When I was 6, I decided to climb through a wooden fence and ended up with slivers all over my body. Now my mom knew these slivers needed to be removed from me or could cause infections all throughout my body. But I knew it would hurt and so I wouldn’t sit still for her to remove those slivers. So she waited until I slept and removed them one by one to keep my skin from being infected. Don’t we do this to God too? There are things in our lives that are not part of who we are – foreign substances – hurting us, that he needs to remove but we are afraid of the pain of removing them and so we won’t sit still long enough for God to work in us to remove them.
These past few weeks I listened to the book “The Truest Thing about Me” by David Lomas during my commute to work. This book felt familiar to me – like something I’ve already wrestled with myself and something I continue to wrestle with. He starts by talking about all of the ways that our culture tries to create identity versus the way that God intended. This excerpt describes the difference between the identity we try to create and the identity Christ has given us.
”You will not find your identity in what you have, but in who has you. You will not find your identity in what you do, but in what has been done for you. And you will not find your identity in what you desire, but in who has desired—at infinite cost to Himself—a relationship with you. Christ is your life. He gives you a new identity and will work that new identity out in your life until the day when He appears. On that day you will finally see clearly, as Christ sees you now. You will know as you are known. And you will understand that the truest thing about you—that in Christ God called you His beloved in whom He is well pleased—has been true all along. And is now true forever. Believe. Trust. Base your entire identity and worth on that fact.”[i]
I have a new teen at home who also happens to be a deep thinker so we talk about some of these issues fairly frequently. A few days ago she was talking about a situation with some kids at school and I said that it seemed to me that one girl might be trying too hard to act in a way that she thought others would like rather than acting like herself. This caused my teen to say that it’s hard for her to know who she is. She recognizes that as she’s growing up, there are changes in her personality – she’s more hesitant to speak her mind because she’s concerned about hurting others. And so she wonders who is the real her? Is it who she was when she was a kid or who she is now?
And really this tension we feel is what Lomas is getting at. Our culture prides itself on allowing people to create their own identities – to make and remake ourselves. Lomas points to a quote by David Kuehne’s concept of identity in the iWorld is his book Sex and the IWorld. Kuehne says “In the iWorld, identify is something we are instructed to select or create. If we don’t like or aren’t comfortable with who we are, we are encouraged to remake ourselves in whatever manner we are able to and science will allow. Consequently, in the iWorld the search for meaning and self-understanding can be endless because we are always left to wonder if we could have been happier if we had chosen a different path.”[ii] I can definitely relate to wondering if I’m choosing the right path, if I’ve found my true identity. We try to form our identity based on the things we do, the things we desire, and the things we have. But all of these things change and if we place our identity in those, it can be shattered and we are left trying to build something new from the pieces. The only thing that doesn’t change – for those of us who are believers in Christ – is who we came from and where we are going. But in the flesh, we are tempted to build our identity in other things – sometimes seemingly good things, sometimes obviously bad.
In Chapter 5 of The Truest Thing about Me, Lomas uses the example of Eustace as a dragon in CS Lewis’s The Voyage of the Dawn Treader.
Eustace found that no matter how many layers of dragon skins he managed to peel off of himself, he was still a dragon. “Then the lion said – but I don’t know if it spoke – ‘You will have to let me undress you.’ I was afraid of his claws, I can tell you, but I was pretty nearly desperate now. So I just lay flat down on my back to let him do it. “The very first tear he made was so deep that I thought it had gone right into my heart. And when he began pulling the skin off, it hurt worse than anything I’ve ever felt. The only thing that made me able to bear it was just the pleasure of feeling the stuff peel off. You know – if you’ve ever picked the scab off a sore place. It hurts like billy-oh but it is such fun to see it coming away.” “Well, he peeled the beastly stuff right off … And there was I as smooth and soft as a peeled switch and smaller than I had been. Then he caught hold of me – I didn’t like that much for I was very tender underneath now that I’d no skin on – and threw me into the water. It smarted like anything but only for a moment. After that it became perfectly delicious and as soon as I started swimming and splashing I found that all the pain had gone from my arm. And then I saw why. I’d turned into a boy again…”[iii]
I first encountered this story as part of a daily devotional in a book we used during a short term missions trip to Guatemala with Intervarsity Christian Fellowship and it resonated deeply with me. I could see those skins on me and could see that I needed Jesus to take them off. So much so that when I sought counseling years later, I mentioned this story as something that I felt I needed to have happen. I believe my counselor was good intentioned but misunderstood the issue. She thought I needed to peel back defensive layers and allow myself to cry – something I admittedly don’t do easily or often. When I listened to Lomas’s describe these layers of skin as layers of identities we put on ourselves. And a light bulb went off in my head – this was what I meant when I told my counselor I needed to have the skin peeled off. These identities that I put on myself or that I allow others to put on me:
- I am a mother.
- I am a good worker.
- I am good at math.
- I like solving puzzles.
- I am thrifty.
- I am a bad communicator
- I am unorganized
- I am a failure
Some of these things are definitely true about me but none of these are the truest – not the most important things about me. As a high achiever and a mom to a girl who is a high achiever, I see this often and it’s something I’ve always wanted to guard my daughter against. I’ve always been a good student, school came super easy to me, but I’m terrible at making mistakes. Don’t get me wrong, I don’t mean that I don’t make mistakes but I don’t know how to handle them because so much of my identity has been in not making mistakes and so when I fail to make the mark, I am hard on myself. And I wanted so badly for my daughter to not struggle with this but I failed to see it clearly. I thought that the issue was that she needed to learn to fail at a younger age – to face things that were too hard for her so she could learn how to fail. But really what she needed and what she needs is an identity rooted in Christ – not in the doing, the having or desiring – but just in being wonderfully made by God. This is what Lomas is getting at in his book.
There is a Max Lucado children’s book that I love and that also reminds me of this very issue called “You are Special.” I’ll try to summarize here but if you haven’t read it, I encourage you to do so – it’s wonderful!
The Wemmicks are a community of wooden people who walk around all day putting stickers on each other – stars for when someone does or is something good and dots for when someone does or is something bad. Punchinello is a Wemmick who gets lots of dots every day and one day he notices a girl walking on with no dots or stars. The Wemmicks tried to put stars and dots on her, but they always fell off. Punchinello is intrigued and asks her how she does it and she says, it’s easy – she goes to see Eli (the woodcarver and their maker) every day. Encouraged by her story, Punchinello hesitantly heads to see Eli. Punchinello expresses his shame of his marks but Eli says that he doesn’t care about what the other Wemmicks think. All that should matter is what Eli thinks of him – and Eli thinks he is pretty special, not because of what he does or has or wants, but because he belongs to Eli. Eli explains to Punchinello that the stickers only stick if you let them. Punchinello doesn’t quite understand but Eli says that he will if he just keeps coming to talk to him. And Punchinello thinks he’s sincere and as he leaves a single dot falls off.[iv]
And isn’t this our story. We walk around letting people tell us that we are good or not good, accepting the stickers given to us – even sticking them on ourselves. Creating our identity of stickers, like the scales that came upon Eustace. And eventually, we can no longer recognize ourselves. But like Eustace who can’t pull his own scales off and Punchinello who can’t pull his own stickers off, we need to go to our maker daily to have him remove them, slowly and sometimes painfully.
If you haven’t yet read David Lomas’ the Truest Thing about You, I would highly recommend it. It’s been an excellent reminder to me of the false (or at least “less true”) identities I put on myself and where my truest identity can be found. And like Punchinello, I will continue to visit my Maker daily to be reminded of this truth.
[i] Lomas, David. The Truest Thing about You: Identity, Desire, and Why It All Matters. Colorado Springs, CO: David C Cook, 2014. Print.
[ii] Kuehne, Dale S. Sex and the IWorld: Rethinking Relationship beyond an Age of Individualism. Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 2009. Print.
[iii] Lewis, C. S., and Pauline Baynes. The Voyage of the Dawn Treader. New York, NY: HarperCollins, 1994. Print.
[iv] Lucado, Max, and Sergio Martinez. You Are Special. Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 1997. Print.