Finding Our Identity
If you pay attention to society long enough, you’ll discover that there is a calculus that goes with individualism. We want to stake a claim to our own identity—far enough away from the mainstream to be an individual, but not so far that we are alone. We want to be our own man or woman, and yet we also want to belong. In his parable of the lost sheep, Jesus sets out his own calculus when it comes to individualism. Like our own, it incorporates how society identifies us. And yet, unlike our own, it insists that our value comes from our distinctness, rather than our incorporation into some larger group.
See that you do not despise one of these little ones. For I tell you that in heaven their angels always see the face of my Father who is in heaven. What do you think? If a man has a hundred sheep, and one of them has gone astray, does he not leave the ninety-nine on the mountains and go in search of the one that went astray? And if he finds it, truly, I say to you, he rejoices over it more than over the ninety-nine that never went astray. So it is not the will of my Father who is in heaven that one of these little ones should perish. (Matt 18:10-14 ESV)
Did you catch what Jesus did there? He refers to “these little ones,” a group of people apparently susceptible to being despised. A few verses earlier he is speaking of children, so perhaps it is the little kids in the group that Jesus is speaking of. It would be easy to dismiss a child because of their size, just as many today are dismissed because of their color, education, income, gender, occupation, or some other factor. Jesus warns us against writing off a whole group, and he does so by appealing to the worth of a single individual. Contrast the way of Christ with the way of political pundits and church growth strategists, who sadly sound more and more alike. To Jesus there is no such thing as a voting bloc, or a generation abandoning church at an alarming rate. There is one, lonely, sheep. And Christ says the shepherd pursues that one sheep, even if it means risking the ninety-nine, because his calculus is quite simple. It doesn’t matter whether the sheep is in a key voting demographic, or a generation abandoning the church. The value of the sheep is tied in no way to its being part of a larger group. The sheep matters because it belongs to the shepherd, and he wants it back.
As we make our way through the Gospel of John during our Wednesday evening Bible study, I have been struck by the way that Jesus spent so much of his time with individuals rather than groups. Around half of John 3 records Jesus’s conversation with Nicodemus, who had come to him under the cover of darkness. Most of John 4 tells of Jesus’s encounter with the woman at the well. He does interact with groups—there is no doubt about that. The greatest sermon of all time, the Sermon on the Mount, was preached to a large crowd. And the only miracle of Jesus (apart from the resurrection) to be recorded in all four Gospels is his feeding of the 5,000. And yet, the most memorable moments in the Gospels result from Jesus’s investment in individuals. The woman at the well’s enthusiastic confession: “He told me all that I ever did.” Jesus’s words of compassion to the woman caught in adultery: “Neither do I condemn you; go, and sin no more.” The man born blind’s defense of Jesus before the authorities: “Whether he is a sinner I do not know. One thing I do know, that though I was blind, now I see.” These moments capture our imagination because they hint at a truth that our hearts desperately want to believe, and that our broken world so badly needs to hear.
I think Paul makes one of the greatest confessions of that truth, weaving together our own personal faith commitment, with the sacrificial love of Christ that reflects our own individual worth in the eyes of our Creator.
I have been crucified with Christ. It is no longer I who live, but Christ who lives in me. And the life I now live in the flesh I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave himself for me. (Gal 2:20 ESV)
What if, instead of finding our identity in some larger group, we each found it in our ability to confess that the Son of God loved us, and gave himself for us? What if, instead of finding my purpose in what I can do, I found it in dying to myself and allowing Christ to live in me?