Monday, October 13, 2014

Who am I? Identity and Idolatry

Location: Hanoi, Vietnam
Look around you and you will see a world in search of identity. Each of us carries within us a fundamental need to have significance in the universe ... some existential impact greater than the collection of chemicals that makes up our human form.

This need was actually one of the first forces I remember that drove me out of my adolescent agnosticism toward a search for deeper truths. Evan as my public school teachers taught me that my life was little more than a cosmic accident--and even as I accepted it at first--I eventually ran up against a problem that their science books could not begin to resolve.

What made me ... me?
Why do I have an individual consciousness, and why is that consciousness wrapped up in this particular body? Why was I not someone else, or indeed something else? Why was I born into this life, and not that of, say, Phil Collins? Or Phil Mickelson? Or King Philip or Dr. Phil or even Punxsutawney Phil for that matter?

I was trying to understand the existence of my soul. I was trying to figure out if I was more than just a random assortment of cells passing through the galaxy on its way to oblivion.

I think in many ways I still struggle along this quest for meaning, and as I look around me, it's clear I'm not alone.

We seek to address our identity hunger in a host of ways. Think back to high school, when each of us searched incessantly for our place. Even where we didn't quite fit in, we made an identity (and established relationships) based on this nonconformity. Why? We wanted the comfort of friendship, sure, but we also wanted to find some environment where we could feel significant, even if this was within a very small circle. We changed our clothes and our speech and our hobbies so that we could find some sense of reality in which we were recognized by someone--even ourselves--as important.

News flash ... that quest didn't stop after high school.  It just became more sophisticated.

Well, that is, for most of us.

As we get older, most of us continue to pursue our quests in more subtle ways. We find something we're good at or a group that accepts and validates us. Perhaps we identify ourselves by our careers, or our family connections, or our sports loyalties. Maybe we come up with some obscure online identity, perhaps even complete with a clever cartoon character, that ... well ...

Um, not that there's anything wrong with that.  Is there?

Seriously, there can be, and this brings us to where the danger lies. The quest for identity can lead us into some idolatrous and ultimately soul-killing places. This is how young men utterly lose themselves in online pornography or gaming; or how mothers selfishly obsess over their children's successes and failures; or how middle-aged professionals attempt to squeeze life out of their careers.

In extreme cases, it leads even the most outwardly successful people into excess and despair and self-destructive behaviors, to include suicide.

The fact is, significance is a hard-wired psychic need--part of our true nature as bearers of God's image. Each of us will each seek to fill it in our own way, because we simply must. The question is, will this quest move us toward the God who gives ultimate meaning and eternal purpose and true identity, or will it move us into an outwardly attractive but ultimately hollow counterfeit?

It is only by seeking God that I find an identity worth investing my life in.

In Psalm 139, David, despite being Israel's greatest king, discovers how an authentic quest for God leads him to discover his true self, and to find great comfort and satisfaction there.
For you formed my inward parts;
   you knitted me together in my mother's womb.
I praise you, for I am fearfully and wonderfully made.
   Wonderful are your works;
   my soul knows it very well.
My frame was not hidden from you,
   when I was being made in secret,
   intricately woven in the depths of the earth.
Your eyes saw my unformed substance;
   in your book were written, every one of them,
   the days that were formed for me,
   when as yet there was none of them.
This is also why David's son, who for a time appeared to have eclipsed even his father in temporal greatness, discovers that his pursuit of life's temporal satisfactions left him only with the crushing conclusion that they were all meaningless--a mere "chasing after the wind"--that left his soul barren.

This is also what my friend Sharon discovered, and why she later wrote this:
... I find I am finally content in knowing this simple truth: I am a child of God, and I am saved by His grace. I can say it now: I am ready to die ... which means now I can truly live.
Idolatry takes many forms, but the self-idolatry of identity is perhaps among the most insidious. It takes us captive and teaches us to try to squeeze a little temporal life out of that which is dying, rather than to find life eternal in Him who is by nature eternal.

Who am I truly? Dare I say it?