Starting With Identity

A while back, in order to receive an incentivized discount on my health insurance, I was forced to endure a 30-minute video training on health and wellness: the sort where an enthusiastic speaker burbles at you and then you answer a few obligatory questions.

I mostly let the video play in the background while I crocheted, but at one point the speaker caught my attention.  She said, “I wasn’t a runner.  I hated running.  So how did I end up running marathons?”  She paused, and then said, “I decided I was a runner.  Even on the days I didn’t want to do it, even on the days I was tired and did a terrible job, I thought, I am a runner.  And the difference between I’m not a runner and I am a runner changed everything.”

She explained that by claiming running as a part of her identity, she then approached running from a place of curiosity and growth rather than of alienation and disregard.  When she had decided she wasn’t a runner, a difficult run only served to confirm her belief: it kept her from wanting to run again, acted as a reminder that she was no good at it and shouldn’t bother.  But when she approached a difficult run as a runner, the difficulty simply became part of the experience to overcome: not proof she was bad at it or wouldn’t succeed, but rather, an inevitability of the process that could be conquered.

And I wondered to myself: how would it change my daily behavior to claim my identity as beloved of God in such a way?

We are all beloved of God, of course.  But I suspect not many of us claim that identity as we ought, base our decisions and approaches around it.  I know I don’t.  Oh, no, you assure me.  I have faith in the Word.  I know that I am beloved of the Lord, and that He sacrificed and rose again to bring me close to Him.    Friend, I have seen you in the grocery store on Saturday, snapping at your child in the cart because he is trying to pick up a toy and you have had enough.  I have seen your contempt for your neighbor who spends too much on a new car but won’t pay his mortgage.  I have seen you stifle a chuckle at a mild misfortune suffered by someone who totally deserved it.

It is one thing to know we are beloved of God.  It is another, entirely, to behave as though we are.  And for as much as we claim to know who we are in Christ, I will be the first to admit that my daily behavior does not often show it.  Too often my life reflects my humanness, my disordered priorities, my wants.  And it grows worse when we’re lost in the quagmire and we become buried under a slew of deadlines, obligations, and frustrations.

But beloved of God you are nonetheless: recipient of richest gifts, anointed with grace, chosen.

Thinking over all these things, I have started to integrate into my life two small acts which – over time, I think, and with consistency and practice – will shape me in surprising ways as I strive to actually behave like one beloved of God:

1) Pause.  I am by nature an imaginative, emotionally responsive person.  I react to things immediately and with a great depth of emotion.  Sometimes this is good: it means I experience deep wells of gratitude and joy, giddy good humor, and a strong sense of wonder.  It also means, unfortunately, that I am prone to frustration and impatience, easily and quickly made anxious, quickly frustrated or worried.

I have a tendency to react immediately to almost everything.  If I get an upsetting email I am typing a response before I have had time to process the last line.  If I hear something unexpected I am scrambling for words even before someone else has finished talking.  I think up answers before the question is complete.

In order to behave as beloved of God, I am having to learn how to slow this response (in its more negative contexts. I like immediate joy and wonder!).  I am learning that the first directive the Spirit seems to have for me in almost any situation is: Stop. Breathe. Wait.  The world will not burn down if you just wait.  I don’t send the email immediately.  I don’t respond immediately.  I don’t immediately scramble for words or to offer the answer.    And then, because I am learning to just sit down with myself for a minute, I can then…

2) Ask: how should a beloved child of God respond to this moment?

And to answer this question one has to have a frank familiarity with Scripture and with Christ.  But if you do, you can start to tease out priorities, see responses modeled by other believers and by Jesus Himself, get a sense of what it means to have your understanding of the word completely reordered by grace.  You request the help of the Spirit and then you act deliberately and prayerfully on what you know is right and good, even when it feels odd, unnatural, or even downright foolish.

Last week, I had an intense stint at work marked by deadlines and major projects for which much professionally was at stake.  This (naturally) kicked my stress levels into high gear.  I had trouble sleeping; my neck ached; my stomach was a wreck.  I was weepy and over-emotional.

In past, similar situations, I have ping-ponged back and forth in desperation whenever this occurred: begging God to take the gross feelings away, castigating myself for being so prone to these responses, getting irritated at everyone around me for not being prone to these responses, and then trying everything in my power to remedy them to be a “good” Christian who is perfectly at peace with everything around her.

But this week, I paused.  I sat with the feelings a while, and I thought about how a good many Christians deeply believing in God have been under emotional duress of some sort or another.  Jesus Himself wept blood in His agony.  Being beloved is not a dispensation from struggle or strain.  And so my situation was not so very unusual, and indeed in some strange ways a blessing, as it keeps me in perpetual prayer during these periods.

How does a beloved child of God handle this?  I surmised from Scripture that a beloved child of God would recognize pain and emotional strain, but also acknowledge it to be temporary; to rejoice that Christ understood what it was to be under strain; to be grateful I had cause to be closer to God than usual; and to otherwise get on with the business that God had called me to do.

The week went well.  Not because I ascended into a peaceful state without stress or concern, but because I was able to reorient my response to it from the perspective of someone who prioritizes being loved by God and loving God.  I want to stress that it didn’t feel intuitive.  It didn’t feel “natural.”  It is an act of practice and an act of prayer and Scriptural study against every single desire of the human heart.

But it also changed how I experienced the week – and, I expect, how others around me experienced it, too.

It Is Well With My Soul is one of those hymns that has stuck with me from childhood on.  Every now and then, apropos of nothing, I catch myself thinking/humming the verses:

When peace, like a river, attendeth my way

When sorrows like sea billows roll

Whatever my lot, thou has taught me to say,

It is well, it is well with my soul.

If we start from the central fact of God’s love, where might we go?  If we start from the truth that it is well with our souls – that everything worth concern has been taken care of – what does it mean?  How will it influence your response when the deadlines come, when your child disappoints, when others act foolishly, when you’re hurt or angry?

As God’s beloved child, what will you do today that is markedly different and claims that name?