Does anyone else dread the question "So, what do you do?" In my experience, it usually comes sandwiched between those other small talk favourites "what's your name?" and "where are you from?"
Part of the reason I dread this question is that at the moment I don't have a paid job and have no neat and tidy answer to give.
'Stay-at-home mum' is technically true but that response is usually followed by silence, into which I project judgment, or the follow up question "but what did you do before you had children?"
How nice it was when I was a teacher to have a readily intelligible and socially acceptable answer to this question!
But, looking back, I still didn't like that question. Even though this was something I was proud to be and which did open a window onto what is important to me, there was something about the question that made me feel pinned down and reduced.
I know that when people ask "what do you do?" they do so innocently and politely, trying to show interest within social norms. I know this because, despite my suspicion of the question, I find myself asking it as much as being asked. But I still wish we wouldn't ask that question so much because it too readily conflates who we are with what we do.
According to Henri Nouwen, there are three big lies relating to our identity that we are all prone to believe: "I am what I do", "I am what I have", and "I am what people think of me".
Reflecting on my dislike of the question "what do you do?", I realise that any smugness I may feel due to having some natural resistance to defining myself by what I do is undercut by a recognition that I am incredibly prone to the the third lie - "I am what people think of me". It's only because I'm susceptible to this lie that it feels so reducing for people to have an inaccurate view of me; if I knew I wasn't what people think of me, I don't think it would concern me so much for them to have a limited view of what I do.
The more I consider these lies, the more I notice how closely they are connected. In fact it's less that there are three separate lies and more that there is one three-headed lie. We may be more resistant to one than the others but it's rare to have total immunity to any.
The Bible is full of stories of people struggling to resist this lie, beginning with the temptation of Adam and Eve in the garden of Eden. The serpent doesn't explicitly question Eve's identity but the subtext of his temptation is the three-headed lie: "You are what you have: don't you want to have more knowledge?", "you are what you do: don't you want to do what God can do and be able to distinguish between good and evil?", "You are what people think of you: don't you want to listen to me and what I'm telling you you could become?".
The three-headed lie can also be detected in both Matthew and Luke's accounts of Jesus' temptation in the desert following his baptism by John. In two of the temptations Satan tries to get Jesus to conflate his identity with what he has (food to meet his physical needs, authority, power) and can do (perform miracles, summon angels to help him). "If you are the son of God...prove it," Satan hisses. In the third temptation, Satan tempts Jesus with the promise of a powerful and influential identity (ruler of many kingdoms) if only he'll serve him and listen to him instead of God.
What is it that allows Jesus to resist the three-headed lie when Eve - and all the rest of us - succumb? The answer lies in the baptism narrative (Matthew 3.13-17; Mark 1.9-11; Luke 3.21-22) in which we're told that after Jesus' baptism by John, the Spirit descended like a dove and a voice from Heaven said, "You are my Son, whom I love; with you I am well pleased."
It is because this experience immediately precedes Jesus' temptation in the wilderness that he is so readily able to resist Satan. Jesus knows the character of God, his loving Father, and that he is the beloved Son. His identity is secure through love. He is able to recognise Satan as a liar and to resist the attempt to reduce his identity to having, doing, and external approval. Jesus knows that God has all he needs, he doesn't need to test him to prove his love and he knows it is only God to whom he should turn and listen.
In contrast Eve is insecure. She doubts God's goodness and love and she doubts her identity as beloved. This is not a failure of God's to reveal himself and provide her with a secure identity. At this point in their story, Adam and Eve are living in a perfect world, a beautiful and bountiful garden in intimate relationship with God. Whether we read the story literally or figuratively, the image of God walking in the garden in the cool of the day searching for Adam and Eve is a beautiful image of the intimate relationship He seeks with human beings and which Adam and Eve enjoyed before they succumbed to temptation.
If insecurity was Eve's unravelling, we could also say that insecurity was the cause of the fall and is the root of all sin. Christian theology traditionally contends that it was pride that led to the fall but pride and insecurity are actually much closer than we sometimes think. Pride is not simply arrogance, it is thinking of oneself apart from God and this is also what causes and intensifies insecurity. Insecurity and pride are borne out of forgetfulness of God and our grounding in him.
In this life, it is inevitable that we will be tempted by the three-headed lie. Whether in seemingly innocuous small talk situations or in existential crises or in moments of deep betrayal or grief, we will all find ourselves questioning our identity in terms of what we have, what we do and what others think of us. It is likely that we will often give in to these lies, perhaps only realising in hindsight how much we have believed them. But the more we fix our gaze firmly on God's goodness and love through friendship with Jesus, the more we will we know ourselves to be beloved and the more secure we will be.
This is not navel-gazing, self-indulgent or narcissistic but absolutely essential if we are to become the people we are called to be. Without a deep knowledge of God's love and confidence in our true identity as beloved, the love we extend to others is needy and limited. We can't follow Jesus without first turning to him and it is through turning to him that we enter into his love, which flows freely from the Father. And just as Jesus is both recipient and giver of the Father's love, so we become recipient and conduit of love. Scripture resounds on this point: "As I have loved you, so must you love one another." (John 13.34)
Consider also: "As God has first loved us, we can also love one another." (1 John 4.11)
And: "I have made you [the Father] known to them [followers], and will continue to make you known in order that the love you have for me may be in them and that I myself may be in them." (John 17.26)
Henri Nouwen experienced this healing process during his own life and repeatedly wrote about how leaning into his true identity as beloved freed him from insecurity and enabled him to love more actively, abundantly and unselfconsciously.
This didn't happen instantly or even particularly dramatically but was largely the fruit of a daily practice of contemplative prayer in which he set aside time to be still and intentionally turn towards God. He wrote very honestly about the difficulties he had during these prayer times - the distractions, the boredom, the painful feelings that would arise. But through this discipline he was able to gradually surrender his need for control and open up hidden, hungry places in his heart to the healing embrace of his Father.
Precisely how we go about making the turn towards God will look different for each of us and will probably vary at different times in our lives. But whether it's silent contemplation or prayerful study of scripture or walks in nature we must all be committed to keep making that turn towards the one who is love and who whispers to us our true identity. It is not just work for the individual Christian but work for the whole praying Church as she follows Jesus in becoming ever more deeply rooted in the love of the Father.
As we lean into this love, we will notice that many of the things that used to bother us no longer bind us in the same way. For me, one of those things is the question "so what do you do?' How I respond to that question has become a litmus test for how well rooted I am in my true identity.
If I bristle, it's likely I'm feeling insecure and it's a good reminder to dwell a little longer in prayer. If I'm able to be honest or even shrug off a partial answer, it's likely I'm feeling secure because I know the true answer to this question, as well as all questions related to my identity, is deeper than any answer I could give in a small talk conservation.
Love is what we have, love is what we do and, if we are truly becoming love, love is what others will think of us.
Jennifer Goodyer is a writer and artist living in Chicago. Follow her on Twitter @goodyerjen