When I was a young child, around age 5, I remember going up to my mother and asking her, “Who am I?” She replied, “You’re Mandy.” A straight forward answer for a straight forward question, but it wasn’t the illuminating answer I was hoping for. There wasn’t enough information. So, I pushed further. “But who am I?” I asked again. With additional emphasis, my mother lovingly repeated, “You’re Mandy.”
I walked away feeling confused. This was one question that even my mom couldn’t help me with. I was trying to wrap my head around the concept of identity. My identity. I asked God: What does it mean for me to be Mandy? Little did I know that I would spend the rest of my life trying to answer this exact question.
In different ways, we all ponder the question: Who am I? Our very lives are an attempt to provide an answer. How did you get to be the person you are sitting here today? How is this your life? There is no one answer to this question because each of us is unique, and we have each traveled very different paths even to get ourselves to the same place. And yet, each of us is created by God of the same basic matter, molecules and cells which make up skin and bones, and God breathed God’s very Spirit into each one of us. This means that each life here is a combination of a universal, God-given identity and an original self-invented identity. What does it mean for me to be me and you to be you? The answer was partially determined in the mind of God before the beginning of time, and the answer continually evolves throughout one’s lifetime as a person makes choices and grows.
In Genesis, chapter 1, verse 27, it says, “So God created humankind in God’s image, in the image of God God created them; male and female God created them.” Our Judeo-Christian heritage tells us that we are created in the image of God. The Latin term is imago dei (image of God). Each of us is a reflection of our Creator God. The problem is God’s reflection in us has been distorted by sin. The divine nature in each of us has been corrupted; we are fallen, broken, sinful. The recovery of this image is our life’s work, and not just ours, but God’s as well.
The process is called sanctification. Sanctification is “a real change in which the [Holy] Spirit renews our fallen nature” (Maddox, Randy. Responsible Grace: John Wesley’s Practical Theology. Nashville: Kingswood Books, 1994. pg. 170), transforming our sin-distorted selves back into the likeness of God, the imago dei. Christian theology explains it like this: God offers us forgiveness for our sins and redemption from our corruption through Jesus Christ, and when we accept this forgiveness, we receive a “New Birth.” “The New Birth brings a new vitality and responsiveness to God” in our lives, which sets into motions an active, healing, redeeming relationship between God and ourselves. Sanctification is “the entire therapeutic transformation of our lives following the New Birth” (Ibid. pg. 176-77). This means that from the time we decide to follow Jesus until the day we die, we are being sanctified. God reaches out to us via the Holy Spirit, and as we respond to the Spirit, transformation occurs, restoring us in the imago dei. By the power of the Holy Spirit, we are being made holy as God is holy. So, sanctification is a gradual recovery of the likeness of God following New Birth, a gradual, grace-empowered formation of Christ-like character.
I believe that the doctrine of sanctification directly relates to the human quest to answer the question: Who Am I? There is no static answer for who I am or who you are. We are all in the process of becoming. Whether you are 5, 25, 45, 65, or even 85, the answers are still unfolding and your identity is continuing to be molded. For us as Christians, the important thing is that we are becoming more like our Creator, our Source, our Perfect Beginning. The goal of sanctification is not to become God, but to become more fully human in the way that God creating humanity to be, which means that the goal is to reflect the divine image. When we are loving as God is loving, we are living up to our potential as God’s children. When we are wise as God is wise, we are living up to our potential as God’s children. When we are good, when we are kind, when we are creative, expressive and inspired, we are living up to our potential as God’s children because we are reflecting what we know to be true about God.
This might be hard for some of us to believe, but God created humanity with the intention that we would be in close, personal relationship with God. God is our partner and has offered to share the divine life with us. The Scripture says, “But now that you have been freed from sin and enslaved to God [enslaved being a good thing], the advantage you get is sanctification. The end is eternal life. [That means the life of the Eternal One alive in us]. For the wages of sin is death, but the free gift of God is eternal life in Christ Jesus our Lord“ (Romans 5: 22-23).
Psychology Magazine discusses humanity's quest for identity in terms of the search for an “authentic self.” The definition of authenticity is, “The unimpeded operation of one’s true or core self in one’s daily enterprise” (Wright, Karen. Psychology Today. June 2008. pg. 72).
When we are actively participating in the process of sanctification, we are also searching to live in accordance with our best possible, truest self, the child of God we are created to be. Journalist Karen Wright says, “American’s remain deeply invested in the notion of the authentic self. It’s part of the national consciousness.” “A hunger for authenticity guides us in every age and aspect of life. It drives our explorations of work, relationships, play and prayer. Teens and twentysomethings try out friends, fashions, hobbies, jobs, lovers, locations, and living arrangements to see what fits and what’s ‘Just not me.' Midlifers deepen commitments to career, community, faith and family that match their self-images, or feel trapped in existences that seem not their own. Elders regard life choices with regret or satisfaction based largely on whether they were ‘true’ to themselves” (Ibid. pg. 72).
One of the reasons this quest is so important to people is because when we feel like we are living inauthentically, we experience a “vague dissatisfaction [with life], a sense of emptiness, or the sting of self-betrayal” (Ibid. pg. 76). Whereas those who feel like they are living authentically experience greater satisfaction with life, a sense of purpose, and the joy of being one’s self.
As Christians, we can merge the doctrine of sanctification with becoming our authentic self since we believe God’s Spirit is continually working in our lives to help us become our truest possible selves, selves that both reflect the divine image that is our core being and also, actualized selves that express our unique potential as individual children of God.
It’s like a dance between us and the Holy Spirit. The Spirit graciously reaches out to us through feelings, through people, through life circumstances, through dreams, through calling, and our response to the Spirit’s initiative determines if and how we grow closer to God. The Spirit’s main work is to help us come alive, to help us mature as spiritual beings who reflect the divine in the world.
Psychology Today discusses the importance of self awareness as key to determining if one is living as one’s authentic self, which is important for us too, but for Christians, there is an additional component: God awareness, or more accurately, Holy Spirit awareness. We need to be aware of the Spirit when the Spirit comes to us and open our lives to the Spirit’s movement.
According to the article in Psychology Today, “Spiritual and religious traditions similarly equated authenticity and morality. In the wisdom traditions of Judaism, people do the right thing because they see it as an expression of their authentic selfhood. In Christianity, the eternal soul is who you really, truly are; sinners are simply out of touch with their core selves. ‘The authentic human self is called to be much nobler than [how you see people acting in everyday encounters]’" (Ibid. pg. 75).
The Christian faith does not begin with morality. It begins with the heart. Our hearts are meant to reflect God’s love, wisdom, goodness and creativity, and our actions follow from there. John Wesley, the founder of Methodism, emphasized the “inward” dimension of sanctification. He talked about it in terms of “the life of God in the human soul, a participation of the divine nature, the mind that was in Christ, or the renewal of our heart after the image of God who created us” (Maddox. pg. 178). When these things happen, it leads to external acts of obedience. But it is because God’s life is in us, because we are participating in the divine nature, because Christ’s mind has become our mind and because our hearts have been renewed in the imago dei that we act so graciously in the world. Not simply because we are told to, but because that is “who we are.”
Today, Pentecost, let us rejoice in the presence and activity of God through God’s wonderful Holy Spirit. The Holy Spirit helps us to become our authentic selves as we are created to be in the image of God. The Holy Spirit sanctifies our brokenness so that we are holy as God is holy, turning our hate to love, our anger to joy, our fear to courage, our hardened-hearts to open, accepting hearts, our “to-do” existences to creative existences, our death to life. Praise be to the Spirit now and forever. Amen.