From Confusion to IDENTITY
“Most people are other people. Their thoughts are someone else’s opinions,their lives a mimicry, their passions a quotation.”
As Sun Tzu writes in Art of War, “The whole secret lies in confusing the enemy, so that he cannot fathom our real intent.” What the ancient Chinese philosopher shared about military strategy still rings true today in our spiritual journeys.
There exists a loving God who desires His creation to experience His love as His children, and there is also an enemy who desires to confuse and distract from this reality. The real intent of Satan is to keep God’s creation feeling separated from the life of God, thinking that abundant life is always just out of reach. In Satan’s deception, true joy is always around the corner and peace is something that will appear in heaven, someday but not now.
Jesus spoke to this potential confusion in the Gospel of John, “The thief comes only to steal and kill and destroy. I came that they may have life and have it abundantly.” This was the original deception from the Garden of Eden that gets played out over and over again. God promises an abundance of life as we live in His presence, and Satan deceives by suggesting that God is holding out on us, not letting us eat from a certain tree that will make life better.
Satan does not necessarily want us to believe that God does not exists but that experiencing Him is at a distance and that the “good life” is at a distance. When we embrace this posture, we begin to define ourselves by seemingly anything but our identity as beloved children of God. We reach out for what we believe we can attain. And, then, we beseech God as one in a distant land, requesting that He come into our world and bless it.
Once this confusion is embedded in our lives, the culture around us takes over and further sews a false sense of self into the fabric of our lives. We believe that we are defined by what we do and what we have. Other’s opinions can become an obsession. Oscar Wilde lamented, “Most people are other people. Their thoughts are someone else’s opinions, their lives a mimicry, their passions a quotation.”
Whatever the “good life” is, the confusion centers around the idea that “we are missing something.” Or, “I am separated from what will bring me life.” We get enmeshed in a consumer culture that tells us … “you need, you need, you need.” But, what is offered to satisfy never fully satiates our desires. We are left with a need for more once the product is consumed. These “worldly” desires are exposed as deceitful because they never really satisfy. Indeed, Ephesians 4:22 describes our old lives as being rooted in deceitful desires.
As our hearts are awakened to true desire, the confusion becomes clear. But, how do we move into living in our true identity as God’s beloved, having been given every spiritual blessing? (Ephesians 1:3) Ignatius of Loyola suggests holy indifference:
“For this it is necessary to make ourselves indifferent to all created things in all that is allowed to the choice of our free will and is not prohibited to it; so that, on our part, we want not health rather than sickness, riches rather than poverty, honor rather than dishonor, long rather than short life, and so in all the rest; desiring and choosing only what is most conducive for us to the end for which we are created.”
What a beautiful thing to be so indifferent that we define ourselves, not by outward states of existence, but by our created design! This means living in such a way that we can truly say, “God, my shepherd! I don’t need a thing.” (Ps 23:1, MSG)
Paul’s words in Philippians 4:5b-7 give us an outline for what this kind of life looks like,
“The Lord is at hand; do not be anxious about anything, but in everything by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving let your requests be made known to God. And the peace of God, which surpasses all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus.”
Several things emerge from this text:
- We embrace our identity as we trust that the Lord is present.
- We give thanks for all things, receiving them as a means to live into our identity.
- The result is experiencing peace in all circumstances because they do not define us.
When we aren’t experiencing peace, it is because we are allowing external things and circumstances to define us rather than the internal reality of our life with Christ. Romans 12:2 in Eugene Peterson’s The Message puts it this way: “Don’t become so well-adjusted to your culture that you fit into it without even thinking. Instead, fix your attention on God. You’ll be change from the inside out.”
To move away from confusion toward identity, we first address the issue of God’s presence and nearness. Without perhaps realizing it, we can believe the myth of separation.
The Myth of Separation
As one who has come to know Christ, we frequently live as though we are separated and in need. If pressed, we might actually say that we believe that God is always present with us, but our lived experience betrays a deeper set of beliefs.
For example, we may find ourselves praying, “God, please be with me.” The reality is that God is always with us. He never leaves us or forsakes us. Or, we might experience something wonderful and exclaim that it was a “God thing.” Or, an equally wonderful situation or reversal of events might be met with the phrase, “God showed up.” The underlying assumption is that God wasn’t present until something pleasant happened.
I realize that an initial response might be, “Well, that’s not what I really mean. I know that God is always with me.” We might “know” it on the cognitive level, but not at the heart level. In Luke 6:45, Jesus says, “for out of the abundance of the heart, the mouth speaks.”
Let me suggest taking an honest, even if painful, look at our hearts. To the degree that we view sickness different than health and riches different than poverty reveals the extent to which we have embraced the myth of separation. To believe that the “good life” is in some places and not others means that we can be separated from God’s goodness and blessing. Indeed, it means that we can be separated from Him because He is the embodiment of the abundant life.
In Acts 17, the Apostle Paul addressed a group of people in Athens who were “religious” but worshipping an unknown God. By all accounts, they did have correct theology. Seemingly they were “far” from God. However, Paul offers two observations about the nature of relationship with God: “that they should seek God, in the hope that they might feel their way toward him and find him. Yet he is actually not far from each one of us.” (verse 20)
Stunningly, Paul attacks the myth of separation, even for those who have not yet come to faith in Christ, with the words, “not far.” He elaborates in the next verse by quoting one of their poems which puts all of our lives in the context of His presence: “In him we live and move and have our being.” Indeed, we are not far at all. Paul’s second observation is that all should “seek” God and “feel” their way toward finding Him. Why would we need to “find” someone who is as close as our very essence, our “being”? Because we are not living with an awareness of His presence. The word “seek” is used elsewhere in New Testament writings to talk about “fixing our minds” on something, and this speaks of awareness and mindfulness of what is already true.
It is possible that we have adopted a theology of separation which says that God “shows up” in some places and not others. What this frequently means is that we approach prayer more like magic than a relationship … that we “seek” God as though He were a genie needing to be conjured up rather than a lovingly present Father to whom we simply need to turn our attention. He is always present and always at work in us. And, He is as close as a simple turn of our gaze. The word “repent” (change the mind) in Acts 17:30 demonstrates this well. The parable of the prodigal son in Luke 15 discloses the truth that when the son turned back home, the Father had been standing and waiting the whole time.
Letting go of the myth of separation requires the humility of acknowledging that God is closer than I can conceive and His presence is not dependent on my prayers or my behaviors. He is simply lovingly present. Turing our gaze to the Trinity gives us something much firmer to trust than the ancient pagan concept that God is far and must be summoned to our aid.
The Reality of Oneness
In John 17, we see the desire of God in the words of a prayer between Jesus and the Father. Jesus shares that the nature of “eternal life” is “that they would know you the only true God, and Jesus Christ whom you have sent.” The essence of the “good life” is an experiential knowing of the Trinity. He goes on to talk about the nature of the relationship: “that they may all be one, just as you, Father, are in me, and I in you, that they also may be in us, so that the world may believe that you have sent me.” (John 17:21)
The Father and Son experience an “oneness” or union that is so profound that while God consists of three persons, there is only one God. Notice that Jesus says that the Father is in Him and He is in the Father. It is a mutual sharing of life based on the reality of their union. Subsequent New Testament writings describes this same reality of our lives as being “in Christ” or that “Christ is in us.” It is a closeness in which each person inhabits the other. It evokes the question: where do I start and you end? Mutual indwelling makes it difficult to tell because there is such closeness.
And, those who have received eternal life are invited to share in that oneness experientially. It is true that we are that close but are we living with an awareness of this reality? Oswald Chambers speaks to the experiential dimension of this:
“Jesus prayed nothing less for us than absolute oneness with Himself, just as He was one with the Father. Some of us are far from this oneness; yet God will not leave us alone until we are one with Him— because Jesus prayed, “…that they all may be one….””
God is infinitely gracious in bringing us into relationship with Himself, and then, He keeps pursuing us that we might live in the abundance that such a life offers.
In Ephesians 4:20-22, the Apostle Paul uses the metaphor of putting clothing off and on to describe the way that we engage the reality of being one with the Trinity:
put off your old self, which belongs to your former manner of life and is corrupt through deceitful desires, and to be renewed in the spirit of your minds, and to put on the new self, created after the likeness of God in true righteousness and holiness.
We can easily read those words and think that it means to stop acting in the old ways and start doing the new things. However, the action involved is not about outward behavior. In the world of the ancient near east, one’s clothing related to their identity. A servant would wear certain clothing, a merchant would wear something else, etc. To put it simply, the challenge is to begin to identify with the new self rather than the old self.
The word “self” in this challenge is better translated as “man” or “humanity.” The same words “new humanity” (“new self”) is found in Ephesians 2:15. Paul says that while Jews and Gentiles were previously separated and alienated, Jesus has brought peace and made them into one “new humanity.” The language of separation and alienation began the discussion in Ephesians 4:18 as well. The old identity is one of separation and distance from God and others. Now, in Christ, we can live with a sense of oneness. The old humanity tends to always see and promulgate divisions, but in Christ, we can live with a sense of genuine oneness and connection because the new humanity has been created after the likeness of God. And, it requires letting go of old identities and grasping this new one.
Putting the “man” off and on was not a common image in the ancient world, but we find a usage of the concept from the Greek philosopher Pyrrho. He told a story of a man who believed that the world as we see it is an illusion. He walked through life with no worries. Since nothing in the physical world was real, there were no real threats to his existence or happiness. One day, he started to be chased by a dog and he retreated up into a tree. His friends surrounded the tree and began to tease him for not living up to his stated belief. The man responded by saying, “It is difficult to put off the man.” In other words, there are old ways of thinking that are not so easily shed.
We can find ourselves in a similar place, believing that we are One with the Trinity but struggling to put off the old man which is defined by separation, alienation, competition, and hostility. How do we enter into and enjoy the new humanity?
Seeing Everything as Sacred
The myth of separation is built on the idea that God is in some things but not in others. That is a part of the confusion that has been sown into the fabric of our identities and we need to pull at the loose thread of that concept in order to unravel it. There is no secular and sacred.
Rather than defining our lives by what we see in the world around us, we can begin to define the world around us by the truth of who we are in the Trinity. In Romans 12:1 of Peterson’s The Message: “So here’s what I want you to do, God helping you: Take your everyday, ordinary life – your sleeping, eating, going-to-work, and walking-around life – and place it before God as an offering.”
We move from confusion to identity when we begin to see everything in our lives as an invitation to experience oneness with the Trinity. In Romans 8:35, 38-39, we learn that there is nothing that can separate us from the love of God:
Who shall separate us from the love of Christ? Shall tribulation, or distress, or persecution, or famine, or nakedness, or danger, or sword? No, in all these things we are more than conquerors through him who loved us. For I am sure that neither death nor life, nor angels nor rulers, nor things present nor things to come, nor powers, nor height nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.
If nothing can separate us, then everything is an invitation, everything is a gift in which we can grow in deepening trust and surrender and joy.
Thomas Keating expressed this well in a prayer:
Welcome, welcome, welcome.
I welcome everything that comes to me today
because I know it’s for my healing.
I welcome all thoughts, feelings, emotions, persons,
situations, and conditions.
I let go of my desire for power and control.
I let go of my desire for affection, esteem,
approval, and pleasure.
I let go of my desire for survival and security.
I let go of my desire to change any situation,
condition, person, or myself.
I open to the love and presence of God and God’s action within.
Dietrich Bonhoeffer spoke to the communal aspect of our oneness in Christ in Life Together: “Because God has already laid the only foundation of our fellowship, because God has bound us together in one body with other Christians in Jesus Christ, long before we entered into common life with them, we enter into that common life not as demanders but as thankful recipients.”
We welcome and give thanks in all things because not only can nothing separate us but everything is a space for enjoying His presence and love. We don’t have to demand because we have everything we will ever need in the love and provision of the Trinity.
Peter the Damascene, an early church Father, offered insight into the way this might work:
“One must learn to call upon the Name of God, even more than breathing – at all times, in all places, in every kind of occupation. The Apostle says, ‘Pray without ceasing.’ That is, he teaches men to have the remembrance of God in all times and places and circumstances. If you are making something, you must call to mind the Creator of all things; if you see the light, remember the Giver of it; if you see the heavens and the earth and the sea and all that is in them, wonder and praise the Maker of them. If you put on your clothes, recall Whose gift they are and thank Him Who provides for your life. In short, let every action be a cause of your remembering and praising God, and lo! You will be praying without ceasing and therein your soul will always rejoice.”
As we engage in this kind of praying, everything becomes sacred. Everything becomes an avenue to partaking in the Divine Nature. In a sermon on seeing all things as sacred, Dave Nixon commented, “A sacred thing is nothing more than an ordinary thing that has been linked to God … and therefore it takes on a different quality and has a different meaning to it.”
We can erroneously believe that experiencing God is always about the spectacular, but it is in the ordinary that our identities become solidified in the Trinity. How do we link the ordinary, mundane, painful, or confusing to God? By welcoming all things and giving thanks in all circumstances.
Take the “Welcome Prayer” and pray it throughout the day, especially as something difficult comes your way.
Or, compose your own prayers for various activities in your life. Notice the activities and circumstances that show up on a regular basis. Perhaps, it is a chore like the dishes or a responsibility like paying the bills. Write a prayer than will link these activities to God and then prayer that prayer every time you approach these situations. Maybe it is a difficult person in your life or a daily task like changing a baby’s diaper. Ask the Lord to direct your heart to those things that you can begin to intentionally link to God and write a simple welcome prayer. The essential features of such prayers are: welcome, gratitude, and trusting that the situation is for your growth in intimacy.
When we begin to pray this way, we begin to live in the reality that we do not have to run from or fight against anything in our lives. All things are invitations to experience His love. And, His love is the essence of who we are …
- Where have you seen the myth of separation in your life with God?
- How is the concept of oneness with God both a truth and an aspiration?
- In what ways is the fact that we are “not far” an encouragement to you?
- What are some everyday situations and circumstances that you can begin to link to God?
- Write your own welcome prayer for some aspect of your life.
- Why is it important to let go of the myth of separation?
- What encourages you about the Oneness that is experiencing in the Trinity?
- How are we invited into the experience of that oneness?
- How does seeing all things as sacred help us put on the new humanity?
- Share about your experience of the Spiritual Exercise.