The Basis of My Identity

October 9th, 2009


It was Tuesday afternoon and I was still worn out from an exhausting weekend of ministry. I was looking forward to simply going home and spending the evening with my family—away from all of the demands of ministry “stuff.”

As the afternoon dwindled away I daydreamed about eating dinner with my wife and kids, helping my two boys finish up their homework, and then wrestling around on the living room floor while we watched The Adventures of Jimmy Neutron together. It would be a fun evening at home as a family just being together.

But right in the middle of my luxurious daydream about no responsibilities and nothing at all to do, my wife called my cell phone and asked me to pick something up for the small group that would be meeting at our house tonight. My immediate thought was, “Noooo! It can't be tonight! Please not tonight! I thought it was next week. I need tonight for myself. I need tonight to be able to do my thing—to be with my family. Please tell me that our small group doesn't meet tonight!” But it did. And looking back, it's funny how that one little phone call affected me in such a huge way. I remember thinking: Why am I so busy all the time? Why does it seem like I always have to be doing something? Who am I trying to impress anyway? I also thought: Why am I so worried about how people will react if I just cancel the group tonight?

I don't know if you've ever experienced one of these ministry meltdown moments, but they can shake you up pretty good. One thought leads to another, and soon you feel as though your whole life is spiraling out of control. If you're like me, you may even get to the point where you begin to wonder who you really are anymore.


I've been reading this book by M. Basil Pennington called True-Self/False-Self: Unmasking the Spirit Within, and it has been teaching me a lot about who I am and what God created me for—which seems odd to me, since I've spent the last 14 years in full-time vocational ministry as a student ministries pastor helping students figure that out for themselves.

Pennington talks a lot about something he calls the “false-self,” which is something that begins to form inside us from the time we're very young. To understand how the false-self forms, Pennington talks about how our family background affects us. He explains how even the best parents sometimes begin trading off on their love to get us to perform in a certain way.

They say to us—sometimes in actual words but more often in their actions— Mommy won't love you if you don't…eat your broccoli, behave yourself, be nice to your brother, etc. Somehow it gets communicated: Daddy won't love you if you don't…put your toys away, score a touchdown, get good grades in school, etc.

The message we get is that we aren't lovable in and of ourselves. We're only lovable because of what we do. We're valuable and lovable because we perform in a certain way.

As we grow older, this message is reinforced by our friends. Who were the most popular kids when you were growing up? Weren't they usually the ones who were the most talented or who had the best stuff? The kids who had the coolest bikes, the newest video games, or the most awesome toys were the cool kids. Even today as I talk with my own children, they tell me about their “popular” friends: the ones who are the best at a certain sport or those who get the best grades in school. It doesn't take long for the message of the false-self to get through, does it? That message is this: Our value as humans depends upon what we have, what we do, and what other people think about us. As a result, Pennington says the false-self grows stronger inside our souls, and pretty soon we're defining ourselves by these same parameters.

Dying to False-Self

Interestingly it's precisely this false-self to which Jesus said we must die. Pennington believes it's this false-self that we “construct and which in turn imprisons us and makes us serve it in varying degrees of misery. We want to escape the demands it places on us through our own superego and through a society that is wholly dedicated to fostering the values of the false-self. But how can we escape? How can we die to the false-self if it is the only self we know?”

Jesus showed us how to die to our false-selves in his struggle with temptation in Matthew 4. In the three temptations of Christ, we see Jesus saying “no” to the temptation to create a false-self, and through his struggle we can learn a lot about saying no to the false-self in our own lives.

After 40 days without food, Jesus is tempted to do something about his hunger by turning stones into bread. But Jesus has a better food in the Word of God and responds by quoting Scripture, “One does not live by bread alone, but by every word that comes from the mouth of God.” He refuses to do anything.

The next temptation is for Jesus to “establish himself in the estimation of others” by throwing himself off of the peak of the Temple and command his angels to save him—this would definitely get people's attention and cause them to start talking. They'd recognize Jesus for who he is: The Messiah. But Jesus didn't need this kind of recognition, because he already knew who he was. He refused to define himself by what people said about him.

Finally, we see Jesus standing on top of a very high mountain where he is shown all the kingdoms of the world and whispered to, “All these I will give you, if you will fall down and worship me.” But Jesus would have none of it. He wouldn't be tempted to find his true identity in what he could do, in what others would say about him, or in what we could have. He knew who he was before God and in God. This is what it means to live out of the true-self.

Living Our True-Self

I've been thinking a lot lately about how I can start living out of my true-self more than my false-self. I'm wondering why I struggle so much with worrying about what other people think and say about me. I'm wondering why I feel such a strong pull to be doing something all the time and why I have such a hard time learning to simply be.

I want to come to a place in my life where I understand and begin to live from my true-self…who I am in Jesus Christ. According to Colossians 2, I am a child of God. I'm full and complete because of who God made me to be. I have all the fullness of Christ inside of me. And when I begin to understand the implications of these truths, I begin to live a life characterized by freedom, grace, and love.

Now, what I do, what people say about me, and what I have become unimportant because I understand who I am. I'm free to be Christ to every person I meet. I'm empowered to bless people with the love of Christ and serve people in his name, because I understand my identity. Understanding and living this truth is what brings true freedom.

So today I've decided to begin training myself to say “no” to doing more. When I start to worry about what other people think or say about me, I'll let those thoughts serve as a trigger reminding me to pray to God instead of worrying. I'll learn to give thanks for all God has given me instead of concentrating on what I don't have.

Today I'll start training myself to handle these temptations the way Jesus did: by unleashing the power of the Word of God in my life. Then I'll finally be able to live the way God created me to live. I'll be able to be used by God to reach others in ways I never thought possible. I'll be free to finally be myself…truly.


Disclaimer: The views and opinions expressed in the YS Blog are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the opinion or position of YS.