There are key moments in people’s lives can begin to define people’s identities throughout the course of thier lives. Sometimes these are individual events that are unique to a specific person, such as wisdom from a revere figure about an occupation or a wedding, or they are shared events, such as graduation ceremony marking a complete of a degree. Whatever these are, certain experiences in life have a disproprotinate impact on our sense of identity.
This is commonly the case for us who are believers in Jesus Christ. I am aware of a few people who have had rather unique experiences in their life that have go on to defne their identity. I myself have had a couple and David Bennett, a friend and colleague of my from my time at the University of St. Andrews, is an example of a person who has had some profound experiences of God in his life. While I would think I could say the same for myself, I can say that David is an example of a person who keeps a level head about their experiences.
However, I have met another person (who shall remain private and any potentially identifying information keep secret) who also claimed to have dramatic experiences and events in their lives but they went off onto some esoteric journey. I recall one time a person who I was facebook friends with who claimed they had a revelation that amount to a freedom from shame, but I saw them go down a spiral towards religious teaching that didn’t look anything like what we see in the Scriptures in casting aside the ethics concerns of the Christian life. As I tried to dicuss with him about what he was saying and caution him that sometimes our profound experiences of God need to be interpreted and understood down the line with care and discernment, he repeated to me that he had a revelation and proceeded to become increasingly more narcissistic and manipulative when we would engage in theological discussions, including going so far as to delete a facebook post he made of some ‘teachings’ in wich I respond in a polite conversation to some passages that went pretty decisively against what he was saying. A person who I had usually enjoyed some polite theological and Biblical conversations with had become a real burden. Eventually, the antics had become enough and I decide to defriend him. I came across him at a later point on a mutual friend’s facebook page. When he discovered that I was no longer friends with him, he suggested that I was offended by the scandalousness of his gospel, not being willing to consider that his manipulation and antics were the issue. What happened to him?
I can’t know exactly as he was only an acquaintance and it has been a few years ago so my memory is not as sharpe, but the few things I remember about him are suggestive. Firstly, the person admitted to me privately that he had struggled with a pornography addiction and he was now experiencing a freedom from it. Praise God, but his used his freedom from pornography as if it was evidence that he had a special revelation made to him. This is suggestive that his sense of revelation was rooted in his sense of his sense and his identity, as the ‘revelation’ was a tied up with his own feeling of redemption. Rather than recognizing the experience as a work of God’s redemption, he began to identify himself with the experience as revelation of his liberation from shame and frame his whole theology and reading of the Scriptures around this idea. Unfortunately, the idea that was taking shape was a freedom from things that might cause a person to feel shame, rather than recognizing that one experienced a transformation from being bound by shame. The ‘revelation’ was turning into a religious form of advoidance of the ethical challenges of the Christian life rather than a “transformation” that he could face the challenges of the call of Christ without a feeling like a harsh taskmaster was bearing down on him.
In a nutshell, what I would suggest was the problem is that he too tightly identified himself with a specific experience and tried to understand himself and everything about the Christian life through the lens of that experience. What by all accounts was a wonderful account of the epiphany of Christ and a personal transformation was turning into an ideology that control how he saw everything that was treading down the line towards heresy. He exhibited no real sense of caution and humility about himself, but leaning on his own understanding of the ‘revelation’ that made him run off the rails. I believe he was wholeheartedly following after Christ, but then he got derailed along the way.
There is a unique problem associated with a strong identification with specific events and experiences in one’s life: they become lens that forcibly colors everything we see that we are unwilling to take off in order to look at things differently. One of the necessary prerequisites for being able to effectively learn about and navitage life is the ability to be able to look at our experiences through various ‘lenses’ to see which ones really work out and which ones aren’t working. For instance, my relationship to my mother is not colored through by my own calling experiences, even as I retaining a commitment to my calling when I with my mother, but my relationship with her is understood through the lens of relationship that has developed through the years. While I don’t let go my own identity as a follower of Christ, I primarily makes sense of my interactiosn with my mom through the love and intellectual respect we have for each other (both of which are consistent with being a follower of Christ).
In a similar manner, our understanding of God’s will and purposes for our lives and the Scriptures works similarly: we need to be able to put on differently lens to see which makes the best sense of what we are reading and discovering in our lives. For instance, recognizing our freedom from shame should not be a lens by which we abandon any and everything as bad that might cause shame within us, such as the recognition of our own sins and errors or the acceptance of a specific way of life we are called to as Christians. Many a person have unwittingly become people who act narcissistic in response to anything that might provoke a feeling of shame within them once they felt free from shame because they framed their whole understanding of the Christian life around the freedom from shame. The experience of redempion become a law-like rule for how reality and the Christian life must be experienced and understood at all times. When we begin to tightly identify with specific experiences, our experiences can become an ideology that dictates how we read and understand the Scriptures. The end result is that we become a representation of the specific experience, including the distortions of the divine image that we were present within us at that time, rather than continuing in our journey to be transformed into the image of God in Jesus Christ.
What I have learned is this: I do not identify myself as part of my profound events and experiences of God as much as I see them as God’s own knowing, engagement, and partial disclosure to me. This isn’t some potentially superficial “my identity is in Christ” but something that is more profound: I do not know fully comprehend God’s knowledge of me, but as He calls and leads me, I have faith He is bringing towards those purposes in accordance with what has been made known. My own identity and future purposes for life is “hidden in Christ” and I will understand that in due time, rather than now. This has the purpose of both (a) recognizing my own profound experiences of God’s leading in my life as both orienting me towards God and providing images that I would learn about and comprehend through time while (b) recognizing that I am gripped by the mystery of a holy God that I do not yet understand. Consequentl, my experiences do not become an ideology through over identification, but rather my identity is brought into the ever constant formation and transformation.