IDENTITY in Spiritual Parenting, Pt. 1

Identity in Spiritual Parenting, Pt. 1

by Mike Elmer

In our intention to journey together, we have begun exploring various environments in which to examine how we are discipling our children. As parents, we are the primary disciplers of our kids, and this occurs in real time all the time, the high points of the day and the mundane moments, the intentional times and the informal, even unguarded interactions. We’ve been taking a basic framework from Michelle Anthony’s book “Spiritual Parenting” to examine these contexts in which parenting takes place, and thinking about how to develop a mindset that leverages those moments for discipleship.

This week in the Parents’ Gathering, we turned our attention to IDENTITY as one of those environments for discipleship of our children. This is obviously a weighty topic right now, and our culture rightly recognizes that we all form an identity of one kind or another starting in early childhood as our bodies, minds and personalities develop. The question is how that should happen – and furthermore what the goal of forming an identity should be.

Culturally, nothing could be more important in this critical development of personhood than creating an authentic self. Shakespeare’s famous line, “to thine own self be true,” might serve to encapsulate this overarching ideal for life in the modern world. Various messages and notions fill out this ethos: “follow your heart,” “truth lies within,” and “you be you” carry the self-evident truthiness of an axiom in our time. These are the outworking of an ideology deeply entrenched in our society, namely expressive individualism. This view holds that only I can determine who I truly am, and that by looking within at my own inclinations, personality, interests, sexual attractions, whims, will and abilities. As I determine more and more fully who I am on my journey into authentic selfhood, I continue to mold the raw material of my body, clothing, mannerisms and vocational pursuits to match what I believe is my authentic self. And this outward expression of that self must be met with affirmation and acceptance in society or else I am being oppressed and devalued as a person, unable to live fully in the authenticity of who I am. This expression then is the manifestation of a person made in his or her own image, created according to their own design.

Contrast that ideology of expressive individualism with the message of Jesus, who said, “if anyone would come after me, let him deny himself and take up his cross and follow me. If anyone would save his life, he will lose it, but whoever loses his life for my sake will save it.” Living a truthful life in Jesus’ way means dying to one’s sinful inclinations, accepting the forgiveness that Jesus offers, and then laying down one’s life to live according to Jesus’ words and for his glory. Authenticity is measured not by expressing whatever qualities of personhood we find inside ourselves, but in being single-mindedly devoted to Jesus in covenant relationship with him. It is telling that Jesus taught that he would send the Holy Spirit to “be in” his disciples, to dwell within them. It would be God’s presence in them that would enable them to live authentically according to the word of God, which is the character of God – God’s presence manifesting the character of God in those who lay down their lives to follow Jesus. The identity therefore of those who follow Jesus is an authentic physical image of the Triune God, being perfected in sanctification by the Holy Spirit.

While there is certainly a significant contrast between the two approaches mentioned above, there is something to expressive individualism that rings true. In my reflection, I think it is this: that God in his grace gives us an identity rooted in our relationship with him, which is a relationship that does not obliterate the distinctive qualities he created in us, but rather it is a relationship that redeems those qualities and affirms them as good gifts to be used for his glory. The man who has an innate ease in social situations and once used that talent to satisfy his craving for attention would find that talent redeemed in being able to share the good news of Jesus with a wider network of people. The woman who possesses a keen wit and used it to feel superior to others would find that she could bring biblical truths to people in a stirring way. And so on. God is not about widespread conformity; he is redeeming diverse people and reconciling them with himself in covenant relationship. That relationship is the identity that they are given, which animates their distinctive qualities and leverages their talents for sacrificial good in the world.

So, with that background in mind, how do we help our children develop an identity rooted in their relationship with God? How do we help them to see that God’s love is the surest foundation on which to stand? And that from that place of acceptance and belonging, they can know freedom to develop their strengths, appreciate the personality God placed within them, and express their convictions and burdens of heart without fear or need for others to affirm everything they say or do?

In the first place, we will have to avoid a temptation particular to parents: the temptation to turn our children into an image of ourselves. This is a pervasive temptation that might even arise subconsciously because in a very real sense our children are images of us: they reflect us to others, they often look like us, they will have some of our personality in them, and in other ways will tend to follow after us in terms of interests, talents, and vocation. Genesis 5:3 says as much: “When Adam had lived 130 years, he fathered a son in his own likeness, after his image, and named him Seth.” But there is a way that this reality can go wrong when we pressure our children in an attempt to make them into something we want for their lives, caring more about how they reflect us than how they reflect God in the world. Michelle Anthony in her book “Spiritual Parenting” says this: “…daily living can tempt us to believe that they [our children] were created to reflect us instead of the Father. I can remember thinking and even saying to my children, ‘don’t do that, because I will be embarrassed in front of my friends.'” This is a dynamic to be aware of and sensitive to, and to repent of if we find it in our relationships with our children. We will need to die to ourselves and our ambitions for our children in order to seek God’s purpose and plan for them. In all of this, we will also need to keep God’s larger story in mind in which we have a part to play but are not in the primary role. (We have often talked about the “people we get to meet” in our children, recognizing that God made them unique and ordained us to raise them to know him even while they will have their own part in his story).

Secondly, it is essential for us to reflect on our own identity in relationship with God. Thoroughly embracing who we are in Christ will help us lead our children to a secure identity in him. An excellent place to begin this reflection is Ephesians 1:3-14. In this passage, Paul explains that our identity as adopted sons and daughters of God was predestined even before the foundation of the world, made possible by the sacrifice of Jesus, and sealed with the Holy Spirit. It is this identity that is secure, offering full and complete acceptance on the basis of God’s love instead of our performance. Here is a summary from Paul’s explanation of what God has done, how he did it, and the purpose for which he did (taken from Ephesians 1):

WHAT God didHOW he did itThe PURPOSE for which he did it
“he chose us”“in Christ”“that we should be holy and blameless before him”
“he predestined us for adoption to himself as sons”“through Jesus Christ”“to the praise of his glorious grace”
“we have redemption through his blood, the forgiveness of our trespasses”“in Christ”“to unite all things in him”
“we have obtained an inheritance, having been predestined”“in Christ”“to the praise of his glory”
We “were sealed with the promised Holy Spirit”“in Christ”“to the praise of his glory”

In brief, God has brought us into relationship with him, choosing us, adopting us, redeeming us, giving us an inheritance and sealing us with his Holy Spirit – and all of this through Jesus Christ. This is who we are now. And because it was not accomplished by our own doing, but by God’s initiative and power, it is a reality not undone by our own weaknesses or failings. Here then is solid ground for us to stand on. And the purpose for it all resounds in Paul’s writings as being “to the praise of [God’s] glory,” in addition to our sanctification and uniting of all things in Christ. In Paul’s explanation, we see a grander narrative being described, in which we have a part. We find that the implications of God’s actions are very great and beneficial for us, but all that we receive comes as a result of God’s grace and initiative. So then, this core identity in our lives grants us confidence in who we are, keeps us humble due to the nature of grace that imparted it to us, and calls us to a higher purpose that is glorifying God in our lives and entering fully into the story that God is writing. This joining of qualities coincides with the character of God expressed in Jesus Christ, and hence we often describe our identity given to us as “Christ-likeness.”

Michelle Anthony recommends in her book that we write a personal statement of who we are in Christ as a statement of identity. Hers reads: “my name is Michelle Anthony. I am the chosen and adopted daughter of the Most High King. I’m the heir to an eternal inheritance waiting for me in heaven. I have been bought and completely paid for by the perfect sacrifice of Christ’s own blood and am sealed throughout all eternity by God’s Holy Spirit. Don’t mess with me!” Personalizing identity with a statement drawn from Scripture in this way helps us to remember that we are not our accomplishments, we are not our reputation, we are not defined by expectations placed on us, and we are not how our children behave in public. Our identity is rooted in what God has said about us, his children.

Anthony suggests that parents also write a statement of identity for each of their children, likewise drawing from Ephesians or other passages of Scripture. This is a clarifying exercise to help us remain focused on who God is forming our children to be as reflecting the image of Christ in the world. What is the particular place that God has for them to serve in his kingdom? How can we encourage their faith as their identity thickens in their understanding and experience of God’s love?

In Part II of this post, we’ll explore the opposing forces that would tempt us and our children to adopt false and deceitful identities that are counterfeit or diminished versions of what God gives to us. We’ll also talk about how to respond when our kids fail to live out the identity they have in Jesus, and consider the weight of words that we use in relating to our children. In all of this, we are involved in a great work to lead our children into glorious freedom found only in Christ as we pass on a vibrant faith that is firmly established in the love of God for us.