Who are You? Pt. I

Shattered. Destroyed. Lost. Three single words with heavy meaning. In just a few seconds, years spent building a relationship, a family, a business, a ministry, a dream. . . are suddenly wiped out by the bombs of betrayal, unforeseen circumstances, or failed promises. The smell of smoke fills your nostrils and burns your eyes as you frantically move your hands through the ashes and rubble to recover anything that survived the fire, but nothing is left. You look up as the haze from the smoke clears, and see what was once a horizon full of hope and promise has changed overnight to an endless horizon of sand or sea. Life has thrown you into the desert and cast your dreams into the depths of the ocean. You feel alone and the only companion is the sound of your own breathing and your own tears. The nights are long and the mornings unwelcome. In light of losing everything, you are forced to face the question, “Who am I?” If you are forced to face this question by life or circumstances, consider yourself blessed my friend; not blessed because of the terrible evil that has happened, but blessed because of the promise that lies ahead.

Most people will never honestly face the question of who they are, and even when they get the chance, will choose to never go there. The pain is often too much. But, as we have already covered, what seems like death is an open door to new life. Whenever I ask people who they are I often hear things like, “I like to dance, play video games, go hiking, etc. . .” I also hear, “I am a pastor, I am a mother, I am a doctor, etc. . .” Other responses are “I am goofy, adventurous, talkative, serious, deep, fun. . .” The problem with all of these answers is that they have absolutely NOTHING to do with who we are. If you tell me that you like to dance, you have not told me who you are; rather, you have told me something you enjoy doing. Plenty of other people like to dance, so what sets you apart? To those who might say, “I am a pastor.” You have told me your title, not who you are. If you are one of the ones who might say you are adventurous or goofy, you have merely told me an aspect of your personality, but not who you are.

If you like to go hiking, what if you are no longer able to because of a severe accident that cripples your body? If you are a pastor, what if a global pandemic were to shut your church doors and you were not able to preach to your congregation in person or visit people? Who are you without your stage or your ministry? All the relationships, activities, or titles we place our value in can be wiped out in an instant. If that has not happened yet in your life, one day it will. Life is fragile. Our stuff and our relationships are fragile. If this is the case, what is concrete? What can our hope and our identity be placed in?

We forget that Jesus Himself had to face the desert, just like you and I have or will. He was tempted as we are and struggled as we do. (Hebrews 4:15) He felt abandoned by God and cried out on the cross, “And about the ninth hour Jesus cried out with a loud voice, saying, “Eli, Eli, lema sabachthani?” that is, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” (Matthew 27:46) Likewise we ask, “Where is God in the midst of so much suffering in the world?” Before Jesus went public with His ministry, He was led “by the Spirit” into the desert. In the desert, Jesus faced solitude, silence, and temptation. It is in the desert that the enemy comes after us with all his ferocity and hate, knowing that in our tiredness and despair, he has the best chance of taking us out. For it is not just you he is after, but those whom God has called you to impact. In the silence of the desert, Jesus was forced to affirm His true identity. Henri J.M. Nouwen poetically describes Jesus’s desert experience:

“Solitude is the furnace of transformation. Without solitude we remain victims of our society and continue to be entangled in the illusions of the false self. Jesus himself entered into this furnace. There he was tempted with the three compulsions of the world: to be relevant (‘turn stones into loaves’), to be spectacular (‘throw yourself down’), and to be powerful (‘I will give you all these kingdoms’). There he affirmed God as the only source of his identity (‘You must worship the Lord your God and serve him alone’). Solitude is the place of the great struggle and the great encounter – the struggle against the compulsions of the false self, and the encounter with the loving God who offers himself as the substance of the new self.”

Henri J.M. Nouwen

One of the greatest tragedies of life is when a person never fully discovers nor steps into everything God had for them to be and do. Instead, many of us will numb the pain with another bottle or we will fill our time with entertainment or things to accomplish. Our culture prizes business. I even know ministers and people who are going into ministry who will say “amen” to all of this, yet they will never slow down or stop their business because to do so might mean facing some sort of death on the inside. Part of them knows that they don’t know who they are and are afraid to face what that might mean. Instead, we opt to drown out who we really our with our own voices, the voices of others, or the list of things we have to do. God is far more concerned with who you are than your ministry, your vision, or your dream. His end goal is to make you more like Him. My heart breaks when I see so many of God’s children frantically running around, not knowing that they are tired and that their souls are lying dormant on the inside. They never process the pains of the past to see the gifts that lie hidden within them. Like Jesus, the desert forces us to face who we really are. When the enemy is there to whisper in your ear that you are “nothing” without your title, relationship, etc. . . what is your answer?

Social media doesn’t make it any easier. The likes and comments fuel our dopamine addictions and drive us to post every moment so that people can see how good our lives are going. We feel depressed seeing how much fun everyone else seems to be having. Or those of us in church circles constantly post what we are doing in ministry, forgetting that God honors those who serve Him in secret. Others of us like to post that picture of our coffee and open Bible just to show how tight we are with God, when maybe God just wants to exclusively share that moment with us. In that post, intimacy with Him is lost in the quest for likes and comments.

When I was thrown in the desert, I had to ask “Who am I?” The desert forces you to face who you are, who you are not, and who you could be. Without many friends to keep me company, I was forced to grapple with the question, “Am I of value even when there are few people to value me?” When I was in love and had my heart broken I faced the question, “Am I still of value even though I feel completely rejected and unwanted?” When much of my ministry went unnoticed, I asked, “What is my motive for serving the Kingdom?” When I was lied about, was my value placed in what others said of me even though I knew what was being said was not true? For myself, I realized I was on a treadmill of “doing;” meaning, I was driven by a narrative of rejection that I had read into my story. I wanted to be liked by people and accepted. I was driven to strive for excellence in everything and to do so many things for the Kingdom because I wanted to be approved of. Part of me truly wanted to serve God, but I admittedly had mixed motives at times. In a way, I had to face the darkness in myself and as a result, I started to pay less attention to the darkness in others. I began realizing how weak my sources of value were when I realized how quickly life can take those things away.

In light of all these revelations, God’s grace and love began to fill the vacuums that were left behind from these false, shattered sources of identity. He started replacing my narrative of “rejection” with “accepted,” “chosen,” and “child of God.” Even though I knew I had salvation, I began to actually believe it and my eyes were slowly opened to the inheritance I had access to. My feelings became deeper, and I started laughing more and crying harder. Suffering has a way of turning dead hearts of stone into living, beating hearts of flesh because we are made fully vulnerable. Nothing is hidden in the heat of the harsh desert sun. When this happens, we can be fully known by the One who created us and until we are fully known, we will never be fully alive.

Another result of facing the darkness in me was that I began feeling a greater love and compassion for people, including my enemies. Now, when I see people in their darkest moments, I see a little bit of myself in them. I also want to clarify that I am still growing in these things. It’s not like the light switch got flipped on all of a sudden. There are still days when my overthinking goes through the roof and the voices of my past cause my breathing to get tight and my hands to shake.

This is the first post of what will be a multi-part series. We have established that many of us do not know who we are and that life will force us to face that question, but we have not answered who we are and how do we get there? In the next several posts, we are going to cover how we can take every advantage that the desert has to give to us. We will go over what our identity is, what it is not, and how to find our identity. In the desert, God gave me the gift of my identity. I did not find my identity in what I did or in other people; nor did I find it by going inside myself or through creating my own identity. All of those ways are dead ends and will leave you feeling more empty than you did before.

As I type, I am praying for you and that you discover how the Father sees you and how He wants you to see Him. Right now, all may feel lost, but this is not the end; rather, it is the beginning. You are not alone. As endless as the desert may seem, know that every desert has an end. Every ocean ends on a shore. Every mountain range ends in a valley. However, the end is not all there is to look forward to. Remember that even in the barren wasteland of the desert, there are countless stars to look up to. Across the endless ocean horizon are sunrises and sunsets that can’t be matched anywhere else on earth. At the top of every mountain range are views few will get to behold. Yes, the pain is almost unbearable, but there are gifts to be discovered and hope to be found. You are not alone.

When I look at ocean sunrises, I’m in awe of how endless the ocean seems, as if it goes nowhere. I like to imagine that the light from the sunrise is a bridge that leads to the home I was made for, the land “beyond the sun.” If you read my last post, this is one of those “down payment” moments I learned from Doc, when my soul remembers eternity’s song.

Ashes from the flames

The truth is what remains

The truth is what you save

From the fire

And you fight for what you love

Don’t matter if it hurts

You find out what it’s worth

And you let the rest burn

Switchfoot, If the House Burns Down Tonight

2 thoughts on “Who are You? Pt. I

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s