Gospel Relevance

The Identity and Character Conversation

I’m enjoying the well-written and well-received book on pastoral ministry by Harold L. Senkbeil. In The Care of Souls, Senkbeil puts forth a premise statement that is both true and popular (not always the case). I want to point out the sentence, then show how the opposite is equally true, but often ignored. Here’s the sentence: “The premise of this book is that action flows from being; identity defines activity” (16).

Yes and amen.

But this is also true: Actions shape being; activity defines identity. 1

It’s equally true to say that your identity defines your activity and that your activity defines your identity. Stated differently: (Option A) Your actions are the result of your character, (Option B) Your actions form your character.

Option A gets a lot of attention. But for some reason, we don’t think enough about Option B.

In our counseling and discipleship circles, we give a considerable amount of attention to identity: “The reason why Suzie struggles with this ongoing sin is that her identity is not rooted in Christ.” True. But how was Suzie’s identity formed in the first place? By her actions, day in and day out, year in and year out, both in public and private.

Your actions shape your identity. The more you obey the Lord, the more your heart will soften, and the more you will become like him. The more you disobey the Lord, the more your heart will become calloused, slowly but surely drifting away from him.

Consider the importance of the local church. How many professing Christians have given up on her? At one point, these brothers and sisters loved the local body. They enjoyed fellowship, prayer, singing, and the preaching of God’s Word. But then they missed one Sunday and enjoyed the deceptive freedom. One Sunday became two. Two Sundays became three and, sadly, two years later, they have not seen the inside of a church. Now, their hearts are hardened toward the things of the Lord, and their mouths are filled with excuses and blame-shifting.

Or consider forgiveness. People who have a hard time forgiving are resentful and bitter. This does not develop overnight. Instead, it’s the product of choosing not to forgive, or not to fully forgive, both for the small and big offenses, over and over again. So now because of choosing not to forgive, your identity is increasingly formed as an unforgiving person.

On the other hand, when you notice a Christian who freely forgives for each offense absorbed, it’s because, in part, they have made it a habit to forgive. They are forgiving people because they have chosen to. Every action — sinful or godly — accumulates, and forms the person you become.

So, yes, your activity flows from your identity, but what you do determines what you will become. Reformed Christians don’t like the word “choose,” but I’m not talking about the doctrine of election. I’m talking about holiness. I’m talking about choosing to obey the Lord in all those little things that nobody else sees but nonetheless have an inordinate impact on the person you become. Receive God’s help through the means of grace, then with all your might, choose the correct course of action through biblical obedience.

Notes:

  1. Thanks to Dr. C. John Collins for making an observation about this once in a seminary classroom.

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