Who we are, our deepest and truest identity, is not built on what we do; it is based on what God has done for us in Jesus.
“Who am I?” Dietrich Bonhoeffer asked this question in a poem from prison entitled “Wer bin ich?” Two possible answers presented themselves: first, “am I really, what others say about me?” or, second, “am I only what I myself know of myself?” In other words, is my identity determined by my reputation or by my conscience, by what I’ve convinced others about who I am or by the person I actually know myself to be?
The assumption under both answers is that the question “Who am I?” can only be answered with reference to me—to what I do, think, say, feel, wear, make, etc. My identity, after all, is my identity; it is defined by my actions and attributes. Aristotle spoke for the human race when he stated, with his famed common sense, that “a person becomes good by doing good things” (Nicomachean Ethics). This basic theme is repeated throughout the Western literary canon (e.g. in Karl Marx’s notion of “self-generation” or Johann Gottlieb Fichte’s insistent that “your action, and your action alone, determines your worth”). For our purposes, however, I call our lives to the stand as a witness to our commitment to common sense: we cash in our childhood to get into a prestigious university; we work late, believing that the value of our bank account reflects the value of our person; we buy mail order torture from the fitness industry, sure that the size of our waist determines our worth. Whether I am what others say about me or what I know of myself, life under the link between action and identity is an exhausting race with no finish line.
There is, however, a conflict between common sense and Christianity—a conflict that says to those who feel like Atlas as he supported the weight of the world, “Come to me, all you who are weary and heavy-laden, and I will give you rest” (Matt 11:28). 1 Corinthians 15:8-10 provides an anti-thesis to Aristotle’s axiom. As Paul narrates his own identity, it is not a story of becoming what he was doing—of action determining identity. Paul was not made an apostle because he was acting like one. By his own account he was “unworthy to be called an apostle, because I persecuted the church of God” (1 Cor 15.9). “But,” he says, “by the grace of God I am what I am” (1 Cor 15:10). This is a total reversal of the ordering of action and identity, of doing and being. Paul’s calling to be an apostle does not come as a “because;” it comes as a “but.” Paul’s life and resume disqualified him from being an apostle, but by grace history knows the one unworthy to be an apostle as the Apostle Paul.
This is a story that cuts the causal strings that tie who we are to what we do: we are unworthy…but by grace…we are. Identity is a gift given by God’s gospel address: “You are my beloved son, you are my beloved daughter, in you I am well pleased.” Who we are, our deepest and truest identity, is not built on what we do; it is based on what God has done for us in Jesus.
And this, ultimately, is the answer to Bonhoeffer’s question, an answer he expressed in his closing lines:
Who am I? They mock me, these lonely questions of mine.
Whoever I am, Thou knowest, O God, I am Thine!
BY JONO LINEBAUGH