Years ago I witnessed a curious interaction between a client’s president and his secretary. I arrived at their office mid-morning and found the secretary crying in the parking lot, crying because of a tongue-lashing she had just received.
Apparently her president had wanted new conference room table and chairs. He found a set online and asked his secretary to buy it. She found an identical set from another distributor with a better offer: it was several thousand dollars cheaper and it included an extended manufacturer’s warranty.
When she told the president about the better deal, he was furious, and he shouted, “Don’t you know who I am? I am the president!”
The president and I had lunch later that day. During the lunch, the president gave me his version of that morning’s story, and his story matched hers—almost word for word. He ended by asking, “Didn’t she know I am the president?”
The thing was, everybody knew he was the president. He owned the company. He basically operated as the CEO, COO, and CFO. There was not a single person with a hint of a shadow of the tiniest doubt who he was. Everyone knew it.
Except maybe the president himself.
Our deepest treasure
If you are anything like me, you’ll think the president’s response is bizarre. Like me, you may think, “I’d never do that.” Let’s not acquit ourselves so quickly. How do we react when something we treasure deeply is threatened?
We get angry, anxious, defensive, or scared. We may do stupid things, bizarre even.
Perhaps the deepest treasure in our lives is what we think of ourselves. Proverbs 22:1 says, “A good name is more desirable than great riches.” More than suggesting a good name, it describes the de facto nature of our hearts. We all treasure a good name.
We want to be smart, nice, adventurous, bold, or good. We want others to think of us that way, and we like to think of ourselves that way. These are identities. We all have them, and we all value having a good one, perhaps one of these:
- Being a good parent or a good spouse
- Being a good speaker or preacher
- Being a hard worker or a good person
The object of our identity (being a hard worker or a good person) is usually not a problem. The problem is the degree to which we grasp for that identity.
Identity and Idolatry
It’s easy to think of idols as little statues people pray to. But an idol is any created thing we give our hearts to in order to have life; and the most potent idols are identity idols. We look to them to get strength or to feel good about ourselves.
I believe we all have them, and that they sabotage our most needed relationships.
If our identity idol is being a “good parent,” our need to be a good parent will drive us to extremes to live up to it, and it will drive a wedge between us and our spouse, and often even our children. (We may even do things others think are bizarre!)
When we draw our strength from our identity idol—perhaps being a good parent—then any questioning of that identity is an attack on the very substance of our being, the thing that gets us out of bed in the morning.
If our identity idol is challenged, something snaps. If someone asks, “Why are your kids so wild?” we burst out in anger, or we seethe with resentment, or we leap to our own defense. And thus we damage the very relationships we need.
Not every identity is an idol. Your identity as a good parent may be healthy. If so, a challenge to it may sting, your feelings may be hurt, but you don’t become bitter.
We reveal identity idols when our behaviors are bizarre or our emotions are extreme. What makes us angry, disconsolate, or resentful? When do we lash out or run away?
(It happens in ministry too. If our identity idol is to be a good preacher, any questioning of our preaching will make us angry, withdrawn, or defensive. Ask any pastor.)
So what can we do?
Identities come from two sources. We can have identities we make for ourselves, or we can have identities that are given to us; they can be grasped or they can be granted. Identities we grasp turn into identity idols.
The healthiest identities are received not taken. “Let another praise you and not your own mouth” (Pr. 27:2). The best identity is an identity bestowed on us by God. Part of the power of the gospel is the Lord himself naming us.
- The Lord your God has chosen you … to be his treasured possession (Deut. 7:6)
- They shall be Mine, says the Lord … when I make up my jewels (Mal. 3:17)
- No longer do I call you servants … I call you my friends (John 15:15)
- [You] are the riches of his glorious inheritance (Eph. 1:18)
The greatest identity we can have comes from the cross. It says we were such a mess that our only cure was the tortuous death of the son of God—so how in the world could we ever look down our noses at anyone else, ever? That’s relationally healthy.
The cross also says we were so deeply loved that he was glad to do it. That’s an identity I don’t have to fight for, and it’s an identity that can never be taken away or challenged.
Those are names I can live with. Even if I’m not a president! (Didn’t you know?)
What do you think?
- How are we imprisoned by our own grasping for identity?
- How do we damage those we love by our clinging to a self-identity?