Identity, and the Self-Stories We Tell

BY BRUCE HILLMAN

What does it mean to be a child of God and to carry his image? This is a theological question, but it is a question necessary for our self-understanding because who we are is derived from who He is and what he has created us to do. Today, less and less people are asking themselves what it means to be a child of God because more and more people are finding God irrelevant. Not that they are less spiritual. Religion has become more privatized, and interior and so lots of people talk today about "God" as a broad concept, or benevolent protector, or force of love—whatever they happen to think him to be. Most are happy to keep the distinctiveness of God at bay; perhaps a bit concerned that having a specific God lends itself too much towards exclusivism? So God is love, he’s good, and he unifies all things. He is tolerant, supportive and encouraging. He is the power or force that guides destinies, and increasingly, he is the one who shares our aspirations. This god is like a doting parent whose main role is to support me amidst a world that never seems to “get me” or accept me enough.

This is a god lacking identity. He is a psychologically supportive god, the god of affirmation and potential. But he is not the God carefully and explicitly revealed in the life of Israel and in the person of Jesus Christ. The watered-down god of popular religion is a god lacking the distinctiveness that makes him both terrible and gracious. As we lose the distinctiveness of who God is, we also lose a sense of who we are. Like the stories of feral children abandoned to the woods and raised by monkeys or wolves, who have no sense of their true identity because they have been divorced from the nurturing presence of their own, our estrangement from the God in whom we live, breath and move, creates a shadow within us that is both alienates and obscures the truth of our being.

What it means to be a child of God is to be the recipient of God’s grace—both common and specific[1]. That is, our child-ness is both an inheritance we receive by sharing in God’s image and by our adoption into God’s family through Christ. In this way, we can speak of our child-ness in two ways. First, all humans have the potential to be children of God in the sense that God endows them with his image. This makes them candidates for adoption. But this image is damaged in the Fall. St. Augustine says the Image is like a coin whose face has been scratched. The image is there but distorted. Sharing in God’s image means sharing in a community where bonds of responsibility and fidelity are inherent. Why is murder wrong? Why shouldn’t I steal from my neighbor? Why shouldn’t I covet my neighbor’s things? Because my neighbor bears the Image of God. Bearing the Image, to sin against my neighbor is to sin against God. This image-bearing is a great gift to us. It means that everyone has value apart from what they do or accomplish. It means the murderer and the saint both share a dignity beyond their actions, a value that both grounds their efforts in real purpose but also undermines any attempt to define humanness on the basis of human works alone. Jesus loves murders like Paul and thieves like Matthew because his love is not based on their behavior. For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son—not—for God so loved the world because they tried to do what he said...In loving the world, God loves His own creation which reflects back to Him, however tragically, the giftedness of His own imprinting and self-donation.

Secondly, and more specifically, we who are Christians are adopted children of God and thus “children” the true legal sense. This is a heightened status that is based on God’s choice and not on our actions. We are recipients of God’s grace because God has chosen to give grace. God has adopted us into his family and made us co-heirs with Christ and his Kingdom. The paupers have been made princes and the poor have been made rich. My identity-who I am—must be caught up in who God is.  How God reveals himself to his children must be the grounding for how they self-speak and reflect on their own being.

If we attempt to find our grounding somewhere else—in our behavior, in our competence, relationships, legacies or self-affirmations, then we try to tell ourselves a story about who we are that does not take into account the whole picture. This is because we are too apt today in telling stories about ourselves as though we were the prime authors. For some reason, we have bought into the notion that we are who we think we are, who we feel we are, who we identify as, instead of who we are declared to be.  We have come to believe that we have the right, the capability and the aptitude to self-discover and self-make. This is a radical shift in human understanding because it presents the human person as essentially independent, a creature left to write its own history and thus establish its own purpose. It is as if the characters in a book were attempting to write their own story. As lofty as the idea may be the characters simply have no life, no animus, apart from the work of the author. Characters derive their life from their connection to the author, and from the author receive their gift of being.

If our existence is constituted by the fact that all I am and have is gift, then the question of who I am is not something I must discover—as if I were responsible for determining my own purpose--but something I am given. What if who I am is not about becoming something but about being someone? In short, what if existence itself is the gift of living-up into a story in which I find myself already inscribed? To put it another way—what if who I am is something not in me but outside me? If God exists and has created and imaged me, then the story of me is caught up in the story of him and others.

Consistently the Bible tells us things we don’t want to hear because those things tell a story about us we don’t want to believe: we are sinners, rebels, selfish and conceited. It also tells us things we’d like to hear but don’t often believe: that we are loved beyond our actions, that God will provide for all our circumstances, that we are saved by grace. And each time the Bible narrates who we are we often feel the urge to qualify it: “Yes…but….”  This is because we want to write our own stories. We want the power to identify ourselves by our actions, our urges or our brokenness. We are so persuaded by the power of our own self-tellings, our interior thoughts, and feelings, that we have failed to look outside ourselves to the Person who speaks benedictions to us.[2]

We simply cannot live lives of peace and hope without the words our Father speaks over and about us. Those words bring life, they create faith, they undermine doubts and destroy lies. They are true words that set us free, that story our lives and give us the highest truth of all, Christ himself.  And it is only when we find ourselves in the story of God's own telling that we see how integral we are to the reality that God wants to create. That reality is one where God and humanity, Christ and sinner, live together. There, the lion lies down with lamb and swords are beaten to plowshares. There, the guilty are forgiven and set free, and God stands in the place of the condemned. In this story, we are revealed as recipients of grace, and what lies in store for us is nothing short than the restoration of all things, in Christ. 


[1] “common grace” is sometimes used to refer to God’s providence—that is the idea that God provides the necessities for life to everyone. Food, clothing, housing, governments, peace—these are things God provides for all people. Special grace, by contrast, is grace-proper, the grace that is involved in salvation.

[2] “Benediction” comes from two Latin words: bene which means, “good” and dicere (diction) “to speak:”.  A benediction then is, “To speak good words over someone.”

Bruce Hillman is Lead Pastor at Hillside Lutheran Brethren Church (www.hillsidelbc.org) in Succasunna New Jersey. He Holds a BA in History and Political Science from Quinnipiac University, (Hamden, CT), an MDiv. from the Lutheran Brethren Seminary (Fergus Falls, MN) and an STM in Patristics from Drew University (Madison, NJ); his research involves Augustinian studies and Early Christianity. He is former pastor of Grace Lutheran Church, Henning MN. He is co-founder of Fifth Act Church Planting, having served on their board (www.fifthactchurchplanting.com) Bruce enjoys cooking, reading, all things British, exploring the world of wine, and conversations with good friends.

Twitter: @HillsideLBC