Sunday, October 4, 2009

"In Christ" Does Not Mean Seeking One's "Identity"

I have not written much these past few weeks, as I have been trying to wrap my mind around understanding where my view of God is flawed. He brought some correction through the constructive criticism of a well-known author and biblical counselor, who I contacted about writing the foreword to my book. She requested I send her the chapter entitled "Your Identity in Christ: What the Believer is Worth and Why" (which I posted here), suspecting we might have some "differences".

We did. She suggested I read a particular chapter from one of her books, entitled "Psychologized Man Most High", which covered the same ground as my own writing on the false assumptions of Sigmund Freud and Abraham Maslow (who invented the man-based "Hierarchy of Needs"). Confident that my thinking remained purely biblical and uninfluenced by secular psychology, I completely affirm her statements about the man-centered, humanistic basis of psychology and the myth that a Christian must "love him/herself in order to love others" (which I've heard in several women's Bible studies). Then, implicating "Christian" psychology, she wrote: "A Christianized psychological version of a self-actualized man would be described as a mature Christian who is confident of his worth "in Christ" or who loves himself so that he can, in turn, love others."

I was stopped in my tracks.

The first part of the sentence is what grabbed my attention - the "worth in Christ" part. Loving one's self is antithetical to the Gospel, and I have always upheld this view. However, it had been my belief that understanding one's personal "worth" in God's eyes, and realizing one's "identity in Christ" were key components in overcoming sin and fulfilling His calling on one's life. The problem here is the whole emphasis: on man, rather than on God, where it belongs. Unbeknownst to me, the "identity needs" philosophy was developed by Freudian psychoanalyst Erik Erikson. By tacking on the suffix "in Christ", integrationist Christian counselors have sought to legitimize this thinking - that we somehow need to develop an "identity", and seek a source of "value" or "worth".

How this man-centered twist to a biblical truth (we ARE "in Christ") snuck into the Church is a reflection on our me-centered, narcissistic society. The Bible does not uphold the notion that we need to validate ourselves by seeking our "identity"; rather, we are to seek ONLY God's glory and ascribe all honor to Him.

The author explains:

"Erikson's theory of personality development is also the Christian psychologist's model for teaching that your "identity" is in Christ. If we can just understand who we are in Christ, we will realize our identity and no longer be depressed or anxious or feel badly about ourselves....this is a perversion of the true biblical teaching that Christians are "in Christ". Our union with Christ is a precious truth. We should love it and believe it, but not twist it into something God never intended - a formula to solve emotional problems or make man feel worthy."
I can't say "oops" emphatically enough. Although I certainly wouldn't have phrased it that bluntly, this feelings-based, sanctified "I'm okay; you're okay" rubbish is the trap I was falling into.

(Cool graphic courtesy of the Pyro dudes).

We Were NOT "Worth So Much that Christ Died for Us"


"We frequently hear Maslow's hierarchy of needs "Christianized" through sermons and books that tell us "God loves you, you're special, you're worthy - your significance is in Christ. If you were the only one, Christ loved you so much He would have died for you. Once you understand that your identity is in Him, you will feel better about yourself."
This morning, I saw the following from a fellow Christian on Facebook:

"Jesus knows our flaws, but He also knows we were worth dying for...choosing to love and see the beauty in every flawed, unique, amazing, worth-dying-for person."

I cringed...not because the bottomless love of Christ is in question, but because the whole view is upside-down. He loves because HE is all-loving and all-worthy; infinitely compassionate and abounding in mercy. NOT because we people are "worth dying for" (we most certainly are not). Human beings are valuable because we are made in the image of God; not because we have any intrinsic value of our own.

So what does it mean, then, to be "in Christ"? The author provides this definition, taken directly from Scripture:

"To be "in Christ" means literally to be "in union with Christ." "...just as he chose us in Him before the foundation of the world, that we would be holy and blameless before Him (Ephesians 1:4). This is a supernatural union that takes place at the moment of salvation...it is not because we were so special, worthy, and valuable or because salvation makes us so special, so worthy, and so valuable that Christ died for us. Prior to salvation, we were "dead in our trespasses and sin" (Ephesians 2:1) and were considered "enemies of God" (James 4:4, Romans 5:10).....Our sin was, and still is, far worse than we realize. God is the One Who is special and worthy. We should not even think in terms of how wonderful, special or worthy we are. Certainly all of God's creation, including mankind, is magnificently wonderful because God, the creator, is wonderful. The focus, however, must be on God. Christ died to vindicate "the worth and glory of His Father", not the worth of sinful man. It is blasphemous and dishonoring to God and Christ's atoning work on the cross to attempt to elevate man to a "Most High" status. Only our holy God is "Most High".

I know these verses and what she is saying here is so plain as to be common sense. Yet somehow, even in our worship (as has been pointed out many times in analysis of modern "worship" songs), what we are really saying to God is not "I love You", but rather "I love me, and since You love me, that's great!"

Next, I read 1 John to note how often the term "in Christ" (or some variant thereof) occurs. This helped me solidify the correct understanding - everywhere John uses the description, it is in reference to obedience (vs. 3:24; 2:28; several others). Needless to say, John is not talking about viewing our position as a way to meet our emotional needs. What I'm thinking is that "identity in Christ" is sort of a loaded term - I need to strike it from my vocabulary because of this man-centered thinking associated with it. "In Christ" refers to our justified position, and carries with it the implication of obedience and being conformed to the character of Christ - not seeking to find "meaning" or personal fulfillment. That makes sense.

Naturally, now I will have to go back and re-write that entire chapter in my book, but I'm not quite sure how to go about it.I am on solid ground with discussing the fact that, if we are truly "in Christ" (regenerated by Him), we are not slaves to sin any longer, yet still must battle daily with the old nature. The mistake some make of essentially trying to "redeem themselves to the Redeemer" is futile, and sanctification is an ongoing process. But everything I wrote about our having worth because Christ died to redeem us is problematic.

What I really wanted to get across in this chapter to the eating-disordered reader is that God deeply loves her. The parable of the Prodigal Son in Luke 15 is precious to any Christian struggling with addictive sin, because it reveals the Father to be longing for her return - with outstretched arms and a kiss for the repentant sinner.I want to dispel the notion that God is disgusted with her, and the mental image of Him with crossed arms and clenched jaw (metaphorically speaking), waiting to punish her shameful behavior (and no doubt, it IS shameful and He IS to pure to countenance such evil). The bulimic is typically so demoralized by her own sin that she's afraid to bring it to God, and many (if not most) of the women I've counseled fear that they have lost their salvation. Consequently, I have tried to hammer home the fact that she is loved and cherished by the Father and, I suppose, there is a sense in which the Lord Jesus would have died for her alone if she were the only sinner on earth (Spurgeon has a great sermon in this).

Since His love is infinite, it extends to her individually. However, I've inadvertently gone too far the other way - I cannot say, 'you are a worthless sinner' as she (the reader) will then give up hope. As I wrote in the book, Romans 2:4 has deep personal meaning to me: it truly was God's kindness that lead me to repentance. I realized the grievous nature of my sin, and it crushed me - but it wasn't fear of hell that made me change. It was His love. Once you're tasted that love, you can't help but be changed by it.....as you know, you don't want your sin anymore, because it grieves and offends the One Who created and died for you.

But does this great truth give us "value" or make us "worth" something? No. This is what I'm learning. It says NOTHING about us - it says EVERYTHING about Christ. HE is the One Who is worthy, beyond value, with infinite compassion, mercy, and love. Why He would condescend to redeem and even love worthless creatures like us in unfathomable - and He does it with an infinite love that surpasses our understanding. It is not grudging or conditional. But we must be careful in not thinking that His love gives us worth or makes us lovable. To Him alone belongs all honor and glory; not to the creation.

Digesting this correct understanding of our position before God has been a bit difficult, not only because I've had to "unlearn" some of my thinking and have more work yet to do on my book, but because it's allowed old doubts to re-surface and again twist a correct understanding of God. "If I'm not special to Him, what's the point of praying? If I'm worthless, why should He want me around?" If I pursue this (equally unbalanced) line of thinking, it causes me to view God as distant and impersonal. Repeatedly in Scripture, we are affirmed of His closeness and intimate fellowship with the believer (which He desires - again, see 1 John and John 14). God's love is a constant, and we need to consider it a settled matter.

The reason doubting this is sin is because, quite simply, we're not taking God at His Word when we ask such questions and struggle with unbelief. (Come to think of it, Spurgeon has a hard-hitting message on that, too). Even a cursory reading of the Bible should clear the matter up for us - God chooses to love us. End of story. (I've been thinking and praying about this a lot lately; it's not a new idea, but setting it up against the introspection many books throw at us is helpful in pinning down exactly what the proper view of God is). Furthermore, the seeking affirmation from Him and requesting assurance that He loves us personally is a way in which we try to use Him to "meet our emotional needs". It should never be necessary - "Does God love me" shouldn't cross our minds; or it's corollary: "Is God mad at me?" I think asking ourselves if we have grieved God is a fair question (and a necessary one, in order to confess our sin to Him), but "Is God mad at me?" is not - the focus is still on "self" and it leads to another sin - self-pity.

The problem with the phrase "identity in Christ" isn't the "in Christ" part; it's the implication that we should be seeking our "identity needs" to be met. Our true needs - for forgiveness and salvation - were completely met at the Cross.

4 comments:

4simpsons said...

Thanks for the thoughtful and transparent post. I appreciate your ability to be corrected and how you strive to get just the right balance. Blessings to you for that.

"Yet somehow, even in our worship (as has been pointed out many times in analysis of modern "worship" songs), what we are really saying to God is not "I love You", but rather "I love me, and since You love me, that's great!""

So true!

JTW said...

Another great Post, very helpful! I grew-up with a man-centered theology and I am still in the process of shedding that kind of thinking. For example, I didn't eschew sin because it was open warfare against God. My motive for avoiding sin was because, in the end, it would be the best thing for me. Pure pragmatism divorced from any true affection for God.

Often, we have heard the idea that we are special because God sent His only Son to die for us. This is how Randy Alcorn addressed that kind of thinking:
"Suppose a man murdered five children and his bail was set at ten million dollars. Would you look at the enormity of the price of his freedom and conclude, "Wow, this guy must really be worthy! I mean, he's worth ten million dollars!" I doubt his lawyer or anyone else would point to the cost of his bail as an indication of his worth or a basis for his self-esteem!"

I recently had a conversation with a friend (who quoted a preacher) on the importance of forgiving yourself. I said that is part of the problem, we are too important in our own thinking. We need to understand the infinite worth of God and that we have sinned against Him. Whether or not we "forgive" ourselves is of little consequence. If we understand the depth of our sin and the infinite worth of God, the only thing that matters is if He has forgiven us. And if He has forgiven us, what else can there be but great joy in that knowledge?

Our problem is not that we have low self-esteem, it is that we have a low opinion God.

Marie said...

Thank you; you seem to understand it better than I do! Great analogy from Randy Alcorn. I've heard good things about him; have yet to read anything by him.

Mark said...

Marie - this was very good, thank you. You're not alone in this struggle. I have had to learn tha being made in His image is one thing, and being anything but a depraved sinner unable to save himself is quite another. Blessings!