“Who are you?”
This question seems simple enough, but the answer is hopelessly entangled with our life experiences. If we happen to be singing on a mountaintop, for example, our self-understanding is backlit by a joyful radiance. But if we’re languishing in a valley, weighed down in lament, dark clouds and shadows will fill the frame. In the words of psychologist David Benner, author of the book The Gift of Being Yourself, identity is “who we experience ourselves to be.”
Recognizing this common human experience, Paul Tillich, in his book The Courage to Be, divides theological periods of history into experiential struggles: the early centuries of the church were marked by the fear of death; the late medieval and Reformation eras by moral anxiety—how one can stand before a holy God; and our modern era, by anxiety and the search for meaning.
From a modern, secularized point of view, of course, the question of how sinners realize the loving embrace of God seems irrelevant. “After all, the Reformation belonged to the premodern period, and we don’t,” they contend. “God loves everyone, so why concern yourself with sin and salvation? Just be your authentic self, whatever that might be.”
Unfortunately, our contemporary outlook, which affirms whatever feels right in all its self-centered and even lewd proportions, is not alleviating our anxiety. Depression and an overall sense of nihilism are growing. My front row seat as a pastor provides a chilling view of our culture’s destruction of individuals, families, and communities.
The Bigger Picture
But the truth is, our modern problem of anxiety and premodern yearning for God’s warm embrace cannot be separated. Even though we moderns equate life’s meaning with personal success, any achievements that we are fortunate enough to experience cannot be ripped away from a larger fabric. There is, after all, the question of whether one’s goals are worth pursuing in the first place. And after one has achieved them, what then? This is where relationship with God forcefully asserts itself.
Consider: A person in his forties wakes up one morning and realizes that he has achieved all of his major life goals. He is rich, surrounded by a wife and children, and has meaningful friendships. And yet deep down he lacks joy and has a growing sense that he can’t make himself into a “good person.” While he appears congenial on the outside, he knows the selfishness of his heart and has a nagging fear that God knows it too.
This dichotomy between what is on the surface and what is at the center of our sinful hearts is true for all of us. We may be “successful” in terms of personal and career achievement, but we inevitably lay our heads upon our pillows at night and stare up into the darkness. In these moments the Spirit can work on our hearts, revealing a deeper need than what Mercedes-Benz or Tesla can satisfy. It’s a need for the God-shaped vacuum in our souls to be filled with the indescribable peace of the triune God, the one peace that ultimately lasts.
The Faith We Need
While there’s precious little I agree with in Tillich’s secular theology, I agree that each era has a predominating Sitz im leben (situation of life). Tillich’s taxonomy, to my mind, captures the broad movement of culture in the West. It certainly is true in the suburbs of Chicago where I live, where people grapple daily with questions of anxiety and meaning.
But we dare not leave behind a concern for sin and salvation. Our need for forgiveness and God’s warm embrace is as crucial as ever—especially as we grapple with fear and anxiety. Why? Because we are created for relationship with God, and it’s only there that we experience His peace and joy.
So who are you?
It’s foolhardy to think we can disentangle our experiences from our identity. As my old philosophy professor liked to say, “There’s no such thing as a view from nowhere.” In other words, we’re all shaped by the peaks and valleys of life. But we’re not defined by them.
Our jobs, financial statuses, achievements, grades, appearance, and our reputation among friends have meaning, but they cannot touch our identity in Christ. By God’s grace, we have been wholly re-identified with the Savior, inhabited by his Spirit, and grounded in new covenant life. This identity-overhaul enables us to endure every kind of loss, for in Jesus we now live, move, and have our being.
This, my friends, is the good news. Through faith, our lives are embedded in Christ, resulting in a new identity that can never be diminished or lost. In the words of Paul in 2 Corinthians 5:17, “If anyone is in Christ, he is a new creation. The old has passed away; behold, the new has come.”