Identity: Is It “Do to Be” or “Be, then Do?”

One of our enduring questions at Concordia University Irvine (CUI) raises this profound issue of identity: “Who Do You Say That I Am?” Originally, Jesus asked his disciples that question (Matthew 16:15). In fact, CUI’s theology courses revolve around prompting students to give their own response to Jesus.

But it is also appropriate to ponder the query in regard to one’s own personal identity. So much of the world establishes identity on the basis of what a person does. In short, you have to do, to be. This is certainly true in the academic world. To pass a class, you have to do the work. To be an A student, you have to earn those high grades. To be a graduate, you have to complete all the requirements. Outside of academia, the same “do to be” mentality is equally pervasive. When people are asked who they are, the answer typically involves what one does in terms of job or career (e.g., I am a teacher, student, firefighter, counselor, etc.). In order to be hired for such a position, you have to assemble an impressive resume of qualifications and achievements. To be paid, you have to do the work; to be promoted, you have to do it well. Similarly, to win an athletic victory or championship, you have to earn it out on the field. To become an accomplished musician or actor, you have to perform well. Even most religions contend that what you do determines your ultimate identity in regard to how things will come out for you in the end.

One exception to this “do to be” mentality occurs at the very beginning of life.

A child is conceived without any effort of her/his own. Indeed, we all “be”-come a daughter or son without doing anything; we totally receive the gift of life from our parents. When confronted with, “Who do you say that I am?” We can all answer with where our identity began: “I am a daughter or son of my father and mother.” Then, of course, parents hope their child will grow up to “do” accordingly. One who has first become a daughter or son in a totally receptive way is generally expected to act in accord with who they are as a member of that family. In other words, what he or she “does” should reflect properly on who (and whose) they already “be.”

Perhaps this is why one of the Bible’s favorite images for becoming a believer in Jesus is that of being born again; conversion is a new birth, a birth from above (e.g., John 3:3, 5; Titus 3:5; 1 Peter 1:3; 23). This metaphor emphasizes the Bible’s teaching that who a person is in God’s eyes rests completely on what God does for us and gives to us in Jesus Christ. In short, our identity in this present life and for all eternity is all God, all grace, all gift!

The Bible also makes it abundantly clear that to attempt to establish an identity before God based upon what one does is futile and, ultimately, fatal (e.g., Ezekiel 18:4; Romans 1:32; 3:23; 6:23; Galatians 3:10-11). Unfortunately, many consider themselves to be a good person on the basis of human perceptions and standards, and then presume this approach will also work with God. However, in regard to our identity before him, works won’t work (e.g., Romans 3:28; Galatians 2:16)! This is because God and Jesus have the same standard, one which reflects their identity: holiness and perfection (e.g., Leviticus 19:2; Matthew 5:48). All have sinned or missed the mark; as a result, to try to “do” in order to “be” before God will always fail.

A classroom analogy I use asserts that to pass the course, a student must not simply get 60%, but achieve total perfection in all respects: perfect attendance, no grammar mistakes or errant thoughts on any paper, and no wrong answers on any quiz or exam. What if “perfect or fail” was an academic requirement? Thankfully, I then talk about a scenario where a professor who set such a demanding standard also granted all of the students all the possible points on the very first day of class and submitted their grades. They would all “be” 100% A+ students. That identity would be “all professor, all grace, all gift.”

This is similar to the basis of Christian identity. Believers in Jesus Christ agree with Peter’s answer to Jesus’ question, “’Who do you say that I am?’ Simon Peter replied, ‘You are the Christ, the Son of the living God’” (Matthew 16:15-16). Those who acknowledge Jesus to be the Way, the Truth, and the Life (John 14:6) are then able to resolve questions about their own identity and purpose.

A couple Christian songs I regularly use in class grasp and then express this well. The first contains lyrics which answer our Enduring Question about God the Father. In line with Jesus’ numerous expressions, Chris Tomlin describes God as a “Good, Good Father. It’s who you are” (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=RfYSVrYTyTo; e.g., 15 times in the Sermon on the Mount, Matthew 5-7; repeatedly in John’s Gospel). Then the lyrics profoundly swerve to the issue of our own personal identity. Who God is determines “who I am.” Similarly, in “I Am Who You Say I Am” by Ben Fielding and Reuben Morgan (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=IcC1Bp13n_4), the title itself proclaims that personal identity is rooted in what God’s Word declares. The lyrics then rehearse what Jesus Christ, God’s Incarnate Word in action, has accomplished for us and for our salvation. In Christ, “I’m a child of God,” “chosen, not forsaken,” “set free,” “ransomed,” and so forth. Why? Because his own powerful and truthful Word pronounces it to “be” so. Once that “in Christ” identity is properly rooted, the answer to, “Who do you say that I am?” is firmly and eternally established.

Then what? Appropriately, Jesus’ followers follow. They “do” in light of who they already “be.” Scripture speaks this way repeatedly. Here are three examples found in consecutive verses of Ephesians. In each one, God’s action which establishes a relational identity with him happened first and foremost; the appeal to act responsively comes on that basis. In other words, because of who you be, do accordingly!

32 Be kind to one another, tenderhearted, forgiving one another, as God in Christ forgave you. 4:1Therefore be imitators of God, as beloved children. And walk in love, as Christ loved us and gave himself up for us, a fragrant offering and sacrifice to God  (Ephesians 4:32-5:1; ESV).

 To return to the classroom analogy, a professor who awarded straight “A plusses” on day one might sincerely hope the students would respond appropriately. Now that all the pressure and accompanying anxiety are gone, the students could freely “do” in line with who they already are. They could pursue knowledge earnestly, deepen their awareness of the subject, and learn from their classmates and professor, but no longer to prove or earn anything. Instead, they would do so because of the perfect identity given to them right at the beginning.

What would happen the rest of the semester? Diligent and disciplined learning in grateful response? It would be interesting to find out. After all, grace can be a risky business. It certainly was so for Jesus. But he considered us worth it. Thanks be to God!

Michael Middendorf is Professor of Theology at Concordia University Irvine