Security and Identity

by Richard A. Wiedenheft

The author is a former principal of a Sabbatarian high school, the former editor of Focus On Truth (a publication of a previous group also called the "United Church of God"), and a former pastor of the Worldwide Church of God.

Among the most powerful forces within human beings are our needs for security and identity. We need to have a sense of who we are, of what makes our lives worthwhile, of what makes us distinct and different from others—and an assurance that these will continue! There’s no quicker way to discover what gives someone his sense of security and identity than to threaten to take it away from him. He will become upset, angry, illogical, even violent—because the very foundations of his existence as a person are being threatened.

Christians are no different from non-Christians in their need to know who they are, why they are worthwhile human beings, and in their need for assurance that what they hold dear will not be taken away from them. Unfortunately, the identity of Believers is often determined by things that, while not necessarily wrong of and by themselves, are not what should really formthe foundation of their identity in Christ. Consider a number of examples.

National Identity

It is very natural for people to identify themselves with their country, to feel a sense of security in being able to say, "I am an American" or "I am a Canadian." Wherever they go in the world, they can let people know who they are by revealing their citizenship.

The Israelites in Bible times felt very strongly about their national heritage; they were the people specifically chosen by God. The Jews of Jesus day were quick to point out that they were descendants of Abraham; they could hold their heads high, no matter what else happened (John 5:33)! Even Paul indicated that it would be so easy for him to put confidence in his national heritage:

If anyone else thinks he has reasons to put confidence in the flesh, I have more: circumcised on the eighth day, of the people of Israel, of the tribe of Benjamin, a Hebrew of Hebrews... (Phil 3:4-5).

The power of national identity is demonstrated by the fact that when push comes to shove among nations, people who months or years before were worshipping together, will lay down their Bibles and song books and take up rifles and begin killing one another. Hitler was able to stir up the sense of national identity in most of the German people to the extent that their religious identity became secondary. Catholics, Lutherans, Adventists were willing to take up arms against fellow Catholics, Lutherans, and Adventists in Poland, Holland, Norway, France, etc.—because they were Germans, they were the Master Race! In the United States during the Civil War, Methodists, Baptists, Presbyterians in one part of the country were willing to take up arms against Methodists, Baptists, and Presbyterians in another part—because their regional or cultural identity was stronger than their religious identity.

Christians are supposed to be part of an international brotherhood of believers from all nations, yet their identity as citizens of a particular country is frequently a more powerful source of identity in their lives. It is the prime determiner of how they will act in a crisis.

Religious Group Identity

One good way to ascertain the basis of ones identity in the Christian realm is to complete the statement: I am a Christian because I.... How one concludes that statement will reveal much about his sense of identity. Some would conclude the sentence, I go to God’s true church"—by which they mean a particular denomination. They see themselves primarily as members of that group as opposed to another group, which might be very similar in doctrines and practices. They believe God is working primarily or even exclusively through their organization. In order to preserve this conviction, they must remain ignorant of the works of God in other organizations or discount those works as deceptive ploys of the devil. At best they might allow that God could work with people in other groups, but only as a rare exception to his general practice of working through their true church.

Of course, group identity is frequently not so extreme. Many true believers admit God is working in other groups, but maintain that their group is the most correct, the most effective and the most faithful to the word of God. They tend to view themselves as distinct and separate from other Believers, rather than as part of a larger fellowship of all Believers. Hence, they are better than others—a cut above— more righteous. For example, the Pharisees attitude was, We’re the descendants of Abraham and I thank you that I am not like other men.... They could only feel condescending pity, not true love, for others who did not belong to their righteous ranks.

Identifying oneself with one elite group usually leads to feelings of superiority over others who are not as lucky, as blessed, as smart, etc. The Jews of Jesus day so identified themselves as God’s chosen people Israel, that it was extremely difficult for them to see the gospel being preached to Gentiles, to whom they felt superior.

Today, human beings are little different. Parents instill in their children how lucky they are to be born Irish Catholic, German Lutheran, Baptist, or Jewish—and not something else. If the parents are effective in their teaching, the children grow up with their identities wrapped up in the ethnic or religious group to which they belong. It is very difficult for them to feel real love toward those outside their group.

How do you feel about people in other groups? When you meet them, do you feel a sense of distinction from them or of kinship with them? Do feelings of superiority arise in you, or feelings of warmth and acceptance? Do you see yourself as belonging to a different group, or as part of some common larger group—like the human race?

Followers of Men

Frequently, group identity is focused on the leader. Followers see their significance in life in the fact that they are following the chosen man of God, the one through whom God is working. They rest secure in knowing that God will bless them and be with them for being loyal to His "chosen servant". And nothing will upset this person more than someone who criticizes his leader.

Several years ago, Mormon missionaries were explaining to me the glories of Joseph Smith, God’s prophet of the latter days. I told them about my experiences in once having believed in a man as God’s chosen prophet for the end days and how I come to learn he was very fallible In many respects. I went on to point out some of the errors and failures of Joseph Smith. One of the missionaries responded by dogmatically defending Smith and his own conviction that Smith was a man of God; but as he did, tears welled up in his eyes. I had clearly touched a raw nerve; I had struck at the very seat of his identity and security. Without Joseph Smith, this young Mormon’s world would come crashing down; his whole sense of purpose would be destroyed. He could not let that happen, even if it meant plunging ahead in blind faith.

Doctrinal Identity

Recently I sat in on a discussion about the trinity, among Christians who believe in this doctrine. They openly admitted that there were many aspects of this doctrine that they could not understand. They confessed it was a mystery beyond their comprehension. Questions were asked for which there were no answers. But in spite of all the questions and doubts, one comment was made over and over again: "We must not abandon this ancient, orthodox doctrine just because we can’t understand it.

So many Christians are more sensitive about challenges to this doctrine than almost any other. For some reason, their identity is, at least to some extent, tied to a belief in the trinity. It seems to be the one doctrine that makes them really Christian. You can question and disagree with many other doctrines, but just don’t mess with the trinity. It is sacred ground, even though it is not explicitly taught in the Bible.

Other Christians are wrapped up in other doctrines. Sabbath keepers frequently get very nervous about a challenge to the Sabbath. I’ve heard several people say, "Why, if we give up the Sabbath, we’ll be just like all the Protestant churches." Obviously, the identity of these people is in being distinct from Protestants, particularly in regards to the Sabbath. The Pharisees identity was intimately involved with the Sabbath—and with how they kept it. They were incensed that Jesus did not accept their standards on how to observe the Sabbath; at one point they even concluded, "this man is not of God for he does not keep the Sabbath" (John 9:16). Much of their personal identity was rooted in the meticulous manner in which they observed the Sabbath.

Identity of Traditions

For some, identity is tied to whether or not they eat certain foods. Once, in a discussion of a proposed merger of two churches, the issue of dietary restrictions came up. One church taught against eating unclean meats (Lev. 11, Deut 14), the other had little concern about such matters. A member of the first group, in reference to the merger, said in a worried tone, "Does this mean we’re going to begin eating unclean meats?" Clearly, to a significant degree, the identity of this person was wrapped up in a doctrinal point—he saw himself as different and separate from others because he didn’t eat pork. Of all the things he could hove been concerned about regarding the proposed merger, eating or not eating pork was of prime importance. Such is the nature of personal identity when it is rooted in doctrines.

Identity is frequently wrapped up in traditions—either religious, family, or national ones. Observing holidays, for example, plays a major role in personal Identity and serves to connect us to previous and future generations. Sometimes traditions have such a profound meaning in a person's life that he can’t give them up even after he comes to believe they are not Biblically sanctioned. He feels, perhaps subconsciously, that If he turns his back on these time-honored customs, he turns his back on his parents, his grandparents, his heritage—on himself! He cannot bring himself to do it.

I have known young parents who, even though they were convinced that baptism was for believers only, had their own infant children baptized; they just didn’t feel right about not doing it.

If our identity is bound up in our practices, whether they stem from tradition or from a desire to obey God, we tend to view ourselves as superior and set apart from those who don’t observe the same laws, and we tend to be very defensive about them. Those who observe Christmas look down on, or feel sorry for, those who don’t. Those who don’t observe Christmas feel more righteous than those who do. Those who don’t observe Easter often hear the comment. "Don’t you believe in the resurrection?" So intimately is the tradition of Easter connected with the historical fact of the resurrection! The Pharisees traditions were so important to them that they would break God’s commandments rather than their own customs. Jesus said of them,

And why do you break the command of God for the sake of your tradition. Thus you nullify the word of God for the sake of your tradition (Matt. 15:3, 6).

They were so incensed with His manner of observing the Sabbath and His challenge to their concept of God that they were ready to kill him (John 5:18). If you challenge a person’s traditions, you may find that you are striking at his very being! He will fight you.

Proper Source of Identity

In addition to those mentioned above, there are many other aspects of ones life that can provide a sense of identity: ones work, ones past accomplishments, ones status, etc. In most of us, all of these do play a part in whom we think we are. But there is one source that should overshadow all the others. Our primary sense of worth, our feelings of being useful, our sense of being different and distinct should stem from being children of God through Jesus Christ!

Please don’t misunderstand. I’m not saying we should have no sense of family, national, denominational, or doctrinal identity. But doctrines can be proven erroneous; nations rise and fall; church organizations decline and decay, merge end split! If our identity is too closely tied with any of these, we are in for rough times.

If our identity and security are based primarily on belonging to God through His Son, then we will view other Christians with feelings of love, compassion, and warmth instead of superiority and self-righteousness—even though our doctrines and practices may vary. Then we will not be sensitive, defensive, and even combative, when challenged about things that are peripheral to our existence as citizens of the eternal kingdom of heaven.

Through Jesus Christ, the walls of hostility that separate one group from another are broken down (Eph. 2:14). We are all one body in Him. To be sure we still have differences. We are still men and women; we are still of different nations and races; some of us are employers, some are employees; our doctrines and practices are different. But if our primary identity is rooted in being part of the spiritual body of Jesus Christ and the brotherhood we have in Him, these differences can be understood, and even appreciated; they need not be divisive end destructive.

If someone challenges one of our doctrines, we don’t need to break out in a cold sweat. Our security is in our relationship with God, not in our doctrines. If disaster strikes our nation, we are still citizens of the kingdom of God. If our local congregation or denomination becomes embroiled in controversy and schism, we are still part of the spiritual body. If we find ourselves in a meeting with Christians with different doctrines and practices than ours, we can try to find and appreciate the common ground of love and belief in Jesus Christ; we don’t need to recoil in fear and feelings of separateness.

Throughout all generations, God is on His throne and human beings can have an intimate personal relationship with Him, they can be part of His eternal kingdom, through Jesus Christ. Let there be questions about doctrines, about traditions, about church organizations! Let nations rise and fall! Let human leaders disappoint us! It may hurt us, but it should not shake us—for we remain, as always, in the loving hands of our Heavenly Father. We are His children, we are citizens of His eternal kingdom; we are in His loving fold. What more identity can we want? What greater security can we have? &

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