Category Archives: Spiritual Growth

The Search for Identity: Healing Our Image of God and Of Ourselves

We primarily associate the search for identity with a phase of life occurring during the teen years.  Young people are expected to be “finding themselves,” questioning the messages they receive from authority figures, pushing boundaries, etc.  My experience is showing me that the search for identity continues beyond adolescence and may be a life-long process.

We are all asking the same existential questions:

What are we about?
Why are we here?
Where are we going?

And to answer these questions, we invest our energy in these things:

We are what we do.
We are what others say about us.
We are what we have.

As long as we are experiencing success and people are saying good things about us, or we are living comfortably and enjoying good relationships, we can feel OK.  But when we face failures, when others’ disapprove of us, when we lose people and things that are dear to us, then we may experience an existential crisis.

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My earth-shattering existential crisis occurred when I was 30 years old (four years ago…in case you were wondering!:).  There have been small bumps and jolts along my journey that have caused me to question things before, but at thirty I faced a tidal-wave of paradigm-shifting crap heaped up on my life that turned everything upside down and left me at ground zero.  My greatest discovery as I rebuilt my life was that I was finding my identity apart from God.  I was finding my identity in what I did, what others said about me, and what I had.  All my life, I have loved God and His Church.  But for the first time in my life, I am now living as one beloved by God.  And I am finally experiencing fullness of life and freedom in Christ!

All humans are created imago dei (in the image of God) and only in finding our identity in God can we experience life in all its fullness.  We need to recover the image of God in our lives by finding our ultimate identity in reflecting and representing God on earth – as His beloved children.

Living imago dei means finding your identity “from Him and to Him and through Him” (Romans 11:36).

To understand what it means to live imago dei, let’s first look at the Creation account in Genesis 1.  Verse 27 says,

So God created humankind in His own image, in the image
of
God He created them; male and female He created them.

Conservative scholars agree that the author of the book of Genesis was Moses, writing around 3,500 years ago.  This was during a time when emperors placed statues of themselves throughout their kingdoms, signifying who was in charge.  These statues would loom over town centers and were often made of precious metals and stones.

When my brother and I were backpacking through Europe, we visited a museum of communist and Nazi statues from the mid-20th century.  These huge statues had been formidable, oppressive symbols for the people who lived with them in their midst.  When Sadam Hussein’s regime fell, I have vivid memories of watching newscasts of people tearing down his statues, with tremendous effort and emotion.

Statue of Saddam being toppled in Firdos Square after the US invasion

Statue of Saddam being toppled in Firdos Square after the US invasion

When we think of these images of emperors being a normal aspect of life during the time of Moses, the beauty of God placing humankind as His image on earth is astounding.  We were created to represent God’s glory and diety on earth.  In heaven, it is clear who is in charge as God sits on His throne and is worshipped in a non-stop chorus of hosannas.  On earth, God has given us the choice to worship Him or not.  And He has given authority to humankind to rule and steward His creation.  And yet, unlike the emperors’ statues, who were made from precious metals and stones, we were made from the dust of the earth.

It is important to recognize two things about humanity from the Creation account:

1.  We are made for DIGNITY – to represent God’s glory and diety on earth
2.  We are HUMBLE creations – made from dust, not diety ourselves

Whether or not we are living our lives in devotion to God, every human being has dignity and value as image bearers of God.  This is common grace for all.  To live fully imago dei, however, goes beyond our creation as God’s image bearers.  It also means finding our identity as image bearers, living “from Him..to Him…[and] through Him.

Living imago dei means finding our source, purpose and meaning in God

There are three aspects to finding our identity as image bearers of God:

1.  Live in communion with God
2.  Live in community with others
3.  Steward creation the way God does

In struggling with our identity, we tend to start in the opposite order:

Do something…
Then ask for help from others…
Then, in a last ditch effort, quiet yourself and spend time with God.

So the first step towards living imago dei requires knowing God.

In healing our image of God, we heal our image of ourselves.

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“We have seen His glory, the glory of an only Son, filled with enduring love.” (John 1:14)

“May Christ grow in your heart by faith, and may love grow…that you will be able to grasp how wide, how long, how high and how deep is God’s love which is beyond all knowledge, that you may be filled with the fullness of God.” (Ephesians 3:17-19)

“Beloved, let us love one another, for love is from God…for God is love.  By this the love of God was manifested in us, that God sent His only begotten Son into the world so that we might live through Him.” (1 John 4:7-9)

God is love — and you are God’s beloved!

In healing our image of God, Jesus frees us from fear of the Father and dislike of ourselves.  If not, you still have not accepted the total sufficiency of His redeeming work.

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The problem: our image of God (how we see God) reflects more of our experience with humankind.

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In this short video, Greg Boyd explains why it is that many of us picture God as angry and vindictive, and how any conception of God that is other than what we find in Christ is a mischaracterization:

http://view.vzaar.com/1971665/flashplayer

(Or see it here: http://www.theworkofthepeople.com/making-god-in-our-own-image).

If we do not know God, then we cannot live fully imago dei.

Not only do we believe lies about who God is – but we believe lies about who we are and where we “should” be finding our identity.  These lies come from our society at large, the media, our families, our faith communities, etc.

Stop Shoulding Yourself

Lies make us feel as though we are less than, unworthy, freaks, frauds and failures.  While God loves us as we are and not as we should be, we get a different message from society.  We “should” find our worth in our accomplishments, appearance, education, gender, feminity or masculinity, occupation, race, sexuality, social networks, spirituality, wealth, etc.

The reason these lies are so ingrained in our psyches:  SOCIALIZATION.

We are socialized to believe certain lies about our identities through three processes:

1. Modeling (how we observe others behaving)
2. Overt Instruction (how we were instructed to behave)
3. Reinforcement (positive or negative responses to our behavior)

Our socialization results in cognitive lenses through which we understand the world and ourselves.

Socialization is POWERFUL.  Through our cognitive lenses, we learn to associate or assign meaning to words in a process that occurs in one-seventh-of-a-millionth second.

For example: when we hear “woman” we may associate that (in less than one- seventh-of-a-millionth second!) with “helper.”  This association comes from the most common translation of ezer from the Creation account.

Then the LORD God said, “It is not good for the man to be alone; I will make him a helper suitable (ezer kenegdo) for him.'” Genesis 2:18

Early translators viewed the Bible from a cognitive lens of gender hierarchy as God’s design (through the influence of St. Augustine’s writings, who describes Plato–a philosopher who saw educated, wealthy men as the pinnacle of society who ought to govern over the women, slaves and children–as the lens through which he understood the Bible).  So although other instances of ezer throughout the Old Testament show God swooping in as a warrior in battle to “help” turn the tide towards victory, the translation chosen denotes subjection and male authority.  A truer translation of ezer kenegdo would be “corresponding strength,” with Eve as co-warrior alongside Adam.  As women, we have valuable strength to contribute to our churches, families, and communities.

These are helpful questions to begin to peel away the onion-layers of lies that have influenced our identity formation:

What are my cultural lenses?
What has my role modeling been?
What has my instruction been?
What has my reinforcement been?
How has my socialization impacted my search for identity – the purpose, meaning and goal of my life?

Christian women in Western society have been socialized to believe that a feminine, nurturing and submissive homemaker is the ideal Christian woman.  Rather than finding our identity in God and living boldly and freely as ezer-warriors in authority over Creation, we are socialized to live small, inhibited lives, so as not to rock the boat or make waves.

Kathy Escobar shared these lists on her blog, comparing Good Christian Women to Ex-Good Christian Women.  Which list do you identify with more?

i know these are generalizations, but in my experience a lot of “good-christian-women”:

  • rarely engage in conflict
  • are terrible at saying “no” because it feels selfish
  • know how to say the right things, do the right things, to keep the peace
  • continually strive–and i do mean strive–to be a better wife, better mother, better christian
  • live with a feeling that God is disappointed with us somehow
  • feel a lot of shame for who we are and who we aren’t (but rarely say it out loud)
  • doubt our leadership, feelings, gifts, dreams
  • dwell on the things we should be doing differently or better 
  • view anger as sin
  • always seek permission 

here are some characteristics of those of us with the “ex” added.  “ex-good-christian-women”:

  • are learning to show up in relationship instead of hiding
  • engage in conflict instead of avoid it
  • say “no” with less-and-less guilt and say “yes” more freely, more honestly
  • tell the truth
  • respect anger
  • are honest about shame
  • live in the present 
  • are beginning to believe we are “enough”–here, now
  • open ourselves up to dreams & passions & living out what God is stirring up in us
  • lead & love & live in all kinds of new ways, with or without permission
  • are discovering that God is much bigger than we were ever taught & loves us more than we ever knew

Our sisters, both locally and globally, need us to step into our calling as ezer-warriors, living fully and abundantly as beloved and equal daughters of God, creating a ripple effect that erodes the lies from our neighborhoods and the world at large.

Living imago dei means finding your identity
“from Him and to Him and through Him.” 

God loves you as you are, not as you should be.
We all need to learn to live for an audience of One,
and “stop shoulding on ourselves.”

The best summary I can come up with is this Love letter from Jesus:

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With much love,

                   Jesus


This post is adapted from a talk I did at a women’s retreat earlier this month.  I shared the books, sermons and articles I referenced in this post, Imago Dei Resources.

On the retreat, it was much more of a conversation with dialogue about lies that we struggle with.  Please feel free to join that conversation in our Comments section!  What lies have you been trying to peel away, that keep you from living fully imago dei?

Thanks for visiting TBKW. Please Follow us, subscribe, or “Like” us on Facebook if you’d like to keep tabs on what we’re up to.  Peace!

The Prayer of St. Teresa of Avila

I used to have this prayer memorized and repeated it several times each day.  I was persevering through a season of tremendous pain, loss, and financial stress, all while trying to cope with parenting small children and managing multiple jobs.  This prayer helped me to cling to God and trust that He was all I needed.  Perhaps it will help you when you go through a particularly trying season:

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  • “Poem IX”, in Complete Works St. Teresa of Avila (1963) edited by E. Allison Peers, Vol. 3, p. 288

God’s Unreasonable Generosity

I delivered my first-ever sermon last year, and thought I’d share the text here.  The experience of preparing and delivering a sermon was equal parts nerve-wracking and exhilarating.  I felt so blessed by the entire process.  Because I had zero experience and education in sermon preparation, I sought out lots of help and am indebted to the pastors and mentors who read my sermon and gave me notes.  It could only be ten minutes long, so it’s not a difficult read.  Without further ado, here is my sermon on Matthew 19:27-20:16.


There’s a question I’ve heard several times lately that got me thinking.  I watched a YouTube video of a popular evangelist, who was being criticized for her personal jet and large mansion, and she was defending her lavish lifestyle.  She said, “Don’t I deserve a little luxury when I work so hard?”  A family member going through a bitter divorce recently said to me, “I was always a good wife.  Don’t I deserve to be treated better than this?”  And a man dying of cancer asked Logan, “What in the world did I ever do to deserve this?”

When I was thinking about this question, I realized I’ve asked myself the same thing, a lot!  When we moved to my hometown in Maine, I expected my church family to recognize the value of my seminary education.  I was hurt when I wasn’t nominated for the Christian Education board, even though I had a Masters in Educational Ministries.  I felt I deserved recognition for my hard work.

Similarly, I’ve done a lot of waitressing over the years, and I always do my best to give good service.  I have an expectation of what my tip will be, according to the tab, and depending on the tip, I’m either satisfied, pleased, or sometimes, disappointed.

Also, I get a lot of satisfaction from studies that detail the monetary value of all of the jobs that a Stay-at-Home parent does.  If I was being paid for my long days, sleepless nights, laundry service, tutoring, meal preparation, house cleaning, and life coaching, I’d be making a six figure income!

So, there’s three examples and I could give many more of ways that I’ve measured my life and decided what I deserved, and have been disappointed when my expectations and my reality didn’t match up.  And I’m sure some of you think like this too.  Maybe you’ve Googled the average pay for your line of work, to see if you’re receiving a fair salary.  Or you’ve said to yourself, “I deserve better than this”, when your circumstances were difficult.  We all have an expectation of what sort of reward or recognition or life circumstance is fair, and it can be really difficult to understand when our expectations and our reality are not matching up.  Really, we’re wondering if it’s worth the effort.

Well, the good news is, we are not the first people to struggle with this.  In fact, Jesus’ closest friends, his chosen twelve in his inner circle, were beginning to look around at their circumstances, and they began to worry, is this going to come out in our favor?  Here they had all left their jobs and families, to live in poverty as wandering apprentices of Jesus.  So they asked him, “What will our reward be?”  Let’s turn to Matthew, starting in chapter 19:27, to hear how Jesus replied.

27 Peter answered him, “We have left everything to follow you! What then will there be for us?”

28 Jesus said to them, “Truly I tell you, at the renewal of all things, when the Son of Man sits on his glorious throne, you who have followed me will also sit on twelve thrones, judging the twelve tribes of Israel. 29 And everyone who has left houses or brothers or sisters or father or mother or wife or children or fields for my sake will receive a hundred times as much and will inherit eternal life. 30 But many who are first will be last, and many who are last will be first.

20 “For the kingdom of heaven is like a landowner who went out early in the morning to hire workers for his vineyard. He agreed to pay them a denarius for the day and sent them into his vineyard.

“About nine in the morning he went out and saw others standing in the marketplace doing nothing. He told them, ‘You also go and work in my vineyard, and I will pay you whatever is right.’ So they went.

“He went out again about noon and about three in the afternoon and did the same thing. About five in the afternoon he went out and found still others standing around. He asked them, ‘Why have you been standing here all day long doing nothing?’

“‘Because no one has hired us,’ they answered.

“He said to them, ‘You also go and work in my vineyard.’

“When evening came, the owner of the vineyard said to his foreman, ‘Call the workers and pay them their wages, beginning with the last ones hired and going on to the first.’

“The workers who were hired about five in the afternoon came and each received a denarius. 10 So when those came who were hired first, they expected to receive more. But each one of them also received a denarius. 11 When they received it, they began to grumble against the landowner. 12 ‘These who were hired last worked only one hour,’ they said, ‘and you have made them equal to us who have borne the burden of the work and the heat of the day.’

13 “But he answered one of them, ‘I am not being unfair to you, friend. Didn’t you agree to work for a denarius? 14 Take your pay and go. I want to give the one who was hired last the same as I gave you. 15 Don’t I have the right to do what I want with my own money? Or are you envious because I am generous?’

16 “So the last will be first, and the first will be last.”

 

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So, the disciples were asking Jesus what sort of reward they would receive for their hard work and sacrifices, because they wanted to know if Jesus’ payment would line up with their expectations of what they deserved. Jesus’ answer to them is – The first will be last, and the last will be first.  Then Jesus uses the Parable of Equal Wages to illustrate the meaning of this principle, and he repeated the principle one last time for clarification.  But I think the meaning of this principle and this parable was hidden from the disciples for some time.  Let me unpack the parable a little bit and tell you when it was that the disciples really got it.

The setting was a society where unemployment meant starvation.  A day-laborer would have been someone without their own land to work.  So the day-laborers were dependent upon local landowners for employment just to feed their families with their days’ wage.  The men who would have been idle, or rather, had not been hired by any other land owner, would have been the weak, infirm, disabled, elderly, and other targets of discrimination, like criminals or anyone with a bad reputation.  At the end of the parable, the full-day workers didn’t complain that they had been cheated, but that the one-hour workers had been made equal to them.

A just God, then, is inclined to show special generosity to the poor and outcast.  No-one was underpaid; just some were treated with ‘unreasonable’ generosity.  And by that extravagant act of compassion, the landowner demonstrated something about the one-hour workers’ value and worth.  And this act of kindness denied the full-day workers their claim to superiority.  It was only natural for those who had worked all day in the heat of the sun to feel resentment.  If you’re honest, you’ll admit that you’re sympathetic to their complaint, because that’s our natural, human perspective.  But that sympathy reveals how loveless, merciless and ‘under law’ we really are.  Similar to the day-laborer’s poverty, we are spiritually destitute, in need of God’s ‘unreasonable’ generosity!

The hard truth is, no one deserves eternal life.  Think about it this way.  When you drive to work or to the grocery store, if you follow the rules of the road carefully, you don’t get a special reward when you reach your destination.  You have merely fulfilled your obligation to the law of the land.  Are we not likewise obligated to live in perfect obedience to our Creator?  We see so clearly all the things we do for God, or that we’ve lived a ‘good life,’ and we feel we deserve something for all of the times we haven’t just lived for ourselves.  But God isn’t looking at what we’ve done, he’s looking at our hearts.  His primary concern is that we are loving Him and loving others more than ourselves.  I’m a good person, I’m a good wife and mother, a good Christian.  But if I’m being perfectly honest with you, my life has been mostly lived for me and a little bit for God and others.  And honestly, my efforts and sacrifices can lead to a puffed up, superiority complex.  There’s no room for me to be proud.  I need to see myself for what I really am – a one-hour worker, not an all-day laborer.

There’s only been one person in all of history that has lived his entire life perfectly, always deferring to the will of his Father and to the needs of others.  He never achieved any status or riches in his lifetime, but was willing to live in poverty and to be ridiculed and shamed, to die between two thieves, pouring himself completely out as a gift of salvation for us!  The twelve disciples who had been asking what kind of reward they would receive for following him, hid in shame while he was being crucified.  Only when Jesus rose from the dead, and they realized what he had done for them, did his disciples stop worrying about fairness and receiving special honor.  They realized they had received unreasonable generosity!

You see, Jesus lived the life we should live and died the death we should have died – but then he doesn’t say to his Father, why are you giving those guys eternal life?  Jesus doesn’t begrudge his Father’s generosity towards us – he loves us so much, he shares his inheritance in heaven with us as brothers and sisters.  We are deeply valued and deeply loved, and not for our meager hour of work.  God sees our spiritual poverty and looks at us with compassion, and then blesses us with ‘unreasonable’ generosity!

That is God’s pay scale.  God’s grace is not limited by our ideas of fairness; his gifts are far beyond what anyone deserves.  In his book, “What’s So Amazing About Grace”, Philip Yancey writes, “We risk missing the story’s point: that God dispenses gifts, not wages. None of us gets paid according to merit, for none of us comes close to satisfying God’s requirements for a perfect life. If paid on the basis of fairness, we would all end up in hell”.

I love how Pastor Timothy Keller puts it, “The Gospel is—we are more sinful and flawed in ourselves than we ever dared to believe, and at the very same time we are more loved and accepted in Jesus Christ than we ever dared hope.” So let us not get puffed up with feelings of superiority or entitlement, but always remember that we have received unreasonable generosity. Let us give thanks to God for not paying us what we deserve, but far, far better pay than we can even imagine.


 

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