Justin was about four years old when he came to me, a bright little boy with a world of questions. We sat down on the edge of the couch together, and he shared with me his dream for his future, “When I grow up, Daddy, I want to be a lion,” he said. Well, who wouldn’t, I thought, with all that “king of the jungle” stuff we hear so much about? His mother had been reading him a book about the animals of Africa, and he was enthralled. He was in that time of life when you come across a book that you want read to you over and over again. After at least five hundred readings, he was completely settled on what he wanted to do with his future. He wanted to be a lion.
After he shared why he had chosen this future at the top of the feline world, I launched into a little lesson on biblical anthropology. He sat wide-eyed and attentive as I laboriously attempted to help him understand the doctrine of creation and its specific implications for the identity of human beings. He seemed interested as I did everything I could to distinguish animals from people. As I droned on, I noticed that he was getting fidgety and was no longer looking at me with rapt attention, but I thought he was still taking it all in. I wrapped up my identity-of-human-beings monologue and asked him if he understood what his daddy was trying to say. He looked up at me quite confidently and said, “Yes, I do, Daddy. When I grow up, I am going to be a giraffe!” I ended my failed attempt at early childhood theological education, gave him a big hug, and off he ran.
Little Justin is like all of us. We know that identity influences our thinking, our choices, and our behavior, but we have a hard time getting identity right. This issue is a huge part of the midlife struggle. Identity amnesia, misunderstanding, and replacement make the surface issues of disappointment, aging, and regret all the more powerful and potentially destructive. Here is the critical issue: When you have defined yourself horizontally (“I am my family, job, marriage, children, possessions, appearance, friendships, career, successes, or position”) you are in big trouble. When you enter the stage of life where those things, or your plans for acquiring them, are taken away, you become lost in identity confusion. We are always heading for trouble when we try to define ourselves horizontally instead of vertically.
What we need in midlife is not a world that is utterly free of disappointment, aging, or regret. We need to get our identity right in order to survive these powerful experiences. When you define your identity vertically, you will be able to stand even when the things around you are passing away.
Perhaps you are thinking, “Okay, but what does it mean to define myself vertically?” It means that true identity is always rooted in worship. In fact, the Bible tells us that a true understanding of anything starts with acknowledging God. As the great Christian thinker John Calvin taught, there is no knowing that does not begin with knowing God. It is only when you have God in His proper place and are celebrating who He is that you can ever truly know yourself. The theological principle is that knowledge of the Creator is fundamental to understanding the creation. The identity struggles that rear their ugly heads during the tumult of midlife are really struggles of worship. To the degree that we have failed to worship God for who He is and what He has done, we will take unseen identity confusion into the issues of midlife, making what is already difficult much worse.
There are three pillars of worship that support a true biblical sense of identity.
1. True identity is rooted in worshiping God as Creator.
To have a sense of identity that will not fail you when you are buffeted by the sure-to-come storms of life, you must start at the beginning. This first means fully and completely recognizing that you were made by him. David captures it so well in Psalm 139.
For You created my inmost being;
You knit me together in my mother’s womb.
I praise you because I am fearfully and wonderfully made;
Your works are wonderful, I know that full well.
My frame was not hidden from
You when I was made in the secret place.
When I was woven together in the depths of the earth,
Your eyes saw my unformed body (Psalm 139:13-16a).
What powerful and amazing words! Every part of the fabric of your personhood was carefully knit together by God’s creative hands. There was no part of you that was hidden from Him. He carefully examined every aspect of your unformed body before you were born. There were no accidents, no glitches, no thoughtless moments. Just like David, you too were “fearfully and wonderfully” made. The color of your eyes, the shape of your body, your intellectual and physical gifts, your hair, your voice, your personality, the color of your skin, the size of your feet, etc.—all of your hardwiring is the result of God’s glorious creative ability. The “package” that created you comes from His hand.
Now, as familiar as all of this is, it is nonetheless important. I am deeply persuaded that while many of us worship God as Creator on Sunday, we curse His work during the week. Most of us harbor dissatisfaction with who God made us to be. The short ones want to be tall; the tall ones want to be shorter. The intellectuals secretly wish to be athletic; the mechanically minded people secretly wish they could be more musical. The serious person wishes, just for once, that he could be the life of the party, and the guy who was given the gift to think and to teach wishes he could have been more administrative. There are times in all of our lives when we secretly wish we could rise to the throne of creation and remake ourselves in the image of what we would like to be.
Often this refusal to accept your legacy in midlife is really a refusal to accept your identity. Sam was wired to be bald young and gray early. By forty-two he had little hair left, and what was there was almost white. He felt cursed and did everything he could to prove that he was still young. He was cursing the Creator he had committed himself to worshiping. Justina had been wired by God to be a nurturer, and she made a wonderful mom. Now, with her kids all gone, she had worked herself to the bone for something that left her empty and alone. She was angry that she hadn’t been more career-conscious. She was angry at her Creator, and she didn’t even know it.
What about you? Are your midlife struggles connected to your failure to celebrate whom the Creator wired you to be?
2. True identity is rooted in worshiping God as Sovereign.
The midlife struggle is often the result of a collision between your plans and God’s. Although you knew exactly what you wanted to accomplish and those things that you determined to avoid, your life didn’t unfold as you planned. It is vital to go into the middle years with your biblical identity screwed on straight. You must rest in the fact that every situation, circumstance, location, experience, and relationship of your life has been under the wise and careful administration of the Lord Almighty. He has known from the beginning exactly what He was going to do and exactly why He did it. From His vantage point there are no slip-ups, no oversights, no accidents, no misunderstandings, and no mistakes. Nothing has fallen through the cracks. David captures this comforting fact in Psalm 139:16b:
All the days ordained for me were written in your book before one of them came to be.
Wow! It is a view of human identity that takes your breath away. I do not write my own story; it has been written for me. My job is to live inside of the plot that God has written for me in the way I have been called by Him to live.
There is a direct connection between delusions of personal sovereignty and the crushing disappointments that grip us in midlife. We forgot who we were and began to believe that our hands were really the hands on the joystick. We worked with dedication and perseverance, but we worked like little sovereigns, rather than resting in the One who is sovereign.
Do you question God’s administration of your story? Do you wish that you had been able to write your own plot? Do you fall into thinking that if you had been in charge, you would have made better and wiser choices? Do you worship God as sovereign on Sunday and curse His sovereignty on Tuesday? As you look back on your life, is it more a picture of resting in His control or of a quest for control?
God is sovereign. You and I are not. This is not just theology; it is our identity. God is in absolute control, and He is infinitely good.
3. True identity is rooted in worshiping God as Savior.
When you recognize that God is not only your Sovereign Creator, but also your Savior, you have grasped another essential element of your identity. He is Savior because we are sinners. Worshiping God as Savior means that the most significant drama in my life is not what will happen to my marriage, children, possessions, or career, but what will happen to my sin. It means that the most wonderful thing that could ever happen in my life is my salvation. It means that the most wonderful thing that I could be called is not boss, or husband, or father, or friend, but “child of God.”
This identity defines your deepest, most pervasive problem. It is the thing that you most desperately need help with. We don’t actually need the vast majority of possessions that we think we cannot live without. The Bible says it very clearly: because we are sinners, God is focused on delivering us “from such a deadly peril,” rescuing us “from the dominion of darkness,” conforming us “to the likeness of His Son,” allowing us to “participate in His divine nature,” purifying us “from all unrighteousness,” to “purify for Himself a people that are His very own, eager to do what is good” (2 Corinthians 1:10; Colossians 1:13; Romans 8:29; 2 Peter 1:4; 1 John 1:9; Titus 2:14). Phrase after phrase reminds us of our true identity, and therefore, what we truly need.
We want our lives to be comfortable, successful, and predictable. God is willing to compromise all of these in order to deal with our deepest difficulty, our own sin. When you have failed to worship God as Savior, forgetting your identity as a sinner, you will be completely confused during the midlife years. To the degree that you recognize your identity as sinner, life will begin to make sense to you. God has not forgotten you. He has not singled you out for particular abuse. He is near and He is active. In love He is working on your biggest problem, and He will not stop working until the job is done.
Adapted from Lost in the Middle by Paul David Tripp. Published by Shepherd Press. Copyright © 2004 by Paul David Tripp. Used with permission.