Who and what are you?
We can all answer this question a variety of different ways. Our identities are multifaceted things — human, female, Christian, daughter, American, writer, friend, white, Midwestern (to give you some of mine). Some are chosen by us, some are given by God, nature, or other people. The things we identify with, wherever those identities come from, shape who are are.
Sometimes our identities might be in conflict with each other, or with those of other people. We need to be able to handle and resolve those conflicts. On the small scale, it might be something like “student” vs. “friend” (such as finding a balance between needing time to study and finding time to maintain friendships). On a larger scale, it might be something like “national” vs. “religious” (such as wanting to uphold your country’s ideals, but finding some of them at odds with your faith, and needing to choose between them). Or it could be an interpersonal situation where you find yourself interacting with people who have different political affiliations, ethnicities, faiths, and priorities than you do.
How we resolve these inner and outer conflicts says something about who we are and what we value. As Christians, we have an identity that is meant to be first in our priorities and underlie every other part of our lives. But we don’t always live as if this is truly the case. Sometimes we choose to put other beliefs and identities first, and if we do that too often it can damage our relationship with our primary identity as children of God.
The Problem of Conflicting Identities
I recently listened to a podcast episode titled “A First Step Toward Racial Reconciliation,” which was an interview with Mark Vroegop. His book Weep with Me: How Lament Opens A Door For Racial Reconciliation is coming out next month. In this interview, he talks about how the church should be the best place to resolve racial differences because “the gospel creates an identity that gets underneath all other identities.”
For you are all children of God, through faith in Christ Jesus. For as many of you as were baptized into Christ have put on Christ. There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free man, there is neither male nor female; for you are all one in Christ Jesus. (Gal. 3:26-28, all quotes from WEB translation)
Historically, the church has had mixed results trying to implement this unity. In the first century, there was tension between Jewish and non-Jewish believers. In more recent times, some churches headed great abolition movements while others twisted scripture to support racial inequality. Even today (though I certainly hope most people wouldn’t walk up to someone with a different skin color and tell them they don’t belong in their church), we still separate ourselves in other ways. This is next quote from Vroegop is a long one, but it holds an important concept.
“I think our problem … is that our value of that identity underneath all identities is not as preeminent in our minds and our affections as other identities. We have more emotional connection to musical style identity, or church style identity, or preaching style identity, or political ideology identity. Those are the tribes that we form around and as a result, the church can be fractured on so many lines. The racial one happens to be extremely painful and emotional; and yet, if the church could understand our common identity in Christ, which then results in racial harmony, I actually think some really great progress would be made.
“But it also means that I have to be okay with not living in a homogeneous culture. So a multi-ethnic church can’t mean I can invite people of different ethnicities to come to my church but they have to get used to doing church my way—they have to assimilate into my culture. Every church has its own culture and every ethnicity has its own culture. Instead we need to realize I need to allow my dinner table, my thinking, my church, the environments that I’m in to be a welcoming place to people who don’t have the same perspective and experiences I do. That’s very uncomfortable.” — Mark Vroegop
God means for His church to be “a house of prayer for all peoples” (Is. 56:7; Mark 11:17). Everyone is welcome to become His child, and He expects His church to reflect that. If we don’t, then we’re not yet living up to His intentions for us. We can’t let differences in ethnicity, race, or the many other ways we can categorize ourselves get in the way of pursuing peace and unity. When you look at a person, you should see them first as a child of God and part of His family (or as having that potential), not as an “other” whose differences are weird or threatening.
One Body, One Family
Everyone who accepts God’s call to become part of His family — regardless of race, gender, background, wealth, etc. — is treated the exact same way by God. If you fear Him and work righteousness, then He accepts you without partiality or favoritism (Acts 10:34-35). We have all “received the Spirit of adoption, by whom we cry, ‘Abba! Father!'” People from many different backgrounds who were once outside God’s family now have all the rights and privileges of His children, even to the point of being called “joint heirs with Christ” (Rom. 8:15-17).
See how great a love the Father has given to us, that we should be called children of God! For this cause the world doesn’t know us, because it didn’t know him. Beloved, now we are children of God. It is not yet revealed what we will be; but we know that when he is revealed, we will be like him; for we will see him just as he is. (1 John 3:1-2)
That’s our primary identity. Being “children of God” should be the most important way we see ourselves and it should unite us with others who have that identity. That doesn’t mean we all need to look and act exactly the same, though. This godly identity does not erase all our other identities any more than being in a relationship with God erases our personality. (Note: if an identity conflicts with God’s law and way of life, we need to get rid of it or change our relationship to it. He does not, however, ask us to change something like skin color or personality type — that’s how He created us.)
For as the body is one, and has many members, and all the members of the body, being many, are one body; so also is Christ. For in one Spirit we were all baptized into one body, whether Jews or Greeks, whether bond or free; and were all given to drink into one Spirit. For the body is not one member, but many. (1 Cor. 12:12-14)
Jesus’ prayer His last night on earth was that those who believe in Him “may all be one, even as you, Father, are in me, and I in you, that they also may be one in us” (John 17:21). Unity in love is the main goal, and we must not let any of our other identities divide us from our brethren. What sense is there in making such a big deal about it if someone supports a different political candidate, or has different skin color, or likes different music? That’s no reason to make them feel unwelcome at church! We’re all God’s children and if we respect our Father, then we should respect the other people in His family even when we disagree with them.
Loyalty To God and His Family
Another identity that the New Testament writers talked about is national identity. I’ve noticed in American churches that patriotism is often considered a Christian virtue (I don’t have much experience with churches outside the US, so I can’t really speak to their perspective). But while you can be a Christian who is patriotic, patriotism in itself doesn’t make you a better Christian. Depending on where and when you live, aligning too much with your national identity could make you a worse Christian (like the churches flying Nazi flags and supporting Hitler in WWII-era Germany). Our primary citizenship is in heaven and that’s where our loyalty must lie (Phil. 3:20).
These all died in faith, not having received the promises, but having seen them and embraced them from afar, and having confessed that they were strangers and pilgrims on the earth. For those who say such things make it clear that they are seeking a country of their own. (Heb. 11:13-14)
We are told to respect the government and authorities of the nation we live in, but this is not our real home (Rom. 13:1-10). We live in this world, but we’re not to ally ourselves with it, become part of it, or love the things of the world.
Don’t love the world or the things that are in the world. If anyone loves the world, the Father’s love isn’t in him. For all that is in the world, the lust of the flesh, the lust of the eyes, and the pride of life, isn’t the Father’s, but is the world’s. The world is passing away with its lusts, but he who does God’s will remains forever. (1 John 2:15-17)
All the physical things, divisions, ideas, and cares that mean so much to people in this present world aren’t going to matter in the long run. All this stuff in the world is passing away. What’s going to matter into eternity is the state of our relationship with God and whether or not we treat other people the way He would treat them (Matt. 25). Love is the most important thing. Jesus didn’t say people would know His followers by the fine distinctions they draw between people or the style of church service they prefer or how involved they are in politics. He said, “By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another” (John 13:35).
Let us therefore follow after the things which make for peace, and things wherewith one may edify another. (Rom. 14:19)
Featured image credit: Jantanee via Lightstock