THREATS TO OUR IDENTITY
The original Ragamuffin himself, Brennan Manning, once said, "Define yourself radically as one beloved by God. This is the true self. Every other identity is an illusion." As we begin the last blog in the Reclaiming Identity series, we know how true and hope-filled these words are, but we're also well aware of those other voices calling us away from this good news. So what are the threats to our God-given identity, and how does Jesus overcome them?
Immediately after Jesus is baptized and receives this clear statement concerning his identity, and ours, his identity is called into question, and challenged (Matthew 4:1-11). If Jesus, the King of the world, faced this kind of temptation who’s to say we won’t, and unfortunately we do. But, the good news is that there is hope and help for us. We can rest in the finished work of the one who not only faced temptation as we do and overcame it, but also is able to help us in our need (Hebrews 4:15-16). This is good news because as pastor and author Robert Capon said Jesus mission wasn’t to “reform the reformable or improve the improvable, but to resurrect the dead.” Jesus came to give us freedom from Satan, sin and even death itself. He came to free us from the ways that we define ourselves that only ever end up leading us to destructive and self-destructive behaviors. So, what are the temptations Jesus faced, what do they look like for us today, and how can we find freedom in the identity that God has given us in Jesus?
"Define yourself radically as one beloved by God. This is the true self. Every other identity is an illusion." —Brennan Manning
While there are three very clear temptations that Jesus undergoes in Matthew 4:1-11; there is one very clear method that the devil employs in these temptations and that is the “If-Then” method, or what we know to be as conditionality. As pastor and author JD Greear says “Satan puts question marks in your life where God has put periods.” The devil wants to shake our God given confidence in our God given identity by making it conditional. He wants to take what should be our confidence and turns it into a doubt. “If you are…then” says Satan, and he continues to say that to each of us today.
This tactic is as old as humanity itself. In Genesis 3 we see Satan use the same tactic on Adam and Eve (humanity’s parents). He gets them to doubt that what they had already received from God, and that what they had received, to know and be known by God and one another, was more than enough for them. In-turn he convinces them to take matters into their own hands…to become like God instead of resting in the already gifted love of God. To this day the devil wants us to continue to do the same. He wants us to separate ourselves from that which is our life: our belonging to God, being loved by Him, and God’s delighting over us. When we are separated from God we end up being separated from each other. Satan does this placing the almighty “me” at the center of the story, placing all of life on our shoulders, trying to be what we were never created to be, and thus trying to do what we could never be able to do. This leads us to countless “deaths” and ultimately a life that has very little life in it, always searching but never finding.
The first conditional, if-then, statement Satan makes to Jesus is "If you are the Son of God, tell these stones to become bread" (Matthew 4:3). Instead of trusting in the provision of God, even in the wilderness, the devil wants Jesus to trust in his own self-reliance. He wants Jesus to trust in his own abilities. He wants Jesus to be independent of His loving Father who is the true Provider of life, and become dependent upon himself.
This temptation is one we face over and over again. We believe the lie that our identities, who we are, are based upon what we can do or accomplish. We believe that God is a God of conditions and will only provide for us if we perform for him, if God even exists. If God doesn’t exist then we are just on our own to fend for ourselves. The unfortunate thing about this is that we try to carry a burden that was never ours to carry and this creates messes for us and others in our lives. We are always trying to produce and never find rest. Author and pastor, Henri Nouwen, says “This temptation touches us at the center of our identity. In a variety of ways we are made to believe that we are what we produce. This leads to a preoccupation with products, visible results, tangible goods, and progress.” I think that this is why the great poet T.S. Eliot once said “half the problems in the world stem from people trying to feel important.”
Jesus’ response to the devil, however, offers us good news. “Man shall not live on bread alone, but on every word that comes from the mouth of God” (Matthew 4:4). We are not what we produce, and not dependent upon ourselves to define ourselves. From the mouth of God came a truth…that we already belong, are already loved, and already have the utter delight of our God long before we have ever done anything or accomplished something. God is simply inviting us to trust His word given to us in Christ, to put our faith in what He has spoken, not in what we have done or can do.
From the mouth of God came a truth… that we already belong, are already loved, and already have the utter delight of our God long before we have ever done anything or accomplished something.
In Matthew 4:5-6 we see the devil’s next temptation and that is to be spectacular. Jesus was challenged to show off not only how great his faith in God was, because of coarse he trusted in the word of God, but to do this spectacular feat in the face of others so as to somehow win others over. “Show off” Satan says. Oh how true this is of us and how we define ourselves, as well as others. Henri Nouwen masterfully expounds on the temptation to be spectacular in his book The Selfless Way of Christ:
It is the temptation to force God to respond to the unusual, the sensational, the extraordinary, the unheard of – and then to force people to believe…The temptation to do something spectacular has not lessened since Jesus’ day. We have come to believe that a service is valuable when many attend, a protest or demonstration is worthwhile when television cameras are present, a study group is worth having when many want to be part of it, and a church is successful when many desire to become members. ‘Truth’ in our culture has become so largely determined by statistics that it is easy for us to truly believe that the number of people who listen, watch, or attend is a measure of the quality of that which is presented.
In this temptation to be spectacular we view life with God as a ladder to climb in order to “show off” how spectacular we are…I mean God is (insert sarcasm here). This is a life that leads to mapping, measuring and managing progress within ourselves and with others. While, as we spoke about earlier, T.S Eliot pointed out that half of the world’s problems are because people are trying to feel important, this temptation shows us that probably the other half of the world’s problems are people thinking that they are important.
“Half the problems in the world stem from people trying to feel important.” —T.S. Eliot
As with the first temptation, Jesus responds to the second. Henri Nouwen again captures this scene in vs. 7 profoundly:
Jesus responded to the tempter, ‘You must not put the Lord your God to the test.’ Indeed, the search for spectacular glitter is an expression of doubt in God’s complete and unconditional acceptance of us. It is indeed putting God to the test. It is saying: “I’m not sure that you really care, that you really love me, that you really consider me worthwhile. I will give you a chance to show it by soothing my inner fears with human praise and by alleviating my sense of worthlessness by human applause.”
Thankfully, in witnessing Jesus stand against this temptation…that the applause of others and accomplishments achieved could not compare to the truth of his God-given identity…we see that our God-given identity in Jesus is so much more for us as well. We are free to be instead of perform and “show off.”
In Matthew 4:8-9 we see the final challenge to Jesus’ identity and to ours.
Again, the devil took him to a very high mountain and showed him all the kingdoms of the world and their splendor. "All this I will give you," he said, "if you will bow down and worship me."
Satan moves from asking Jesus to do something spectacular to showing him something spectacular and promising him that it will all be his if Jesus will simply bow down. That’s all…just a little compromise for everything. Not a bad deal. No one will see. No one will know. Don’t you want it all, especially when it will cost you so little? Why suffer and die for humanity when you can simply control it and bend it to your will? Once more we lend an ear to Henri Nouwen as he unpacks this temptation in his short, but profound book In the Name of Jesus
The temptation to consider power an apt instrument for the proclamation of the Gospel is the greatest of all. We keep hearing from others, as well as saying to ourselves, that having power – provided it is used in the service of God and your fellow human beings – is a good thing. With this rationalization, crusades took place; inquisitions were organized; Indians were enslaved; positions of great influence were desired; episcopal palaces, splendid cathedrals, and opulent seminaries were built; and much moral manipulation of conscience was engaged in. Every time we see a major crisis in the history of the Church, such as the Great Schism of the eleventh century, the Reformation of the sixteenth century, or the immense secularization of the twentieth century, we always see that a major cause of rupture is the power exercised by those who claim to be followers of the poor and powerless Jesus...What makes the temptation of power so seemingly irresistible? Maybe it is that power offers an easy substitute for the hard task of love. It seems easier to be God than to love God, easier to control people than to love people, easier to own life than to love life…One thing is clear to me: the temptation of power is greatest when intimacy is a threat. Much Christian leadership is exercised by people who do not know how to develop healthy, intimate relationships and have opted for power and control instead. Many Christian empire-builders have been people unable to give and receive love.
"What makes the temptation of power so seemingly irresistible? Maybe it is that power offers an easy substitute for the hard task of love. It seems easier to be God than to love God, easier to control people than to love people, easier to own life than to love life…One thing is clear to me: the temptation of power is greatest when intimacy is a threat." —Henri Nouwen
Thankfully Jesus knew how to give and receive love. He knew that no amount of power was ever enough to define who he was, and who we are. He knew that the greatest gift in this world was to be loved and to love others. The King of the world knew that in no universe did he ever have to kneel down to the “prince” of this world (Satan) in order to receive God’s gift. Nor do we. When we worship God alone and bend our knee to Him, we are ultimately saying that the identity and life that He offers us is more than enough. We say that who we are is in Christ, and not in ourselves. We truly die to ourselves in order that Christ’s life, real life, can finally begin to manifest itself in us and through us.
As a network of everyday leaders who are seeking to set tables of grace and belonging we want you to know that all of us have been invited to rest in, and find freedom in Jesus, which means that everyone of us have also been given this identity found in Jesus. We want to invite you and those you share life with to rest from the relentless pursuit of finding yourself and identity in what you accomplish, how good or bad you are, what you can show off, how much power you have, what you can prove, and as you know, this list goes on and on. We want to invite you to rest in the freedom of Jesus, and the gift of his identity already given to you, “you are my child, whom I love, with you I am well pleased.”
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Read Reclaiming Identity Pt. 2 here > https://www.thetablenetwork.com/post/reclaiming-identity-part-2