Understanding Identity. Day eight...
In the early seventies, I lived for a while on Halstead Street in Chicago, just north of the Cabrini‐Green housing project. If you're not familiar with the name, it was the poster child of all that was wrong with public housing in the United States. Home to as many as 15,000 people, it was one gigantic crime scene for many years.
I want to use the time I spent in one of the worst neighborhoods in Chicago to illustrate just how easily we can assume an identity based on the circumstances in our lives. (And yes, in the photo that is fencing covering each balcony!)
I grew up on the family farm living in innocence. The worst thing that probably ever happened was the time a fisherman found a dead body in the river running through our farm. And I probably wouldn't have known anything about the incident, except the man who found the body came to the house to call the Sheriff. If I remember correctly, the death was ruled a suicide. My life consisted of schoolwork and all that went along with living in rural Missouri.
When I moved to Chicago to study music after my first year in college, I was in for quite a shock. My identity was one of innocence, but that quickly had to change. I remember riding the “L” all alone one evening—just me and my trombone—when a group of gang members approached me and asked me why I was riding on their train. I responded with something like: “Hey, I'm just going where I'm going!” For some strange reason, I lived through the ordeal. It was only later when I realized the danger I was in at that moment.
After a short time in the city, a new identity kicked in.
I no longer trusted anyone. I never made eye contact with anyone when I was out on the street. I assumed everyone was a potential threat and I treated them accordingly. I learned which side of the street to walk on, which alleys to avoid, where to keep my focus. I was probably fortunate, considering the places I lived and traveled, that I was only robbed (at gunpoint) just one time.
When I would come home to visit, I felt somewhat strange and out of place. I had developed an identity that didn't fit with my childhood innocence, and I wasn't sure how to act. I didn't need to walk on the street side of the sidewalk. I didn't need to avoid eye contact. I didn't need to treat the people out in public as if they were potential threats. I was in no danger on the streets of southwest Missouri, but my identity said that I was.
When I finally left Chicago for good and moved to a rural area, it took me months to regain an identity of innocence. But put me in a big‐city environment today, even after all these years, and that old identity comes front and center automatically.
The circumstances in our life shape our identity without us even knowing it.
The circumstances and the people behind those circumstances shape our identity from birth. While you may dote over the infants and toddlers in your life (as a parent, grandparent, family member, or friend), not all children get that kind of royal treatment.
Not every child hears things like:
- You're so cute
- You could be president someday
- You're just precious
- You're so smart
- You're so talented
Many kids don't even make it to first‐grade without having their God‐given identity infected by circumstances obviously beyond their control:
- They experience the pain of conflict in the home
- They experience the pain of neglect
- They experience the pain of abandonment by one or both parents
- They experience the consequences of parental addictions
- They experience the consequences of verbal and physical abuse
Just as my identity changed, from trying to survive the circumstances coming against me in Chicago, each of our identities changes from just trying to survive.
Even if our childhood was wonderful (and especially if it wasn't), our identity takes on the nature of our circumstances. And without realizing it, over the years we become the people we didn't want to become.
If the reality of what we've become hits us hard enough we cry out:
O wretched man that I am! Who will deliver me from this body of death? (Romans 7:24 NKJV)
Now all should be made right by crying out to Jesus as Savior and as Lord… correct? But it doesn't “appear” to work that way for a lot of people. All may be made right for life after death, but all is not made right in this life now—at least way too many folks don't act like it is.
Because of our traditions, we do not teach people about this new identity in Christ. And when the old identity continues to hang around (and it does) then people become frustrated and disillusioned as if their decision for Christ didn't work.
Just because we move into a better neighborhood doesn't make our old identity disappear. Just because we accept Jesus as our Savior and even as our Lord, does not automatically cause that old identity—the person we've become that we didn't want to become—disappear.
He died for everyone so that those who receive his new life will no longer live for themselves. Instead, they will live for Christ, who died and was raised for them. So we have stopped evaluating others from a human point of view. At one time we thought of Christ merely from a human point of view. How differently we know him now! This means that anyone who belongs to Christ has become a new person. The old life is gone; a new life has begun! (2 Corinthians 5:15–17 NLT)
The key here is that a new life has begun. When we belong to Christ we become a new person. The old life is gone.
But the old life does not leave automatically, or even peacefully.
The old life is gone only if we are intentional about wanting it gone. And we are intentional about wanting it gone when we are focused on getting to know everything there is to know about our new identity—so focused that we quit feeding the old one.
But this has to be a deliberate, intentional effort. It is not natural and it is not automatic. It is, however, possible.
The Lord stands ready to help us discover and experience our new identity in Him.
Have a good weekend,