Graced Identity

There is a classic sociological theory called “the looking-glass self”. It postulates that a person will move toward whatever the most important person in their life (spouse, parent, boss, friend, etc.) thinks they are. C.H. Cooley summed up the theory in his statement: "I am not what I think I am and I am not what you think I am; I am what I think that you think I am." You might have to read that statement again. If Cooley’s statement has any validity it reminds us why its important to look in the right direction for an understanding of who we are. For its quite possible that important people in your life will not love and bless you in the way that you need to be loved and blessed. Its quite possible that the image you carry of yourself is sourced in persons who themselves feel deficient in blessing -- and don’t feel they have any blessing to share. It is absolutely essential then to look away to God for the truest picture of who we are.

In the book Abba’s Child, Brennan Manning tells of an Irish priest who, while walking through his parish, finds a peasant kneeling beside the road. The peasant is in the middle of his prayers and the priest is very impressed. He says, “you must be very close to God”. The peasant looks up to find the priest standing there addressing him. He thinks for a moment and then smiles. “Yes, he’s very fond of me”.

I am struck by how the priest stood while the peasant knelt. There is a contrast of identities here: the priest, who stands in his self-assurance, and the peasant, in humble posture, catching a glimpse of God’s loving face. It is in kneeling that one finds a graced identity.

So how are we to understand this question of identity? In one sense selfhood is an unstable thing, capable of moving in any number of directions. The human self, say philosophers, is not a given; the human self is a becoming. But if that is true, the question remains: what are we to become? What can we become?

As we are reading Paul’s Galatian letter for this series, let me remind you that, for Paul, the radical shift -- the identity shift -- came when he encountered the living and resurrected Christ on the famous Damascus road. As he puts it: when God in grace “revealed his Son to me” (Galatians 1:16, see Acts 9). It was in that singular visionary moment that Paul’s view of life and purpose changed, including the sense of his own identity. In that story, told repeatedly by Paul, he fell to the ground, humbled by glory. But at the same time, Paul saw what our common humanity would become in Christ. He saw the glorious future that awaits those who embrace the crucified one. Later in Scripture, Paul talked about “the glory of God that is seen in the face of Jesus Christ” (2 Corinthians 4:6).

Let me make one more connection. There is a part of our identity that already is (we are the beloved children of God). But there is another part of our identity that will be (we will be the glorious children of God). There are two aspects to our graced identity: what we are and what we will be. C.S. Lewis once made the observation that human beings in their present state are something like a statues (or images) of God. We image the ‘shape’ of God in our ability to reason and to love, in our ability to talk and listen, and in many other capacities. But while we carry the shape of God, we are not yet alive in the way God is. The life we have now in Christ is certainly true life, but it is only a deposit, a seed. Someday that seed will burst forth into the life it was always intended to be. Lewis said it this way:

The world is a great sculptor’s shop. We are the statues and there is a rumour going round the shop that some of us are someday going to come to life. [CS Lewis, Mere Christianity, p. 159]

If you are musing about the question of your own identity, keep this in mind: what we are is no comparison to what we will be. Have a great Thanksgiving weekend.

Bob Osborne