A Simple Question?
One of the most basic questions you can be asked in life is, “Who are you?” At first glance, this question seems so simple, but nevertheless it can be quite difficult to answer, at least in a succinct and meaningful way. “Who are you?” If someone asked you this, your immediate response would probably be, quite naturally, to state your name. Good. That’s settled. But, after all (and not to downplay the importance of names), your name is...only a name, a callsign, a way for people to distinguish from others and address you––it doesn’t get to the heart or substance of your identity. Now suppose your hypothetical inquisitor probes deeper, “No really, who are you?” At this point, assuming you’re not weirded out or convinced this person is just “trolling” you, you have a number of options as to how you can respond. For example, you could tell the person about your job or profession––what you do and where; if you’re a student, what you study and where; if you’re married and/or have children, how you’re related to So-and-so ("I'm the son/daughter/brother/sister/father/mother etc. of this person"). In whichever of these ways you choose to respond, you would begin to sketch an outline of your self-portrait. Just as important, the way you respond would tell the questioner how you see yourself, and who or what is most important in your life.
Note on the inspiration for this reflection: Besides Scripture, which is always primary, a few other resources have been particularly helpful for me in reflecting on this theme of being God's beloved child. First, there is a beautiful prayer called, "The Litany of Trust", which is the most powerful prayer I've found for claiming one's true identity as God's son or daughter. Second, there are two excellent books by Fr. Henri Nouwen, Life of the Beloved and You Are the Beloved (a set of daily meditations compiled posthumously). Finally, on a somewhat lighter note, the most recent Mumford and Sons album, Delta, features a song entitled, "Beloved". The chorus of this song includes the words, "Before you leave, you must know you are beloved." If this reflection leaves you with one insight, I hope it's just that: You are beloved. It would be a tragedy for you to come to end of your life without understanding this foundational truth, to "leave" without knowing you are the beloved.
Most Common Answers to the Question
- I am what I do. (My job/career; my success; my contribution to my family, my community, the world, etc.)
- I am what others say about me (My social status or reputation)
- I am what I have. (My wealth and possessions––any worldly treasures)
Of course, it is not necessarily wrong to ask some of these questions. It is quite natural and prudent to consider one's various options in life and, all things being equal, to pursue the most promising one. However, the underlying assumption that often motivates this line of questioning is: I am what I do. According to this assumption, the primary concern when considering what I should do with my life is not, “What do I really want?” or “What will bring me the most meaning or fulfillment?” but rather, “How do I want to define myself?” or “How do I want to be perceived by others?” If I don't believe that my identity is a given reality, something that I am by nature or that I receive, but instead something that I must create or earn by what I do, produce, or contribute, then I am faced with an unsolvable problem. The problem is that I could always do more, and therefore, I can never know whether or not I am good enough. This doubt about whether I have done enough could very well haunt me for the rest of my life. However, the appeal of this mindset is that I seem to be in control of my own identity and destiny, and therefore, I can claim all the credit and praise for my contributions and success. The downside, of course, is the simple fact that I am never actually and completely in control of what I do, produce, or contribute, since these things can be instantly taken away from me by any number of misfortunes: an economic crisis, accident, diagnosis––you name it. Most important, I cannot control what other people think about what I do, how they perceive my contribution. Work that is esteemed and appreciated at one time and place may be considered less important and uninteresting by people of another place or later generation. In this sense, defining myself by what I do is often a form of the next definition, "I am what others say about me".
In contrast to this scenario, consider for a moment the scene of Jesus’ baptism. The context of his baptism is that he has lived the first thirty years of his life in relative obscurity, out of the public eye and working quietly as a carpenter. As far as his teaching, miracles, and history-making acts of redemptive suffering are concerned, Jesus hasn’t really done anything at this point (that is, anything visible and recognizable to others). And yet, at the moment of his baptism, what does God the Father say in the voice from the cloud? He says, “This is my beloved Son, with whom I am well pleased" (Mt 3:17). Jesus is the beloved Son of God, not because of anything he has done, produced, or contributed, but simply because He comes from the Father and is loved by Him. This is a profound truth that applies to us as well: We are God’s beloved sons and daughters, NOT because we have done anything to earn this title, but because God created us and chose us as His own. Our sonship is gratuitous, a pure gift. Therefore, we strive to live out our identity as God’s children, not because we think we have something to prove, or because we want to “earn" the gift of being called His children, but because our love for God and neighbor is our response to the fact that God has already loved us. As St. John put it, “We love, because he first loved us” (1 Jn 4:19).
For example, if a woman posts a selfie showing off a new outfit, who is going to downvote this or comment negatively, even if the outfit is trashy and makes her look desperate and devoid of self-respect? No one. Now compare this to the same woman's real-world encounters with people, in which she is forced to see and feel all the responses of other people––good and bad. I'm not saying that in-person reactions are better because they're more judgmental! However, we are social creatures who have to learn appropriate behavior in part from the reactions of others. Given the demands and pressure involved in real life interactions compared to online ones, it’s no surprise that many people, especially young people, are opting more and more for the virtual reality. It's much easier to control and manipulate, and therefore, less threatening or risk-involved. The ability to artificially filter one's interactions with others so that only the favorable messages come through is causing more and more people to become affirmation-addicted. Social media has made it possible for the definition “I am what others say about me” to become effectively, “I am what I want to hear others say about me”. I can even remove or hide the comments of others to improve my "social" experience! Hmm...I wonder if any of this is having long-term, negative effects on our self-image and our ability to engage others in an authentic way?
"Christ Jesus, who, though he was in the form of God, did not count equality with God a thing to be grasped, but emptied himself, taking the form of a servant, being born in the likeness of men" (Php 2:5-7).Because of what Jesus has done, you do not need to go through life insecure and anxious, frantically grasping at things and experiences in an attempt to define yourself––you have already been defined. Nor do you need to question your worth––you are worth the Incarnation and the Cross. The same voice that spoke all Creation into being out of nothing is the voice that now affirms your identity in His Son. You don’t need to manipulate others to gain their affirmation; you don’t need to present yourself on social media in an attention-seeking way, waiting to see if you earn enough “likes” to justify your identity. People who truly know that they are loved are completely unconcerned with being "liked". They are not enslaved to the opinions of others, but instead enjoy a profound interior freedom. They cannot be offended or "triggered". St. Paul called this, “the glorious freedom of the children of God” (Rm 8:21) and considered it the primary purpose of our salvation: "For freedom Christ has set us free; stand fast therefore, and do not submit again to a yoke of slavery” (Gal 5:1). In the movie A Man for All Seasons, St. Thomas More, responding to the insistence of others that he compromise his conscience by conforming to the status quo, says, “I do not care very much what men say of me, provided that God approves of me.”
Becoming the Beloved
Our ongoing process of conversion, of having our hearts and minds "changed", is what continues to build and maintain our identity as God’s beloved sons and daughters. This happens through our heart-to-heart, vulnerable engagement with Him, that is, in our private prayer, our active participation in the Liturgy, and most importantly, our devout reception the Church’s Sacraments (especially the Eucharist and Reconciliation). Cor ad cor loquitur (Heart speaks to heart). Through this exchange, we receive all the grace we need and find ourselves, slowly but surely, becoming ever more conformed to Jesus Christ, to his mind and heart, his way of thinking and loving. With our hearts conformed to Jesus, we can hear resounding in our hearts those same words of affirmation that the Father once spoke of him, “This is my beloved son/daughter, in whom I am well pleased.” Like Jesus, we do not assert our own identity, but allow God to declare our it to the world: "...the Son can do nothing of his own accord, but only what he sees the Father doing; for whatever he does, that the Son does likewise" (Jn 5:19). Then, through the Holy Spirit, whom we received at our Baptism, we are able to respond to the Father in gratitude, as St. Paul said, “When we cry, 'Abba! Father!' it is the Spirit himself bearing witness with our spirit that we are children of God” (Rom 8:15-16). Because Jesus is the Son of God now become our brother in the flesh through His Incarnation, we can claim our identity as sons and daughters of God. Jesus is our access to the Father, our entry point into the Trinity, as he said, "...no one comes to the Father, but by me" (Jn 14:6). We are sons and daughters in the Son; He the Son by nature, we the sons and daughters by adoption. Being a child of God is a sure foundation, one that can endure all the storms of life, the attacks of the Enemy, and the doubting of our own hearts. Our identity becomes a more powerful source of joy and consolation when we actually live it out, not only in words but in actions as well.
“Little children, let us not love in word or speech but in deed and in truth. By this we shall know that we are of the truth, and reassure our hearts before him whenever our hearts condemn us; for God is greater than our hearts, and he knows everything. Beloved, if our hearts do not condemn us, we have confidence before God; and we receive from him whatever we ask, because we keep his commandments and do what pleases him. And this is his commandment, that we should believe in the name of his Son Jesus Christ and love one another, just as he has commanded us. All who keep his commandments abide in him, and he in them. And by this we know that he abides in us, by the Spirit which he has given us” (1 Jn 3:18-24).
"Son, you are always with me, and all that is mine is yours."
Please permit me one final thought for your reflection. In Jesus' parable about the prodigal son (or "lost son"), the main character is really the father. The father's unconditional love and mercy for his sons is Jesus' most dramatic image for his Father's love for each of us. In the parable, both of sons suffer from the same mistaken assumption, which leads them down apparently opposite paths, the younger son running off on his own and the older staying home to work in his father's fields. The mistaken assumption of both sons is that they think their father's love, and therefore their sonship, is conditional––they think sonship is a prize that is earned or the just wages for work completed. The prodigal responds to this belief by simply giving up, he thinks, "Because I can never live up to my identity as my father's son, I'll just find a new identity and life elsewhere." He reveals his mistaken belief about his identity in the rehearsed confession he tries to tell his father upon his return, "Father, I have sinned against heaven and before you; I am no longer worthy to be called your son". In other words, "Sonship has to be earned, and therefore I'm clearly disqualified." The older son takes the opposite approach of the younger, but his angry complaint to his father upon his brother's return exposes the fact that his mentality is really the same: "Lo, these many years I have served you, and I never disobeyed your command; yet you never gave me a kid, that I might make merry with my friends. But when this son of yours came, who has devoured your living with harlots, you killed for him the fatted calf!" (Lk 15:29-30). Again, the same mistaken belief: "Your love has to be earned; my sonship has to be earned." The difference is that the older son thinks, "And I have certainly earned it." The solution to the false assumption of both sons is the truth that we all must come to believe and accept: Being a son or daughter is given, NOT earned. Our heavenly Father bestows his love and mercy on us unconditionally, just like the father of the prodigal son, who said, "Son, you are always with me, and all that is mine is yours" (Lk 15:31). Jesus brought us into this kind of relationship with the Father, evidenced by his prayer, "...they are thine; all mine are thine, and thine are mine, and I am glorified in them" (Jn 17:10). We glorify our Father through Jesus our brother by embracing our identity as the Father's beloved sons and daughters. Jesus is the Son of God by nature, and by becoming our brother in the flesh, he has made us sons and daughter by grace. Therefore, our Baptism was both our rebirth and our adoption. There are two extremes concerning our identity, each of which is wrong and leads to confusion and unhappiness. The first is, "I am not worthy of my identity," and the second, "I must earn/create my own identity". Between these two extremes lies the truth revealed by Jesus: Our identity is itself a gift from God, and our proper response is gratitude and worship.
Celebrating Your Beloved-ness
Holy Week and Easter constitute the climax of the liturgical year, the celebration of the greatest Mysteries of our Christian faith. The passion, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ (collectively known as "the Paschal Mystery) are both the cause and the supreme revelation of God's love for us. Consequently, our celebration of these events is the "prime time" for us to express our identity as Christians. Beginning with Lent, the Church asks us to prayerfully enter into a space of existential tension, which lies between the two opposing poles of our identity. On the one hand, we are fallen sinners, undeserving beggars before God who stand in absolute need of His mercy. We were reminded of this fact on Ash Wednesday, when we received ashes on our foreheads and heard either the words, "Remember man that you are dust, and to dust you shall return," or, "Repent and believe in the Gospel". On the other hand though, we are the redeemed ones, the beloved sons and daughters of God. In the words of St. John Paul II, "We are an Easter People, and Alleluia is our song!" This reality is confirmed at every Mass when the priest prays, "At the Savior's command and informed by Divine teaching, we dare to say, 'Our Father...'". This gets to the heart of what I've been trying to express in this reflection: "We dare to say." It is daring indeed to call God your Father, and to pray to Him with the confidence of a child. Perhaps the words, "Our Father" have become so familiar to us that we've forgotten just how radical they really are. According to most other religions, it is at best mistaken or foolish to call God your Father, and at worst, presumptuous or even blasphemous. In fact, the Jews who rejected and condemned Jesus shared the latter view, as we read in John's gospel, "This was why the Jews sought all the more to kill him, because he not only broke the sabbath but also called God his Father, making himself equal with God" (Jn 5:18). Had Jesus not revealed the Father's love for us through his death and resurrection, and given us his Holy Spirit, the view of those other religions would be entirely justified. But now we know the truth––you know the truth. Never be embarrassed to be a child, to be little, to achieve nothing and receive everything, even if this means being foolish in the eyes of the world. After all, "Has not God made foolish the wisdom of the world?" (1 Cor 1:20). Being God's beloved child is not a question of your worthiness, but a fact of His grace, as St. Paul recognized when faced with his own unworthiness, "But by the grace of God I am what I am, and his grace toward me was not in vain" (1 Cor 15:10). Do not let God's grace toward you be in vain!
In light of all that's been said (a lot, I know!), I humbly urge you: pray to God, your heavenly Father; ask him to help you, to give you the grace to believe, embrace, and live the truth of your beloved-ness. This is the only sure path through the confusion, storms, and deception that confront us in this life.
"Truly, truly, I say to you, if you ask anything of the Father, he will give it to you in my name. Hitherto you have asked nothing in my name; ask, and you will receive, that your joy may be full. I have said this to you in figures; the hour is coming when I shall no longer speak to you in figures but tell you plainly of the Father. In that day you will ask in my name; and I do not say to you that I shall pray the Father for you; for the Father himself loves you, because you have loved me and have believed that I came from the Father" (Jn 16:23-27).I pray that this Holy Week and Easter will be a time of grace and spiritual growth for you, and that you may be renewed in your identity as God's beloved son or daughter. May you recognize your unique and supreme value in the eyes of God, the only Person whose opinion has eternal significance. This holy season is the privileged time each year for you to celebrate your worth, your value, your lovability. Your life is worth living because it was worth Christ dying.
"Why, one will hardly die for a righteous man—though perhaps for a good man one will dare even to die. But God shows his love for us in that while we were yet sinners Christ died for us" (Rom 5:7-8).
† Under the Mercy,
*All Scripture quotes come from the Revised Standard Version, Catholic Edition