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Identity Traps

Mapping Our Hearts

Rev. Philip Miller | January 8, 2023

Selected highlights from this sermon

Identity is, at its core, a sense of self. It distinguishes us from the people around us. It gives clarity to our place in this world. And it turns out that a sense of self is meaningful when it meets three, deep-seated, underlying needs: significance, security, and satisfaction.

In this first message on Identity Traps, Pastor Miller gives us a framework for understanding identity: what it is, from where a person derives their identity, and how this framework can help us map our hearts to show us which way to go in order to be what God created us to be.

Today we begin a brand-new series called “Identity Traps: Nine Ways We Lose Ourselves and How Jesus Makes Us Whole.” In the coming weeks we’re going to explore nine different characters in the Bible who each tried to build their identities in all the wrong places, and then discovered the kind of wholeness that only God can supply. And it is my prayer that in looking at each of these lives, as we track with them, we’ll discover the way that our own souls are shaped, the way our own lives are built, the identity traps that we tend to fall into so that we can also learn what each of these individuals learned, and that is the deep identity that Christ offers that changes everything.

Now, this topic of identity is something that I have’s been kind of a pet project for me for the last five to seven years. I’ve done a lot of reading and study and reflection because, in a sense, you know everyone’s talking about identity these days. You can’t turn on the news without someone talking about their identity, right? And I personally have always sort of found identity to be a bit elusive.

If you were to ask me, “Philip, who are you? Yeah, who are you?”

“Well, let’s see, I’m a pastor. Right? I’m a pastor here at The Moody Church.” 

“No, no, no, that’s what you do, Philip. That’s not who you are. Who are you?”

“Well, I am an American. I was born in Wisconsin. I grew up in Ohio. Now I live in Chicago. I’m a Chicagoan.”

“No, no, no, that’s where you live. Who are you?”

“Well, I’m a father. I’m a husband. I’m a brother. I’m a son. I’m a friend.”

“No, those are the roles you fill. Who are YOU?”

“Well, I’m hard-working, and I’m creative, and I’m personable (chuckles).”

“Those are characteristics. Who are YOU?”

How would you answer this question? “Who are YOU?”

Today I want to show you, share with you a biblical theological framework for understanding identity. It’s something that I have found profoundly helpful in mapping my own heart. And I pray that it will be helpful to each one of you in mapping your own hearts as well. In many ways this will be more of a seminar than a sermon, an extended introduction. I need to give you the framework that we’re going to work through over the coming weeks, so I’m going to give you the framework today, and then we’re going to work through each of these characters in subsequent weeks. Make sense?

Let’s bow our heads before we dive in.

Heavenly Father, there’s probably no more foundational question to life than “Who are we? Who am I?” And it’s not like a question we’re very good at answering on our own, and so we need your help. We need your voice. We need your truth. Guide us, we pray, in Jesus’ name, Amen. Amen.

Now, identity at its core is a sense of self. Right? A sense of self. It allows us to distinguish ourselves from those around us. It gives us the kind of clarity to be able to discern our place in the world. And it turns out that our sense of self is most meaningful when it meets three deep-seated underlying needs. A sense of self needs to provide:

  • A sense of significance,
  • A sense of security, and
  • A sense of satisfaction.

Significance, security and satisfaction!

Let’s walk through those. We all need a sense of significance, don’t we? We need a sense of significance. We need to know that we matter, that we’re worthwhile, that we’re valuable, that who we are is of consequence in the wide world.

We also need a sense of security, to know that we’re safe, that we’re okay, that we belong, that we’re surefooted in life, that who we are is at home in the wide world. We also need a deep sense of satisfaction. We need to know fulfillment. We need to experience a sense of well-being and happiness in life, that who we are is delightful in the wide world. And so our identity, our sense of self, is meaningful to the degree that it meets these three deep-seated underlying needs for security, significance, and satisfaction.

Now, here’s where theology comes in, because the Bible tells us that we were created by God. We were created in His image and likeness. We were created by Him and for Him. In other words, we were created to know God as our Father and to know ourselves as His children, His sons and His daughters. In other words, we were made to find our identity as children of God, as a child. And as children of God, we were made to find our needs for significance in God’s esteem, to find our sense of security in His care, to find our sense of satisfaction in His delight and pleasure. In other words, we were...our deepest identity was made to be a child of God while we look for these deep soul needs in Him and Him alone.

And of course, God is not the only source of significance, security, and satisfaction. After all, He did give Adam and Eve to one another, right? It is not good for man to be alone. He gave them the Garden of Eden, a place to live, to work, to grow. He gave them fruit to eat. So these were all good gifts from His hand, weren’t they? And they were. In them is the echo and trace of the significance, security, and satisfaction that ultimately is found in God Himself. His gifts contain a little piece of the Giver. And so, there is satisfaction and security and significance to be found in things other than God, but they never will be enough.

The ultimate source of our significance, security, and satisfaction was made to be found in God. And so by design, we were made for an identity as children of God to find security, significance, and satisfaction in Him alone. That’s what we were made for, to be a beloved child of our good Father.

Now, after all these many years, after Adam and Eve sinned, after we got kicked out of the Garden, and after humanity rebelled against God, we wake up in the universe and we find ourselves estranged from the very God we were designed to build our identity around. We are collectively and individually sinners. We’re sinners by nature and by choice, and our sins separate us from God, and so instead of living as a child, we live as orphans. That becomes our operating system. We wake up in the universe estranged from the God we were made to call Father. We wake up as orphans. But our deep needs for significance and security and satisfaction are still there, aren’t they? And even though we don’t have a Father to attach them to, those needs are still there. They’re real, and so they attach themselves to anything that shows promise. Anything!

Our orphan hearts move out into the world trying to find an identity, build an identity elsewhere, and it turns out there are three primary strategies we use to try to meet these deep self-identity needs apart from God. We look to people, power, and possessions. People, power, and possessions!

So for example, we might try to find significance through people. So I’ll be whoever I need to be to be popular. I will do what I need to do. I will be who I need to be in order to get approval and applause, and to make sure people smile at my life, because when people smile, whoever it is (my parents, my coaches, my teachers, my bosses, my social media following, the in-crowd, whoever that might be), when they smile, I know that I am worthwhile. And I try to find significance through people. You see that? And that’s just one way I can do it.

Maybe I try to find my significance, my sense of significance through power. So I’ll be whoever I need to be in order to be in control, to be large and in charge, to call the shots, to make my mark, because in being on top I know that I’ve arrived. I know that I count, I matter, you see. It’s significance through power.

Or maybe I try to find my significance through possessions, through possessions. I’ll be whoever I need to be in order to get it all, to have it all, the accoutrements of success, the vehicles, the homes, the fashion, the bank accounts, because in having all the stuff I know that I’ve finally made it. I matter. I’m worthwhile in life. I try to find significance through stuff, my possessions. And so don’t you see we can do the same things, not just for significance, but also for security and satisfaction.

We can try to find those needs, get those needs met in people, power, and possessions as well. So for example, I might try to find security through people. If those people or that person, if they would love me and accept me, then I’d be safe and I’d be okay. I could sleep at night.

Or maybe I’d try to get security through power, because if I’m in control, then I’ll be safe. Hmm? Anybody know somebody like that?

Or maybe I would try to find security through my possessions, my stuff, my savings, my fat bank account. That’ll keep me safe in the world.

Or satisfaction! I might try to find satisfaction through people. If I could just find the right person, I’ll be happy. Oh man, do we believe that! If I might try to find satisfaction through power because when you’re the boss you get to do whatever you want, and that’s the key to happiness, right? Or I might try to find satisfaction through possessions. You’ve worked hard. Treat yourself, right? Treat yourself. You deserve it.

And so, don’t you see? What’s going on is our orphan hearts are trying to build an identity to get significance, security, and satisfaction from the creation rather than the Creator. We’re trying to get all of our deep-soul identity needs met in the creation rather than the Creator. To use the language of Romans, chapter 1, we’ve “exchanged the glory of the immortal God” with things made by human hands, created things. And in essence, friends, this is what idolatry is. Whenever we look to anything other than God for our ultimate sense of significance, security, and satisfaction, whatever that is, it has become our functional god, and we will go out and serve, and sacrifice, and give up whatever it asks of us in order to get our deep identity needs met. This is the essence of idolatry, and it’s at the heart of all of our sin. It’s the sin underneath every other sin—idolatry.

We see it in the very first temptation when Adam and Eve were tempted (Right?) by Satan in the serpent form. Genesis 3, verses 1 to 8! Listen to these verses. “Now the serpent was more crafty than any other beast of the field that the Lord God had made. He said to the woman, ‘Did God actually say you shall not eat of the tree in the garden?’ and the woman said to the serpent, ‘We may eat of the fruit of the trees in the garden, but God said, “You shall not eat the fruit of the tree that is in the midst of the garden, and neither shall you touch it, lest you die.”’ But the serpent said to the woman, ‘You will not surely die. For God knows that when you eat it your eyes will be opened, and you will be like God, knowing good and evil.’ So when the woman saw that the tree was good for food, and a delight to the eyes, and that the tree was to be desired to make one wise, she took of its fruit and ate, and she gave some also to her husband who was with her, and he ate, and then their eyes were opened and they knew that they were naked. They sewed fig leaves together and made themselves loincloths. And they heard the sound of the Lord God walking in the garden in the cool of the day, and the man and his wife hid themselves from the presence of the Lord God among the trees of the garden.”

So at the heart, friends, of this first and fatal temptation, is this question. Where will Adam and Eve look for significance, security, and satisfaction? Do you see that?

Just look at the temptations.

You will be like God! Significance! You will get a promotion, guys, desirous to make one wise. What is wisdom? Wisdom is skill in living. It’s knowing how to live in the world as it is really is so you can be safe, so it works well for you. Security! And it was good for food, a delight to the eyes. Satisfaction!

See, at the heart of the downfall of humanity was this choice for Adam and Eve. Will they live as children of God, or will they hijack their lives and live as orphans? Will they direct their deep identity needs for significance, security, and satisfaction toward the Creator or toward the creation?

Now many years later, Jesus faced the exact same choice. Let me show you that in Matthew, chapter 4. This is the temptation of Jesus in the wilderness.

Matthew 4, verses 1 through 11: “Then Jesus was led up by the Spirit into the wilderness to be tempted by the devil. And after fasting 40 days and 40 nights, he was hungry. And the tempter came and said to him, ‘If you are the Son of God, command these stones to become loaves of bread.’ But he answered, ‘It is written, “Man should not live by bread alone, but by every word that comes from the mouth of God.”’ Then the devil took him to the holy city and set him on the pinnacle of the temple and said to him, ‘If you are the Son of God throw yourself down, for it is written, “He will command his angels concerning you, and on their hands they will bear you up, lest you strike your foot against a stone.” Jesus said to him, ‘Again it is written, “You shall not put the Lord your God to the test.”’ Again, the devil took him to a very high mountain and showed him all the kingdoms of the world and their glory. And he said to him, ‘All of these I will give to you, if you will fall down and worship me.’ Then Jesus said to him, ‘Be gone, Satan! For it is written, “You shall worship the Lord your God and Him only shall you serve.”’ Then the devil left him, and behold, angels came and were ministering to him.”

Do you see this? At the heart of Jesus’ own temptation are the same three temptations that Adam and Eve faced.

  • Turn these stones to bread – satisfaction
  • Throw yourself off the temple – security
  • You can be a king of the world – significance

The question Jesus faced was whether He would live as a child of God or whether He would hijack His life and live as an orphan. And how did He prevail, I ask you? How did He prevail? He remembered His Father. He remembered His Father’s Word. He remembered His Father’s voice, and He remembered who He was, because just before these events, Jesus was baptized in the Jordan River. And the Father spoke words over His Son, the same words He would speak eventually at the Mount of Transfiguration right before Jesus goes to the cross in order to give Him the courage He would need to face the ultimate test—the same words. We see them in a couple places but in Matthew 17, verse 5 it says, “This is my beloved Son with whom I am pleased. Listen to Him.”

“This is My Son”, significance! “The Father’s only begotten,” forever, an unshakeable identity! “He is My beloved Son.” He is secure in the Father’s forever love! “...with whom I am well pleased,” satisfaction! Delighting in the Father’s good pleasure!

Do you see that? The reason Jesus was able to prevail where Adam and Eve failed is because He remembered who He was, the Son of God, looking to His Father for the significance, security, and satisfaction He alone could provide.

And friends, Satan’s temptation, the one he used for Adam and Eve, the one he used for Jesus has not changed. Satan is not creative. He’s effective but he’s not creative. Satan wants us today to build our identities around anything other than our Heavenly Father. He wants us to exchange the glory of the Creator for the objects of His creation. He wants us to live as desperate orphans instead of living as beloved children. The lie of Satan is that we are better off fending for ourselves, we are better off to get our deep identity needs for significance, security, and satisfaction met through people, power, and possessions. We’re way better off to do that than to trust God for those things, to look anywhere other than to God for our identity. And so what happens is, we go out into the world trying to get our deep identity needs met. We pursue people, not in love, but selfishly in order to get our needs met. We go out and acquire power, not to serve others but so that we can secure our own lives. We go out and acquire possessions, not so we can share generously, but so that we can enjoy it ourselves, and the whole of our identity as orphans starts caving in upon itself (Do you see that?) so that we go out into the world needy and consuming and taking. And it’s not about what we can give to the world. It's what we can get from the world. It is orphan-hearted living.

And here’s my theory. I think that because we wake up in the universe, estranged from God, our default setting is to live like an orphan. That’s our default setting. By default we learn to build our identity and cope our way through life as orphans. And I would suggest that for everyone in this room one of these deep identity needs—security, significance, satisfaction—is dominant. We have one of those that is dominant for us, that we long for, and it looms large in our hearts. And then I would suggest that we have learned to pursue that deep need through people, power, or possessions. We pick a track. And these are not exclusive. You need all three. You need significance, security, and satisfaction. You probably are doing it in multiple ways, but I bet there’s a dominant habit of your heart that is looking for these deep needs in a particular way.

So take me, for example. Apart from grace and the power of the Holy Spirit, my orphan heart defaults to this. I try to find significance through people. That’s how I’m wired. I want significance through people. I want to know that I matter, and I learned early on in life that if I got good grades, or if I scored a soccer goal, my parents would clap, my teachers would be proud, my coach would slap me on the back, and so I built my identity around winning. I’m a winner. I have to win because winners get applause. Winners get love. Winners have significance, and significance is what my orphan heart wanted.

A friend of mine, apart from grace, her orphan heart defaults to security through power. Most of all in the universe, she wants to feel safe, and she learned early on that people are unreliable. You can’t trust them. They will let you down, and so she learned to take control of her life, and so she has built her life around independence. She’s alone but she’s in control. Nobody can hurt her. Control equals power. Power equals security, and that’s what her orphan heart beats for. You see this?

Those are just two examples. There’s actually...If you look at this, there are actually nine permutations of orphan-hearted identity, nine identity traps that we can fall into because we can pursue significance, security, and satisfaction through each of these three strategies of people, power, and possessions. There are nine permutations, nine different traps here. And this is really important because three different people might each be building their identity around possessions, but they are doing it for very different deep needs.

So, in other words, if you go out and buy a new car, one person is buying it for significance as a status symbol. Another person is buying it for security, so they feel safe on the road. Another person is buying it for satisfaction: “I’ve worked hard; I deserve this.” The same outward action but it is manifested differently in the interior of their identity or their hearts.

And so, friends, these are our default settings apart from grace, apart from God, orphan-hearted living, looking to people, power, and possessions to meet our deep-identity needs for significance, security, and satisfaction.

But then comes the Gospel. Then comes the power of God and the power of the Holy Spirit. In God’s mercy and grace He sends us Jesus. And think about it: Jesus went to the cross, and He took all of our broken identity upon Himself, didn’t He? All of our sin, all of our shame, all of our broken orphan-hearted living, and He died on the cross in our place for our sake, and in exchange gives us His identity, a righteousness. He clothes us with Himself in order that we might be accepted and loved and approved in Him. He fills us with His Holy Spirit.

Listen to what Paul writes in Romans, chapter 8, verses 14 to 17: “For all who are led by the Spirit of God are sons of God, for you did not receive the spirit of slavery to fall back into fear, but you have received the Spirit of adoption as sons, by whom we cry, ‘Abba! Father!’ The Spirit himself bears witness with our spirit that we are children of God, and if we are children, then heirs—heirs of God and fellow heirs with Christ, provided we suffer with him in order that we might glorified with him.”

And so, friends, by grace through faith in Christ, not only are our sins forgiven, and not only are we justified freely by His grace, but we have been adopted as sons and daughters of God in Jesus. Talk about significance! You’re a child of the King. Talk about security! You are safe in His love now and forever. Talk about satisfaction! We wake up every day in the smile of our Father whose delight rests well-pleased upon us for Jesus’ sake. (applause)

Remember what the prodigal son was given by the father when he came home? He got a robe, significance, clothed in the garb of his father. He got a ring, security. That was their credit card. He could go buy anything he wanted. The fatted calf, satisfaction, the party, the food, the rejoicing.

Friends, do you realize what this means? It means by the mercy of the Father, in the grace of Jesus Christ, and the power of His Spirit, we no longer have to live as orphans. We can live as children of God (applause) which means now I can live from the deep resources of my good Father as a beloved child, that He gives me significance. He honors me. He gives me security in His love. He gives me satisfaction in His pleasure and joy over my life. And having received deep nourishment from my Father for my deep identity needs, I can now move out into the world in strength and overflow. I can go love people, not expecting them to secure my identity, which means I can even forgive them when they let me down. I can move out and use power now, not to secure myself, but to serve others in love. I can move out into the world and have possessions that don’t possess me, and I can hold them openhandedly and give them with generosity to others because of this childlike identity in Christ. It is an ever-expansive, brimming, self-giving, full of love and generosity, way of living.

But this way of living out a new identity as a child of God doesn’t happen like that. It’s not an automatic thing. Friends, we have deep muscle memory, ingrained habits. We have so much to relearn about how to live, and how to build an identity in a world like this. We have lived so long as orphans. We forget how to live like ourselves, our new selves, our identity, our God-given identity as children of God.

And in many ways, friends, that’s what sanctification is all about. We’re simply learning to live not as the orphans we once were but as the children we now are. Every day we have this choice before us. Who am I? Am I an orphan that has to fend for himself, using people and power and possessions to meet my deep identity needs, or am I a child of God, who by grace through faith is resting in and metabolizing the deep significance, the utter security, the profound satisfaction that are mine in Jesus Christ, so having been filled up I can go pour myself out for the sake of others? Am I an orphan or a child? That’s the question. Orphan or a child?

As an orphan, I have to go get and achieve my identity. I’ve got to wake up every day and go after it. And so I live in desperation, and striving, and fear, and I feel utterly alone, or as a child I can simply receive by grace an identity that has already been secured for me. It has already been won in Jesus Christ, and I get to have it as a gift.

Friends, this is amazing. All my life the very thing I felt I had to go out and win in order to get has been offered freely as a gift. And all I have to do is swallow my pride and reach out and take it. It’s really that simple. We get close to our Father so we remember who He is, which helps us remember who we are so that we can remember to act like ourselves. We get close to our Father, so we remember who He is, so we remember who we are, so we can remember to act like ourselves.

Am I a child or an orphan? So that’s the framework. It’s an orphan or a child, the choice we all face.

Now in the next nine messages we’re going to go through characters of the Bible who build their identities in these patterns. We’re going to look at Joseph and Jacob and Zacchaeus and Esther and Gideon and Naaman and the Samaritan woman at the well. We’re going to look at Naomi and Solomon, how each of them tried to build an identity to get those core needs met through these strategies, and how it didn’t work, and how God loved them enough to show them another way, that He has an identity they could never get on their own, one that is far better that will free them.

And so here’s my prayer. As we look at each of these individuals, I think you’re going to find these are people a lot like you. And I pray that as you walk with each of these individuals, you will find one or two of these that you just resonate with, and you connect with, and you go, “You know, the way their soul is shaped is very much the way mine is.”

I’ve learned an orphan-hearted identity strategy that is very much like Naomi, and that the way that God loves her will be profoundly helpful as you metabolize the resources of the Gospel and learn to live as a child of God.

Does that make sense? That’s where we’re going. That’s the next nine weeks.

I leave you with this question, and then we close.

Who are you?

Who are you?

Let’s pray.

Father, teach us to put down our old ways of living, to walk as children of light. For that is who we are. You have made us, by your grace, sons and daughters forever. Help us to learn to live out of our new self that is ours by grace through faith in Christ alone. Help us to rest in you. Help us to live as children of God, for without becoming like little children we will not see the kingdom of heaven. We pray this in Jesus’ beautiful name. Amen.

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