Our sense of self is derived from the story we create out of our experiences. To put it another way, our identity emerges from the story we tell ourselves about what has happened for us. I’ve written about this in previous posts, so don’t want to dwell too much on it now. What I want to do is focus on how this story – our own story – has elements in it that fail to convince even us. Parts of it seem to portray us as being all too sadly lacking in certain areas, meaning that our identity can become a problem.
When our story works against us and not for us we inevitably feel the need to engage in some remedial action. We hurriedly try to paste a new story over the old one, in a desperate attempt to convince others and ourselves that we are not who we think we are and not who we fear they think we are.
The reason for this is that our story, although it is only one story, inevitably leaves us with multiple versions of ourselves. These are structured around:
- who we think we are
- who we think we should be
- who we want to be
- who we want others to think we are
All of these versions of ourselves are constantly jostling for position, creating conflict and affecting how we relate to others. The effect this has on our relationships is that when we engage with others we might seek their approval, try to dominate or manipulate them or try to hide from them, all as an attempt to manage the inner conflict generated by these competing versions of who we are. And so who we think we should be will undermine who we think we are, while who we want to be will occasionally pick a fight with who we want others to think we are. The result of this infighting is a story that lacks coherence and an identity that lacks stability.
We are probably not aware of any of this, but it announces itself to us in those moments when we feel embarrassed or guilty at how we have been towards someone else, or when we feel compelled to persuade them of our basic goodness. As a preacher I’m aware of it in those moments when I want to tell a story, not to illustrate a point I am making, but to impress my listeners with how good a story teller I am. As an aspiring cook I’m aware of it in those moments when I try to boss my wife around when we are sharing the cooking duties and she’s not doing things as I think they should be done. As a church leader I’m aware of it when I want the congregation to grow in size so that I can be sure, and everyone else can see, that God approves of what I’m doing. These moments tell me of the need I feel to escape from aspects of my story about who I am, namely, my need for praise, for control and for validation. They are attempts to convince myself and others that my identity is different from what it is or from what I’m afraid it is.
I find that the story of the temptation of Jesus is a place of refuge in those times when my identity is not strong enough to support me. It can be read as a story about identity. Two of the temptations begin with the words, “If you are the Son of God…”, and the other one, when Jesus is offered all the kingdoms and nations of the world, centres around Jesus’ identity as God’s appointed king, which is the what the title ‘Son of God’ refers to anyway.
Jesus is being tempted to prove to himself that he is the King, the Son of God. But what’s the problem with doing so, after all, Christians believe that Jesus is the Son of God, so wouldn’t it be a good thing for him to prove it to himself? The problem is that Jesus’ identity as the Son of God is worked out in the quality of the servant-life that he lives, culminating in his act of self-giving at Calvary, and is ultimately disclosed through his resurrection. The temptation being dangled in front of Jesus is the possibility of skipping all of this and proceeding straight to the glory that was intended for the resurrection.
This is some temptation! Had he taken the bait, he would have been choosing to avoid three long years of rejection and being disbelieved, three long years of opposition and alienation, three long years of a failed ministry. Had he taken the bait, he would have been choosing to avoid the humiliation, alienation, pain and failure of the cross.
But in taking the bait he would have created such a contradiction in the narrative of creation that the mind boggles at what its consequences might have been. In succumbing to the invitation to prove to himself that he was the Son of God, he would have demonstrated to the world that he was, in fact, not the Son of God at all. Kingship for Christ meant a life of servant obedience, it meant a familiarity with loss and failure. Being the Son of God was not an identity bestowed on the basis of progeny, but an identity won through humility and service. Jesus’ kingship meant a life of suffering and failure, of service and sacrifice; it meant the cross.
And so, precisely because Jesus was on the trajectory towards his eventual disclosure as the Son of God through resurrection he refuses the temptations. For him, the question of who he was needed to be trusted to God. His identity was safe in God’s hands and he had no need to wrestle it from him.
Jesus’ story points us to how to respond to the conflicts generated by our own story of who we are. Like him, in those moments when we are tempted to allow these conflicts to compromise who we are called to be in the world, we have a choice to make, one that goes a long way to shaping our identity: do we give in to the temptation or do we trust God with who we are?
The hope of the Christian is centred on a God who intimately knows us, yet who freely accepts us and who, through resurrection, will reveal our true identity as those who are welcomed into his kingdom. All good stories receive new meaning from how they end and what has gone before is seen in a different light when the final scene or page is reached. The ending of our story has already been written by God and it reveals that this often fragile, frequently inadequate human being is in fact a child of God. The ending of our story is resurrection.