By Matt W Sandford, LMHC
I was driving along thinking about something else and this thought came to me – that this so often used phrase has a strange hitch in it. People of all ages use this ‘cute’ phrase when talking about a life transition. They are maybe unhappy in their current career, maybe they aren’t making enough money or are feeling burned out. Maybe they have gone back to school, or moving on to a second career? But, invariably, in all cases, the person using the phrase does not mean the phrase as it is stated. They don’t say, “what they want to DO when they grow up”, but what they want to BE. I believe this simple grammatical switch actually reveals a deep issue in American culture, that being the intertwining of identity and worth with one’s career or “what we do”.
And of course our careers are related to our identity and sense of worth. But how much of our identity and self concept should come from our careers? And if our careers really only make up a piece of our identity, then what else should our identity consist of? Maybe for some, what they want to be when they grow up is to be their career? But, probably most of us almost instinctively know that that is not the sum of who you and I are.
This is about understanding the difference between being and doing. Your ‘doing’ involves your behaviors – your conduct. And, it certainly consists in a body of knowledge and experience and skills that you utilize to earn a living (or at least you are aiming to do so). I am not implying that it is not important to you or that you aren’t investing big pieces of your heart into it. Nor am I saying that you don’t bring your ‘being’ into your work. But there’s my point. I believe the work comes out of your being, not the other way around. At least work that is the most meaningful and fulfilling will be the kind that comes out of our being. When we flip it and instead derive our being from our work – meaning we derive our sense of identity from it, then we are what I call – “pushing the caboose”.
How Did we Get Here
Let me walk this concept out more developmentally. Many of us through our childhood had some kind of negative experience(s) that impacted our sense of identity, that is, caused us to feel insecure or confused about ourselves and left us longing for acknowledgment or acceptance. And one of the most common places to fill up on these things was to find it through achievement in something we were good at, be it in sports, academics, relationships, or even being a bad ass. And so what happened is that we learned to build our identity around what we could perform or achieve. Whatever we could get strokes for, that’s what came to define us.
We then followed that path into our career. I don’t mean that we stayed with sports or academics or whatever. Maybe you did and maybe you went another path. What I mean is that that pattern taught us how to derive identity, and so whatever career path you ended up on, you learned to pull a lot of your sense of identity from what you could do. Because that was how most of us got our acknowledgement when we needed it, from performing.
But I work with folks who either in mid-ride, or nearer the end of the line, come to realize that they don’t really know where they are going or have been going and what to do now that they’ve come to that realization. They’ve woken up to the difference between doing and being.
You know, I remember right where I was when I had an epiphany about this. It was my junior year in college and I was walking back to our dorm with a friend of mine, Rob Loane. He was a mature Christian and he must has been observing my identification with doing Christian activities, because he said to me, “You know, Matt, that God cares more about who we are than what we do.” I don’t remember what I said in response, but on the inside what I was thinking was, “No, I don’t know that.” And just like those who have ‘woken up’ this was good for me, even though I didn’t know what to do with it then. Waking up is how we get out from behind the caboose and stop pushing. Then we can start asking what to hitch it to.
Where Should We Derive Our Identity From?
What if we separate our being from our doing? This presents a conundrum, for most of us have them fused. They seem inseparable. I am what I do. If I think about doing something good but I then don’t do it, I am not a good person. And if I behave badly in some manner, that behavior reflects on who I am. I am what I actually do, not my good intentions. Here’s the difficulty. Humans are defining their sense of identity from within themselves and from other humans. But can humans accurately define themselves? From a scientific perspective, that would be like letting the insect under study have the final say and draw their own conclusions about themselves. We’re stuck relying on our doing because that’s what we have that is measureable in our eyes. We need an objective source outside of ourselves. I believe that God is the most trustworthy source, as he is perfect in knowledge and is our Creator. And then, if that were not enough to be our authority on our identity, God actually stepped into our experience and became a man – Jesus the Christ.
With that in mind what does the Bible say about our identity? The Bible teaches that human beings were made in God’s image and have his special, loving attention. The Bible proclaims that humankind rebelled against God’s authority and looked to itself for life and purpose. God had a plan to rescue humankind and restore fellowship with his creation and to bless them. And the Bible claims that this plan is still in operation and that God enacts his plan through redeemed humans. It says that the way God does this is by making his home in the heart of humans, giving them a new quality of life and then remaking them throughout their earthly lives until they are ready to enter the forever life. The Bible says that for those who enter into this new, eternal life, that they have been adopted into his family and they are identified as his children and become co-workers in his great plan. The Bible’s message is that this is what life is really about and this is who we really are as humans and as Christians.
To the degree that someone can embrace these realities and allow God to direct the specifics is the degree to which one can embrace their identity and be free from living in doing.
“It’s who you are, not what you say and do that counts. Your true being brims over into true words and deeds.” – Luke 6: 44-45, The Message
Of course, you could agree with all this in theory and still not be any closer to knowing how to live out your identity. But the framework needed to be laid before we built the building. Something about building on sand versus building on rock. So, in summary, God made each one of us and made each one of us for a purpose. I don’t mean some specific purpose in terms of something to accomplish or do. Maybe he has but I can’t speak into that for your life. But God has said that when we come into his family that he has bought us with a price and we are his (I Corinthians 6:19-20). God has said that our identity is in being his children and that when we align with him we will experience the abundant life that we were designed for (John 1:12, 10:10). And through submission to his leadership in our lives we can be all that he has made us to be. God has laid out principles in his Word about how to live out what he says is true and how to honor him with our lives.
When we seek to follow him we are living our identity.
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