Identity Myth: I am What I Do

There are a number of myths about identity.  There's the false connection between identity and commodity.  And there's the idea that having identity requires self-sufficiency.  But neither of these are as destructive as the myth I'm going to address in this post.   It's about the relationship between identity and productivity.  We’re going to debunk the myth that “I am what I do”—this idea that my work defines me.

Before I dive in, let's reflect on the absurdity of this myth by thinking of a job you once had, probably when you were young, that you would be embarrassed to hang your identity on – embarrassed if you still had to introduce yourself as having.  To give you few seconds to think, I’ll go first. 

When I was in college, I was pretty in to art.  I thought about getting an art minor and took a few classes, I even convinced a roommate of mine to drop his pre-med major which he hated and be an art major, which he did.  I think he paid me back by letting me know about a job offering in the Art department – as a model.  That’s right, I took my shirt off for money.

Ah, a little humiliation is good for the soul, I think.  Now, lest the rumors get out of control, I will say, I wasn’t a nude model, but then again, biker shorts aren’t exactly discrete if you know what I mean.  So there you have it, I would be, and am, embarrassed that now many of you who don’t know me are just going to think of me as the minister who sold his body for money.   Now it’s your turn.  What's your most embarrassing job?

We're going to tackle this myth by beginning with a positive question: “What is a sound biblical and theological understanding of work as it relates to our identity?

The fundamental identity of every human being is that they are a creature created in the image of God.   Hundreds and thousands of sermons have been preached on just what that means and explaining all the dimensions of that idea is beyond the scope of this talk, but what is important is to note this: Part of what it means to be created in the image of God, who worked for 6 days to create and then rested, is that we are most fully ourselves when we are able to make meaningful contributions to the beauty and development of our world.

We were not created simply to get work done.  Rather, work is something we do when we are most fully alive to our selves as those who are created in the image of the creating/working God.  Work is human and it is good.

The book of Genesis was revolutionary in it’s day precisely because of how it answered these most fundamental of all questions: Who are we as humans?  Who created us and why?

Before Genesis was written, there were already stories circulating about creation and they answered exactly the same questions.  One of the most popular stories in that time in Mesopotamia was called Enuma Elish.

Enuma Elish tells the story of creation like this:
There was a great war between the young gods and the old ones.  Eventually the young gods, led by Marduk (the god of Babylon) challenges Tiamat (the old she-god of the sea and chaos and is the victor.  Tiamat’s body is sliced up, its pieces formed to create lands, hills, waters. The bodies of her eleven monsters become the stars, sun, and moon.  The defeated gods are then forced to shelter, feed, clothe the winning gods.  Eventually the older gods become are overwhelmed by the work.  So Marduk proposes a solution and decrees that Kingu, Tiamat's advisor, shall die.  Then Marduk mixes Kingu's blood with clay and calls it “man.” Now "man" must do all the work for the gods. In other words, humans were created so god's didn't have to work.  It's written like this...   

Blood will I compose, bring a skeleton into being,
Produce a lowly, primitive creature, "Man" shall be his name: 

I will create lullu-amelu - an earthly, "puppet"-man.
To him be charged the service that the gods may then have rest...

Atrahasis, another ancient creation myth similarly imagines that the deities became tired of their work and rebelled and finally humans were created to do the work for the gods.

So the moral of both of these ancient myths is: we were created by the gods to do work – created as slaves so the god’s could take it easy.  And these stories were intended to lead people into a sort of resignation about the difficulty of life.  Of course, it’s hard – we were created to be slaves – we just try to make the most of it. Of course, this story rung true for these folks who most often were essentially the slaves of someone or some nation more powerful than themselves.  In fact, scholars suggest that Babylon proliferated this story because it sub-consciously led its subjects to be resigned to their dominion.  So that’s Enuma Elish.
Then into a world shaped by that story, along comes Genesis with what is in many ways a parallel creation-account using many of the same words and phrases, but offering a radically different answer to the questions who are we, who created us and what work has to do with it.

In Genesis we see that God created humankind not solely for God’s pleasure, but as an object of God’s love.  God didn’t create a slave, he created an image-bearer.  And work was never meant to be toilsome or painful, but a way that we would live out our God-likeness.  Work was the privilege of partnering with God in the work of caring for his created work.  Work was a gift, not a burden.  God enjoys his work and God created us to be like him in this way.

Genesis 2:8, 15
Now the Lord God had planted a garden in the east, in Eden, and there he put the man he had formed.  The Lord God made all kinds of trees grow out of the ground…The Lord God took the man and put him in the Garden of Eden to work it and take care of it.

Genesis 2:19-20:
Now the Lord God had formed out of the ground all the wild animals and all the birds in the sky.  He brought them to the man to see what he would name then and whatever the man called each living creature, that was its name. So the man gave names to all the livestock, the birds in the sky and all the wild animals.

Eden was a perfect world.  A perfect world is not a world without work – but a world without difficult work.  What a beautiful picture of work – naming the animals... “God brought them to the man and whatever he called them, that became their name." Here is Adam, working, enhancing and caring for what God has created, with ease. 

Work is a good thing, in fact, we will work in heaven!  Heaven is not like being on an eternal vacation – more like having the perfect job.  We will create.  We will build.  We will lead.  We will develop.  We will think.  You know the biblical picture of heaven isn’t an uncultivated garden, it is a well-developed city.  And as you know, running a city takes work.  We will do it joyfully and with much fulfillment.  Work is a gift of God and it too will be redeemed.

Jesus was constantly in conflict with the Pharisees because he worked on the Sabbath.  Jesus’ most pithy response gets to the heart of the relationship between work and identity:

Humankind was not created for the Sabbath, but the Sabbath for humankind. Mk 2:27

The same is true of work, the counterpart to the Sabbath. 

Humankind was not created for work – work was created as a gift for humankind.

This is one of the profound truths of the Genesis account:  work is a gift, not a curse, from God.

It is not part of the curse, though like the rest of creation, work certainly was affected by the curse.  Work is good.  So we ought to work, and we ought to experience that our work in the world is a very important dimension of our humanity.  But this is not the same as believing that “I am what I do.”

Slaves to Work: Captive Identity
Millennia later, the people of God had become slaves in Egypt.  For them, work had gone beyond difficult, it had become destructive.  As slaves, these people had been reduced to nothing but workers.  Their masters did not see them as people in the image of God, but as creatures whose value was measured strictly in the bricks they could made in a day.  Their captivity had robbed them of their identity – and so when God rescued them, his first and most important project was restoring their identity.  And so he told them: you are no longer slaves. 

I want to read for you out of Exodus 20, but from translation you might not be familiar with.  You’ve heard of the King James Version, right?  Well, this is the Chris James version of Exodus 20:1, 8-11

I am the Lord your God, who brought you out of slavery - you are no longer slaves and your identity is no longer rooted in your productivity, but in your relationship to me.  Therefore, worship only me. Do not worship idols. Do not misuse my name.  And to remind you that your work does not define you, I command you not to work one day a week.  It will be for you a weekly reminder that you are no longer a slave.  It will be a reminder that you are mine, you are made in my image, in the image of the one who rested secure in my own identity.  It will be for you a protest against the world which wishes to measure your worth by your productivity.  I am the basis of your identity, your work can never define you. Exodus 20: 1, 8-11

Sabbathing is a real challenge, especially to those who’s identity is captive to their work.  Only someone who knows who he is can stand to do nothing a day a week.

How about you?  Does your life rhythm include non-productivity?  You might protest that you need to work all the time just to make ends meet.  For the rare person, that may be so, but for most of us, I wonder if our need to work 7 days a week isn’t more often a psychological need than a practical one. 

This is certainly the case for me.  Even though it’s my day off and there is no real reason, I feel compelled to check my email.  There might be an emergency that I will be needed for.  I hope I am too important to have a life.  I try to keep busy, keep working so I don’t have to reflect.  I need to keep working, because if I don’t work, deep down, I believe I am losing value.  

The Sabbath isn’t just about physical rest, it is a regular reminder that our work does not define us – God does.  The benefits of regular rest isn’t just to restore us physically, but protect us psychologically from rooting our identity in our work.

I challenge you to consider whether you truly resist rest for practical reasons or psychological reasons.  The Sabbath command is an invitation to refresh your identity in God and free your identity from captivity to productivity.  

Now, I want to say something to those of you that are currently out of work or in jobs your embarrassed to admit, even though I do so with some trepidation because you might justifiably say “What does he know?” 

So here it is:  I don’t envy you, but at the same time, I hope you recognize that this presents a rare and sacred opportunity for you to refresh your identity apart from your productivity.  It can be especially hard to wean ourselves off of a job-based identity when our jobs are good,our careers are looking up and we’re moving up the ladder.  But when you’re out of work, or underemployed, it’s no fun having a job-based identity, because that will just leave you feeling rather worthless and unimportant.  It will never be easy, but it’ll never be easier than it is right now.  If you’re feeling worthless because of your unemployment or underemployment, it probably means your identity is dependent on your work in an unhealthy way – and its time to seize the opportunity to restore your identity in God.  Before I finish this post, I'll talk about what it could actually look like to restore your identity in God. 

In a small way, I experienced this kind of jobless identity crisis when Lindsay and I first moved to the Bay.  Years ago, my wife and I were getting ready to graduate from seminary and we were looking for church jobs.  As a clergy couple, the pickin’s are kinda slim.  It’s hard to find a church with two openings in roles that fit with each of your senses of giftedness and calling.  So we talked with several churches – one in Florida where we would have been ordained, but not in our areas of passion.

We had decided to prioritize Lindsay’s opportunity, knowing that if she didn’t get a good job, we might have kids and 12 years later realize that she still didn't have a strong experience on her resume.  So when she was offered the Associate Directorship of the College Ministry here, we prayed about it, visited and felt it was God’s calling, despite what it meant for me – which was nothing. 

When we first moved here, I didn’t have a job.  Actually I had interviewed for a teaching position at a Christian School and although my qualifications were strong, that didn’t happen.  To be honest, I was a bit self-righteous in my disappointment about this.  I thought I was over-qualified, so when I didn’t get the job, it was a blow to my ego. My identity for a long time had been rooted in my success as a student, and I was counting on being able to transfer it’s dependence to a respectable ministry job.  

So for the first, month and a half out here I introduced myself as my Lindsay’s husband – cause she seemed to know everyone and she had the only real job.    I felt rather insecure about this, so I found myself being kind of a braggart, dropping that I’d graduated from seminary, insinuating that I got better grades than Lindsay and any little thing to recover some identity.  Sadly, I don’t think I really seized the opportunity to refresh my identity in God.

Which means that now, that I do have a respectable ministry job, and since I’ve been  surprised by how much responsibility and opportunity I’ve been given over the last year and a half, I still struggle not to root my identity in this success.  Getting a good job really hasn’t made the identity issue easier.  In fact, I’d say it’s made it harder.  How do I give up the pleasure of linking my identity to a ‘thriving career’?  This is something I’m actively working on these days. 

I guess I don’t so much link my identity to my wife’s job anymore – although I do have to tell you how cool it is that she’s preaching in the main services at this very moment.  I’m going to have to watch her on line.  But the truth is,

This is a struggle both for people who have great jobs and for people who have no jobs. 

The Tension

What I want to do with the remainder of our time is to look at two episodes in the life of Jesus that represent the tension that we all live in between desiring to be grounded in our identity in Christ and also wanting to make real contributions in this world. 

The first place I want to take us is Luke 3.  At this point in Matthew’s gospel, Jesus really hasn’t done anything of note.  He has built some furniture in his dad’s shop, but he has not healed anyone, he hasn’t cast out one demon, he has not preached one sermon, he has not done a single miracle, he hasn’t gained one disciple or converted anyone.  His ministry has not begun.  Jesus has not made any significant contribution to the world apart from a few dozen tables, and then this... 

When all the people were being baptized, Jesus was baptized too. And as he was praying, heaven was opened and the Holy Spirit descended on him in bodily form like a dove. And a voice came from heaven: "You are my Son, whom I love; with you I am well pleased."
Luke 3:21-22

You are my Son, whom I love, with you I am well-pleased.

God’s love and pleasure in Jesus his son were prior and quite apart from his life’s work
.  Think about that.  He hadn’t done a thing! 

For those of us that are in Christ, there is something even more fundamental to our identity.  We are not just creatures created by God in his image, we are in fact, the adopted sons of God. 

God’s love and pleasure in you, his son or daughter was prior and is quite separate from your life’s work.  Your contribution or lack of it can not alter God’s love for you. 

So at this end of the tension, we need to deeply live into and experience and know in our bellies that God doesn’t look at our resumes before he says to us “You are my Son.  I love you and I am so pleased with you.”  If you took nothing else away from this whole weekend and you spend 3 minutes a day for a month or 20 minutes a week, repeating that in your mind, imagining and listening to God speaking those words to you.  Receiving God’s love for you – I would count this post an amazing success and I have no doubt in my mind that your identity, the center of who you are, would be dramatically affected.

But at the other end, we still have this good human drive to work to make a contribution, to do something that we can be proud, to be pleased with our work, and that we can have others be proud of us too.

Jesus tells a story of judgment in Matthew 25:14-30. 

Again, it will be like a man going on a journey, who called his servants and entrusted his wealth to them. To one he gave five bags of gold, to another two bags, and to another one bag, each according to his ability. Then he went on his journey. The man who had received five bags of gold went at once and put his money to work and gained five bags more.  So also, the one with two bags of gold gained two more. But the man who had received one bag went off, dug a hole in the ground and hid his master's money.
    "After a long time the master of those servants returned and settled accounts with them.  The man who had received five bags of gold brought the other five. 'Master,' he said, 'you entrusted me with five bags of gold. See, I have gained five more.'
     "His master replied, 'Well done, good and faithful servant! You have been faithful with a few things; I will put you in charge of many things. Come and share your master's happiness!'
     "The man with two bags of gold also came. 'Master,' he said, 'you entrusted me with two bags of gold; see, I have gained two more.'
     "His master replied, 'Well done, good and faithful servant! You have been faithful with a few things; I will put you in charge of many things. Come and share your master's happiness!'
     "Then the man who had received one bag of gold came. 'Master,' he said, 'I knew that you are a hard man, harvesting where you have not sown and gathering where you have not scattered seed.  So I was afraid and went out and hid your gold in the ground. See, here is what belongs to you.'
     "His master replied, 'You wicked, lazy servant! So you knew that I harvest where I have not sown and gather where I have not scattered seed?  Well then, you should have put my money on deposit with the bankers, so that when I returned I would have received it back with interest.
     " 'Take the bag of gold from him and give it to the one who has ten bags.  For those who have will be given more, and they will have an abundance. As for those who do not have, even what they have will be taken from them.  And throw that worthless servant outside, into the darkness, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth.'

“Well done, good and faithful servant!  You have been faithful…come and share in your master’s happiness.”

That is what we long to hear, isn’t it?  We long to say to be able to say to ourselves “Well done, you’ve been faithful.  I’m so proud of you.”  We long to have our parents and our wives and our kids and our co-workers say “Well done, you’ve been faithful.  We are so proud of you.”  And though we might not always be aware of it, all of us deeply, deeply long to hear God say “Well done, my good and faithful servant.  Come and enter into my happiness.” 

And these longings are not evil.  They are not misguided.  They are not a problem.  They are good and holy longings. 

But the only way, the only way to get to "Well Done" is to begin with "Beloved Son".  Too often we think if we can DO something we will be loved, when the truth is we are already loved more deeply than we can imagine.

When we set our whole focus on hearing “well done,” we find that we have become slaves again.  This good desire gets twisted. It’s been said that “desire is a wonderful servant but a miserable master” and how true it is that insatiable desire for affirmation causes us we turn everyone around us into potential ego-strokers.  Everyone is just a way for us to potentially hear “well done.”  Our bosses, our wives, our girlfriends, our buddies, our kids and parents. 

So how do we ground ourselves in our Belovedness?  I’ve already suggested setting aside regular time to meditate on the word “You are my Son, whom love.  In you I am well-pleased.”  There's an excerpt from a wonderful book written by Henri Nouwen titled “Life of the Beloved” in which he explores this journey of coming to experience the love that God has for us.

Nouwen writes:

Aren’t you, like me, hoping that some person, thing, or event will come along to give you that final feeling of inner well-being you desire? Don’t you often hope: “May this book, idea, course, trip, job, country, or relationship fulfill my deepest desire.” But as long as you are waiting for that mysterious moment you will go on running helter-skelter, always anxious and restless, always lustful and angry, never fully satisfied. You know that this is the compulsiveness that keeps us going and busy, but at the same time makes us wonder whether we are getting anywhere in the long run. This is the way to spiritual exhaustion and burn-out. This is the way to spiritual death.

Well, you and I don’t have to kill ourselves. We are the Beloved. We are intimately loved long before our parents, teachers, spouses, children, and friends loved or wounded us. That’s the truth of our lives. That’s the truth I want you to claim for yourself. That’s the truth spoken by the voice that says, “You are my Beloved.”

Listening to that voice with great inner attentiveness, I hear at my center words that say:

‘I have called you by name, from the very beginning.  You are mine and I am yours.  You are my Beloved, on you my favor rests.  I have molded you in the depths of the earth and knitted you together in your mother’s womb.  I have carved you in the palms of my hands and hidden you in the shadow of my embrace.  I look at you with infinite tenderness and care for you with a care more intimate than that of a mother for her child.  I have counted every hair on your head and guided you at every step.  Wherever you go, I go with you, and wherever you rest, I keep watch.  I will give you food that will satisfy all your hunger and drink that will quench all your thirst.  I will not hide my face from you.  You know me as your own as I know you as my own.  You belong to me.  I am your father, your mother, your brother, your sister, your lover, and your spouse...yes, even your child...wherever you are I will be.  Nothing will ever seperate us.  We are one"  (Life of the Beloved, 35-37).

We have to remember that Jesus was afflicted with some of the most severe psychological pain humanly possible.  His whole hometown didn’t think much of him. His family thought he had gone mad.  The powerful religious figures of his day accused him of blasphemy and when they arrested him, his closest friends, in whom he had poured his life, abandoned him and denied him.  How devastating. 

How was Jesus able to follow God’s call on his life when all the voices around him said louder and louder: “You’re nothing special.  You’re crazy.  You’re doing it wrong.  You’re a sinner.  You are an enemy of God.  I don’t know you.”  How could he persevere?

There was one voice that was for him always louder still and it said:  “YOU ARE MY SON, WHOM I LOVE. IN YOU I AM VERY PLEASED.”

When Jesus rose from the grave, and after he stopped and greeted Mary – he ascended to the Father.  I sometimes wonder what was the first words exchanged between them after that terrible separation they experienced on the cross.  Sometimes I think, the Father must have welcomed Jesus with these words which we all long to hear:  “Well done, my good and faithful son!  I have always loved you.  You have been faithful, now come, enter into perfect joy with me for all eternity.”


  1. Good stuff, Chris. Having just now stepped into the life of unemployment (Amy and I have moved back to Texas to live with her grandmother) I've been trying to see this as an opportunity for rest, spiritual growth, and renewal. That endeavor thus far, admittedly, has been mostly an intellectual exercise, an act of self-convincing, rather than something I truly trust, let alone deeply experience. As of now, I'm "faking it" until I "make it" when it comes to reorienting my priorities. And I'm having some wicked withdrawals. It is humbling, as you say! But it's all serving to convince me how badly needed this time is for me.

    As pastors, you and I (and our spouses!) have the inherent temptation to make our careers into idols--all in the name of "calling" and "God's Kingdom." It's pretty dangerous stuff, and yet I marvel at how easily I fall into this trap, despite knowing my vulnerability. Thanks for passing along your lessons learned and your inspired reflection.

  2. Belated thanks for the comment, Josh. Before we know it you and I will be facing these questions again as we look for teaching jobs!