An Identity That Lasts
Words by Katy Tullos // Image by Sadie Culberson
The moment our family walks into a new church or a social gathering, it starts: my frantic inner dialogue as I think of how to introduce myself to new people. What should I tell them? “I’m a Texan who moved to Iowa for her husband’s ministry job, had three kids, lived the five best years of our lives, and moved home to be near family in the city we love. Now my husband sells cars, we’re still looking for a church home, and we’re just trying to get through each day hoping that God brings the right vocational ministry position for my husband because that’s really truly who we are. We are the pastor’s wife and the pastor’s kids and my husband is a gifted worship pastor. But—well, we aren’t right now. But to know who we are you have to know everything. You have to know all of our story and what we do and where we are, but also where we are going.”
On second thought, that might be a little much to dump on a new person the moment we shake hands.
When we moved it was so difficult for me to tell people about our lives in the here and now. My identity had become so entangled with ministry that not being a part of it left me feeling like I was walking around with half of my face missing. I felt awkward and self-conscious when I met new people. I wasn’t sure who I was anymore, so I was even less sure of how to present myself to others. I grew to dread meeting new people because I thought I had to come up with some sort of important or meaningful identity.
God took a time of overwhelming change and made it a launching pad to incredible growth. The Lord used a story to change my trajectory forever. While we were preparing to leave our home, uproot our children, and give up everything I had come to know and find comfort in, God illuminated the story of John the Baptist as a light in my own darkness. It would become a story that would carry me through the days of my own identity crisis. I’d encourage you to read the entire passage of John 3:22–30. I promise you, it's a good one. I've now read it probably fifteen times in two weeks. “And they came to John and said to him, ‘Rabbi, he who was with you across the Jordan, to whom you bore witness—look, he is baptizing, and all are going to him.’ John answered, ‘A person cannot receive even one thing unless it is given him from heaven.’” (v. 26–27) This is part of the “he must increase, but I must decrease” passage. I've read this verse on many a bumper sticker, Bible cover, and t-shirt. But this time, I understood John’s response differently as one thing came into the crosshairs: identity.
John's external identity as “the Baptist” was absolutely stripped from him. If John had looked to his ministry as the source of his value and identity, this would have been a painful moment. But his response makes it clear that his identity was fastened to a source much greater than his own work. His identity was securely fastened not to his ministry, but to Christ.
In this passage, Jesus had recently been baptized by John and has begun his ministry. The two men are in the same region as they both baptize and share the Good News with people. John's disciples approach John and ask, "John? Your cousin Jesus is over there baptizing people. Everyone is going to him, but doesn't he know that baptizing is kind of your thing?"
John could have chosen his identity over Jesus' ministry and no one would have blamed him.
He could have begged Jesus to stop baptizing because it was encroaching on the life he had built.
He could have said, "Jesus, this is my thing. It's who I am. Please don't take this one thing. I'm doing this for your kingdom, and I'm good at it. I'm doing good things—things of eternal significance—so please just let me keep this. I don't know who I am if I don't have this. You can change or take or bring anything else Lord, just please not this. Please."
But instead of "this is who I am,” John says: “less of me, more of you” (3:30).
Instead of "this is my thing,”—“there's nothing I could have that isn't already his” (3:27).
Instead of "I don't know who I am without this,” he says, “I know who you are” (3:29).
Instead of "you can have anything else,”—“all things belong to you” (3:31).
John knew about himself what most of us often forget. He knew that he wasn't really "John the Baptist," he was John, a worshiper of Christ. Worshiper was the only thing about his identity that was ever meant to last.
Worshiper of Christ is the only part of my identity that was ever meant to last.
Clawing at the temporal parts of my identity, begging out of desperation for them to remain, is a prayer I've come to know quite well. And surrendering my life, my very identity—it's been heartbreaking at times to put the exalted areas of myself to death.
After talking labor and delivery with some girlfriends recently, all of us remembered together how horrible the pain was, how present the fear was, how imperfect the circumstances, but how wonderful the end: holding the love of your life in your arms, face to face. That's what this is like too. Saying goodbye to the life I so proudly built, proclaiming "just give me Jesus" is the hardest, longest road I could travel, but it has the most beautiful views and a glorious destination.
I am slowly starting to loosen my grip on our home, my friends, my status, my reputation, my daily jobs, my husband's career, and my dreams. I am learning to choose Jesus over myself—it is possible—because I know now that nothing can compare to the joy and freedom that encompass my heart as a worshiper of Jesus Christ.