I shudder as I begin writing this and nearly get up from the keyboard and run away. A crisis of identity has recently turned my inward life upside down, and the blame can be squarely put on the shoulders of my beloved pastor Brad Jersak and a well meaning prophetic teacher named Graham Cooke. Now neither of them could have known it, but it was almost like they had conspired against me, which really means that God was up to something. The result of this conspiracy has been some serious reflection on some pretty large questions, which has led to some conclusions. Though I will share them, I respectfully declare that I am on a journey of discovery and offer these thoughts in the hopes it will help others on their journey.
First the story that led me to the precipice of a storm and tailspin. It was a lovely Saturday night as I headed into the room and took my seat anticipating the night's speaker. I have come to respect and really enjoy Graham Cooke's teaching. As usual he did not disappoint as he shared that evening. I will not share the whole teaching he gave that night. What is important to the story is that I left the meeting with a question on my mind: who does God say I am and what am I called to? Excellent questions to be sure, and I was ready to seek some answers from the Lord. However, I needed to sleep first as it was late by the time I got home.
When I awoke the next morning I still had these questions on my mind as I drove to church. Little did I know that the sermon that morning would not only highlight these questions but add to them. Brad shared an excellent message that morning, which again I will not go into detail about. Suffice to say that I left church that morning with a third question on my mind: what is the point? Ah, the grand question! Life, meaning, and purpose all quail in the face of it. Now I had a problem. Profound questions had piled up on one another and I was not prepared for the weight they held nor the button they were pushing. The button my dear friend Jesus felt it was time to push.
The following week or so was one of angst. I moved from frustration to anger to head shaking confusion often. I prayed fervently, seeking an easy answer from the Lord or, barring that, at least deliverance from the issue. Either would have done. Relief did not come, but some light did.
What is the point? This question I would have thought would be the most difficult to answer, but it turned out that Jesus had already answered this one for me some time ago. Now he would give a clearer picture for it. I remembered asking him once a few years ago what the point of my life was. His answer came back very clearly as the Holy Spirit reminded me of it. I could see the entry in my journal in my mind's eye quite clearly, reflect my glory. As I thought on this very simple answer, the Holy Spirit showed me two symbolic objects: a mirror and an arrow. My understanding of the kingdom has grown somewhat since his original answer and I knew right away what he was saying (see my article “Be One and Love”). The point is to be like a mirror reflecting God's glory, which means to reflect who he is, what he is really like, and to relate to others as God would have me, namely to show them his love. The point is to be an arrow pointing the world to the kingdom of heaven. To point those around me to Jesus, the Way. As I let this answer sink in, I felt the inner storm I had been living with subside in part. Jesus had very graciously responded to what seemed like a massive question with an answer I could really wrap my mind and heart around.
“I get that and I think I can be those things and even grow in being them,” I prayed. What is the point? Let me be a mirror and an arrow.
My joy was, of course, short lived. I now faced some of the other questions that had arisen out of the conspiracy. These are the ones that have proved more difficult to get a handle on and have revealed some deep issues in not only my own heart, but in some of the teachings that I have heard about destiny and purpose. I have been forced to re-evaluate what I have considered success to mean and what my destiny and purpose is in this life that God has gifted to me.
What am I to do? Three brutal words that can fuel the identity crisis like winds spreading forest fires. I found myself with a good answer for what is the point? Now I desperately wanted to know the specifics. How can I in a real and practical way be this mirror and arrow? What action, what job, what ministry can/should I be doing that will make me one who is reflecting God's glory and pointing to the kingdom? Out of this dreaded question came some revelation about my own misunderstanding of destiny and a need to look at another question: Who am I? Trembling with fear I plunged forward, and now I will drag you onward with me.
Having come to an understanding of what the point is I felt ready to broach the next question: who am I? I felt armed with a new tactic for I found myself with an even more pointed question to bring before the Lord: who do you say I am Lord? Surely, this would lead me to a better sense of identity! I have thought that a clear sense of my own identity would be vital into stepping forward in my spiritual life, that discovering who I am would reveal what my calling and purpose might be. At my core there is an unwavering desire to not only follow Jesus, but to serve him as well. How can I serve him if I do not know who I am or what I am to do? Behind this identity storm lurks a system of thought that is like a tree producing fruit that can never be eaten. It has a name we are all familiar with: Destiny.
Behind the scenes there is a problematic belief that we cannot be who we are or accomplish anything until our destiny presents itself. Until then we are doomed to sit beneath the tree waiting for it to drop an edible piece of fruit onto our heads; a piece of fruit that is not forthcoming. The destiny thought system oppresses us in that it has impressed on us the belief that we are to be something measurably great, identifiably significant, before we can serve in the kingdom of heaven. An example of this can be taken from the yearly spectacle of American Idol. Thousands of hopeful competitors suffering from American Idol Syndrome come to audition and are summarily dismissed, to their dismay, by the judges. Each is convinced that not only are they supremely talented, but that it is their destiny to be the next superstar in America’s pop music industry. Anything less is seen as a disaster and utter failure. The big lie is that fame and fortune are meant for all. This simply is not true.
Herein we find a picture of the spiritual lives of not only myself but many Christians today, which can be summed up quite easily: If I have no destiny of greatness I am not worthy to serve. A worse lie is difficult to think of. Destiny needs to be chopped down, its stump dug out and burned in a blazing fire. An objection will be raised at this point I am sure: Do we not all have a God given destiny? A destiny in Christ? Yes, but the very word ‘destiny’ in our culture has little to do with this reality. We have applied a cultural understanding of destiny to a spiritual truth that is incompatible with that truth. We are not all called to be Billy Graham, so to speak, but this does not mean we are not all called to something. Our understanding of what it means to be great and significant in the kingdom of heaven must be understood in light of what Jesus has said and not defined by the standards of the world.
In Mark 10:35-45 we find an instructive conversation between Jesus and two of his disciples, James and John. The brothers approach Jesus with a lofty request: they want to sit on his right and left when Jesus has ascended the throne of glory. Jesus does not grant their request saying that such places of honour will be decided by the Father. Now of course this conversation is not kept a secret and the rest of the disciples are not very impressed with James and John. Jesus brings them all together and uses the moment of conflict to teach his friends about the kingdom of heaven in vs. 42-45:
You know that those who are regarded as rulers of the Gentiles lord it over them, and their high officials exercise authority over them. Not so with you. Instead, whoever wants to become great among you must be your servant, and whoever wants to be first must be slave of all. For even the Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many.
Jesus makes it clear for his disciples that in the kingdom of heaven significance and greatness look very different than they do in the world. In the kingdom it is service to others that defines greatness. Our significance comes from looking to the lives of others and serving their needs, their hurts, their dreams. Jesus removes the focus of his disciples from their own self centred thinking and moves their focus outward to the community around them. You can imagine Jesus pointing people out and saying, “You want to be great James? Help that widow carry her groceries. You want to be great John? Go and pray for Eric, he is in the midst of an identity crisis.” If we are going to follow Jesus and live according to his kingdom ways then we need to learn how to become those who serve others, and we will begin to find significance.
In Ephesians 4:11 there is a list of what we have come to think of as the major gifts in the church: apostles, prophets, evangelists, pastors, and teachers. If you do not read the next five verses you will miss some of the most instructive words regarding these gifts. Paul does not elevate these gifts and place those who have them on some kind of higher level than other believers. Rather, Paul clearly places them in the light of service to the community. These gifts have been given for a purpose:
…to prepare God’s people for works of service, so that the body of Christ may be built up until we all reach unity in the faith and in the knowledge of the Son of God and become mature, attaining to the fullness of Christ, (vs. 12-13).
In verses 14-16 Paul goes on to describe the growth of the community of believers becoming strong in their faith and firm in their spiritual understanding of who God is. He tells us that we will grow up into Christ who is the Head of the community.
From him the whole body, joined and held together by every supporting ligament, grows and builds itself up in love, as each part does its work, (vs. 16).
Jesus is given the place of significance while the rest of the Church is seen as a body working together as one and moving towards unity and maturity in Christ. Those who are powerfully gifted need to recall that they are also called to serve and be the slave of all, for their gift has been given for a purpose, and that purpose is found in the transforming lives of the community. The language Paul uses in Ephesians 4 echoes that of the more well known passage in 1 Corinthians 12:12-30 where Paul goes into more detail about the Body. Here too Paul describes the gifts given by the Spirit and while we have ascribed certain honour to some gifts above others Paul does not. His paradigm is in line with Christ’s. He sees the gifts as empowerment for the life of the community and thus one part can not take precedence over another.
The eye cannot say to the hand, ‘I don’t need you!’ And the head cannot say to the feet, ‘I don’t need you!’ On the contrary, those parts of the body that seem to be weaker are indispensable, and the parts that we think are less honourable we treat with special honour, (vs. 21-23).
Each person that is a part of the community, regardless of their gifting, is intimately connected to the rest. For the community to function each person is called to use their gifts in service to the rest. No part is elevated above another, no hierarchy of honour is evident in the biblical way of thought. It is the life of the community that is paramount. Perhaps verse 26 is the most instructive, if not the most striking: If one part suffers, every part suffers with it; if one part is honoured, every part rejoices with it.
Somewhere above I said that the Big Lie is that fame and fortune are for all. The Big Hope for us in the Community of Christ is that all are significant in the kingdom of heaven and in the Church Body, for all are gifted and called to serve. If you are looking for satisfaction based on the cultural definition of the world then this will be a very disheartening answer, but if you are growing in your spiritual journey with Jesus, this is good news. It means that there is a promise that you are gifted, you are empowered by the Spirit, and you are certainly called to something. I believe, discovering what these are and walking them out with Jesus will be better than fame and fortune. We do not have to wait until we attain a certain level or spiritual height before we can serve in the kingdom for we are a part of the body called to serve with what we have. What I have today may be small, but it will grow as I serve. It will grow as I mature and benefit from the service of those around me in my fellowship, which draws me forward to grow and become more like Christ.
Some may feel that I have gone on a long round about journey back to the original question we began with: Who do you say I am Lord? But rooting out the destiny problem is key, for it prevents us from hearing the answer. We need to be free from the cultural misunderstanding that we are all destined to lead international ministries before we can serve Jesus, and if we don’t have such a destiny then we are disqualified from serving in the kingdom. When you read that last statement it should be blatantly clear just how ludicrous such a paradigm is.
Now, if we are not all called to massive ministries, we are certainly called to a destiny (right use of the word now) in Christ, and we should understand that it is interwoven with the life of the community. Who Am I? is a problematic question because it can subtly lead us on an ego centered wild goose chase that leads us on a journey that only ends at ourselves. There we are looking at our own face in a dark mirror asking “Hey! Tell me who I am!” When there is no response we want to punch that mirror even though it is our face staring back. The other problem is that we can’t just throw the question out. It is a valid request and cannot be summarily dismissed. We have to make an adjustment in how we approach and pose this question so that we can ask it from a place that is not Self centred, as odd as that sounds.
Who Am I? may take a seat for a moment as we ask a better first question to stand up. Our search for identity is better begun with an outward focus on the very One who has made us and understands the secret wiring deep within our spirits that we are not even aware of; he who holds our very destiny within himself. Setting our sights on Jesus we ask “Who are you Lord?”
I have said that we are all called to be mirrors reflecting God’s glory in this world and that we are all signs pointing to the kingdom of heaven. Ultimately, who I am is tied to this core calling, this destiny. Yet, how can I reflect his glory or point to his kingdom if I do not know who he is or what he is like? The answer we receive, the revelation of who God is becomes the light by which we begin to see who we are. As Jesus reveals himself to us we can allow ourselves to ask who we are in him and this is where we discover our true identities. We also discover that who we are and our ‘destiny’ are not things written in stone, but they are ever unfolding and in the hands of a very creative (and trustworthy) God.
Thus we begin the process of discovering how we are to be the mirrors he wants us to be, how we can best be the signs pointing to his kingdom. Our identities will vastly differ, our gifts unique to us in the way he works through them. But our destinies all converge at the same point: Serve God with all your heart, and strength, and with everything he has given you. Go out and be the greatest force for Love that the world has ever witnessed bringing the presence of the kingdom of heaven where ever you may travel.
“Give me something practical! Something I can put my hands to and get busy with! Pleassse!!!” This anguished cry is what lies behind What am I to do? The heart is eager to serve, but to serve with meaning.
Within each of us there is a tension that exists driven by the very human tendency to perform. In doing we believe we will find meaning. Ingrained within us is a belief that we must perform well, that we must accomplish tasks in order to please God and fulfill our calling. This performance orientation casus tension within us because the spiritual reality is not so simple. The Holy Spirit is adhering to a very different standard.
How often have I prayed asking the Lord, “What am I to do?” seeking a practical answer of direction only to hear him respond, “Be still and know that I am God,”.
Shaking my head to clear my mind of what I consider to be the wrong answer I ask again, “What am I to do?” and he replies once more, “Be still and know that I am God.”
Frustration buttons pushed to the limit, I press him, “Okay, okay! But what am I to do?!”
God is more concerned with our relationship with him than seeing us perform a list of tasks masquerading as service. The condition of our heart and our state of being precedes our actions and serve. Why? Why does God so incessantly focus on our interior lives over and above what we do with our lives? He will not allow our sense of value to come out of anything but his love for us.
This tension can be described in different ways; Performance vs. Being; Task vs. Relationship; Ego vs. Submission etc…, but they all come down to the same point. God desires that our service flow from our connection to him for one very important reason: love. Service that comes out of a place of love is the tree that bears amazing fruit. Service that comes out of performance driven by our ego is the tree that bears little fruit. Such fruit produces a crop of frustration, anger cynicism, and bitterness. The human spirit cannot find fulfillment in performance. It can only find fulfillment in the love of God. We cannot serve others in an authentic way unless we love them with authenticity. One need only pay close attention to the teaching of 1 Corinthians 13 to understand this reality. Paul clearly warns us that even if we are able to serve with the most powerful spiritual gifts of the Spirit it is meaningless if we are not able to love when serving with them. John tells us that if we do not love our brother yet claim to follow Jesus we are liars and do not love God (1 John 4:19-21). We quickly see that why God is so concerned with our interior lives, our inner beings, before he is willing to answer our question, what am I to do? His first and foremost answer is, “You need to love me and love others.”
All Christians eventually come to a crossroads where a choice must be made between a performance faith and a spiritual faith. By performance faith I mean the system that says, “Do A and B and you will earn C…maybe.” Performance faith tends to drag us on a high energy journey always focused on what is next, what is the next task to accomplished? It pushes us to be looking to the future for the next job and causes us to miss what is present. A spiritual faith is one that understands following Jesus is a relational journey. As we follow him we give ear to what the Spirit is saying and doing. He draws us into the present moment focusing our attention on his will for the here and now. Jesus modeled this for us in his earthly ministry as he said and did only what he heard and saw the Father doing. His focus was not on the task but on his Father. So it should be with us.
Out of our relationship with him our service becomes clear and we are able to see what he is doing in the midst of those we are with. The difference is that out of love for God we serve those he is serving. For he called us to follow himself as disciples and friends who labour in the kingdom because of our relationship with him.
The spiritual faith allows us to overcome our perceptions of significance. Too often we are searching for status in what we do. We believe that only those acts which seem “big” are worthwhile when in reality it is those that seem “small” that are most important. When we serve out of our relationship with Jesus we come to recognize that his promptings to a kind word or a simple prayer for another are the small acts of service that he is doing. It this is what he is doing it is of the utmost significance. In reality there is not distinction between what we perceive to be “big” or “small” acts of service.
The spiritual faith focused on the relational journey allows us to move towards that place in the Spirit where our ego can submit to the lordship of Christ, setting aside its agenda, and we echo Paul’s famous words, “I must decrease in order that he may increase.”
We are then a community of believers who share in a common purpose: to be mirrors reflecting God’s glory and signs pointing to the kingdom of heaven. We are a community of believers seeking to know God and define ourselves according to who he is and who he says we are. We are a community of believers sharing in a spiritual faith following Jesus on a journey marked by our relationship with him, giving ear to the voice of his Spirit, which prepares us for acts of service.
Satisfying answers to three of the most soul wrenching questions we face as human beings? Perhaps, perhaps not. Yet, in the end I believe within these answers there is hope for those of us who have come face to face with the identity storm stripping away the inauthentic answers that can no longer sustain us. It may suffice to say after all that has been said above that is a life lived with Jesus, for Jesus, and focused on Jesus, that finally answers these questions. If he is enthroned at the center of our lives the details that so preoccupy us will be answered. He cam to free us from the agony of lives lived in darkness with no apparent meaning or purpose, and whom the Son sets free is free indeed.
A Story From the Storm
There is a prophetic element to understand as Jesus speaks to who we are in him. It is this prophetic component that can seem incongruous when we hear him declare our identity to us. The reason behind this is that God will often speak about us according to who he is calling us to be. He calls us forward to the future where we are transformed and have become that which he is in the process of making us to be. This is important to understand because if opens up the opportunity for us to partner in the process with insight and clarity.
An example is probably needed and I will draw from my own experience to provide one. A little over ten years ago now I was sitting on a couch reading. I recall that I was tired and not feeling particularly spiritual at the time. Then I heard a voice speak, the sound of it was like someone right beside me speaking directly into my ear.
“Feed my sheep,” the voice said.
I nearly jumped out of my skin for there was no one in the room with me. Stunned, I sat motionless breathing hard as I realized that I had just heard Jesus speak to me audibly.
This not an experience I have shared openly with very many people, but it is one of my most treasured encounters with Jesus. This single statement from him became a driving force in my life. I had received a call and I honestly had no idea how to answer it. I did not know the first thing about how to feed the sheep! I was a young man with much to learn and with much to be transformed in a very messy interior life.
Over the years I have returned to that moment again and again. Sometimes to find focus, other times to ask how (with no lack of frustration!), and other times to humbly explain to the Lord that I was not able to answer this call. His response has ever been the same, “Feed my sheep.”
During the past decade I have studied, I have trained, I have taken steps the best I knew how to become someone who could answer this daunting call. It has taken this long, I feel, to come to a place where I am beginning to walk in the calling, though there is still much more for me to learn and become. Many of my life decisions have been made with this calling in mind as I have attempted to join with the Spirit’s work to bring me to a point where I can feed his sheep.
When he spoke it was not a command to go out the next day and feed the sheep. It was a prophetic moment calling me to growth, to transformation, to becoming one who could. In following Jesus he has been faithful to guide my path along this prophetic journey and he has been faithful despite my mistakes and learning curve.
Who we are is an unfolding journey on which we are always growing and being transformed. God is committed to completing his work in us and ultimately this journey culminates in the likeness of Christ being made manifest in who we are. It is a lifelong journey with many markers of completion that quickly give way to new beginnings. The development of our identity is not something that we attain in fullness at some point then live the rest of our lives as. Rather, it is something vibrant and fluid as we mature in our faith and become more like Jesus. We ought not to look for a point at which we can opt out. Instead we should look to continue the journey through to the end, paying attention to the prophetic answers God gives us to show us the way forward. Once we understand this prophetic element drawing us onward we share in the joy of growing into the people God has made, and is making us, to be.
Seasons change and who we are may change with them as God shifts us from on role to another according to his plans. This can be difficult (I know!) because we enjoy being comfortable, we enjoy being good at what we do. A shift and a change can cause us anguish, anxiety, even anger. But when we hear and understand the prophetic call he gives at these times it is a provision that is meant to answer these conflicting emotions. He shows us ahead of time the purpose and the reason for the change. He shows us that he is in control of the shift through a prophetic invitation to walk forward with him on the journey through what may look like a terrible storm. Let us be those who are willing to say, “Okay, I trust you. I will follow.”
Eric H Janzen
November 10, 2008