Four ways that God shapes our identity

Christian Today

The way in which we define ourselves is a key part of our culture. We identify ourselves by what we can do or things we like; with countries, football teams, jobs, churches, possessions, and celebrities.

So what makes Christians willing to identify so strongly with their faith? Bible scholar Paula Gooder tackled the subject of identity on Tuesday morning at Spring Harvest and gave four ways in which God shapes who we are.

God adopts us into his family

Looking closely at Ephesians 3:14-17, Gooder highlighted Paul's use of wordplay. "For this reason I kneel before the Father, from whom every family in heaven and on earth derives its name," the apostle writes. The Greek word for 'father' is 'pater', Gooder said, and out of all the Greek words for family, in his original text Paul chooses to use the word 'patria'. This comes from the root word pater, and is where we get our English words patriarchy and patriotic from. So when Paul says 'I kneel before the pater, from whom every patria in heaven and on earth derives it's name', he means it literally; we as a family have the name of the pater. Paul is saying that by definition, if you are a patria – which we as God's children are – you bear the name of the father.

Patria doesn't just refer to a nuclear family, either, Gooder said, but instead would have suggested to a Greek audience the idea of being linked into a huge family tree. "That's when you realise what is important in this passage," she explained. "When Paul is talking about patria, he's talking deeply about the nature of your identity."

In the ancient world, who you were was often defined by what your family was, so you were bound by your family's identity. In Paul's day, Jews would have identified Abraham as their father, while Gentiles would identify with Romulus and Remus, the founders of Rome, or Alexander the Great. But Paul is saying there is now one father, God, that we all share – no matter who we are or where we're from. "That's our story as Christians, as children of the father who gives us all the same name," Gooder said. "It's right at the heart of the Christian narrative."

God puts us in the same category as the angels

The reference to "families on heaven and on earth" may conjure up images of young cherubs resting on clouds, but there are "no chubby toddlers in heaven," Gooder said. "Those chubby toddlers [painted] in the Sistine Chapel are not found in the heavenly realms. Paul is not talking about a daddy angel, a mummy angel and a baby angel."

Instead, Paul is making the point that because of Jesus, we are now considered to be at one with angelic beings. "The angels in heaven are the same as we are – that's a really important strand within Judaism," Gooder said. "Angels have the same family tree...they come from the same source as we do, the same family tree. So every family whether angelic in heaven or human on earth has the same name, which comes from the father."

God gives to us out of himself

Paul prays that God will give the Ephesians strength "according to the wealth of his glory" in verse 16. His careful wording here reveals his prayer that God will pour out of himself the essence of who he is, and share it with us.

The Greek word for 'glory' used here is 'kavod', linked to the verb 'kaved' meaning to be heavy, Gooder explained. So God's glory is his weightiness; what you can understand about him, rather than what you can't. "God's glory is the bit of God our teeny human comprehension can understand, as opposed to the rest we can't get because it's beyond our imaginings. It's that which we can know about God," she said.

So when God gives to us according to the wealth of his glory and strengthens us with power by the Holy Spirit, he is giving us himself, and wrapping our identity up with his. He gives to us out of the essence of who he is.

God gives us a unique identity

One of the challenges of Christianity is not to try and be like everyone else, but to "deeply and profoundly" be ourselves. The task of being strengthened by the Holy Spirit (verse 16) is about learning to be what it is to be a Christian in our individual ways, and to grow into the person God is calling us to be. Paul never uses the Greek word for 'soul', Gooder noted, but instead calls it our "inner person": "What we need to recognise is the need to take seriously God's challenge to work on our inner selves, to be freed by the Holy Spirit to be truly and deeply who we really are."

"The power of the Holy working deep within will transform you," she continued. "We are introduced into a new form of breathing, and living. Christ will set up a permanent dwelling place in our hearts, and it will help us to think in a different way."