Where Is Your Identity?

Stop looking at yourself in carnival mirrors. This is one plea from Paul Tripp’s new book, Dangerous Calling. Carnival mirrors give us a distortion of who we really are, and they’re everywhere we look.

This is especially true of the pastor or ministry leader who is tempted to stay locked in on the horizontal level. The danger is to mistake our work to be what defines us — to be so fixed on the “carnival mirror of ministry” that we buy as our true identity the twisted depiction it reflects. Paul Tripp explains:


[Full transcript]

You mention in your book, Dangerous Calling, that there are some leading indicators that spiritual blindness might be happening in the life of the pastor or ministry leader, and one of those themes that functions as a mechanism of spiritual blindness is when we let our ministry define our identity. What do you mean by this?

I like the metaphor in Scripture of the word of God being this perfect mirror that I look into and see myself as I actually am. What we tend to look into is carnival mirrors. They show me me, but they show me me with distortion, like the carnival mirror at the fair. I see myself, but there is distortion. This identity thing in ministry is one of those carnival mirrors.

Here is where you see something that is a normal human struggle intensified by ministry. The normal human struggle is to look for identity horizontally when I was hardwired by God to get it vertically. I look for something in creation to define who I am, whether that is a marriage or my work or my athletic body or whatever that is. And ministry powerfully provides that: I am a knowledgeable public person, I am a carrier of the gospel of the Lord Jesus Christ. All of those things provide a sense of identity that is marvelously distorted.

I am not something because I am in ministry — can I say this more powerfully? — I am something because I am in Christ. Bottom line. And when I need ministry to be something, I have forsaken the gospel in the way that I am living. How can I forsake the gospel while being a minister of the gospel? It can't work. But it happened to me. I remember one of the first critical conversations I had with somebody at my young church I had planted. They said, “You think because you are a pastor that you are supposed to be an expert at everything.” He was right. I had to be the smartest. I had to be the best. I had to be “fill in the blank.” Because ministry was defining me. And it is a mess. It just can never work.

You mentioned faith can become our professional calling and how horrible that is. Yet, being a pastor is a pastor's job. How does he walk that line?

One of the places where I've talked about this specifically is when a pastor is preparing a sermon. For every sermon prepared there should be a devotional interlude where I stop and I say, “God, reveal to me what of me you want to expose by this passage. What of you that I need to see that I am not seeing.”

I am stopping and pushing this through me because I am telling myself “I am not this person who is totally okay and the reason I am in ministry is because ‘I am okay’ and I am going to give this to people who are obviously not okay.” It is once again me telling myself “it is impossible for me to preach anything that I do not desperately need myself.” And that devotional interlude is an absolute habit, commitment for me. I think it is very, very important that I always stop and do that in my preparation.

Jonathan Parnell (@jonathanparnell) is a writer and content strategist at Desiring God. He lives in the Twin Cities with his wife, Melissa, and their four children, and is the co-author of How to Stay Christian in Seminary.