“The characteristic of a disciple is not that he does good things, but that he is good in motive because he has been made good by the supernatural grace of God. The only thing that exceeds right doing is right being.” –Oswald Chambers
I recently watched the HBO miniseries Band of Brothers. After watching WW2 unfold through the lives of the 101st Airborne, I was deeply moved by their heroism. The valor required of these men simply to survive the war was utterly astounding. One aspect of the conclusion particularly struck me. On the battlefield the men were equals—they lived, ate, slept, fought and suffered together, all bent on one goal: survive. When they returned home, however, they went on to pursue careers of varying social status: executives, postmen, handymen.
One man returned home to be a maintenance consultant. When he died, 1,600 people came to pay their respects. Honestly, I was caught off guard. Maybe I would expect that kind of turnout for a powerful or wealthy man, but a maintenance consultant? I forgot the courage, compassion and character that he demonstrated on the battlefield and, wrongly, let his humble vocation define him. We often measure a man by what he does, but what about who he is?
What is the relationship between what we do and who we are? What we do is just one aspect of who we are, one role we play. Roles are good and necessary—we all have them. But roles are not essence. Roles come and go, each for its season. Certain roles, like parenthood, will even impact our identity, but who we are goes far beyond what we do.
Roles We Let Define Us
The roles that the men of the 101st Airborne played in their previous lives before the war had little impact on their careers as soldiers. Having been a Harvard student was no predictor of a soldier’s courage under fire. Nor was his relationship with his father or his talent at basketball. These are the very things, however, that we so often let define us. We derive our worth and identity from our work, our relationships or our skills or talents.
It’s not inherently bad to describe yourself by these kind of roles—certainly knowing what you spend 40 hours a week doing gives me insight about your aptitudes, relationships or interests. But none of those descriptions—wife, father of two, investment banker, avid golfer—tell me who you are.
What Should Define Us
The trouble comes when we begin to let these roles define us, no matter how important the role. Sometimes we don’t even realize they define us until the Lord takes them away and we’re left with a shattered view of who we are. We move, we change jobs, we graduate, someone passes away—and we have to ask ourselves yet again, who am I?
It’s not inherently wrong to value our roles. They are God-ordained vehicles for us to steward His gifts, to grow in sanctification and to further the kingdom of God. My role as a student made me more diligent; my role as a wife has taught me to honor others more than myself. But who we are as believers is rooted in being created in the image of God and adopted into the family of God through our union with Christ.
This is what should define me. My special talents are given by God for His glory, that I might image Him. Those family relationships might be long-lasting here on earth, but my place as a child of God is eternal. The most important work I can contemplate is none that I will accomplish, but that which was already accomplished in Christ, a work I am invited into (Eph. 1:3-14). But what if the phone rang or the headline changed and an unexpected circumstance removed every familiar role I had known? Would I be okay? Who would I be?
That’s exactly what the men of the 101st Airborne had to ask themselves. Torn from the familiar, thrust into danger and uncertainty, daily living with the fact of their mortality, everything that had once defined them had been stripped away. Of course, they were at war—but brothers and sisters, so are we. There is a cosmic war going on for our affections and identities. The most important defense, whether in a foxhole or a cubicle, is not simply to know who I am but to be found in the great I Am.
Tending to my roles of wife and minister, getting caught up in doing my work, keeping my home, loving my friends—these are all good things, but none of them is the wellspring of life. May it not be my temporal and fleeting roles that I keep with all vigilance, but my heart (Prov. 4:23).