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Embracing Our Authentic Identity in God

During college orientation, an inner urge led Joshua to change his mind. Because of his interest in music, he attended the initial music orientation meeting. The meeting helped trigger an intuitive sense that – as he put it – “I could do something more.” At the last minute, he scrambled to register for the pre-med curriculum – changing his goal to becoming a pediatrician. He knew that music – and worship music in particular – would always be important to him. But he opted for a mission that would ask more of him.

Like Joshua, each of us needs to find our way in life. For most of us, the path involves uncertainty, trying different things, and discovering what fits and what doesn’t. As Lent begins, Mark’s Gospel describes Jesus’ efforts to come into his own on the threshold of his ministry. (Mark 1: 9-15) Although the account is brief, it highlights three experiences that help guide our own Lenten journey: Jesus’ baptism, his temptation in the wilderness, and the message he proclaims.

Jesus’ baptism is a powerful moment in which his true identity is revealed: “You are my son, the beloved.” (Mark 1:11) At the outset of our Lenten journey, the Gospel urges us to come to grips with our identity in God. We have many roles – daughter or son, wife or husband, mother or father, and any number of roles at work and in life. While each role is significant, these roles only reach their full potential and expression when they are rooted in our identity in God. As Augustine expressed it in the opening lines of Confessions: “We were made for you, O God, and our hearts will never rest until they rest in you.”1

Our authentic identity in God isn’t revealed by a voice from heaven. Like Joshua, most of us need to follow instinctive insights as we discern our path and become the person we are meant to be. Discovering and living our authentic identity in God is a process of fits and starts, trial and error, learning and growth. Somewhere in Irving Stone’s, The Agony and the Ecstasy, Michelangelo is asked how he sculpted the magnificent statue of David. He responds: “I chipped away everything that wasn’t David, and David was left.”2 Our Lenten journey is part of the process of chipping away what is unnecessary and even false so that our true self – our authentic identity in God – is left. That is the journey of ongoing conversion that Lent invites us to embrace.

Jesus’ temptation in the desert is a critical step in claiming and living his authentic identity in God. Mark’s account has a curious phrase: “The spirit immediately drove him out into the wilderness.” (Mark 1: 12) My naïve view is that the spirit protects me from temptation. Yet that’s not what the Gospel says. Jesus’ wilderness experience is a deep wrestling with his authentic identity in God. It helps him grasp what that identity means and what it asks of him. It helps him understand how he will be tested and the ways he needs to respond. The temptations he endures are an essential preparation for his life and ministry.

When Jesus leaves the wilderness and begins his ministry, he is continually confronted by people and circumstances that urge him to live in ways that are contrary to his identity in God. The religious leaders pepper him with questions, challenge his authority, and frequently try to discredit him. During these encounters, he needs to stay true to his relationship with God and respond with clarity and strength. The Zealots are determined to enlist him in their cause to trigger an uprising against the Romans. Jesus consciously resists misusing his power – maintaining a relentless focus on his ministry of mercy, forgiveness, and reconciling love. Even Peter, one of the disciples in the inner circle, pulls Jesus aside to chide him for talking about suffering and death. Jesus is confronted on all sides by pressure to go against his identity in God.

David Whyte’s poem “Self-Portrait” captures both the challenge Jesus faced and our own challenge in staying true to our identity in God.

I want to know if you are prepared to live in the world with its harsh need to change you. If you can look back with firm eyes and say this is where I stand . . . I want to know if you are willing to live, day by day, with the consequence of love and the bitter, unwanted consequence of your sure defeat. 3 

Jesus isn’t the only one who needed courage in the face of temptation. It is a challenge each of us must endure. When we succeed in resisting temptation, we are strengthened by the experience. When we succumb to temptation, we come face to face with our need for God’s mercy, forgiveness, and love. Whether we resist temptation or give in to it, our Lenten journey calls us ever more deeply into our relationship with God. In both strength and weakness, through both resistance and giving in, we learn to more fully embrace our authentic identity in God.

As Jesus claims his authentic identity in God and emerges from the wilderness strengthened by temptation, he begins his ministry proclaiming a radical message:

The time is fulfilled, the kingdom of God has drawn near; repent, and believe in the good news. (Mark 1: 15)

“The time is fulfilled.” The long wait is over. Jesus’ message has an urgency and immediacy to it. Our Lenten journey urges us to leave our procrastination behind. It invites us to recognize the time is now, seize the day, and open ourselves to God’s presence.

“The kingdom of God has drawn near.” It is here – accessible to all who are willing to receive and embrace it. Our Lenten journey urges us to reach beyond our ego-driven self-improvement efforts. It invites us to open ourselves to God’s mercy, compassion, forgiveness, and love.

“Repent.” Turn your attention toward God; live in accordance with God’s will and God’s way. Our Lenten journey urges us to leave our resistance to change behind. It invites us to assent to God’s presence and embrace ongoing conversion in ways both large and small.

“Believe in the good news.” Trust it, give yourself over to it, stake your life on it. Our Lenten journey urges us to leave our hesitation and doubt behind. It invites us to set our minds, our hearts, and our whole selves on the Gospel.

As our Lenten journey begins, each of us faces the same challenge as Joshua did during freshman orientation – to discover and live our authentic identity in God. Mark’s Gospel calls us to embrace that identity, to let the wilderness and temptation strengthen us, and to allow Jesus’ message to permeate our thinking, our motivation, and our actions. Like all journeys, we need to embrace Lent as an adventure – with all of its promise and peril – and let it have its way with us. 

Questions to Ponder

Here are some questions to ponder as you reflect on how the Lenten journey invites you to embrace your authentic identity in God.

  • When have you, like Joshua, had an instinctive sense of the person you were called to be?
  • In what way are you coming to a deeper understanding and appreciation of your authentic identity in God?
  • How have you experienced the wilderness and temptation? In what ways have these experiences strengthened you?
  • What is Jesus’ message urging you to leave behind? In what ways is it urging you to turn your attention toward God?
  • As you begin your Lenten journey, what promise does it hold? What peril do you fear it may involve?

1 Augustine, The Confessions of Saint Augustine, trans. John K. Ryan (New York, Image Books Doubleday, 1960), p. 43.

2 Irving Stone, The Agony and the Ecstasy: A Biographical Novel of Michelangelo (New York, New American Library, 1987)

3 David Whyte, “Self Portrait,” Fire in the Earth (Langley, Washington, Many Rivers Press, 1995), p. 10.