I was a three sport athlete in high school. In the fall, I played football. I was an all-region tight end and ended up playing in college before I blew out my shoulder. In the winter, I played basketball. I wasn’t the tallest or the most skilled, but I started at center on a team that went to state. Football and basketball were my favorite sport, but easily the most fun was track and field. Sure the events themselves were fun, but all of the downtime in between events was what made track what it was.
I was a sprinter my freshman year, but entering my sophomore year I decided I wanted to try something new. I was a tall basketball player, so the most logical choice was high jump. So on the first day of practice, I went to try out for high jump and broke the record — for most times jumping really high right up into the bar. Scratch that off my list.
It was then that I stumbled into what would become my love: hurdles. My speed, long legs, and coordination meant that I was actually pretty good at hurdling. I did fairly well at the 110 meter hurdles, but my specialty was the 300 meters. By my senior year, I was winning most of the 300 meter races I was running and closing in on our school record. At our regional meet, I took first place and recorded the second fastest race in school history. Everything was setting up perfectly for me to break the record and win a trip to state the next week.
So on to the sectional meet I went, feeling as good as I ever had. As I rounded the second and final turn, I took the lead and was on pace to break our record by two whole seconds. But then I grazed a hurdle. Which doesn’t sound like a major deal — except that hurdling is all about precision and maintaining a certain number of steps between each hurdle. I hit the next hurdle and lost my lead with three hurdles to go. And on that last hurdle, my strides were so thrown off that I tried to complete a hurdle I couldn’t possibly make.
For only the second time in my career, I tripped and fell to the ground, watching my opponents, my record, and my hurdling career disappear in front of me. I’m a little ashamed to say it, but there are probably only a handful of times I cried harder than I did that afternoon. I sobbed.
It was just a stupid track event, right? But it was so much more than that. It was a dream and a career dead. It was a failure in front of both close friends and complete strangers. Worse of all, it was the embarrassment of an proud 18 year old boy heave-crying in front of crowds of people.
As I dealt with my failure in the days and weeks following my loss, I discovered something unnerving: my identity and personal value had been so wrapped up in that event and that record that I wasn’t sure what to do with myself any more.
Again, it was just a stupid track event, right? But it’s more than that. We all have these metaphorical hurdles that come our way which confront the picture of who we are.
Perhaps it is relationships, your career, your finances, or even your beliefs. They have become such a strong part of the definition of who you are that — whether they are good or bad — you have trouble objectively seeing yourself apart from them.
What happens if it all falls apart? Or maybe more confusing, what happens if it all goes better than you could have dreamed? What are we left with? Or perhaps WHO are we left with?
Looking at the journeys of the Apostle Paul in the book of Acts, we see that even the heroes of our faith faced issues of uncertain identity. Paul and his friends had been through the ringer. They’d been called all sorts of nasty names, chased out of town, threatened, and now arrested. In Acts 28, Paul and his fellow prisoners had been shipwrecked on their way to Rome. This is actually the third time Paul had shipwrecked. Their captors wanted to kill them to keep them from swimming away, but one soldier wanted to save Paul so everyone was spared. Though they were now safely on shore, Paul still faced a difficult challenge — physically, mentally, and even spiritually.
Once safely on shore, we found out that the island was called Malta. The islanders showed us unusual kindness. They built a fire and welcomed us all because it was raining and cold. Paul gathered a pile of brushwood and, as he put it on the fire, a viper, driven out by the heat, fastened itself on his hand. When the islanders saw the snake hanging from his hand, they said to each other, “This man must be a murderer; for though he escaped from the sea, the goddess Justice has not allowed him to live.” But Paul shook the snake off into the fire and suffered no ill effects. The people expected him to swell up or suddenly fall dead; but after waiting a long time and seeing nothing unusual happen to him, they changed their minds and said he was a god. There was an estate nearby that belonged to Publius, the chief official of the island. He welcomed us to his home and showed us generous hospitality for three days. His father was sick in bed, suffering from fever and dysentery. Paul went in to see him and, after prayer, placed his hands on him and healed him. When this had happened, the rest of the sick on the island came and were cured. They honored us in many ways; and when we were ready to sail, they furnished us with the supplies we needed.
This is one of four passages in the book of Acts in which the narrator switches from third person to first person. That is, the author switches from talking about “he” and “she” and “them” to “we.” Tradition suggests that Acts was written by Luke the physician, the author of the Gospel of Luke and a traveling companion of Paul. By this point, it is believed that Luke is now with Paul and writing from his own experience and observation. So when Paul, Luke, and the others make it to shore, the islanders offer them great hospitality. They even built a fire for them to warm up by.
Remember, Paul and his companions are complete strangers. What they know is what they see. So when Paul is bitten by a venomous snake, they jump to conclusions about who this guy is. Their assessment of his identity was calculated by external observations. Well, he’s a Roman prisoner… who was shipwrecked… and now is bitten by a venomous snake. Given their observation, Paul’s identity seemed clear: he was one cursed by the gods. He’s probably a murderer. All the things that were happening must be a sign of God’s judgment on him.
But notice the change in their view of Paul from just one moment to the next. When Paul shook off the snake and didn’t succumb to the poison, the islanders flipflop. We hear in verse 6 that “they changed their minds” about him. And it was a quick change but it wasn’t subtle. It’s as if they said, “Well, let’s take a step back and take account of the new evidence. Yes, he’s shipwrecked prisoner who was bit by a snake, but through all of it he hasn’t died. He must be a god!”
Seems like all is well! But Paul’s challenge isn’t just a shipwreck or a snake bite or the harsh words of others. The challenge is to his identity. A one moment he could be cursed and the next a god.
On the one hand, Paul had a pretty jaded past. Before becoming a follower of Jesus, Paul had been responsible for “ravaging” the church in Jerusalem, persecuting men, women, and children. He later became a follower of Jesus, but he wasn’t always the most humble of guests in the towns that he visited. Perhaps he WAS cursed and God WAS just waiting to repay him for all he’d done.
At the same time, Paul did make a 180. He became a follower of Jesus, he traveled across the Roman world planting churches, he performed miracles, and he laid the groundwork for millions upon millions of people to become followers of Jesus. He wasn’t a god, but perhaps he really WAS better than the rest of us.
After all this, notice that Paul doesn’t flinch. His identity isn’t determined by his external circumstances or claims of others. Rather his identity can be seen in the way he responds to them. He doesn’t respond. He just keeps on keeping on. Paul apparently knows that circumstances and the claims of others don’t affect who he is. In his letter to the Philippians — which most people believe was written while he was in prison in Rome where Paul was headed in Acts 28 — Paul makes a pretty clear statement about how circumstances change his identity. “Listen, to live is Christ and to die is gain.” In other words, circumstances and the statements of others don’t change my outlook on the world or myself. Only Jesus can tell us that.
This is actually quite profound and distinct when we look at the much more popular alternatives. There are religions predicated on a view of the world that if you do good you are good, and if you do bad you are bad. We can scoff all we want at this perspective, but many of live within this view of ourselves and the world. Teenagers are notorious for this. As their brains develop and they achieve self-differentiation, they begin seeing themselves — which is why they’re always so self-conscious. Make up, clothes, the nicest phones, hair gel, Axe body spray. One of the worst things that can happen to a teenager is to stand out. Like failing and then crying your eyes out in front of crowds of people. Because I failed that day, I was convinced I was a failure.
But it’s not just teenagers. It’s just as true of us grown ups as well. Something happens at work. You hear that someone has been talking about you behind your back. You perform poorly on a project. You lose your job. You get the diagnosis. Or maybe, perhaps, you’re actually really good at what you do. You are your company’s best whatever-you-are. You pride yourself on your busy schedule. You’ve never been healthier in your life. You are that rock star stay at home mom who somehow has time to exercise, keep your house looking beautiful, cook homemade meals every night, and still prevent your kids from killing themselves.
Good or bad, we can begin seeing ourselves through the lens of the things we do our what others say about us.
Ironically, many people find justification for this in the Bible through a certain storyline. The entire history of the world — so it is thought — is predicated on us failing to listen to God. Adam and Eve. The nation of Israel. Followers of Jesus. God told us what to do and not to do, and if we just followed what he said, things would go well for us. It’s simple: if you do good, things will go well with you. Except when you do, and they don’t. And except when others don’t, and they do.
If we follow this logic, it can be pretty destructive. If things are going poorly, we can begin questioning our own worth and standing before God. Maybe we’re in this predicament because God is mad at us. Like the islanders thought of Paul, perhaps justice is catching up to us. Or the opposite can be true — if things are going well, we can start getting wrapped up in the overriding importance of those things. Also like the islanders thought of Paul, perhaps we are gods. But if you think about it, none of us has completely good lives or completely bad lives. If we place ourselves on a pendulum, we likely swing from one side to the other from one day to the next. Or maybe like Paul from one moment to the next.
If this is our picture of the world, than our identity would never be grounded. It would just keep swinging back and forth.
Despite all the external “evidence,” this is what WE need to hear: what you do or what is done to you does not define who you are. Yes, there are decisions — both good and bad — that have consequences — both good and bad. AND sometimes good things and bad things just happen. Sometimes we’re snake bitten, figuratively or perhaps even literally, by no fault of our own. Not because we are bad or God has it out for us. That storyline that if we just listened to God things would go well for us simply isn’t true. It’s certainly not what you find when you read the Bible. Some of those who end up leading God’s people are major screw-ups. On the other hand, some of those who are most faithful to God end up experiencing the most trouble. Their families are taken from them, they’re mocked and overrun by their enemies, and many end up being killed. If our identity and standing before God was determined by circumstances or what someone else said about us, we’d be in big trouble.
But we are not defined by what we think of ourselves or what someone thinks of us on any given day. We are defined by what God has said of us.
Just before Jesus began his ministry, the Bible says that he was baptized. As he came up out of the water, a voice called out from heaven. “You are my son, whom I love. With you I am well pleased.” Notice I said that this happens before his ministry. Jesus hasn’t done anything, yet God is claiming him as his beloved son. That seems important. In the verses that follow, Jesus goes out the wilderness and is tempted by the devil. And how does the devil attack? With a simple question: “If you are the son of God, do this.” It’s the same question that was given as he hung from a cross three years later: “If you are the son of God, why don’t you get yourself down?”
The Father’s statement to Jesus at baptism is incredibly important, because it’s a reminder of where Jesus’ identity lies — no matter the circumstances, no matter what other people say, he is God’s beloved son.
The same is true for us. Our life is filled with successes, failures, and people commenting on both. These, however, are not the things that make the definitive statement about who we are. In fact, it is Jesus — the one about whom the Father made a definitive statement — who makes the definitive statement about our identity. He came, he lived, he died, he rose again for us. For you. No matter the circumstances, no matter what other people say.
Your job does not define you. Your house does not define you. Your successes do not define you. Your failures do not define you. Your spouse does not define you. Your ex does not define you.
Yes, all of these things contribute to who you are. But none of them makes the definitive statement about who you are. Jesus does.
“You are my son and daughter whom I love. With you I am well pleased.”
So may we be people who acknowledge that we are sons and daughters of God. May we find our grounding not in what others might say but what God has said. And may we see, affirm, and call out the divine sonship and daughtership in the people around us.