The image of God needs no Instagram filter

So God created mankind in his own image,
    in the image of God he created them;
    male and female he created them.

Genesis 1:27

Our complex identities

Who do you define yourself as? When someone first meets you at a party and says, ‘tell me about yourself,’ what’s the first thing you say to them?

Maybe you define yourself by:

  • Your job: are you a teacher, doctor, lawyer, accountant, pastor?
  • Family: are you a daughter, brother, son, mother, father, wife, husband?
  • Your nationality, your religion, or your cultural background?
  • Pets, passions, hobbies, volunteer work, musical preferences, favorite films… maybe there’s even a favourite meal you love to eat, or love to cook, so much that it’s become a part of you, so much that you’d even introduce yourself at a party by mentioning it.

These different roles we play in our lives all combine together to make up who we are, and how we view ourselves. All these things intertwine to help form our purpose, our worth, our callings, even.

Our ‘tidied up’ images: filtered for public consumption

We spend so much of our lives forming and trying to understand our identities, “curating” our identities, even — deciding how we present them to the world. Of course, social media has pushed this concept to the forefront of many people’s lives. We all have our own ‘brand’, now. It’s become a whole art form: we reveal just enough of ourselves to the world to give an image that we think represents some kind of ideal.

Maybe you post a picture on Instagram of that favourite meal you like to cook — but you only show that one time it turned out perfectly. You don’t post the pictures of the burnt ones, or the undercooked ones, or the ones that came out a bit lopsided.

Embracing the beauty of complexity

The truth is, though, those messed-up meals are a part of your identity too. The so-called ‘failures’ you went through were necessary to get to that final product. So this ‘curated identity’ we present to the world doesn’t really reflect the depth of who we are. It doesn’t show all the shades of light and dark, all of the good and bad parts, all of the growth we’ve been through to get to where we are now.

Our identities are often a whole lot more complex than we’d like to admit.

So let’s instead learn to embrace our identities in all of their fullness, in all of their depth. Let’s acknowledge our complexity and our uniqueness. Look at what it says in Psalm 139:

For you created my inmost being;
    you knit me together in my mother’s womb.
I praise you because I am fearfully and wonderfully made;
    your works are wonderful,
    I know that full well.

Psalm 139:13-14

Each one of us has been made in God’s image — we’ve been knitted together, fearfully and wonderfully. Every single human bears a different part of the image of the infinite God. Every single one of us carries our own unique reflection of the wondrous, perfect creativity of our Creator.

That means we can stop worrying about presenting our lives through soft-focus filters with carefully constructed angles and air-brushing. We can stop trying to strip away our complexities and our complications, and allow ourselves to just be ourselves. Because who we are is who we were made to be, and that means there’s a place and a purpose for us, just as we are.

Go out there and show the world the image of God in you.

Where do I belong? The search for purpose and place

I’ve written a few times in earlier posts about the importance of understanding our identity. Today’s post looks at how that fits into our quest to find our place and purpose in the world. We spend a lot of time trying to figure out not just who we are, but where we belong.

Identity crisis: when we lose sense of where we belong in the world

Sometimes, a thing we might have seen as central to our identity and purpose gets taken away from us.

When I was a young child learning piano, I had a bad habit of carelessly dropping the heavy lid of our upright piano so that it made a loud bang, and all the strings in the piano vibrated and echoed with the impact. After a few too many loud crashes, my dad told me a story about a young girl who was training to be a concert pianist. One day, this unfortunate girl carelessly allowed the piano lid to drop on to her hands — and she lost all her fingers! Her carelessness ended up destroying her bright future.

In retrospect, I’m not so sure this story was entirely true… but at the time, it had the desired effect on me. “What if that happened to me?” I wondered. “What if I lost all my fingers? Would I still be me, if I couldn’t play piano anymore?” Even at that young age, music-lover that I was, I’d learned to associate my passion for playing piano with my identity, and with my sense of purpose in the world.

And this is a fear many of us have, I think. What if tragedy strikes, and we’re no longer ‘useful’ in the things we’ve become valued for? No doubt you can think of examples that would be powerful for you.

  • What if I lose my job, and can’t support my family?
  • What if my marriage breaks up, and I end up on my own?
  • What if my health fails, and I can’t look after myself anymore?

Holding life with a looser hand

Often, things like this happening might cause a kind of ‘crisis of identity’. Not only do we grieve the loss of whatever has gone, but we grieve the death of who we were. We fear our identity has gone, along with the job, relationship, skill, whatever it was. We end up unsure of who we’re supposed to be, and of what we’re supposed to be doing.

I think we all have this awareness that on some level, our lives are very fragile. And all the blessings, the gifts we have are fragile. We’re not in control, not really, even though we like to think we are.

That might leave us feeling uncertain of our ‘place’, our purpose, and our identity. It might make us fearful. It might cause us to cling on to things too tightly — jobs, for instance: making sure no one else knows how to do your job so they can’t replace you. Or relationships: trying to find your meaning and purpose in the other person, to fit them into a particular mold of some ‘ideal’ in your mind which isn’t really them.

When we’re not confident of our identity and our purpose, we take these things in our lives that are meant to be gifts and blessings, and we try and squeeze all the meaning we can out of them.

We try and force them to provide the meaning and the purpose that we’re craving.

But the truth is, as Christians, we don’t need to operate out of that kind of fear. Instead, we can afford to hold the blessings in our life with a looser hand.

Belonging in God’s house

Because, as I’ve written elsewhere, Scripture tells us our identity is in Christ (Gal 2:20) and that we are beloved children of God (1 John 3:1).

When we know this, when we remember this deep truth about ourselves, it changes us. It has far-reaching implications for how we live our lives, because it means that no matter what happens to us, we can lean on this sense of belonging.

Jesus describes beautifully to his disciples this knowledge of belonging somewhere:

Do not let your hearts be troubled. You believe in God; believe also in me. My Father’s house has many rooms; if that were not so, would I have told you that I am going there to prepare a place for you?

John 14:1-2

Notice how he doesn’t just say that God has “left a place vacant for you”, or that there’s “space for you to fit in God’s house”. He goes much further than that. There’s a room prepared, just for you. And we know the difference, don’t we? Between someone that just ‘makes space’, and someone that goes the extra mile to make sure you belong somewhere. God is doing the latter. God is excited about your uniqueness, your distinct personality that you’re bringing to the Kingdom, and God is making his house ready for that.

A resetting of priorities and purpose

Now, I don’t mean to say that we shouldn’t pursue passions and gain satisfaction from them. None of this means we won’t have things we love, experiences we learn and grow from, pastimes we find meaning in. Nor does it mean that we can’t look for motivation and fulfilment from our jobs, our marriages, our families, or our hobbies.

But it does mean that we don’t need to be fearful if those things don’t give us that deep purpose we desire. Because the truth is that they’ll never fulfil us completely. They’ll never provide you with that ultimate understanding of who you are, where you belong, and what you’re doing here. Because none of these things are the most fundamental aspect of your being, which is this: You’re a beloved son or daughter of the Most High, and there’s a place prepared for you in God’s house.

You belong — if you’ve never quite felt that before, then know it now. And if you’ve been searching for that feeling of belonging in certain groups, certain labels — maybe even within the church! — then as of now, you can let it go. Nothing can separate you from the love of God. Nothing can take away that place He’s prepared for you.

Prayer: Lord, thank you that you call us your children. Thank you that we can rest knowing that you’ve prepared a place for us in Your house. Help us to live in the certainty of these truths: that we belong, and that we’re loved. Help us to live our lives grounded in this knowledge, and willing to love fearlessly and freely, just the way you did.

(Note: This, along with the post Who am I? The quest to understand our identity, is adapted from a sermon I delivered on 12 May 2019.)

Forgiveness and acknowledging sin

So watch yourselves. “If your brother or sister sins against you, rebuke them; and if they repent, forgive them.

Luke 17:3

Forgiveness is important, but we can’t really forgive someone until we’ve acknowledged — even if just to ourselves — that we’ve been sinned against.

I don’t know about you, but I sometimes have a tendency to brush aside offences against me, and to act as though they didn’t happen. Maybe for the sake of keeping the peace. Or maybe because I don’t want to admit that someone’s managed to hurt me. Admitting hurt means admitting vulnerability, and showing vulnerability might make me look weak.

Or sometimes it might be because I’m all too conscious of my own sins and offences against others. This might leave me feeling as though I don’t have the right to speak out when someone else is at fault. But this is a false line of thinking that only leads to further deception and hurt down the track. The response to my own sin and guilt needs to be repentance, not covering up the sins of others.

The end result of all this soldiering on and pretending everything is fine is that resentment builds up without me noticing. Without realising, I end up holding on to unforgiveness towards my offender, because I didn’t acknowledge that forgiveness was necessary.

Sometimes it’s important to just take a step back and admit: yes, this hurt.

Maybe the next step might be to confront the person directly about their offence — or maybe not. What happens next really depends on the situation, and on the people involved. Maybe the next step might be to share the experience with another trusted person in your life. Or to talk honestly to God about your hurt.

Whatever follows, the important thing is that we need to acknowledge when someone sins against us. Admitting this doesn’t make us weak, or a victim. Nor does it mean we’re saying that we’re faultless in our own lives.

It does mean that we can begin the process of working through the hurt, of letting go, and of granting forgiveness, just as we’re called to do.

Who am I? The quest to understand our identity

Have you ever taken a personality quiz of some kind? You know the sort — detailed questionnaires designed by psychologists to help you better understand your own identity. I bet there’s a fair few of you reading this right now who already know your Enneagram number. Or maybe you’ve done a StrengthsFinder test, to try to get some insight into what your ideal career should be. I tried the Myers-Briggs Type Indicator a few times myself — it used to frustrate me that I’d get a different category every time I took the test. Whether I’m a T (thinking) or F (feeling) seems to depend largely on my mood at the time. Same with S (sensing) versus N (intuition).

These kinds of tests have their advantages. To better know our strengths and our weaknesses can be very helpful — indeed, any increase in self-awareness is a good thing. In learning more about our strengths, we gain a better understanding of where we can work most effectively. We learn about how we can make the most impact and bring the greatest benefit to ourselves and to those around us. And in understanding our weaknesses, we can ensure we’re on guard against the kind of situations and circumstances that are likely to trip us up in some way, or prevent us from operating at our best.

Boxing ourselves in

But do such tests really categorise who we are? Can we really be reduced to a number, a series of four letters, a dot positioned on a chart of some kind? Surely we’re more complex than that. Surely putting ourselves in a neat little box like that is limiting the fullness of what we’re created to be.

Finding the right category to describe ourselves can be very satisfying. But what if you straddle between two categories, or three, or more? What if none of the categories in the test quite manages to articulate the particular gifts and strengths you bring to the table? Or what if, like me with the Myers-Briggs test, you fit into different categories on different days? (Of course, that’s probably because I’m an Enneagram 9…)

There’s something in all of us, I think, that loves to know what “box” we belong to. We love to have neat ways of sorting ourselves and everyone else into our proper classifications. Perhaps it’s our innate desire to belong to a tribe of some kind; to know who else is like us, and who is different. Perhaps it makes us feel more understood and accepted to know that someone else has come up with a technical-sounding label that defines us in some way.

Let’s be careful, though, that in the process of discovering our box, we don’t end up boxing ourselves in.

Our Ever-Evolving Identities

I was never a very sporty person. During high-school, I’m ashamed to admit, my mother used to write me sick notes to get me out of cross-country running days. As a teenager, and then later on as a young adult, I convinced myself that physical activity just “wasn’t my thing”.

Then, a few years back in my mid-thirties, I decided I needed to improve my fitness. I trained regularly on the treadmill at my local gym, following various interval-training plans to slowly improve my endurance, until eventually I could run 5km without a break. The first time I reached that five kilometer mark, I nearly collapsed in a puddle of sweat and exhaustion, but it felt so good! Not just because I’d achieved something new, but because I’d busted a false belief about my identity.

Sometimes we build up an idea of what constitutes our “identity” that brings with it restrictions and limitations. Sometimes, when we mentally place ourselves in certain boxes, we then let those boxes stop us from trying new things. We let our self-imposed categories convince us that we’re unable to pursue a certain path.

Identity in Christ — what does it mean?

As Christians, Scripture tells us our identity is in Christ. “It is no longer I who live,” writes Paul in Galatians 2:20, “but Christ who lives in me.” That’s a pretty radical take on describing who we are! What does this even mean?

Well, one thing that it means, which I want to focus on here, is that we are beloved children of God. Take a look at this passage from 1 John — one of my favourite books in the Bible:

See what great love the Father has lavished on us, that we should be called children of God! And that is what we are! The reason the world does not know us is that it did not know him. Dear friends, now we are children of God, and what we will be has not yet been made known. But we know that when Christ appears, we shall be like him, for we shall see him as he is.

1 John 3:1-2

God has called us his children. God has called us loved by Him. This is, fundamentally, who we are — this is our deepest, truest identity. That has a far more profound significance than any result on a personality test.

By all means, go ahead and find out if you’re a 4, or an 8, or an INFJ or a ENTP. But in all that self-analysis, always remember that who you are goes beyond any of those boxes. Who you are is a beloved child of God.

Whether you're a 4, an 8, an INFJ or an ENTP, always remember you're a beloved child of God. Click To Tweet

What’s your Enneagram number? Your MBTI personality type? Do you enjoy these kinds of tests, or do you find them limiting? Share your thoughts below.

Self care: an important part of building God’s Kingdom

A little while back, I wrote a short post entitled Tending to my corner of Creation. It talked a bit about our tendency to feel guilty taking time out for self care. It reminded us, though, that we’re a part of God’s creation — “fearfully and wonderfully made”, the Psalmist writes! So it follows that we should place a high value on looking after ourselves well. There’s no need for a guilty conscience where proper self care is concerned.

I’d like to go into a little more depth with some of the ideas I touched on back in that post. But first, let’s look some Scripture.

Elijah’s self care ‘fail’

Do you remember Elijah’s moment of despair — that little tale in 1 Kings 19? Poor Elijah was in fear for his life. He’d been faithful in prophesying God’s word — but for all his efforts, Jezebel was threatening to kill him. At this point in the story, it all seems too much for him. Elijah is tired of running and running, but never getting anywhere! He’s wondering if any of his efforts have even made a difference. He’s wondering what the point of it all is. Elijah has reached a place of desperation, and of bone-deep weariness. Perhaps you can relate.

“I have had enough, Lord,” he said. “Take my life; I am no better than my ancestors.” Then he lay down under the bush and fell asleep.

All at once an angel touched him and said, “Get up and eat.” He looked around, and there by his head was some bread baked over hot coals, and a jar of water. He ate and drank and then lay down again.

1 Kings 19:4b-6 (Read 1 Kings 19:1-9)

So what does God do? He doesn’t say, “Get over yourself, Elijah! Stop wallowing and get on with the job.” He doesn’t tell Elijah everything’s going to be fine, or to cheer up, it’s not that bad!

God gives Elijah sleep. God gives Elijah food and drink.

Then, He gives Elijah more sleep, and more food and drink.

Then, and only then, does Elijah decide he is strong enough to face what’s ahead.

Forgetting self care: the dangers of “running on empty”

Things often look better after a good night’s sleep, don’t they? A proper meal helps, too. When we take care of these basic needs in our own lives, we tend to see things with more clarity. We approach situations more rationally. We deal with set-backs with more resilience, and we’re less likely to take things personally.

Sometimes, we become so consumed by a particular task, that we end up neglecting our basic needs. Maybe we’re not even aware we’re doing it. We might still be going through the motions of eating and sleeping — but perhaps the meals are rushed and not as healthy as they should be, and the sleep is low on quality as a result. Like Elijah, we can get caught up in this cycle of running and running, and never stopping, but never really getting anywhere, either. Eventually, we end up running on empty. We become so exhausted that we forget our original motivations for whatever it was we were doing. We collapse in desperation, wondering what the point of it all is.

In today’s fast-paced world, constant busyness can seem like an unavoidable fact of life. Making time to care for one’s self requires intentional focus. It requires setting aside time to plan meals, to schedule quiet time, to get enough exercise and enough rest. That might mean consciously shifting our priorities.

Deferring self care to others

Maybe you’re lucky enough to have someone in your life who picks up the pieces for you when you forget to look after yourself. You know the type of person I’m talking about — maybe a parent, or a spouse, or a close friend. That person in your life who makes sure you eat a vegetable every now and then. They remind you when you’re due for a health check-up. They drag you away from the computer screen at 2am, when you’ve been staring at it for so long you can’t keep your eyes open anymore.

These people are such blessings to have in our lives! But the truth is, we can so often take them for granted. We fail to notice that they’re spending time looking after things that we should be taking care of ourselves.

Now, in saying this, I don’t mean that we shouldn’t accept help when we really need it! If you’re struggling with your health, and you’ve got a supporter out there on your team helping you shoulder the burden, then skip over this section. This is not meant to make you feel guilty!

But sometimes, we place burdens on those close to us, when deep down we know that with wiser prioritising and more self-awareness, we could carry those burdens ourselves. If that’s the case, we need to make some serious changes. Neglecting ourselves so that someone else has to do the hard work instead is beneficial to no one.

“Because you’re worth it”

Ultimately, we bear responsibility for our own self care. We might justify overlooking our wellbeing because we’re too busy serving others. But if serving others comes at the expense of our health, we won’t be any use! We won’t have the physical, emotional, or spiritual fitness to be able to support or serve anyone.

Ephesians 2:10 says “For we are God’s handiwork, created in Christ Jesus to do good works, which God prepared in advance for us to do.”

Did you see that? God’s handiwork. That’s you! That’s someone worth taking care of. And someone who needs to be taken care of, so that you can do those good works that God has prepared for you to do. Carrying out those works has to start with discipline and faithfulness in our own lives.

God’s Kingdom: bearing each others’ burdens in balance

Once we’ve got the self care thing sorted out, we start to become aware of those areas where we’re pushed to our limits. We start to have a clearer picture of where we might need to rely on our friends and family to help us out.

And on the flip-side, we also become more aware of those areas where we have particular gifts to bring, where we can help carry burdens for others in our community.

This is how Kingdom living is done! This is how God intends for His community to work and live and love together. But none of it can be done well if we don’t get our own house in order first, so we have the strength and the endurance to live out our calling. So that we know, realistically, when we actually do need a hand up from a friend. And we know when we’re sturdy enough to be able to hold that hand out to someone else.

So go ahead. Make that doctor’s appointment; invest in that gym membership. Buy some fresh vegetables. Whatever it is that you know you’ve been neglecting about yourself, it’s time to tackle it. It’s time to look after the you that God made you to be, so you can carry out the good works he’s calling you to do.

Look after the you that God made you to be, so you can do the good works God has called you to do. Click To Tweet

Lent begins this Wednesday March 6th. Traditionally, Christians observe Lent by giving up something, or observing a new spiritual discipline. How might you observe this season of Lent?

What does it mean to love as God loves us?

“A new command I give you: Love one another. As I have loved you, so you must love one another. By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you love one another.”

John 13:34-35

What is it to love as God loves? So many of our own experiences of love, whether giving or receiving, are flawed in some way. Flawed in their motivations, or flawed in the execution — both, usually.

So given that God’s love is without flaw, that leaves us to wonder: how, exactly, does God love us? Not in the same way that any other person has ever loved us. And not in the same way that we’ve ever managed to love anyone else.

Some people take this notion of perfect, godly love to mean a gritted-teeth kind of love. “You don’t have to enjoy it,” they say, “you just have to do it!” Love isn’t just about warm-fuzzy feelings, these people admonish us. It’s about doing what’s right, doing what’s best for the other person and putting our own needs last.

Well, there’s truth in the saying that love is a verb; that it only becomes meaningful through action. I’ll agree that it’s not just about feeling nice all the time. Sometimes love hurts, just like all the songwriters say.

But you know what? I don’t think God has to grit his teeth in order to love us. I think God rejoices in us, that He delights in the wonder of his own creation.

And this might be a bit controversial, but you know what else? I think God rejoices in who we are even when we stuff up. I don’t mean to say that he rejoices in our sin. But I do believe that God sees and loves the beauty, the potential, in who he’s created us to be. He sees this and rejoices in it, even through our mistakes and our falling short.

Perhaps, then, real love, loving as God loves us, means to see the beauty in someone’s humanity. Maybe this is how we’re called to love others: to recognise their beauty and potential, just as God does for us. To see and be awed by the image of God residing in them, just as it does in us. Instead of responding and reacting to their faults and shortcomings, to try instead to connect with and draw out the person that God has created them to be.

Lord, help me to love as You love. Help me to see the beauty and the uniqueness that you've placed in each person that I encounter today. Click To Tweet

The God who sees

She gave this name to the Lord who spoke to her: “You are the God who sees me,” for she said, “I have now seen the One who sees me.”

Genesis 16:13 (Read Genesis 16:1-16)

Hagar was a woman who had no real rights to speak of. Abraham’s slave — more than that, his mistress. Doing what she needed to do to survive in that time and place, fulfilling her role as was required of her, but hated and abused by the matriarch of the house as a result. With no one to turn to for protection — there wasn’t exactly a Concubines Union to step in and help! — Hagar did what seemed like the only bearable thing left to do: she ran away.

But God is not yet finished with Hagar’s story. Intercepting her on her path, an angel brings her news that she is pregnant! She has provided Abraham a son and an heir; thus assuring her protection and her worth in this patriarchal society.

As troubling as we may find many aspects of this story, Hagar’s beautiful response to the angel is one that always sticks with me, and it’s a response that I find myself echoing in prayer all the time:

You are the God who sees.

Knowing we are seen

Have you ever felt as though you’re not really being seen? Perhaps as part of your role at work, or perhaps even in a room among family and friends. You’re expected to play a particular part, carry out some task in a particular way, maintain a status quo, relate to the people around you in a certain manner, because “that’s just the way things have always been done!” But maybe you feel unappreciated, unrecognised, unfulfilled. Maybe you feel misjudged or even victimised, and it seems like no one is acknowledging it. Or maybe you just feel like you’ve been reduced to a role that doesn’t quite fit you anymore, that you’re not being acknowledged as a person in all your complexity, with the potential for growth and change.

God sees you.

Let the words of this passage in Genesis speak to you the way they spoke to Hagar. The God of creation sees you, knows you, better even than you know yourself. God sees your potential, the things you long for but don’t dare to voice out loud, and the things that haven’t even entered your mind yet.

Sometimes that’s all we need — to remember that we are seen. That our situations are seen. That whatever injustices we are contending with are seen, and that the very essence of who we are is seen.

God sees you, he knows you, and he loves you. Hold on to that knowledge, and let it carry you through.

God sees you. He sees your situation, the things you long for, the very essence of who you are. Let that carry you through. Click To Tweet

What does it mean to you to be seen?

Tending to my corner of Creation

For you created my inmost being;
    you knit me together in my mother’s womb.
I praise you because I am fearfully and wonderfully made;
    your works are wonderful,
    I know that full well.

Psalm 139:13-14 (NIV)

For we are God’s handiwork, created in Christ Jesus to do good works, which God prepared in advance for us to do.

Ephesians 2:10 (NIV)

It’s that time of year when we make resolutions to better ourselves. Exercise more! Floss regularly! Eat more fresh food! Spend more time in prayer and meditation! But after a few weeks (days?) of good intentions, too often these resolutions fall by the wayside, and old habits come back into play.

Why does this happen so easily? Shouldn’t it be natural to want to spend time on ourselves, improving our health and our habits? And yet it’s often easier to let the focus drift back to other things, other people — more important, higher priority tasks.

Sometimes even a sense of guilt might creep in when we carve aside time for ourselves — whether it’s an hour spent working out at the gym, or spending quiet time with God. It often feels like there’s no room left for quiet time in today’s fast-paced, time-is-money society. And even from a more spiritual point of view, it can feel strangely selfish — I mean, shouldn’t we be spending that time focusing externally, not internally, ministering to others, out in the world helping people?

Perhaps, though, there is something to be said for placing a higher value on our own well-being. My own mind, body, and soul is a part of the greater creation. Looking after myself well is doing God’s work in the place where, indeed, I have the most impact and influence. If I’m going to do any good at all, then right here is the place to start.

Looking after myself well is doing God's work in the place where I have the most impact and influence. Click To Tweet