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Back To Basics

The Basics Of Identity

Rev. Philip Miller | October 24, 2021

Selected highlights from this sermon

One of the most important questions of life is: Who am I? We all wonder who we are at the core of our being. Our sense of self, our identity, and our being, all inform how we behave, which in turns forms who we are becoming.

Going through passage from Philippians, Pastor Miller shows us how Paul takes us back to the basics of our identity. There are three basic identity formation strategies we can employ to attempt to gain a sense of self: affirmation, achievement, and abiding.

On the cross, Jesus exchanged identities with us so we can be affirmed and approved by the one Person in all the universe whose opinion matters most.

All right, well good morning! I want to give a shout-out to the high school students that I spent Wednesday with. Are you here? Oh yeah, there’s a few of you. (chuckles) We had like a “stump the pastor time,” and they stumped me more than once, and I’ll just tell you we have some really bright, thoughtful, mature, and gifted high schoolers who are about to launch out and change the world for Jesus. Are you so proud of them? (applause) Yeah! (claps)

Who am I? It’s one of the most important questions of our lives. Who am I? Well, I’m a pastor, but that’s not who I am. That’s what I do. I’m a son, I’m a brother, I’m a husband, I’m a father, but that’s not who I am. That’s what I am to others. I’m a cyclist, I’m a teacher, I’m a shepherd, a leader, a traveler, a diner, a nature lover, a coffee snob with a mildly obsessive compulsive disorder. Okay, major obsessive compulsive disorder. I’m better than I used to be. (whispers “Oh that’s dirty right there.”) You should have seen me 15 years ago. (laughs)

But that’s our question: “Who am I?” It’s not as easy as we might think, is it? When you strip away all the roles that we play, all the hats we wear, all the things we do, who are we really?

Essentially, at the very core of who we are, our deepest identity, who are we? And so much hinges on how we answer this question, “Who am I?” Because our sense of self, our identity, our being informs our behaving. And our behaving forms who we end up becoming. Being leads to behaving leads to becoming. And the Apostle Paul is going to take us back to the basics of identity this morning. That’s what our passage is all about, so open your Bibles to Philippians, chapter two, verses one down to eleven. You’ll find today’s reading in the pew Bible there, the blue one, on page 981.

There are three basic identity formation strategies we can employ to gain a sense of self in life. And Paul is going to walk us through all three of them this morning. They are, just to give it to you all upfront:

  • Affirmation–an affirmation–based identity which is where we’re looking to others
  • Achievement–which is a success–based identity, looking to ourselves
  • Abiding–an abiding–based identity, found in looking to Christ.

And my guess is that, if you’re are like me, you’re probably operating on a combination of two or more of these strategies.

We’re not purists. We blend things together. And so my prayer this morning is that the Lord would help dissect our identity, help us sort out where we’re leaning on the wrong things. Only one of these identity formation strategies works in the end. Only one works.

So let’s pray and ask the Lord to do some soul surgery this morning.

Father, we lay out on the table, as it were, and we invite you to pierce into our soul to separate joint from marrow, soul and spirit. Let your Word divide and conquer and expose and heal who we are. We invite you to do some soul surgery this morning on our deepest identity. Help us in Jesus’ name. Amen. Amen.

So the first identity formation strategy that Paul interacts with here is an affirmation-based identity, looking to others. Chapter 3, verse 1, he opens with a reminder: “Finally, my brothers, rejoice in the Lord. To write the same things to you is no trouble to me and is safe for you.” It always cracks me up. He starts out with “finally.” You think he’s wrapping up. He has two more chapters to go. He’s actually at the midpoint of the letter, kind of like my sermons, right? Yeah.

“Finally, my brothers (and we could say and sisters), rejoice in the Lord.” He says, “Rejoice in the Lord. I want you to find your life’s joy in the Lord. Don’t find your life’s joy in your good bill of health, not in your bank account statement, not in the number of Twitter followers you have, not in your good looks, or your credit rating, or your career progression, or your social standing, or your public accolades. No, because you could find your life’s joy in all those things, but that’s not who you really are.” Paul says, “Brothers and sisters, find your life’s joy in the Lord. Rejoice in Him, and Him alone. Rejoice in who He is and all He’s done. Rejoice in who you are in Him.”

Remember, He said, “To live is Christ, to die is gain.” Christ is our life and our life in Christ is joyous, so rejoice. Friends, if your life is hidden in Christ today, rejoice! (weak applause) Oh, that’s terrible. Rejoice! Is your life hidden in Christ this morning? Rejoice in the Lord Jesus Christ.

Verse 2: “Look out for the dogs.” (chuckles) What just happened? Hold on. “Look out for the dogs, look out for the evil doers, look out for those who mutilate the flesh. For we are the circumcision, who worship by the Spirit of God and glory in Christ Jesus and put no confidence in the flesh.”

That’s kind of a rough transition, isn’t it? “Rejoice! Watch out for those dogs.” What’s going on? There’s a connection. He says, “Look, I want you to find your life’s joy in the Lord, and in the Lord alone, so I’ve got to warn you about these dogs. They’re out to steal your joy.” Who are these dogs, these evil doers, these mutilators of the flesh, as Paul calls them? Well, they’re a first century group that is known as the Judaizers. Now they caused a lot of trouble for Paul. The Judaizers taught that it was not enough for Gentiles (that would be non-Jewish converts to Christianity, believers in Christ), it’s not enough for them to believe in Jesus. If the Gentiles are to be fully accepted by God, they have to become Jews. They have to become Jewish, become circumcised, follow the Jewish law, eat kosher. If you want the Jewish Messiah, you have to have a Jewish way of life.

Even though the apostles had all agreed at the Jerusalem Council in Acts 15, that the Gentiles were saved by grace alone, through faith alone, in Christ alone, and that they did not need to become Jewish to become full members of new covenant family of God, these Judaizers wouldn’t give up. The Judaizers traveled all around and they told baby Gentile believers in Jesus that they were second-class citizens until they became Jewish. They would say, “If you want God’s love and approval, it’s not enough to trust in Jesus. You need to become Jewish as well.” In other words, they were adding to the Gospel. Do you see that?

Jesus isn’t enough. You need to be circumcised too. And Paul says, “I want you to watch out for those guys, those dogs.” That’s what they called Gentiles, “those dogs.” He flips it around on them. “Those evil-doers!” They were self-righteous. He calls them evil-doers, those mutilators of the flesh. That’s a reference to circumcision. “They’re frauds,” he says. “We’re the true circumcision, circumcised in the heart, not the body. We worship by the spirit of God who has filled us and sealed us as full members of the new covenant family of God. We glory in Christ Jesus, we hope in Him alone. We don’t place confidence in our flesh, in body parts.”

In other words, Paul is saying, “If you’ve trusted in Jesus Christ alone, if you’re in Christ, you’ve got the real deal, first-class citizenship. You belong to Christ.” The core issue here is that God had welcomed the Gentiles. That would be people like you and me mostly. He had welcomed them by grace alone, through faith alone, in Christ alone, but the Judaizers wouldn’t approve of them until they met all their expectations.

Paul counters that and says, “Your identity is in Christ alone. Don’t look to others for approval or affirmation. You look to Christ alone.” Because the first identity formation strategy that Paul hints at here is an affirmed identity, an affirmed identity where we find our sense of self in the approval of others. We find our sense of self in the approval of others. For many of us, this is how we first formed our sense of self. It’s natural. It’s natural to seek the approval of others, especially when we’re young. We have parents, and teachers, and peers, and professors, and bosses, and colleagues, and spouses. There’s always somebody to please, yes? And so it feels good to be popular, to be respected, to fit in, to be liked, and valued, and honored, and affirmed. And so it’s all too easy for us to build our sense of identity around the affirmation of other people.

There’s a number of problems with this kind of identity formation strategy, but let me just give you four of them. First, it leads to an anxious identity. Anxious, because you can’t please everyone. What wins the approval of one person may bring another person’s disapproval, yes? And then you’re caught in the middle. You’re torn. You don’t know what to do. You have an identity crisis. Who am I? I’m full of anxiety because I can’t resolve the tension of pleasing everyone.

Secondly, it’s an unstable identity. Tides of opinions change, friends. Change rapidly! People are fickle. Human approval can shift like the wind. One day you’re in, and you’re the hero, and the next day you’re out, and everyone’s booing you.

Third, it’s exposing. It’s an exposed identity. It gives enormous power to other people. Do you realize this? When you live for the approval of other people, you will die by their criticism. When you live for approval you will die by criticism. You’re so easily manipulated, and so am I.

Fourth, it’s exhausting because you’re never enough. You’re never enough. Keeping up with people’s expectations is a never-ending chase, and we will never arrive. It’s a treadmill to nowhere. And Paul says, “Your identity, your joyous life is found not in the approval of the Judaizers or anyone else. It is found in Christ alone.” So that’s the first identity formation strategy.

The second one that Paul references here is achievement, an achievement-based identity where we are looking to self. Looking to self. Remember in verse 3 he said, “For we are the circumcision, [we] who worship by the Spirit of God and glory in Christ Jesus and put no confidence in the flesh,” and then he continues in verse 4, “though I myself have reason for confidence in the flesh also. If anyone else thinks he has reason for confidence in the flesh, I have more (chuckles) (That’s pretty confident, isn’t it?): circumcised on the eighth day, of the people of Israel, of the tribe of Benjamin, a Hebrew of Hebrews; as to the law, a Pharisee; as to zeal, a persecutor of the church; as to righteousness under the law, blameless.”

Paul says, “Look, these Judaizers think they have a leg up with their circumcision and their adherence to the Jewish Law. They think God’s impressed by this, and I can beat them at their own game. Look at my resume. Circumcised on the eighth day according to the Mosaic law, of the people of Israel, of the tribe of Benjamin, a Hebrew of Hebrews through and through. I’m the real deal. As to the law I’m a Pharisee, the most conservative, religious and influential group within Israel. As to zeal, a persecutor of the church.”

Before Paul became a Christian, his name was Saul, and he hunted down Christians out of devotion and loyalty, obviously mistaken, but his commitment to what he thought God wanted. “As to righteousness under the law,” he says, “blameless.”

“Okay, Judaizers, not only did I meet all your expectations. I blew them out of the water. In my younger days I knew who I wanted to be. I wanted to be the best of the best. I wanted to reach the top and I made it. Not only did I blow away your expectations, I had my own expectations and I knew who I wanted to be and I worked hard, and I made it.”

This is the second identity formation strategy, which is a self-made identity where we find our sense of self in succeeding on our own terms. A self-made identity, we find our sense of self in succeeding on our own terms. We say, “Forget the affirmation and approval of other people. What really counts is you’ve got to please yourself. You are what you make of yourself, and you can be whoever you want to be. It’s up to you.”

Have you heard stuff like this? All over the place, right? And again there’s a number of problems with this this kind of self-made identity. I’ll just give you four. Number one, it’s an unending process. The search is never over. It’s an unending process. The search is never over. No amount of success, friends, can ultimately secure your identity.

Remember what Rockefeller said when they said, “You’re a millionaire. How many more millions do you need?” He said, “Just a little bit more!” (chuckles) Just a little bit more! Remember Tom Brady? They asked him, “What’s your favorite Super Bowl ring?” He said, “The next one.” The next one! Success, friends, is a never-ending treadmill.

Secondly, it’s inflating. You build your identity around yourself. A self-made identity, it’s an inflating thing. Success tends to go to your head. When your identity is of self-made success, you start to believe your own press clippings, don’t you? And you look down on anyone else who isn’t whatever you have. It’s inflating, and it destroys you. Have you ever seen someone whose ego got so big they were top-heavy? All the time!

Third, it’s fragile. It’s fragile. It’s a fragile identity. There’s always someone better. Unless you’re number one, you’ll never be enough. You’re always chasing and never arriving, and if you do make it to number one, it won’t last. There’s always someone coming up behind you who will pass you up.

Did you see the Tweet that Elon Musk gave to Jeff Bezos just a couple weeks ago? “Silver medal, Baby! I beat you!”

Number four it’s crushing. It’s crushing. The self-imposed pressure is severe. The self-imposed pressure is so severe. Listen, friends, if it’s all on you to make something of yourself, or you’re nobody, that is a crushing weight to bear in life. In the old movie, Chariots of Fire, 1981, there’s a runner. His name is Harold Abrams. He’s an Olympic-level sprinter at the top of his game, and he says in an interview, “I have ten seconds to justify my existence.” The movie ends with him in a drunken stupor. It is a crushing weight to bear all of your identity. That’s why we’re so chock-full of anxiety and depression and even suicide. It is not C students who are jumping off the bridges. It’s the A students who get their first bad grade.

But there’s another flavor of this achievement-based identity that Paul doesn’t wrestle with in this passage, but it’s widespread in our cultural moment, and I’d be remiss to skip over it. Okay? This is a self-expressed identity, a self-expressed identity. We find our sense of self in being true to ourselves.

You’ve heard this. This is everywhere. “You do you,” “Follow your heart,” “Speak your truth,” “Be yourself!” You hear this everywhere, don’t you? And if all this was meant to be, meant to say, was just “Be transparent, be open, be honest, be vulnerable,” that would be one thing. But this is a full-blown identity formation strategy here in the late modern west. It’s often offered to people as the only alternative to an affirmation-based identity. It goes something like this: “You, and you alone, can discover who you really are. If you look deep down inside yourself, you will find in here somewhere a dream, a set of desires and feelings, or intuitions in the world, you will discover yourself. And then what you do is you express that identity. You project it outward. You assert it regardless of what other people think. And the more unique and unconventional you are, the better. And while this way of thinking, this kind of identity formation, has been helpful in reducing psychological suppression, in raising the awareness of minority voices, in underscoring the value of personal authenticity, as an identify formation strategy, it utterly fails.

As with the self-made identity there are numerous problems with the self-expressed identity in this achievement model. I’ll give you five. Okay? Five.

Number one, it’s disintegrated because our desires are mutually exclusive. It’s a disintegrated identity because our desires are mutually exclusive.

“Follow your heart, Philip.”

Okay, which part? Which part? I genuinely want to be totally autonomously independent, free. I can do whatever I want whenever I want. I want that. That’s who I am. And I want loving commitment and stability in relationships with other people which means I can’t do whatever I want whenever I want. I’ve got to learn to put other people’s needs ahead of my own. They’re both in me, but they are mutually exclusive options. So, “Follow your heart.” “Be yourself.” Which one? I can’t do both. I can’t be everything in me. Do you see this? There’s no integrated option where I can follow everything in my heart because my heart is all over the place. I can’t build an identity based off my heart’s desires as if they were neatly ordered things. They’re not. I’m a conflicted, disintegrated being. That’s who I am.

Secondly, it’s unstable. If you try to build an identity based off of what’s deep inside of you it will be unstable because we are ever-changing beings. We’re ever-changing beings. I think it’s fair to say that Krista, my wife, has been married to three different men, and all of them are me. Seriously!

Just think back in your life ten or twenty years. Aren’t you so glad you’re not that person any more? You’re a moving target. You are dynamic and changing. You are malleable fluid on the inside. There’s no firm foundation inside of us on which we can build a lasting firm identity. It’s just not there.

Third, it leaves us insecure. It’s an insecure identity because we need constant outside validation. It’s an insecure identity because we need constant outside validation. The idea, friends, that we can express ourselves with enough weight to establish our identity without reference to anyone else is just naiveté.

It’s naiveté. We need outside validation. That’s why when you post something on social media and it doesn’t get enough likes or traction, you want to pull it back and pull it down. You think about deleting it, right? Some of you just do that. You wait five or ten minutes, and if it doesn’t go, you just pull it back. It’s one thing to say, “This is me,” but then we need affirmation and validation of who we’ve chosen to express ourselves as. And maybe we’re okay if some people reject the me we’re expressing ourselves to be, as long as the chosen group that we identify with validates who we are. We may defy the culture of our upbringing, saying, “I don’t care what anybody thinks; this is me,” but we know all along there will be thousands of people who affirm our choice. We’re just changing cheerleaders; don’t you see? We’re still seeking validation on the outside, we’re still chasing the affirmation of others.

Fourth, it’s a haunting identity. It’s haunting because we’re never fully ourselves. It’s haunting because we’re never fully ourselves. Because we’re full of contradictions, we are never everything that is in us. We always leave something left back inside. Whatever we say we are, there’s stuff left on the cutting room floor of our hearts. We filter and we need the validation from the outside, and so then we’re haunted. We’re haunted because we can’t quite shake the sense of self we’re trying to keep out of sight. We can’t shake it. It’s the part of us we pretend we’re not. It’s the part of us we pretend isn’t real. There’s a great irony at the heart of humanity, and that is that to be fully known is our greatest longing and our highest fear. We’re haunted by ourselves.

Fifth, it’s unsatisfying. It’s an unsatisfying identity because we were made for so much more. We were made for so much more. The reality is, friends, we just don’t carry enough weight to secure our own sense of identity. We can’t call ourselves into being. We lack the gravity, the heaviness, the glory, the weight to confer a real true identity for ourselves, and so we’re always searching, always trying to be unique enough, special enough, but in the end we can’t get there.

So affirmation-based identities don’t work. Achievement-based identities, both the self-made and self-expressed varieties, don’t work either. Well, what does? I’m glad you asked.

The third identity-formation strategy is where Paul lands the plane here, and it is an abiding-based identity, looking to Christ. Paul says your identity and your joyous life is found not in looking to others, not in looking to yourself, but looking to Christ.

Verse 7: “But whatever gain I had…” He’s talking about his resume. “Whatever gain I had, I counted as loss for the sake of Christ. Indeed, I count everything as loss because of the surpassing worth of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord. For his sake I have suffered the loss of all things and count them as rubbish, in order that I may gain Christ.”

“Instead of building an identity,” Paul says, “around myself, whatever assets I had, whatever capitals gains I’d amassed, I count it all as loss, as liabilities. All of it! My Hebrew credentials, my Pharisaic position, my zealous religious fervor, my legal blamelessness, I count it not just as neutral, but as a liability, a negative, a loss. I move it from the profit column to the loss column.” Why?

All those things are good things, Paul, aren’t they? Sure they are, but it’s no place to build an identity, not when Christ is available to you. Paul says, “I found something greater, a greater treasure, something of surpassing worth, a firmer foundation, a better life joy, a truer identity. And compared to knowing Christ Jesus, my Lord, everything else is garbage. It’s trash! Everything I used to live for and build my identity around, I consider rubbish, refuse, dung (It’s an expletive in the Greek. (chuckles) It’s a dirty word.)!” “…in order that I may gain Christ.”

Verse 9: “and be found in him, not having a righteousness of my own that comes from the law, but that which comes through faith in Christ, the righteousness from God that depends on faith…” Friends, this is Paul’s new identity. He says, “I want to be found in him.” Where is your new identity, Paul? “It is in Christ, and Christ alone.” We see he’s no longer standing on his own righteousness, his own standing, his own identity. His righteous identity is from God. It is by grace. It is through faith, and it is in Christ. Through Jesus’ death and resurrection, He has exchanged identities with Paul. Christ took upon Himself Paul’s sinful and self-righteous identity, and exchanged, gave Paul instead, a righteous identity, and cloaked him in the very identity of Christ.

So, don’t you see, this new identity in Christ (it’s what Martin Luther referred to as an “alien righteousness,” a righteousness that is not my own) and it’s already Paul’s because he has believed in faith in Jesus Christ. It is something Paul is living into, he is stepping into as he abides in Christ and walks with Him in righteousness, and it is something that Paul is hoping for, that one day he will be with Christ in glory, and

that identity will be fully, completely and finally his forever.

Verse 10: “that I may know him and the power of his resurrection, and may share in his sufferings, becoming like him in his death, that by any means possible I may attain the resurrection from the dead.”

Christ’s identity has become Paul’s own, past, present and future reality. He says, “Whatever it takes, whatever it costs, put me in prison, shipwreck me on an island. I will go through suffering and loss. If I get more of Jesus it is worth it in the end. Even if I lose my life, to live is Christ and to die is gain because my life is hidden in Christ. I in Him, and He in me. I am united in Christ forever, and no power of hell, no scheme of man can ever pluck me from His hand, for I am His and He is mine, bought with the precious blood of Christ.” (applause)

Friends, this is an abiding identity. We find our sense of self in Christ alone. It’s an abiding-based identity. We find our sense of self in Christ alone. Friends, on the cross Jesus exchanged identities with you and me. He took our sinful identities upon Himself, and in return He exchanged, He gave us, a substitute, His own righteous identity. What does that mean?

Do you remember when Jesus was baptized? The Father spoke from heaven. The Spirit came down like a dove. Remember this? What did the Father say? “This is my beloved son in whom I am well-pleased. Listen to Him.”

There three things every son and daughter needs to hear from their father. “This is my beloved son/daughter.” I love you. “In whom I am well-pleased.” I’m proud of you. “Y’all, you listen to him.” You are endorsed.

What has Jesus done up until this point in His life? He got potty trained. He learned His alphabet. He became a carpenter, an apprentice. He built some stuff apparently. But no ministry. Huh! Pretty high praise for just a carpenter, don’t you think?

Then He goes on. He casts out demons, preaches sermons, does ministry, raises the dead. And at the end of His life, just so we won’t mistake what’s about to go down at the Mount of Transfiguration, what does the Father say? “This is my beloved Son in whom I am well-pleased. You listen to Him.”

Listen, listen! He says, “I love you. I’m proud of you. I endorse you.” And nothing Jesus did in all that productive ministry moved the needle one bit in the Father’s love for His son. (applause) What does that tell you? It means that the Father’s love for His Son is grounded in who He is, not what He does. It’s grounded in His identity, not in His performance. (applause) You see that. And here’s the kicker. If you are in Christ, all that is Christ’s is yours, and these statements apply to you.

You are my beloved son, my beloved daughter in whom I am well-pleased. Listen to these people. My children, you are loved. He is proud of you, and He endorses you. Friends, what greater affirmation-based identity could you ever ask for than to be affirmed and approved by the one whose opinion matters more than any other in the universe? What greater achievement-based identity could you ever imagine then to be enfolded into the glory of the triumphant and risen and exalted Christ forever?

What greater identity is there than to abide in Christ, to settle down and make our home in the identity which is now ours, by grace through faith in Christ alone? Friends, this is an abiding identity. It is a graced identity. It is a received identity. You can’t earn this. You can’t strive for this. You don’t have to prove anything to have this. And you can never lose it. (applause) You have an infinite, eternal, divine identity in Jesus Christ. You are beloved sons and daughters of God. It’s who you already are by grace through faith. It’s who you are stepping into as you follow Christ every day of your life by the power of the Spirit, and it is who you will one day be when you stand before the Father in glory.

Being, behaving, becoming!

So here’s my question for you: Is your identity durable? Is your identity durable? Is it solid? Is it unshakable? Is it lasting? Is it glorious? Is it forever?

I close with these words from C. S. Lewis, from Mere Christianity. “Your real, new self (which is Christ’s and also yours, and yours just because it is His)…will come to you when you’re looking for Him… Give up yourself, and you will find your real self. Lose your life and you will save it. Submit to death, death of your ambitions and favourite wishes every day and death of your whole body in the end. Submit with every fibre of your being, and you will find eternal life. Keep back nothing. Nothing that you have not given away will be really yours. Nothing in you that has not died will ever be raised from the dead. Look for yourself, and you will find in the long run only hatred, loneliness, despair, rage, ruin, and decay. But look for Christ and you will find Him, and with Him everything else [everything else]…” Who am I?

Let’s pray.

Father, we give you ourselves. Forgive us for the way that we have tried to secure ourselves by ourselves for ourselves. We were made for you. You are the fixed point in this universe. We revolve around you. We find our life and our being and our identity by falling into orbit around you. You are our life. You are our Father. Christ is our Redeemer, the Spirit our friend. Teach us who we are in Jesus. Amen.

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