The Idol of Identity

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!

When Worship Wanes and I Lose My Glasses

I’m on my second walk through Psalms this year, something to which God called me before 2017 began. (Read more about that here.) If there’s one constant through the Psalms, it is worship. Every single Psalm, in one way or another, expresses worship to God.

Why is it, then, sometimes I don’t feel like worshiping? Continue reading

Let Your Shoulders Relax

The Woman at the Well (part 3)

There’s so much to learn from Jesus’ encounter with the woman at the well near Sychar. Let’s keep going! When we stopped last week, Jesus was changing His approach with the woman. He had been talking about living water, but now he shifts to the far more personal issue of this woman’s love life. That statement, however, is just a segue into what He really wants to discuss. Continue reading

Speechless Worship

The further I move into Psalms, the less I have to say. What, after all, am I to say to or about the Creator and Sustainer of the universe? More and more, I read my Psalm for the day, and I just sit back…taking it in…repeating the most meaningful parts. More and more, the only words I have are His. That’s why I call it Speechless Worship.
I’ve never done anything like this before, but today, I invite you to join me in this photo meditation. (All photos are mine. Please don’t use without permission.)

Continue reading

On Worship

A lifestyle of worship has been on my mind for awhile. It arises partly out of my study in Psalms and partly out of…well, a bunch of stuff. Anyway, I am glad to share some thoughts on worship this week with my blogging friend, Vanessa. Read the first bit here or click straight over to her blog and start from the beginning there.

As much as I am tempted to sleep in on Sunday mornings, I love worship time with my church. You see, we lived in a place without churches or church services for more than six years. Our corporate worship time involved gathering in the living room with some praise choruses pulled up on a computer screen. I think God was honored in those moments, but it was nothing like adding your voice to a few dozen (or a few hundred) other believers, singing out in praise and accompanied by talented musicians. Corporate worship and preaching fuel me for the week ahead.

But Sunday mornings are not the only time I worship.

I have learned that worship shouldn’t be a noun. It’s not a person, place, or thing; it’s an action. Sometimes it’s an active verb, like on Sunday mornings when we worship together. And sometimes it’s more like a state-of-being verb, a mindset that pervades everything else.

Dig into God’s call to worship–including some gleanings from Romans–at Vanessa’s blog. Otherwise, what do you think of as worship and when does it occur? Share your thoughts there or in the comments below.

Spiritual Disciplines in the Car (part 2)

With busy lives and little time for retreat or relaxation, it can be easy to neglect our spiritual growth. This week and last week, I’m sharing some practical ideas for observing spiritual disciplines even while you’re driving down the road in the car. Join in, and let’s see what God can do!

The disciplines of activity are about things we do or things we grab hold of, compared to last week’s list of things we avoid.

Spiritual Disciplines of Activity for the Car

Study – Listen to a recording of the Bible, but don’t let it just drone on and on. Listen to a big chunk such as a chapter or full narrative story (all of Joseph, for example), then stop the recording and reflect on what you’ve heard. At other times, try very small bits of Scripture. If traffic permits, listen to one verse or paragraph at a time, stopping the recording frequently in order to meditate on what you’ve heard. No matter how much you heard, when you reach your destination, take a minute before you open the door to record any insights or fresh understanding.

Alternatively, practice a single verse or passage until you have it memorized. Pull it up on your phone or write it on a card. Look at it when you’re stopped (such as at a traffic light), then recite it while you drive. Check yourself the next time you stop.

You might also listen to podcasts of sermons or audio books on Christian topics.

I have hidden your word in my heart that I might not sin against you. -Psalm 119:11

Worship – Sing along with praise music. Recite psalms. Voice prayers of adoration and thanksgiving. The point is that you enjoy Who God is and relish His Presence with you.

We praise you, God, we praise you, for your Name is near; people tell of your wonderful deeds. -Psalm 75:1

Leave space for God to
respond in your prayers.

Prayer – Pray out loud. These days, you don’t have to be self-conscious. People in surrounding cars will just think you’re talking on the phone. As you pray, don’t take up all the time with your own words. Leave space for God to respond. You’ll be surprised at how He plants ideas and/or verses in your head when you pray like this!

I pray to you, Lord, in the time of your favor; in your great love, O God, answer me with your sure salvation. -Psalm 69:13

Fellowship – The easiest way to do this is simply to carpool with other believers. Alternatively, invite someone to accompany you even though they don’t need to go where you’re going. Either way, use your travel time to talk about real things. If nothing else, share your stories of coming to know Christ. If you can’t be in the same vehicle, call the person. Put your phone on speaker and have an in-depth spiritual conversation as you travel. Sometimes this is easier than sitting down face-to-face with nothing for your hands to do and nowhere safe for your eyes to rest.

We proclaim to you what we have seen and heard, so that you also may have fellowship with us. And our fellowship is with the Father and with his Son, Jesus Christ. -1 John 1:3

Confession – In a spirit of prayer, allow the Holy Spirit free reign in your heart to convict you of any unconfessed sin. If you have a hard time getting started, listen to and meditate on Psalm 51. When you arrive at your destination, phone anyone from whom you need to ask forgiveness. Do it immediately or you won’t follow through (at least, I wouldn’t)!

Confession is agreeing
with God about Who He
is and who I am.

Confession isn’t only about exposing sins. Remember Romans 10:9 (not in NIV but in other translations such as ESV)? It says, “If you confess with your mouth that Jesus is Lord and believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead, you will be saved.” There’s an idea of acknowledgement (the AMP demonstrates this) or agreeing with God about Who He is and who I am. I’ve read about and tried a sort of breathing confession that goes like this: As you breathe out, agree with God that you are sinful and in need of His guidance, shelter, presence, etc. As you breathe in, ask for a greater filling of the Holy Spirit to accomplish His glory in the moment. This type of moment-by-moment confession can help you focus on God’s presence and action in your life.

Then I acknowledged my sin to you and did not cover up my iniquity. I said, “I will confess my transgressions to the Lord.” And you forgave the guilt of my sin. -Psalm 32:5

Submission – Follow the speed limit for the entirety of a long drive. After all, the Scriptures say, “Submit yourselves for the Lord’s sake to every human authority” (1 Peter 2:13). Just plan ahead on this one because it will take you longer than usual to reach your destination!

Ask someone to hold you accountable for practicing some portion (or all!) of these spiritual disciplines for the car over a specified amount of time. Report your activity regularly.

Submit to one another out of reverence for Christ. -Ephesians 5:21

It doesn’t take much to make the spiritual disciplines a part of our everyday lives—just a little intentionality. Try one of these suggestions this week and see how God blesses your effort.

Make the spiritual disciplines a part of your everyday life by practicing in the car. (click to tweet)

I pray these ideas have sparked something in your mind. What from this list do you want to try? What other suggestions do you have? Let’s start a conversation of encouragement in the comments below!