Jonathan Brower delivered a teaching this past Sunday in which he asked the question: what is man? Simple enough, right? Man (and I’m talking all mankind here) is messed up. We know this. But that’s not the whole point Brower was making. He was emphasizing the importance of questioning. And I mean down-and-dirty self-examination; sharp, existential (why am I here, what’s it all about) questioning.
One of the problems with the culture we are a part of is the uneasiness we all have with this kind of questioning – at least very serious forms of questioning. And it’s no surprise, because if you question far enough, you’ll have to eventually admit there’s something very wrong. We’ve got it all wrong. We’re just (to use a picture from Brower) chasing after rabbits. Cute, fluffy rabbits that we think, “If I could just catch ‘em then I’ll finally be satisfied.” But reality is much uglier. If those rabbits are ever caught they’ll do nothing but bite and scratch. You’ll wish you hadn’t spent all your time chasing something that would only hurt in the end. Scary stuff, if you really take a solid look at it.
And here (if you’re a Christian) you might try to cheer yourself up by saying, “But that’s the world! So hopelessly lost!” Well, not so fast. Brower also pointed out something very important and striking: this same lack of self-examination is also common behind the doors of local churches. The metaphor he used here was “being fashioned” like clay (from 1 Peter 1:14.) This worldly culture, which we cannot opt out of, is constantly trying to get at our hearts, fashioning us into the common mold. And most of the time – if we’re not asking why we think the rabbits look like the answer to life – we’re completely unaware this fashioning is taking place.
Pulling Up Roots
To drive home his point, Brower referenced A.W. Tozer, a Christian author. Tozer talks about the results of this worldly fashioning in his book The Pursuit of God. Tozer points out, “The roots of our hearts have grown down into things, and we dare not pull up one rootlet lest we die. Things have become necessary to us… God’s gifts now take the place of God…”
“Things have become necessary to us…” – this is where the deep questions meet ugly reality. What are we building our lives on? Are we just using God as a means to get these gifts, the things we are really living for; things we are so utterly convinced we cannot live without? Because when we talk about having the roots of our heart planted in something, we’re saying that thing is the source of our life. Do you think it’s wise to have your heart rooted in something that will only pass away in the end?
But this fashioning and rooting happens all around us, all the time. It’s a major temptation for all of us, and it is hidden right in front of our eyes. Because for the most part, these things we are rooting our hearts in, (the rabbits we chase), are good things. But we make these good things into our very identity. I’m an artist, I’m a mother, a father, a preacher, a social worker, a good person, a churchgoer – anything. We are building our identity, rooting our hearts, on things that – while good – are less than God and, in the end, will pass away.
The Three Big Lies
There is a story repeated in the first three gospels where Jesus goes out into the wilderness and is tempted by Satan (Matthew 4, Mark 1, Luke 4.) Jesus is tempted in three ways, and it is the same for all of us traveling out in the wilderness of our own lives, looking for a place to set down the roots of our heart. Satan attacks Jesus by going right to those roots; he attacks his identity. And each temptation is a lie that we all get caught up in so easily. Here are the three lies we believe about our identity, our answer to life, and what we’re here for: I am what I do; I am what I have; and I am what others think. At the root of them all is the major lie that, “God’s love is not enough.” They whisper in our ear, “You’re not lovable or good enough for Him.” They chant along with our culture, “You’ve gotta earn your identity.”
I am What I do
Satan begins by pointing at the rocks and demanding a miracle of Jesus, “If you are the son of God, turn the stones to bread.” In other words, “If you are who you say you are, do this thing.” He starts with the lie our culture tells us, “Hey you! What have you achieved? You know, you are what you do. You’re only somebody if you’ve shown us your usefulness.” And at this time in Jesus’s life, he hadn’t started his ministry, he hadn’t done anything yet. He was, from the looks of it, a loser wandering in the desert. The temptation was great.
I am What I Have
Next, Satan shows Jesus all the kingdoms of the world – and demands that Jesus worship him. “You’ve got nothing on this earth, Jesus. Bow to me and I’ll give all of this to you. Then you’ll be worth something in this wilderness.” This is a lie that is so loud in our culture: you’re only as good as what you own. This puts us in a constant search for new stuff to fill our lives with. And for Jesus wandering homeless, with nothing to his name, the temptation was great.
I am What Others Think
Satan, at last, takes Jesus to the highest point of the temple. There he demands Jesus put on a show. “Jump, the angels will save you, and everyone will believe that you are who you say you are.” Jesus might as well have been invisible at this point, no one knew who he was. Satan said you’ve gotta prove yourself, you’re only worth anything if others notice you and approve of you. This is a huge temptation for all of us. It can drive us to do things and make decisions we wouldn’t otherwise. We get trapped into living a pretend life, always concerned if people are approving or accepting of us.
Winning the Identity Battle
In all three of these temptations Jesus stands his ground. He uses the word of God to fight off the attacks of Satan, who himself tried to twist God’s word to make the lies seem true. But if you look (in Matthew and Mark), right before He went out into the wilderness and was tempted, Jesus had a beautiful experience with God. Jesus was baptized and God spoke aloud, “This is my Son, whom I love; with Him I am well pleased.” (Mat. 3:17.)
Jesus knew where His true identity was. He was completely dedicated to the Father, and He knew he was loved and accepted in Him. This is a solid foundation for the roots of our hearts: in Christ who was rooted so firmly in His Father that not even the strongest attacks of Satan could break Him. But even more so, when we identify with Jesus, when we accept his work on the cross, like a beggar reaching out our hands saying “I have nothing to give”, we are identifying with a human being who was one with Father (John 10:30); who was perfect and pleasing to God; who was dedicated even to death and separation from God. That’s how much he loves you – he didn’t abandon you on that cross. He loves and accepts you enough to go through hell for you; to take that separation from God for you. He came back from death, overcoming the grave, to show His power over this world and its lies.
It is in Jesus that the concepts of self-examination and existential questioning become more than just cold, abstract philosophy. We’re talking about a real person, a personal gospel. A human through whom we measure our humanness. So we can ask the hard questions about identity, and our hearts’ roots, and see how Christ lived out His identity in perfection. We can identify with Him, and admit that we can’t do this on our own – it’s not about earning His love. It’s about grace, an undeserved gift from God. The work was done by Him. We can invite Him into our day-to-day lives and decisions. We can let the Truth of the gospel of grace pass into our lives and fashion us more and more into the likeness of Jesus Christ, our Savior and King.