Occasionally, the Lord leads me to write something I don’t want to write. I wrestle with Him for a while, and then I write it, wincing all the way through. I don’t want to write it because you, my readers, may misunderstand me. You may think I’m harsh or insensitive, and you probably aren’t going to like what I say. Why do I have to be the one to step on toes?!?

But this topic is heavy on my heart and has been for months.

Instead of God, we’re
worshiping ourselves and
we don’t even realize it.

I believe we have subtly replaced Who is at the center of our worship. Instead of God, we’re worshiping ourselves and we don’t even realize it. I’m not talking about idolizing possessions or status, about showing off or competing for the biggest house/car/salary. I’m also not talking about idolizing comfort, about seeking the easy way or avoiding conflict. This idol is far more personal and harder to see.

We idolize our internal “I.” Think I’ll call it Idolatry (notice the capital I?), and I see two ways we’re falling into this sin.

Extensive Self-Examination

Perhaps Socrates’ “know thyself” started it (although the phrase predates him). Our fallback position is to focus on our feelings, our experiences, our needs, while neglecting others. I had an old friend who called this position “navel-gazing.” Take a second to imagine the position of one’s body that’s necessary for navel-gazing. It’s a folding in on oneself, the head lost in the abdomen. And when we stay in that position for too long, we spiral inward…and downward. The more and harder we try to resolve our feelings on our own, the deeper into the mire me tread.

“We become what we think about all day long.” -Ralph Waldo Emerson

If I think about my Savior
all day long, I will become
more like Him.

If I’m thinking about myself all day, I’m becoming more and more like myself. I’m not improving, growing, stretching. If I think about my Savior all day long, I will become more like Him, which is always a positive improvement.

On my bed I remember you; I think of you through the watches of the night.  –Psalm 63:6

I will consider all your works and mediate on all your mighty deeds.  –Psalm 77:12

How many of David’s psalms are about his problems, his crises, the unfairness of his life? And yet he manages to turn our eyes to worship in every instance. In the New Testament, Paul draws our minds to lofty things, often outside ourselves.

Finally, brothers and sisters, whatever is true, whatever is noble, whatever is right, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is admirable—if anything is excellent or praiseworthy—think about such things. Philippians 4:8

I’m not talking about chemical depression but that funk into which we drift when we spend too much time, usually alone, thinking about how we feel. How much of our anxiety could we alleviate by simply shifting our focus? (This next part is where I’m treading very lightly. I have close family members in counseling.) Some people are in counseling, talking about themselves and trying to heal, when healing will only come from setting ourselves aside, from ignoring “I.” Sometimes the best thing I can do for me is to forget me for a little while.

What’s the remedy? Serve others. Volunteer at a homeless shelter, tutor an international kid, help with VBS, or if you like animals better, spend a day at the ASPCA. (Keeping it real: I’ve not done a good job of this recently.) We take the step of serving, of lifting our eyes up and off ourselves, and God responds by pulling our focus outward. Then we find your own problems shrink. Not by comparison—“Oh, my life is at least better than theirs.”—but by thinking about someone other than ourselves.

In humility value others above yourselves, not looking to your own interests but each of you to the interests of the others.  –Philippians 2:3b-4

How do we balance? Self-awareness is good. We can and should know what we’re good at, where we need to improve, what sorts of things trigger our strong emotions. We also need to recognize when we’re spending too much time on our internal status.

Preoccupation With Identity

Maybe it starts in preschool, with Jesus Loves Me. We sing a song that, while true, is clearly more about us than about Jesus.

There are a few worship songs in the rotation now that do the same thing. Pay attention at church this Sunday or on Christian radio. Ask yourself, “Who is really the subject of this song?” Sometimes, it’s us instead of God. I’m concerned.

Who I am is not nearly as important as Who God is.

When we talk about our identity in Christ: child of the King, chosen, valued, etc., we’re not wrong. Peter said,

You are a chosen people, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, God’s special possession… -1 Peter 2:9a

But our identity has a purpose. Don’t overlook the second half of the verse.

…that you may declare the praises of him who called you out of darkness into his wonderful light.  –1 Peter 2:9b

Without including our purpose, we will worship ourselves instead of the One Who called us. We will focus on the rewards of Heaven rather than the privilege of being in the presence of God. We will sing praise songs that celebrate us and push our Creator into a supporting role. (I’m kinda hung up on the second half of Bible verses.)

What’s the Remedy? Make it our mission to discover more about Jesus. Get to know Him better by connecting with Him through His Word, nature, worship services, and conversations with other people. Keep the focus on simply knowing Him and enjoying Him.

Also, let’s link our own identities to His, prioritizing Who He is over who we are. As a Christ-follower, our identity is inhabited by Jesus’, so the more we know Him, the more we’ll know ourselves, and the better we’ll understand our place in relation to him. (Hint: It has to do with “confident humility.”)

When I consider your heavens, the work of your fingers, the moon and the stars, which you have set in place, what is mankind that you are mindful of them, human beings that you care for them?  –Psalm 8:3-4

We must unflinchingly raise the name of Jesus above our own names and identities.

I am who I am so I can
talk about Who Jesus is.

How do we balance? We DO have value. God DOES love us. We ARE His children. We can’t and shouldn’t deny any of it. But God wants us to use these facts as entry points to the life of faith, not end goals.

John the Baptist used questions about his identity to point people to Jesus. In the same way, my “I” stories must be bridges to Him.

“A positive self-identity is not the end goal” and other counter-cultural things we need to tell ourselves in the church today. Because my #identity is #NotAboutMe via @Carole_Sparks. (click to tweet)

This was tough to write. I don’t want to be harsh or overly critical. Please, before you jump to any conclusions or feel like I’m judging you, reach out to me in the comments (or privately through Facebook or Twitter). I would love to talk through identity and self-examination some more because this is just one side of the beginning of a conversation, and I am certainly not an expert. Let me hear from you!

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16 thoughts on “The Idol of Identity

  1. Carole,
    This post is exactly right, and we should never shy away from what God has put on our hearts to share. Difficult truths can be well received when they are delivered from a place of compassion. Our society has become obsessed with “the self.” And unless we specifically guard against it, that cultural norm easily make its way into the church. In many cases it already has. God’s desire is for us to be drawn closer to Him not ourselves. Thank you for this important message.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. This was my favorite line and one that I want to ponder this week: “Keep the focus on simply knowing Him and enjoying Him.” Thank you for reminding me to shift my focus!!

      Liked by 2 people

  2. This is a thought-provoking post, Carole. The idea of becoming mired in myself is so descriptive of what I’ve done in the last few years because of a health issue. God is lovingly lifting me up. Thank you for being obedient to God’s truth! Your words always bless me.

    Liked by 1 person

  3. You were right to be so bold. A necessary message delivered with palpable grace. We DO focus on ourselves entirely too much and with the wrong perspective. It amazes me what a little act of kindness – a smile with eye contact for the snarky cashier – will do to lift my spirits and redirect my thinking back on the Lord.

    Liked by 1 person

  4. Carole, I think you did an excellent and loving job of sharing a hard truth. We are a very ME focused society and there is a danger in that kind of self focus. Something that helps me when I tend in that direction is to shift my focus to praying for the needs of others. Thank you for sharing.

    Liked by 1 person

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