06 Apr #115 – Words That Shape Identity
ESSENCE: We believe words are important and powerful. Disordered words about how we describe ourselves that embody the world’s priorities rather than Kingdom priorities infect our thinking, which ultimately infects our heart and can shape and distort our identity, our behavior and our destiny. For example, even “faith as usual” words like “Christian businessperson“ describes the pursuit of a disordered identity that can be an obstacle to working in alignment with Biblical beliefs, values and priorities. People who profess Biblical faith are meant to be dressed like Superman, with our primary identity being the Superman faith-suit that represents “WHO we are” in relationship with God and the business outfit of “WHAT we do” serving as an easily shed disguise for operating in the world. Words have power, identity words can shape our destiny, and disordered identity words can keep us from living a life of integrity in alignment with Biblical beliefs, values and priorities.
In post #113, we explained why we believe words are important and powerful. Disordered words that embody the world’s priorities rather than Biblical priorities infect our thinking, which ultimately infects our heart. In our last post (#114—Words that Shape Work), we looked at how disordered words infect our understanding of, and relationship with, work.
But disordered words can also shape and distort our very identity and our behavior at work. In some sense, we can become who we say we are, which means we need to be very careful how we describe who we are. For example, we believe striving to be a “Christian businessperson“ (or a “Christian lawyer“, or “Christian doctor” or “Christian artist“, etc.) is an obstacle to working in alignment with Biblical beliefs, values and priorities.
The Importance of Identity
As we have repeated a few times, it is said that our words become our actions, which become our habits, which become our values, which become our destiny. We believe you can become who you say you are (or who others say you are), which means we need to be very careful how we describe who we are.
Back in post #087 (WHO Identity), we asserted that one of the four important aspects of the intentional leadership required to lead an organization to faithfully “do right” through business a better way is a properly grounded identity—an identity grounded in WHO you are rather than WHAT you do.
The Importance of Primary Identity
If you have been reading these posts, there is one word you may have become tired of hearing–“WHY”. We have repeatedly come back to the importance of motivation and purpose. Over and over, we have emphasized Matthew 6:24 and the idea that a person can have only one primary identity (and an organization can have only one ultimate priority):
No one can serve two masters, for either he will hate the one and love the other, or he will be devoted to the one and despise the other.
Although a person can only have one primary identity, they can have many secondary identities, For example, a person can be a Christian, a businessperson, a wife (or husband), a mother (or father), a daughter (or son), all at the same time.
But when push comes to shove, there is one identity they view, consciously or subconsciously, as the primary identity—the one they will protect even if it means sacrificing success in their secondary ones. Our self-worth and value is wrapped-up in whatever we see as our primary identity.
Disordered Words That Shape Primary Identity
For the purpose of exploring the power of disordered words to shape primary identity, let’s consider a person named John with two identities—he identifies as a Christian and as a businessperson (it could be any occupation–lawyer, banker, accountant, barista, artist, musician, engineer, truck-driver, etc.).
Distorted Business as Usual Words. American culture, in particular, glorifies our work as our primary identity. What is the first question asked at a cocktail party upon meeting someone new? “What do you DO?” Almost reflexively, Americans label themselves by their work: “I AM an entrepreneur.” “I AM a lawyer.” “I AM a banker.” I AM a venture capitalist.” So the secular “world” pushes John’s primary identity toward “businessperson”.
In fact, the secular “world” view of faith and occupation is that they have absolutely nothing to do with each other (unless the occupation is in “ministry”). A person’s “faith identity” is personal and does not belong at the office/factory/store (sometimes because the proponents of this view are hostile to faith). So John’s identity as a “Christian” is discouraged from even showing up as part of what the world tells him is his primary identity.
If the world describes John’s most important identity as what he DOES, there is a good chance John will see that as his primary identity—a “businessperson”.
Putting the two identities together, John is a businessperson who happens to also be a Christian. When push comes to shove, John will probably not let his faith get in the way of succeeding at work.
Distorted Faith as Usual Words. Assuming John gets across the Sunday/Monday Gap and starts thinking more deeply about what his faith has to do with his work and what his work has to do with his faith, there is a good chance that he will read or hear or be told to become a “Christian businessperson”, which is the most frequent “identity” urged by those promoting faith-work integration.
“Christian businessperson” are “identity words” for which John will likely be affirmed in his faith communities. It feels like an identity based on WHO John is rather than WHAT John does. But that is a toxic deception that may shift John’s behavior.
Let’s parse the IDENTITY John has been urged to pursue–“Christian businessperson”. Remember, words have power. Our words become our actions, which become our habits, which become our values, which become our destiny.
The NOUN–the primary focus of John’s identity–is “businessperson”–WHAT he does, and the ADJECTIVE–the secondary attribute of John’s identity–is “Christian”–WHO he is meant to be.
As a “Christian businessperson”, John will still have a WHAT identity–seeing himself as first and foremost a businessperson who tries to carry out his businessperson identity in a Christian way.
While “John the Christian businessperson” will probably conduct himself at work in a more “Christian” manner than “John who happens to be a Christian”, once again, when push comes to shove, John will probably not let his faith get in the way of succeeding at work. Remember, a person will compromise their secondary identity to succeed in their primary identity.
With a WHAT identity, that means sacrificing the “Christian” to succeed as the “businessperson”. With a WHO identity, that means sacrificing worldly success as a businessperson (and even sacrificing that role) to pursue first God’s Kingdom and His righteousness.
Jesus is saying that the greatest concern of life is to place our relationship with God first, and everything else second. (Oswald Chambers)
Grounding Primary Identity Where It Belongs
Oswald Chambers wrote “Jesus is saying that the greatest concern of life is to place our relationship with God first, and everything else second.” That is particularly hard in America, where we are defined by our job/profession/occupation.
We believe John will be more successful in working in alignment with Biblical beliefs, values and priorities, and more successful in leading an organization to faithfully “do right”, if he begins thinking about himself–and speaking about himself–in terms of a WHO identity that puts his relationship with God first–as “a Christian engaged in business”. Just semantics?
How “Identity Words” Shape Behavior
Let’s compare how a WHO identity and a WHAT identity might impact John’s behavior.
With a WHO Identity
John will see himself as “a Christian engaged in business”
John may have to make sacrifices in his worldly business success to follow God’s principles and priorities.
WHAT John does will be determined by God’s leading rather than its potential for worldly success.
WHO John is where God places him will be more important than WHERE God places him.
John will wear WHAT HE DOES lightly and will be able to change disguise at a moment’s notice.
John will need to trust God with his provision and circumstances.
John’s identity will push him to go beyond “good” to pursue “Godly” (the topic of post #054—Loving Generously-Being Godly).
With a WHAT Identity
John will see himself as a “Christian businessperson”.
John may sacrifice the two great commandments (love your God and love your neighbor) or the pursuit of God’s Kingdom and His righteousness to achieve “success” in his primary identity as a businessperson (possibly rationalizing that he is still doing better than the people with no faith inspiration).
John will hold on very tightly to his worldly primary identity, possibly making compromises in righteousness or exploiting others to maintain his position and pursue his career/grow his business.
John will always need to have a worldly identity to latch onto–a good answer to “WHAT do you do?”
John is likely to trust mainly his abilities as a “businessperson”.
John may be “good”, but is unlikely to be “Godly” in WHAT he does.
There are numerous problems that can flow from work being our primary identity and source of worth and value.
An employer or investor has the power to take away “who we are”, if even for a short period of time.
If those to whom we answer (e.g., managers, investors) are driven by profit and power, we are vulnerable to extreme manipulation in their pursuit of worth and value through their job.
Most importantly, because a person can only have one primary identity, and they will sacrifice their secondary identities to ensure success in their primary identity, identities grounded in things like faith, family and fitness will be compromised or even sacrificed to ensure success at work.
How we see ourselves is NOT a matter of semantics.
Followers of Jesus are meant to be dressed like Superman, with our primary identity being the Superman faith-suit that represents “WHO we are” and the business outfit of “WHAT we do” serving as an easily shed disguise for operating in the world. Unfortunately, many people have their outfits reversed. They put on a “Godly” disguise while living based on worldly beliefs, values and priorities.
Words have power, identity words can shape our destiny, and disordered identity words can keep us from living a life of integrity in alignment with Biblical beliefs, values and priorities.
PERSONAL NOTE (from PM): Recently, I was thinking about Christian “identity” in a “church” rather than a “work” context. I was getting frustrated with the reality that many (most?) Christians describe themselves based on their denominational identity rather than in terms of their relationship with Jesus.
When you ask about faith, people who profess to be Christian are likely to say “I’m a I .” rather than “I am a Christian” or “I am a follower of Jesus.”. I believe this is a disordered identity—it is putting a man-made institutional identity ahead of identity in Jesus.
Just like a disordered “work” identity can lead a person to compromise their faith to succeed at work, a disordered “church” identity can lead them to sacrifice the unity of the Church for the sake of defending denominational differences. Is this a toxic deception akin to the twisted words Jesus heard in the desert?
As I was wrestling with this frustration, I came cross this insightful quote from Frederick Buechner:
If all the competing factions of Christendom were to give as much of themselves to the high calling and holy hope that unites them as they do now to the relative inconsequentialities that divide them, the Church would look more like the Kingdom of God for a change and less like an ungodly mess.
What would the world see if all Christians put their identity in Jesus first and their denominational identity second? What would the world experience if all Christian began to describe themselves as “I am a Christian, practicing my faith in a Baptist/Catholic/Evangelical/Lutheran/Methodist/Presbyterian/Protestant/etc tradition”?
(These “identity” divisions have many more layers too complex to explore here. For example, attending a meeting of NYC pastors a few years ago, I was astonished–and a bit disheartened–to witness racial, language and NYC borough identities seemingly come ahead of uniting in the identity of being followers of Jesus.)
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