Our culture is fascinated with identity — emphasis on the I. The church can be as well. We all want to know, “Who am I?” Or for some, “What’s unique about me?”
The process of discovery often looks like an attempt to climb inside our belly buttons and peer through any cracks to the innards. Maybe then we’ll know who we are and why we’re special. We think of ourselves like an onion with oh-so-many layers, and as we peel them back, we are as beguiled as Mr. Tumnus in C.S. Lewis’s The Last Battle: “Yes, like an onion: except that as you continue to go in and in, each circle is larger than the last.” But rather than being in The Real Narnia beholding better glory after better glory, we’re utterly captivated by the navel-lint idol of self.
Even those of us who don’t like ourselves are often still captive to the fixation of self.
Dead Seed, Living Fruit
For a woman, these onion layers might include categories like daughter, sister, friend, victim, mom, wife, single, divorced, musician, expert of such and such, communicator, and on and on, depending on the sum of your life experience, talents, and roles. And if you’re a Christian, you may think of the most foundational layer or the core of the onion as “Christian,” and that layer is the key component of who you are.
But consider a different picture. Rather than imagine yourself an autonomous onion on the counter of life, reveling in your complex layers, consider an apple tree.
A seed has gone into the ground and died. And from that dead seed, life has sprung up. It has grown thick and tall, rooted and established. On that tree are branches, leaves, buds, and fruit. The seed that fell into the ground and died is Christ. And when we become a Christian, that seed is also you and me, hidden in Christ and connected to every part of all his people. There are no Christians alone on the counter, only Christians growing together in Christ.
The problem with our identity may be that it hasn’t yet died. We still think of ourselves as ourselves. I can hear my own objections saying, “But if I’m not me, then what? Don’t I matter? What about my uniqueness? What about the life I’ve lived that only I’ve lived?” And the answer we find decisively in Scriptures is that it all must be reckoned dead.
When we participate in Christ’s death, we die, every bit. It isn’t that the sinful part of us dies and the non-sinful part endures, so that on the other side, we’re still us, but with a make-over. There is no non-sinful part. And on the other side, having been raised with Christ, we aren’t still us. We are entirely new, entirely in Christ.
John Bunyan says it best in The Pilgrim’s Progress: “My name is now Christian, but my name used to be Graceless.”
So for a woman, this means she dies as a mother, a friend, a daughter, a victim. The musician, the expert, the single and divorced, all the things from our past that compose us, our talents and person are all reckoned dead, as they were all shot through with sin, and are raised now as something else entirely. We are now Christian friend, Christian daughter, Christian wife, Christian divorced, Christian single. We are not layers to be peeled back in order to get to the essence; every piece of us is new. We do not get to the “core” part of us where our Christian selves reside, but the core is the whole. All of life is through, in, and for Christ.
You Are in Christ
But your life may not feel all brand new. The old self, the old sin, and all the past experiences may not feel transformed in Christ yet. Yes, sin lingers. And all of our lives are spent on this: becoming who we are in Christ. Being as tart and sweet and crisp and juicy as an apple should be. Being a woman whose nurture and love reflects God’s never-tiring nurture and love for us. Being a friend whose loyalty and faithfulness reflects Christ’s loyalty to his Father and faithfulness to do his will. Being a mom whose promise-keeping and steady instruction reflects the God who always keeps his promises and patiently instructs his children. Being a victim whose pain and heart reflects the way Christ’s pain and heart was brought to his Father, tenderly cared for and listened to, even as the Father raised his Son from the dead.
Sometimes the question isn’t who am I, but where. Where are you right now? Are you at home? At work? At a coffee shop with wi-fi scrolling on your phone? At a park or the mall? Know this, wherever you are, whatever you’re doing, whatever jobs and talents and roles you have, you are in Christ, and all those things about you are in him. They belong to him. They’re on his tree. They’re for him; they’re by him.
Let’s crawl out of the despair that comes in trying to find ourselves. Die to that person, that smallness, that futility. “Look for yourself,” warns Lewis, “and you will find in the long run only hatred, loneliness, despair, rage, ruin, and decay. But look for Christ and you will find him, and with him everything else thrown in.”