“I am someone who goes to the gym,” I told myself as I self-consciously walked down the street in my neon orange shirt and too-new running shoes. I barely believed it, and there was a voice screaming in my head that I should just turn around and go home. That I would stand out, wouldn’t belong, had no business being there. But it was a healthy habit I’d decided to incorporate into my life. A habit that still gets me out the door, even on rainy nights when a cup of tea and a TV show sound much more appealing. But I’ve come to believe that the reason this habit didn’t fall by the wayside like so many other good intentions is due to one thing: Identity. You see, the words I was saying to myself changed how I thought about myself. I didn’t say, I want to go to the gym every day, or, I should try to go to the gym, or even, I hereby promise that I will go to the gym a minimum of three times a week. No, it wasn’t about what I would do (or aspire to do) but about who I was deciding to be.
What we say and believe about ourselves matters. And for that reason we shouldn’t be afraid to label ourselves. Normally we view labels as bad, but in this context I think they can be not only positive but also transformative. I’ve never met a vegan who was tempted to cheat on his diet. In fact, vegans wouldn’t consider it a diet: it’s just the way they eat.
I’ve heard this strategy at play with my friends as they teach their children too. Instead of saying, “No, don’t do that,” they might say something like, “We don’t do that at our house.” I’m not sure how effective it is, but I’d like to believe that it also teaches values rather than behavior modification. For good or ill, much of our identity forms at an early age. It seems like people can spend a whole lot of time and energy trying to figure out who they are, and trying to escape or embrace who they were raised to be. There are so many adages in popular culture that seem to confirm this: I sound just like my mother. Women tend to marry someone like their father. etc. There are so many things rooted in our identity that we didn’t choose. But there are things we can choose.
In the same vein, we should strive to remove negative self-talk from our lives. So often we talk about or to ourselves in ways we would never speak to a close friend. Now, I’m not trying to say we should live in a world of rainbows and daisies pretending we are perfect. But I think it’s important to remind ourselves of who we are. Ephesians 2 gives us a great example of that balance. Who are we? We are God’s workmanship. Adopting this identity doesn’t make us prideful, but inspires us to do God’s work in this world. I think reading these familiar words in the Message is helpful:
Now God has us where he wants us, with all the time in this world and the next to shower grace and kindness upon us in Christ Jesus. Saving is all his idea, and all his work. All we do is trust him enough to let him do it. It’s God’s gift from start to finish! We don’t play the major role. If we did, we’d probably go around bragging that we’d done the whole thing! No, we neither make nor save ourselves. God does both the making and saving. He creates each of us by Christ Jesus to join him in the work he does, the good work he has gotten ready for us to do, work we had better be doing. (Eph 2:7-10)
In his book, The Good and Beautiful God, James Bryan Smith suggests that identity is key in our struggle with sin. When we reframe our spiritual lives in terms of being a new creation, it empowers us with God’s strength to overcome. He writes, “The New Testament approaches the Christian life by telling us who we are and whose we are, and then it encourages us to live in a manner worthy of that identity.” The Bible is full of declaration of who we are in God: adopted as children, highly favored, beloved, but until we believe these things, until we use them to name ourselves, I think we will struggle over and over.
It’s not a matter of saint vs. sinner. In a world of false dichotomies, we could feel like if we don’t fit clearly into one category, we must be the opposite. Someone might be hesitant to call herself a leader because she experiences self-doubt, has a hard time voicing opinions strongly, or is indecisive. However, she might be the exact person needed to lead in a specific group or situation. What if she chose to label herself as a leader? Maybe choosing to say those words – I am a leader – would spur her to take responsibility, develop leadership qualities, or find a way to lead by example, even if that doesn’t look like the kind of leadership taught in seminars.
A simple exercise to try is to give yourself 5 minutes to write out every word that comes to mind when you think about how you define yourself. Then you can rank those things by what percentage of you they make up. It can be very eye-opening to see what kinds of negative and positive things come to mind, and a valuable reality check to see that things we so often get hung up on are such a very small part of things that truly define us. There might also be things on the list that it’s time to reject. You can symbolically start to do this by crossing it off. My list includes some titles given by birth: sister, daughter, given by others: teacher, foreigner, and some that I’m still aspiring to: writer, leader, peacemaker, and yes, “person who goes to the gym” is on my list, just under worshiper and adventurer.
Charlotte is on the Editorial team at boldcupofcoffee.com and currently works with a non-profit organization in Taiwan where she teaches, leads English Bible studies, writes educational materials, trains teachers, poses for pictures, and a bunch of other stuff too. She is originally from Canada, spending significant amounts of time in all three westernmost provinces and the idea of home has become quite fluid. She has learned that life overseas is not as exotic as people may think, but life with God is a daily adventure. Read more article by Charlotte.
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