power, his heart will become a tempestuous ocean. But the pastor who stands before the glory of God and who is able to ground his vocation and identity in the love of God, his heart is still. He might be living in a chaotic realm, he might be living a busy life in a lot of ways, but his heart is still because his heart is recollected around who God is and who he is. And that really ties into the theme found everywhere (Calvin maybe more than most, but Edwards certainly as well) that knowledge of God and knowledge of self are tied together. For him, the heart is still because it knows itself as a child of God. Your heart no longer has to self-generate an identity for the world. Your heart no longer has to convince everyone around you that you are valuable, your heart recognizes that’s its loved because it recognizes who you are and who God is and ultimately what God has done.

Keller and Strobel highlight our tendency to forget who God is and what He has done. They point out how quickly we look to things we can buy (our possessions) or tasks we can do (our vocation) to define who we are, instead of receiving and living in the identity that we have in Christ.

Are you willing to do the work of listening to the Spirit about the identity you’ve generated for yourself? What have you made into identity markers that are outside of the gospel? Are the waters of your heart a tempestuous ocean or are they still?

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