Many of the most pressing questions weighing upon the lives of young adults in the modern world revolve around identity: who am I? Who am I supposed to be? What am I supposed to do?
I don’t necessarily subscribe to Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs, but there’s no doubt that such questions of identity rarely arise in times lacking such peace and prosperity. Yet our times are fraught with trouble: order seems tenuous, and a massive decline seems distinctly possible, if not already in progress, in which many young people – maleducated, overly idealistic (if not outright delusional) and having dwindling options for employment and family, with only a dubious potential legacy: gigabytes of Instagram selfies and mountains of debt.
Amidst all of this, we are expected to live a certain type of life: to be This Interesting (as exemplified by photos of exotic locales we’re expected to visit to prove that we’re Someone), to be This Accomplished (making six figures as An Artist, and achieving acclaim for our efforts), and to have the perfect spouse, job, stuff, and whatever else.
I propose, instead, an idea that is so old fashioned as to appear radical: that instead of trying to find our identities in the insurmountable demands of the lower-case law that rules society, that we instead find it in Jesus.
But most critically, we must understand how Jesus perceived himself, and the challenges inherent to his unique situation. Warning: this is (as far as I know) uncharted territory, and I’ve never heard any theologian consider what I’m going to suggest here, so be aware. (It is distinctly possible that this has been done, but I am unaware of it, and all of this constitutes my original thoughts on the subject.)
Jesus’ identity really starts with his mother, Mary. We revere Mary for her faith in bearing Jesus, but rarely spend much time considering the implications of what, exactly, happened to her. Mary was engaged to be married to Joseph. She had everything going for her: she would be married to a man and uphold a faithful Jewish lifestyle. She had honor and esteem in her social setting. She was a good girl.
But when the Angel of the Lord appeared, it disrupted everything. The Angel told Mary that she would bear the promised Messiah! Good news, right? Great news! There’s just one problem: Mary was betrothed but not married. If she supernaturally conceived, it would appear to all the world that Mary had committed fornication with Joseph at best, and at worst – that she had committed adultery, and had sex with a stranger. When Mary embraced the Angel’s calling, she sacrificed her external, personal honor and identity for the great, invisible glory of fulfilling God’s purpose – even though it would look scandalous to many of those around her.
Jesus wasn’t just born low, in a stable, amongst dirty animals and shepherds, he appeared to have been born in outright dishonor. Maybe it wouldn’t have been a big deal if he grew up somewhere else, where nobody knew his family – but Jesus grew up in Nazareth, where Mary and Joseph had lived before. And everybody around him would have known the story of this Jesus – whose mother claimed that an Angel visited her, and that her son was supernaturally conceived by the Spirit. Sure, some people would probably have believed. But I’m guessing – based on the events of Luke 4 – that many more didn’t.
The point is that on a daily basis, Jesus was assaulted with lies about his identity and who he was. The world around him told him that he was dishonorable, and was not his father’s true son. The world said that Jesus was shameful and brought shame to his family. This was Jesus’ childhood, it was Jesus’ adolescence, and it was Jesus’ adulthood, when he worked as a skilled craftsman, in the years before his public ministry.
Every day Jesus had to choose who he was going to believe: the world around him, that believed lies about his identity: or the Spirit, who told Jesus his true identity, that he came from the Father and possessed more honor, glory, and power than anyone in his small town life could have possibly imagined. Moreso than anyone who has ever lived, Jesus understood who he was, where he had come from, and where he was going.
This understanding explains the conflict when Jesus begins his public ministry in Luke 4. His response to the people asking “Is not this Joseph’s son?” (Luke 4.22) takes on a whole new light when we consider that this is not an innocent question, but a sarcastic, pointed jab, intended to shame Jesus and call into question his authority, raising to the surface all the doubt and skepticism that people in Nazareth harbored toward Jesus across his lifetime. This is what prompts Jesus’ strong response, where he compares himself to the other prophets who were rejected by Israel hundreds of years earlier. This is not an isolated incident, but the culmination of a lifetime of antipathy toward Jesus.
This is why Jesus spends so much time talking about his relationship to his Father, such as in Luke 10.21-22, and John 5.19-47. Jesus wants to make it clear to those around him that everything he is – and everything he does – has its origin in his identity as the Father’s Son. Despite the social pressure around him – which only increases during his ministry – Jesus displays bold assurance in who he is. And we should be just as assured.
The fact is, if you know Jesus, then he has imparted on you not only salvation but also his identity before God; we are not, of course, children of God in the sense that we possess Christ’s divinity, but as Ephesians 1 makes clear, through Jesus we have been adopted into sonship, and the old metrics by which we judge our value and self-worth are totally eclipsed by the divine glory that Jesus won through his life, death, and resurrection, and has now freely imparted upon those who believe in him.
There are many good reasons to place your faith in Jesus – natural philosophical arguments for God, the evidence for the Resurrection, miracles, and personal experience among them – but one that perhaps doesn’t get enough attention is that when you trust in Jesus, your need to strive to prove yourself is over. You can be free from the compulsion to “make it” and prove yourself, and rest in your permanent, unchanging identity that Jesus has resurrected just as surely as your physical body will be resurrected in the New Creation. What’s most interesting, is that realizing who you really are will free you to be more creative, more aspirational, more energized – but all of it coming from a place of Grace rather than a place of Shame.
And that’s Good News indeed.