I think most of us can agree that we are not defined by what people say about us and we are not defined by our past. It’s fairly easy for society to say, “Be who you want to be, don’t let other people decide who you are.” There are many writers and resources out there dedicated to helping you become the person you want to be, to strive for that “dream you” and to be in control of your life, but I’m going to bring up something uncomfortable and say, actually, no. You don’t get to decide your identity—Not really.
Why? The simple answer to the question is a question first: You want to decide who you are? Well, where are you going to get the ideas for this person you want to be? Think about it. Did you find good qualities, habits, looks, routines, talents, jobs, in people who inspire you and then create a sort of “super-person” that you want to be? I want her tenacity, his grit, her hair, her relationship with her spouse, her mothering abilities, his work ethic, her confidence, his writing ability. Put that together. That’s who I want to be.
And the Christians come in here being like, “I don’t do that, I’m a Christian, I just want to look more like Jesus!” But we all do it to an extent. I want to worship like him. I want to read the word with the same discipline as her. I want to love people like she does. I want to share my faith with the same boldness he does. I want to be hospitable like that family. I want to do ministry like she does. I want to be a godly father like he is.
Real talk? I’ll name names. (Shoutout!) I want to love people like Erin does. I want to be disciplined and confident in my identity like Emily is. I want to be a servant like Hannah. I want to be a loyal and selfless friend like Alexis. I want to do ministry like the Willbrands. I want to disciple like Nicky. I want to write like Beth Moore. I want to be patient like Justin. I want to eat like Lauren. I could go on. That’s my super-person.
All of this has a name. It’s called comparison. It’s not called “inspiration,” for the record. It’s recognizing your own deficiency and calling out the “sufficiency” of another. There are a couple of glaring problems with this:
1. Comparing ourselves to others either puts us above or below those people. The problem is, God doesn’t see his beloved creation in any sort of hierarchy or “better/worse than.”
2. Comparison causes us to look at the gifts of others and think we are supposed to have those gifts. Then we neglect the cultivation of the gifts we have been given. If we’re all trying to be really awesome at decorating the house, who will build it?
3. Comparison causes us to look at other people for who we are supposed to be. The problem with that? We cannot look to each other for our own identity. We cannot look at broken people in our strive to be less broken. Plus, no one was made to be like you, so you can’t find “you” in other people.
Now, maybe you’re stuck with the question: “what, so now I can’t strive to be better at things or be inspired by people because I’m just comparing myself?” My answer? There is a very fine line between comparison and inspiration and it sounds like this:
“I see this in you, I should be more like that.”
“I see this in her, I wish I was more like that.”
“I see this in him, I need to be more like that.”
Key words: should, wish, need.
This is what inspiration sounds like:
“I like this in you, I’d like to try that sometime.”
“I love how you do that, can I join you?”
“You are so gifted in that, I want to learn from you.”
The difference? You recognize, celebrate, love, enjoy the gifts of others and it has nothing to do with you—unless—you feel a push by the Holy Spirit to learn from or join that brother or sister. However! The minute you start to feel deficient, less than, like you’ve failed—the minute you look at the other person and your celebration turns to envy—you my friend have turned your inspiration into comparison and you need to get. Out. Now.
And finally, you just don’t get to decide who you want to be. You didn’t create you and you didn’t decide your role in contributing to God’s will for creation. God gave you an identity and a role in his creation. It’s unique to you and can’t be found in anyone else. You don’t get to decide that. And thank God for that! Ephesians 3:20 can convince us of the reason why this is a good thing: “Now to him who is able to do immeasurably more than all we ask or imagine according to his power at work within us.” God is able to do immeasurably more than we could ask or even imagine through us. So, if we had the power to decide who we are, we’d pick a very underwhelming identity and lousy role in creation. We have no idea what we are capable of with God’s power at work in us. We have no idea who we can be. How can we decide who we are when who we are is someone we could never comprehend?
The correct response to finding out we don’t get to decide who we are? Relief and thanksgiving! We can stop striving for a new identity every time we read a new book. We can stop worrying about failure. We can stop comparing. We can be free to step into who God is shaping us to be.
It will change because God’s work is always moving. We will fail because we are broken and weak and need to rely on God’s strength. But all the while we can be free to take an honest look at the gifts God has given us and cultivate them with joy. We are free to celebrate successes in others without worms of jealousy or insufficiency wriggling their way into our thoughts.
The best place to see this level of jealousy is in a classroom full of kids where only a few get awards. I ended my last school year with tasking my 6th graders to write a multi-genre project. Many of the kids wrote above and beyond what was expected and were so proud of their accomplishments. I passed out grades and most of the proud students held their heads high with a giant grin as they read the letter “A” next to “Final Grade.” But it wasn’t until I gave out only 4 awards for specific aspects of their projects did some of the students without awards crush their own pride in an instant. Some of them went from excitement to, “Yeah, mine sucked.” Their smile dropped with the new label of “Not good enough.” Isn’t that what we do on the inside? You clap for the accomplishments of others and wonder if you are good enough to do the same. You celebrate his promotion secretly wishing it had been you all along. You commend her weight loss and hate your own body.
We aren’t meant to live this way. God created us with intention and purpose and gives us a role in his creation every day. The best way to find how to pursue who God created you to be instead of trying to decide who you want to be is to look at your passions and gifts. What do you love? What gets you moving? What gets you fired up? What could you talk about or do for hours? That’s your passion. Finding your gifts can be more difficult because we can tend to be blind to them. Ask people in your life what you are good at. Ask multiple people who have known you for varying amounts of time in different settings. What seems to be a common theme? What clicks when people say you’re good at it?
Now, find where your passions and gifts overlap. What are you good at and love to do? Now, you’ve found what God created you to do and be. Do that with all your heart. You’re going to fail and fall and royally mess up. Good. That was the plan all along. Embrace it and keep going. Oh, and don’t forget, it can change. Your gifts and passions are to be used for as long as God will use them in you, but you may lose them and God will change your direction. It’s beautiful, isn’t it! Our lives are not our own. Our life is being laid out for us and we are joining God in his beauty and creation in this world. Who God has made you to be is immeasurably more than you could even ask or imagine. Embrace it. Let inspiration be inspiration and run from comparison. But whatever you do, don’t try to decide who you are. You already are. So go be, freely.