“The question of identity is the question of difference.” One of my ethics books in seminary begins with these words and I’ve never been able to get them out of my head. And here’s why. We have a tendency to confuse our “identity” and our “reputation.” In other words, we wrongly assume that our identity (who we are) is the same as our reputation (what others think of us). Of course, we would never say such a thing. But at the subconscious level, our emotions betray our true beliefs. When others speak well of us or praise us or complement us, we feel great. But when the tables turn, so does our self-image and so does our mood. An unnatural marriage has taken place between our reputation and our identity. And I can’t help but think that authentic spiritual formation begins the moment we begin to untangle the two.
Our reputation is completely achievement driven. People don’t have good reputations just because. People have good reputations because they’re good – good students, good lawyers, good athletes, good ____. And there’s nothing wrong with having a good reputation per se. But a problem arises when our life becomes one big exercise in maintaining our reputation, in living to uphold our reputation. When this happens, we practice the art of impression management. We want others to think well of us. And so we try and perform accordingly. And what a stressful performance that can be.
Our identity is much different. Our identity as God’s children never flows from the idea that we are good. Au contraire mon fraire. Our identity as God’s children flows from the deep theological truth that God is good. And to the extent that God’s goodness sinks in, and I mean really sinks in, we can stop playing the cultural game of impression management. We can jump off that never ending treadmill of trying to uphold our reputation. We can live freely and lightly knowing that God loves us. And to the extent that we know God’s love for us, we will love God in return. And if we love God, we can’t help but love others. This may earn us a good reputation. Or it may hurt our reputation. But it won’t matter since our joy will flow from our identity as God’s beloved children.
FOR TODAY: Pay attention to your emotions. Think deeply about what causes you joy. Consider what makes you angry. Does it arise from a concern for your reputation, or from a deep pondering of your biblical identity? Are you trying to prove to others that you are good, or have you allowed God to tell you that He is good? The question of identity is the question of difference.