Identity. It’s an invisible badge each of us wear from the moment we enter this world. Most of us will have our first little identity badge pinned on us at birth or even before. Proud parents and/or family members declare to the world a new child has been added to the house of Smith, or Jones, or whatever the family name may be. And so we become ‘daughter of’ or ‘son of’ and often also ‘sister, brother, grandchild, niece, nephew and/or cousin of’, long before we have any concept of who we are supposed to be.
Soon we are out in the world where our identity badge quickly grows. Perhaps high achiever is now added to the mix, or talented sportsperson, or natural leader, or lazy student or a myriad of other possible labels our education systems seem to delight in attaching to young humans. As life progresses the world plonks an avalanche of further labels on our chest: nurse, teacher, farmer, soldier, chef, pastor, paramedic, pilot, retail assistant. You get the picture.
Then there are social identities like poor, wealthy, middle class, unemployed, elderly, single parent, disabled, married, widowed, new mum, proud dad etc. You can fill in the gaps for yourselves because the lists are endless. And we haven’t even touched on the nationality, gender, political, religious or ancestral identities we each carry. Taking a moment or two to list all the various labels we accumulate as we proceed through life can actually be a very enlightening exercise. Can you feel your badge getting bigger, and more significantly, heavier?
There was a time when things weren’t so complicated. Humanity lost its original sense of identity way back at the beginning of our history when Adam and Ishshah (aka Eve) departed from Eden. Human history, as a result, has largely been the story of our harrowing search for that lost sense of identity.
One of the very first things Adam did after his dramatic change of circumstances was redefine the woman’s identity from Ishshah, meaning ‘taken out of man’, to Eve, meaning ‘mother of all living’ (Gen. 2:23; 3:20). His radical action reflects a change of attitude about his wife’s identity, but also reveals an identity crisis within Adam himself. Humanity’s original sense of identity rested in having been created in the image of God, but now human bloodlines, clan, tribe and nation would take over as our most important source of personal identity (Gen. 5:1-3).
Well, if that’s the case, the Christian church should be able to help us find our way back, shouldn’t it? So we turn expectantly to organised Christianity in the hope of finding some way through this identity maze that can show us who we really are. Sadly, what we so often find instead is a confusing hierarchy of labels, titles, and so called ‘anointings’ that can leave us dazed and reeling from exhaustion. We are left wondering where we might possibly fit into this smorgasbord of identificational jostling. We will either need to get with the program by finding our own ministry label or get out for our sanity’s sake.
At a crucial point in their discipleship Jesus confronted His disciples with two questions: ‘Who do people say that I am?’ and ‘Who do you say I am?’ Peter responded with his famous revelation ‘You are the Christ’, but apparently didn’t quite join the dots, because soon afterward we find him rebuking Jesus for talking about His upcoming death. We all know how that turned out (Mark 8:27-33).
The disciples were each wearing their own identity badges: Israelite, fisherman, descendant of Moses, tribe of whatever, Galilean, tax collector, zealot, husband, to suggest just a few. ‘Disciple of Jesus Christ’ was simply a recent addition. What they didn’t understand was that their deepest and most important identity was intrinsically tied into Jesus’ own identity. ’Who do you say I am, Peter, John, James, Judas? … because whoever you believe I am will determine who you believe you are.’
It is John who seems to have grasped the key to this whole identity issue and who reveals the revelation throughout his gospel. Five times John refers to himself with the simple phrase ‘the disciple who Jesus loved’ (Jn. 13:23; 19:26; 20:2; 21:7; 21:20). Did John think he was the only disciple Jesus loved, or that he was loved more by Jesus than the others were? No, I don’t believe so, that’s not what this phrase is about.
I believe John had discovered what every one of us need to discover – that his most valuable identity did not lay in any title, position or label inherited or laid on him by family, friends, world systems, or religious institutions. His first and overriding identity was as the beloved of Christ.
If anyone had a right to promote his apostolic credentials, it was John. He was one of Jesus’s first followers (Jn. 1:37), was present at His transfiguration, was the only male disciple at His crucifixion, and personally witnessed the empty tomb. Yet, when writing his gospel he did not emphasise his apostolic authority. Instead he prefers to himself simply as ‘the disciple who Jesus loved.’ Clearly, it was this unique self-description that meant more to him than any other, and it was for this that he wished to be remembered.
When Jesus asks a question it’s not because He doesn’t know the answer. The two questions He asked as He journeyed with His disciples were intended to awaken them to what they’d signed up for. It was important they have it settled in their hearts who He was, but it was also important they should know exactly who they themselves were. In the coming days their individual answers to both these questions would determine whether they would stand or fall.
There is a pressing need for the Bride of Christ to rediscover her fundamental identity. All else is secondary to this, and all else of Kingdom value flows from this. How did we get to the point as Christians where we measure ourselves by who others say we are? When did we decide to judge our value by the identity badges others place upon us?
Who do people say we are? Who do we say we are? Is it ministry, title or position that defines us to ourselves and others? Do we cherish what we do for Jesus above who we are to Him? We need to fall deeply in love with Christ again, and we need to be willing to lay down every other identity we cling to for validation, because we are the beloved of Christ and that right there is everything and more.
We Christians are very good at preaching to the world about God’s unconditional love, but we’re not so good at receiving it ourselves. We’re the ones who put conditions on God’s love, not God. We convince ourselves and each other that God loves us more when we learn to follow His rules, but God loves us because He is love and for no other reason.
We long to know who we are. We yearn to know our true identity. And we crave recognition. We look to our church leaders to help us reconnect with that most profound and deepest identity we lost at the Fall, only to find them proudly advertising their self-imposed titles and jostling for affirmation as if they were part of the world rather than the Kingdom of God. We behave this way because we have not yet been perfected in love.
We have come to know and have believed the love which God has for us. God is love, and the one who abides in love abides in God, and God abides in him. By this love is perfected with us, so that we may have confidence in the day of judgment; because as He is so also are we in this world. There is no fear in love, but perfect love casts out fear, because fear involves punishment, and the one who fears is not perfected in love (1 Jn. 4:16-18).
Our need for garnering our identity from men and women is driven by our deepest fear – that we don’t measure up. Only perfect love can conquer that primeval fear. Perfect love shows us who we really are: the Beloved of Christ. We may be a company director or a dust collector, royalty or unemployed, church leader or church cleaner – ALL of these fall way short of our most ancient and pre-eminent identity, for we are known in Heaven and Hell alike as the ones Christ loves. ‘Beloved of Christ’ is the only identity needful for authentic Christ followers, and is what all else we do in life must be built upon.
This is the profound truth John understood when he called himself simply ‘the disciple Jesus loved.’ It was a statement of complete and irrefutable identification with the lover of his soul. It was the words of one who had found out who he was. It was the revelation of one learning how to abide in the perfect love of Jesus Christ.
We desperately need a new baptism, a baptism of love that will thoroughly immerse us in the knowledge of Christ’s love for us and establish who we are in our own eyes – the Beloved of Christ. Can I encourage you to start a serious, ongoing conversation with God about this issue? Because until we learn how to receive His love unconditionally, we will never love others unconditionally.
John described Jesus love as being without end.
‘Now before the Feast of the Passover, when Jesus knew that His hour had come that He should depart from this world to the Father, having loved His own who were in the world, He loved them to the end.’ (John 13:1)
This is not a love that existed to a certain point in time and ceased or diminished when Jesus knew He was departing this world. The English ‘to the end’ does not accurately convey the power of the original text, which means that Jesus love for His own was limitless (endless). It means He loves His own to the absolute fullest extent, to the uttermost, and without end.
You know, Jesus doesn’t do anything by halves. Everything’s abundant with Him. If He’s multiplying bread there’s going to be left overs. If He’s cleansing the temple He’s going to fashion a whip and do it properly. If He’s walking on water He’s going to invite you to join Him. And if you’re the object of His love there are no holds barred, He’s going to be loving you abundantly, unconditionally, perfectly and completely.
His love for you is endless, just as His life is endless. It is abundant. It is perfect. It is yours. And you, above all else, are the disciple Jesus loves. Could anything be better?
© Cheryl McGrath, Bread for the Bride, 2019. Copyright Notice: Permission is granted to freely reproduce any Bread for the Bride articles in emails or internet blogs, unaltered, and providing this copyright notice is included. To permanently display an article on any static website please contact me for permission.