On Dignity and Identity: An Homiletic Excursus

On Personal Worth & Personal Identity

“The one who believes in Me, as the Scripture has said, will have streams of living water flow from deep within him.” (John 7:38)

Where does our worth come from? What makes us valuable and worthy; what gives us real dignity? Is our worth tied up in our actions, in the things we do, or is it in the things we have? Is our worth in our accomplishments, or our possessions? 

What makes us who we are? What gives us our identity? Is our identity the sum total of our actions, the sum total of the things we do, or the total things we have? The sum of our accomplishments, our possessions, or perhaps our relationships? 

What gives us our worth, and what defines us as who we are? Is it our money, our prestige, the number of friends we have on Facebook, the number of academic degrees we’ve earned, the number of times we’ve appeared on television or in the papers? Does it have to do with how many people come to us for advice, for our expertise, or our knowledge? Is it our influence that gives us our worth or our identity? What about our physical beauty, our fitness, and health? It is our ability to command respect and admiration from people? Is it our sexual exploits? The number of men or women who have been attracted to us, or “fallen for us?” The number we have pleased in the bedroom?

Is our identity in our work? In our hobbies? Is it about a certain kind of skill or capacity we’ve attained through years of hard work, or is it through some set of unique experiences that personal worth accrues? Or, is my worth and identity wrapped up in how religious I am? In how often I go to church, how much I give to charity, how much I pray? Is it in some group, some institution, or some club that I belong to? 

Is my worth or identity based on my intelligence? How smart I am, or appear to be to others? Is it in how well I can argue or how well I can educate? 

Finally, is my worth and identity tied up in my family? In my spouse? In the degree of cohesion and unity, the general happiness, the functionality of my own family unit? Am I identified and dignified by the achievements of my children, the perception that they have of me? Or, is my value or identity wrapped up in my relationship to my parents? Do I still struggle for their approval, especially if approval has been hard to come by?

I think if I were honest, I would have to say “yes” to at least some of these. Because, our worth and our identities do seem to be defined by one or more of these features of life, at different times in life. Our job is often who we are, our families define us, our clubs or political parties contribute to who we think we are. My degrees, my reputation as a husband or father, mother or wife; these simply are who I am. If I fail in any of these, my worth decreases and my identity is tarnished, if not ruined. I become less valuable, and I feel lost to myself, and my story is left incomplete.

All of these things I’ve mentioned will fail us at some point in our lives. They will either fail to satisfy us, and we will look elsewhere for our worth, or if we put too much value in them, we will begin to exploit them for what they can, or what they must do for us, namely, they must give us an unassailable sense of worth, and a lasting sense of identity. Because, after all, what else could give us worth, or identity, other than these? 

But, it’s not only that these things don’t satisfy, because even if they did for a while, by the nature of what they are, they would make all of us supremely different in both identity and value. We would be, no, we are supremely different in value and identity, if these are the kinds of things that define value and identity.

The poor are not as valuable as the rich, if riches are what make us valuable. Those who haven’t succeeded in life, who haven’t pulled themselves up by their bootstraps, are less valuable than the successful, those who are self-made men and women. The unmarried, less valuable than the married. The chaste, less than the sexually active. Couples with four or five well-behaved, energetic children, more valuable than couples who can’t conceive, or whose children are brats, or ill. Those who aren’t good at a sport or some hobby, less valuable than those who are top athletes, or skilled laborers and artisans. Those who can’t attract men or women romantically, far less valuable than the sex idols amongst us. Those who don’t go to church every week, less worthy than those pious souls who attend sometimes even twice in a week. Those who don’t have the academic credentials, well, not really worth listening to. Those with PhDs, not as good as those with PhDs and endowed chairs.

If our value is in these things, then we are not, nor can we ever be, equal. Because these things are all limited and finite; and we are all empty and broken vessels. We are like things that leak, that cannot hold the things we crave.  

All of these: money, family, skill, fame, prestige, influence, beauty, fitness, marriage, children, hobbies, sex, food, religiosity, intelligence. They all go away, they all fade, they are all transitory, they do not last. Neither do they ever really satisfy our hunger, no matter how much we have of them, or how good they seem to be. We long for more. We’ve been made for more. 

We are lost without that which can give us unassailable identity and lasting worth. And, as sad as it may seem, the love of each other, is also not enough. If it were, we wouldn’t be in the spot we are today, or yesterday, or in 2312 BC for that matter. Because in all honesty, few of us come close to loving others well, and none of us loves perfectly. Further, most of us don’t even know how to receive love, even when genuinely on offer. The first hurt taints all future attempts at love. 

But where do we go for the kind of love we need? The kind of love that makes all of these other pursuits (which in themselves could be very good, and very lovely desires and wants) valuable, but not ultimate?  Where do we go for that kind of love; the kind that defines us, and does so forever?

“You made us for yourself, and our hearts find no peace until they rest in thee.”

Is it the love of God that we are searching for? We will look for God’s love in one or more of these things I’ve mentioned. There we will seek it, but not find it, at least not find Him; only shadows. These things that, known from experience, could not satisfy me; could not fill my heart; these created things (Romans 1). These could not, can not, give me a real sense of lasting worth, and that true identity that I longed to find. Not a worthiness I had to earn, or an identity that I myself had to create, but a worth and a dignity that was given to me; an identity that was shown to me. Call me arrogant, but I don’t think you and I are that different in this regard.

It is said that Martin Luther on his death bed muttered these words, “we are all but beggars.” I have little to offer except this, and one only this: without the love of God in us, and the love of God that comes only through Jesus Christ, there are only two things worth pursuing, neither of which will make us whole, heal us, or give us peace, as much as we may try. What are the two? These two things are power and pleasure, and for 34 years I chased power so I could have pleasure. I wracked my body with alcohol, drugs, and sex. I travelled around the world hoping that the next mountain vista I saw, or the next exotic city I visited would leave an enduring sense of excitement and happiness. Then I taught school children, inner city kids, hoping I would feel good about myself, and then I joined the Army hoping that I would achieve things that would make me feel worthy and valuable again, perhaps even heroic.

But, after all this, it was ultimately Jesus who chased me down; Jesus who caught me; Jesus who loved me; Jesus who forgave me; and Jesus who gave me a new identity, and an worth that is absolute. He did it on the cross, go look for yourself. Your new identity is in His face, and your worth was proven by His blood.

Do I still fall into the trap of power or pleasure? Sure, but I don’t love them. Not any more. I love Jesus. What about you, friend? 

“Oh, the depth of the riches
both of the wisdom and the knowledge of God!
How unsearchable His judgments
and untraceable His ways!” (Romans 11:33)

We have redemption in Him through His blood, the forgiveness of our trespasses, according to the riches of His grace that He lavished on us with all wisdom and understanding.” (Ephesians 1:6-8) 

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