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Think about another human you know. In your relationship with that person, you actually have five identities which you are juggling. There’s who you think you are, there’s who you wish you could be, there’s who the other person thinks you are, there’s how you think the other person views you, and there’s who you actually are. This makes for one messy situation.
Take the husband who is feeling sorely tempted to have an affair with his secretary. He thinks his wife has no idea about his struggle, so he assumes that when she looks at him, she sees a faithful man. In reality, the wife suspects that he’s being unfaithful, so when she looks at him, she really sees a cruel traitor. When the man looks at himself, he sees a weak, frustrated man. The man feels intensely guilty about his struggle, and he wishes he could be content with his marriage. That’s four identities so far: who the man thinks his wife sees, who his wife actually sees, who the man thinks he is, and who he wishes he could be. But then there’s who he actually is—that’s an identity which no human on the planet knows, not even the man himself. The man’s view of himself is constantly being warped by his current stresses and circumstances. The man never sees himself with total accuracy—he’s always comparing who he wishes he could be to who he thinks he is. It’s the same with you.
Your view of yourself is far from accurate. Like every other human on the planet, when you think, “Who am I?”, three identities come to mind: who I wish I was, who I think I am, and how I think other people view me. There are always differences between these three identities, and those differences can become a major source of stress to you. So how do you form these three identities?
WHO I WISH I WAS
Who you wish you could be is based on who you think you ought to be. By now you’ve picked up a lot of ideas about who you ought to be from other people. Maybe your father really wanted you to be a professional athlete, and you just weren’t good enough. But your father put so much pressure on you to live up to his ideal image, that you now feel intense guilt for failing to be who you ought to be. Or maybe you’re gay. You read in the Bible that God hates homosexuality, and based on that information you believe who you ought to be is straight. Well, you can’t just flip some magic switch to change what turns you on, can you? This is the torment of the who I wish I was identity: it’s usually one that is impossibly out of reach. Sincere Christians wish they were morally perfect. Frustrated addicts wish they were free of all addictions. Repentant criminals wish they could go back in time and not do what they did. The who I wish I was identity torments us. The more we allow demons and unreasonable people to shape this identity for us, the more frustrated we become.
The rules you were taught as a child, the things you were punished and rewarded for, the things you were taught about God—all of these factors play a critical role in forming your who I wish I was identity. But like all of five of your identities, the who I wish I was identity is in a constant state of flux. As you gather new information and go through new experiences in life, you keep refining this identity to fit what you think is your ideal self. You never used to look at porn, now you do. You feel very guilty about it, so now a new element gets added to your who I wish I was identity—you wish you were a man who didn’t care about porn. Or maybe you’re hanging out with Pentecostals and all the other Christians you know start babbling in tongues when they get excited. You don’t speak in tongues, but these people say you would if you were really saved. Your who I wish I was identity now gets a new element added to it—you wish you had the gift of tongues. See how it works? There’s just no keeping up with the who I wish I was identity. On a good day, you might feel a little closer to being your ideal person, but on a bad day, you fill a million miles away from it. It’s because the who I wish I was identity is always out of reach that your who I think I am identity often feels quite disappointing.
HOW I THINK OTHER PEOPLE VIEW ME
You think your little brother thinks you walk on water. You think your kids think you’re morally perfect. You think your fiancée expects you to incredibly amaze her on your wedding night. You think your black neighbors all view you as a bigot just because you’re white. Your how I think other people view me identity is formed based on comments people drop, stereotypes you accept, and your own efforts to act differently than you really are. Because you’re desperate for your dad’s approval, you pretend to like basketball as much as he does. Now you think he thinks your love of the game is sincere, but it’s really not, and this puts you in a stressful position every time you and he hang out. Or maybe you think your Christian boyfriend would dump you if he found out about your abortion, so you lie and say you’re a virgin. Our own insecurities and false assumptions about others go a long way towards shaping our how I think other people view me identity. You underestimate how much your friend values you, so you believe the relationship is on shaky ground. Not wanting to risk losing it, you constantly put on false airs that encourage your friend to form false assumptions about you. Then you feel very pressured to keep maintaining those false assumptions that you helped create. It’s a mess.
Your how I think other people view me identity is the one that often motivates you to cave in to peer pressure, compromise your standards, and make very foolish choices. You need your wealthier friends to think you’re their economic equal, so you go into crazy debt trying to imitate their expensive lifestyle. You need your peers to think you’re cool, so you smoke what they’re smoking and you laugh at their disgusting jokes. You’re afraid of your boyfriend mocking you for being frigid so you get in the sack with him and let him treat you like a free prostitute. All humans have deep core needs to be accepted, liked, and wanted by others. We view the how I think other people view me identity as an important key to helping us get our needs met. We think that as long as we can get others to view us a certain way, we’ll be accepted, liked, and wanted. But there’s a flipside to that coin: when others totally reject us.
Your ex still hates you for cheating on her. Your daughter refuses to talk to you because you weren’t there when she needed you. You can’t get a job because every employer decides you’re a threat once they find out you did time in prison. Your father has disowned you. The folks at church are avoiding you because they all believe some slander that your pastor started circulating about you. You’re getting nasty looks because of your ethnicity. Sometimes people make it very clear that they hate us and that they’re not about to give us a second chance. This causes our how I think other people view me identity to feel like an oppressive burden that we just can’t get out from under.
WHO I THINK I AM
Because you’re the only one inside yourself, you’re the only one who knows how you really feel about something. You smile at your mother-in-law even though you inwardly hate the woman and then you feel like a hypocrite. All humans are hypocrites. All humans intentionally misrepresent themselves to others. Often this is what we’re supposed to do: your boss is paying you to put on a good act in front of his clients. You might be having a bad day, but you’re being paid to smile and act cheerful, so that’s what you ought to be doing.
The safer we feel with someone, the less pressure we feel to put on false fronts, but there’s no one who we feel totally safe being 100% real with. Even our closest friends and spouses can’t handle being blasted with every negative thought and insecurity that we have. It’s because we always feel the need to hide the who I think I am identity that we feel a sense of isolation in our relationships with others. The who I think I am identity feels like our real selves, and it is this identity which we wish could be fully accepted by others. But in real life, others don’t even know our who I think I am identity, and even we struggle to accept who we really are. Sincere Christians often find themselves bitterly disappointed by what they believe is their true selves, and then they come to the despairing conclusion that God must also find them sorely lacking. But does He?
RELATING TO GOD
When it comes to relating to God, there are certain truths which bring great relief and comfort to our souls. The first is that God is not bothering with any of our fictitious spin-offs of reality. The who I think I am identity is a far cry from who we actually are. God’s acceptance of us isn’t based on our fictitious beliefs about ourselves. Instead, He sees and accepts who we really are. This is truly fantastic news, and once we get our minds around it, it eliminates the great fear of God suddenly rejecting us if we ever turn out to be less than He thought we were.
One of the toughest aspects of spiritual maturity is gaining a more accurate view of our own depravity. In short, we’re way more messed up than we realize. When God first opens your eyes to get a fresh view of just how selfish, perverse, and evil-hearted you are, it’s extremely upsetting. Your who I think I am identity gets ripped apart and soiled with all kinds of new, ugly flaws. You look at the revised identity, and say “Yuck! How could anyone love such a carnal creep?” And yet that same person is who God has been loving all along.
Unlike the acceptance of our human friends, God’s acceptance of us isn’t some fragile, tenuous thing that will suddenly crumble beneath our feet. So often with others, we feel like we’re walking out onto the thin frozen surface of a lake—one wrong move and we’ll end up in a crisis. The more touchy the person we’re trying to relate to is, the more nervous we feel. If you even glance at a stranger, your jealous boyfriend flips out on you and accuses you of disloyalty. If you aren’t constantly answering her nagging texts, your insecure girlfriend goes into a weepy meltdown that you don’t really care about her. If you get one C on your report card, your demanding father threatens to reject you. If you lose your temper just once, your congregation instantly writes you off as carnal. We’re so used to having to tiptoe around the humans in our lives that it’s really hard for us to grasp how totally secure and safe we are with God. He loves us as we actually are. He doesn’t have any false assumptions about us. He doesn’t have unreasonable expectations. He doesn’t make impossible demands. When it slowly dawns on you that you’re gay, you feel terribly ashamed. God doesn’t. He knew you’d end up here and His love for you has nothing to do with your sexual preferences. You always prided yourself on staying sexually pure. Now you’re waking up in a bed with your boyfriend feeling horrified and disgusted with yourself. God saw this day coming a long time ago. He isn’t shocked. He isn’t turning away in disgust. You got that abortion. You stole that money. You molested that kid. You downloaded that porn. You flirted with that married man. You thought those hateful thoughts. Every time you do something that you know is wrong, the four identities you focus on in life fluctuate and spike your stress levels. Who you think you are. Who you wish you could be. How you think other people view you. How other people actually view you. But God isn’t basing His love for you on any of these things. He’s responding to the real you—and that’s someone who you just aren’t very well acquainted with.
How pleased is God with you right now? It depends on how your soul is responding to Him. But how accurate is your view of your own soul? Not very. When you try to listen for the voice of your soul, you hear your earthsuit yammering at you about all of its carnal lusts. You want to please God, but you figure your want to isn’t worth much to Him unless you can come up with some follow through. Don’t try to tell God that you really want to be pleasing in His sight while you fantasize about molesting kids. He sees your dirty thoughts, and He’s going to be disgusted with you, right? Wrong. God judges you by your soul, not your earthsuit. But you judge you mainly by your earthsuit. When it’s behaving itself, you feel pretty good. But when it’s acting like a carnal pig, you feel repulsed and ashamed. There’s only one way to get off that tiresome rollercoaster, and that’s to realize that God’s view of you is the only one that’s truly accurate.
God loves the real you—not any of these partly fictitious versions of you that you’re constantly stressing over. God knows the real you, and that makes His counsel priceless. If you want real help in life, God is the One you need to turn to, because He’s the only One with an accurate view of the problem and the resources to fix it. When your who I think I am identity gets too ugly for you to bear, you plead with God to fix it by helping you overcome that one temptation that’s wiping you out. But God isn’t interested in helping you maintain positive delusions about yourself. He is focused on helping the real you, and that often requires a very different kind of therapy than you think you need. While you just want to stop being haunted by some disgusting desire, God wants to use the burden of that struggle to help you gain a better understanding of His love for you. Like every other human, you love you based on your own performance. If you fall short of your own expectations, you end up hating you. Most humans find themselves extremely hard to please. We’re good at finding fault in others, but we’re also good at finding fault in ourselves. Sure some of us are so high on arrogance that we maintain lofty views of ourselves. But the closer we get to God, the more flaws we see, and the more disappointed we become in our own performance. It’s tiresome not to like yourself. It’s draining to realize what a sinful yuck you really are. Life feels more enjoyable when you can look at a guy like Hitler and say, “What a monster of a man. I would never dream of doing all of the sick and twisted things that he did.” But if you’re maturing, the day will eventually come when you look at all those monsters around you and think, “Yikes, I’m really no better than any of them!” How can you possibly feel joyful in life in the face of your own depravity? You can if you understand that the real you has been the one that God wanted all along.
In life, you can shock yourself and other people with how low you sink, but you can never shock God. He knows you inside and out. He sees the end from the beginning. It is because God totally knows and wants the real you that your relationship with Him ends up satisfying you in a way that no other human relationship can. Certainly you will still need other people in your life, and they can be a real blessing. But human love can’t hold a candle to God’s love. At best, humans sincerely love who they think you are, but that person will always be significantly different than the real you.
It’s not all bad that other humans don’t really know you—there are ways to turn their ignorance into blessings. It’s because your son thinks you’re perfect that he values your advice so much—this gives you an opportunity to steer him down some roads that will really benefit his soul. It’s because the guilt ridden prisoner thinks your pastor title makes you equal to God that you can successfully persuade the man that God is still willing to accept him. Even our blind ignorance can be put to positive uses, but at the end of the day, you still need someone somewhere to accept the real you. That someone is God. He loves you as you are, He wants you as you are. If you are willing to embrace them, these truths will change your life.
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