Grace And Identity
A few years back I was driving one of my sons home from his basketball game and he was crying. He’s a great basketball player but had a less than stellar performance and he was, as a result, crushed. After doing my best to comfort him by listening to him and reminding him that his game was not nearly as bad as he thought it was and that even the best basketball players in the world have an off game here and there, I asked him why he was so upset. He told me plainly, “Dad, I played terrible.” I said, “I know you don’t think you played well but why does not playing well make you so sad.” He said (with tremendously keen self-awareness), “Because I’m a basketball player. That’s who I am.” Somewhere along the way he had concluded (due to success on the basketball court over the years) that his self-worth and value as a person was inextricably tied to his achievements as a basketball player. If he was a good basketball player, then he mattered. If he wasn’t, he didn’t. So a bad game was more than a bad game. It was a direct assault on his identity. I realized in the moment that any attempt to assure him that he was a great basketball player wasn’t going to help him because basketball wasn’t the issue–identity was. He was suffering an identity crisis, not a basketball crisis. A basketball crisis is easy to solve–a little more practice and a lot of encouragement typically does the trick. But an identity crisis is deep. It’s an under the surface problem requiring an under the surface solution.
When most of us stop long enough to consider what establishes our identity, what really makes us who we are, many of us naturally assume the answer is “our performance.” This is precisely what my son was facing.
I reminded him of the gospel. I showed him how the gospel frees us from this obsessive pressure to perform, this slavish demand to “become.” I showed him how the gospel liberatingly declares that in Christ “we already are.” While the world, the flesh, and the Devil constantly tempt us to locate our identity in something or someone smaller than Jesus, the gospel liberates us by revealing that our true identity is locked in Christ. Our connection in and with Christ is the truest definition of who we are.
I told him that since he was a Christian, who he really was had nothing to do with him—how much he can accomplish, who he can become, his strengths, his weaknesses, his athletic ability, what people thought of him, and so on. I reminded him that his identity is firmly anchored in Christ’s accomplishment, not his; Christ’s performance, not his; Christ’s victory, not his. So much of parenting, I’ve discovered, involves reminding. Simply reminding our children of who they are in Christ, what they already possess in Christ and how nothing–nothing–that Christ has secured for them can ever be taken away.
After listening to this, he stopped crying and from the back seat said, “Dad, why can’t you preach this way all the time. This makes sense.” Feeling like a failure as a preacher in that moment, I realized that none of us ever outgrow our need for robust reminders of the gospel.