The Temptations of Identity

“Who am I?”

The question of who we are is deceptively simple. When we begin to press the question, almost every answer that we can give is something other than the self. When we leave the (ideally) intimate communion of our early years and begin to forge our way into a social setting, an uncertainty begins to be our social companion. This questioning of identity (which is fairly normal) becomes the seedbed of shame as well as a life-long habit of seeking self-made “identities” to mask the nakedness of “who we are.”

The dynamics surrounding all of this are ever-present. Family often plays a powerful role. They name us. They may nickname us. They may repeat stories of our actions or compare us to other family figures. We slowly acquire a “brand.” The years of adolescence often bring something of the same process from our peers. Among the youth of today, hours spent on internet and phone interactions can intensify this process.

In the course of our lives, our “identity” is never assumed to be truly natural, that is, a revelation of who we “truly are” (except as a name for yet another false self). Rather, our identities are marketed to us relentlessly. Everything from automobiles to hairstyles are seen as a means of “making a statement.” In a consumer culture, a primary driver of marketing is the acquisition of an identity (something temporary, at best).

All of these various acquired identities serve to provide cover for our nakedness and shield us from unwanted attention (or, in somestances, attract it). At certain points in our lives they can even serve as a God-given protection. None of them, however, should be confused with the truth of who we are. That truth is synonymous with our salvation.

St. Paul is an interesting example in all of this. We know more about him, in many ways, than any of the apostles. In his letter to the Philippians, he cites a Jewish pedigree second-to-none:

“…circumcised the eighth day, of the stock of Israel, of the tribe of Benjamin, a Hebrew of the Hebrews; concerning the law, a Pharisee; concerning zeal, persecuting the church; concerning the righteousness which is in the law, blameless.”(Phil. 3:5–6)

But he has this to say:

“But what things were gain to me, these I have counted loss for Christ. Yet indeed I also count all things loss for the excellence of the knowledge of Christ Jesus my Lord, for whom I have suffered the loss of all things, and count them as rubbish, that I may gain Christ and be found in Him, not having my own righteousness, which is from the law, but that which is through faith in Christ…”(Phil. 3:7–9)

St. Paul’s “excellence” as a Pharisee was clearly an “identity.” It drove him to a zeal that included persecuting Christians. This is typical of the “hollow” character of acquired identities. They do not represent true self and are easily undermined by various challenges. St. Paul’s persecutions are a tragic attempt to maintain a false version of himself. To this, Christ will say, “It’s hard to kick against the goads” (Acts 26:14). The truth of our existence goads against the many false identities which we create. Our own efforts leave us empty, unfulfilled, anxious and frequently angry. We cannot be satisfied, truly satisfied, by being someone other than who we were created to be.

St. Paul can be quite practical in how we live an authentic Christian life. In his own life, he noted that he had suffered the “loss of all things” (and he is not talking about wealth or property). What he has lost, he came to see as “rubbish.” All of the false versions of ourselves that we create – our well-crafted fig leaves – are just rubbish. We ourselves, however, are not.

St. Paul offers this advice:

“If then you were raised with Christ [in Holy Baptism], seek those things which are above, where Christ is, sitting at the right hand of God. Set your mind on things above, not on things on the earth. For you died, and your life is hidden with Christ in God. When Christ who is our life appears, then you also will appear with Him in glory.” (Col. 3:1–4)

I will rephrase this. The truth of our identity is not known to us. You do not know who you are. An identity is not something of our own making – it is the gift of God. We come to know it as Christ makes it known to us. We can only know the truth of ourselves as we find it in Christ. Christ (“who is our life”) is the truth of our existence. We should never settle for less.

St. Paul’s struggles with his identity as Pharisee were particularly difficult and powerful. In his early life, to be a Pharisee was to be a righteous man. The original meaning of the term “Pharisee” meant “to be separate.” It was a position in which a man set God and His Law above all else and separated himself to it. Its deep alure was in its call to the heart. Who doesn’t want to be separated and set apart for God? How can it not be a good thing?

We have similar struggles as Orthodox Christians. We hear correctly and repeatedly that Orthodoxy is a “way of life.” Unfortunately, it can be diminished from way of life to mere identity. How this works can take many forms. In all of them, Orthodoxy becomes our “clothing,” but not the transformation of the soul. All of the hallmarks of shame-driven behavior (anger, defensiveness, aggression, social cliques, perfectionism, etc.) accompany Orthodoxy as identity. I think some of this is to be expected, particularly in personalities where shame has not been addressed (which is quite likely a near majority of personalities).

I am deeply aware of this in my own life as a priest. A priest inevitably carries an “identity” as a priest. The priesthood is, indeed, like a suit of clothes. The act of vesting a priest is part of his ordination. His public identification (as in the cassock, traditionally) is a matter of canonical requirement. Beneath it however, is the “hidden” life of a man, a reality that can, at times, be alienated from the priestly identity (and other suits of clothes), feeling like an imposter. He knows he’s not worthy of the honor that comes with the priesthood. There is the temptation to hide behind the identity and lose the sense of his own self. Fortunately, he is not alone. His confessor knows the same temptation, as do other priests as well. We call one another forth from the grave of identity and into the light of Christ. The priesthood belongs to Christ, not ourselves.

For each of us, the identities we acquire over our lifetime serve as temptations. Their worst aspect, I think, is that they are not hidden. As such, they tempt us to settle for something less. The Kingdom of God is like a treasure buried in a field, Jesus said. We should not cease the work of selling all that we have (including the false, temporary identities) and buying the field. Nothing less than the treasure will do.

I am becoming an old man. I’m “retired” from being in charge of a parish. My days are mostly filled with mundane activities – household chores and the like. Of course, I still write. But I have long hours in which to ponder my life (and my sins). I can see a “sifting” taking place in my heart. Who I am is not who I’ve been or what I’ve done or what others think. “Who I am” is hidden with Christ in God and can only be known by finding it in Christ. Some of my daily reflections turn on this “end of the journey.” When Christ appears, then we appear. When we see Christ in His glory, then we find ourselves with Him in that glory.

There’s much about this that I wish I had known earlier in my life – but that is in the hands of God. St. Paul leaves us with this:

“Brethren, I do not count myself to have apprehended; but one thing I do, forgetting those things which are behind and reaching forward to those things which are ahead, I press toward the goal for the prize of the upward call of God in Christ Jesus.” (Phil. 3:13–14)

Higher up and further in.

The photo is of one of my grandsons, caught in a moment of wonder…

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