Role Models and Christian Identity
“Tell me who your friends are…”
“Being children of God transforms us into something that goes far beyond our being people who merely put up with each other. Listen to what the Lord says: Vos autem dixi amicos! We are friends who, like him, give our lives for each other, when heroism is needed and throughout our ordinary lives.”
St Josemaria Escriva: Furrow, no. 750
Christian identity begins and ends with childhood—the unique childhood of the children of God. This truth, which St Josemaria considers the “deepest truth” about ourselves, is strangely easy to overlook. Deep truths need to be lived deeply, and living beneath the surface demands an effort best called contemplative. We can’t see the Lord’s fingerprints all over our lives unless we’re willing to look closely and prayerfully at ourselves and the world around us—with “discerning eye,” to borrow a phrase from Emily Dickinson.
If Scripture contrasts human appearances with the hidden contents of the heart, it is to show that God alone really knows the heart—even better than the one in whose chest it beats. God searches and judges us in that place, where our thoughts and desires and motivations lay bare before Him. But because it is such a “tortuous” and incomprehensible place for us to be (see Jeremiah 17:9-10), we find it less troublesome to live on the outside.
It’s easier to pin our identity to things outside of ourselves—from our looks to the esteem of others to whatever successes we may credit to ourselves—and call it me. For some, this even takes a downward turn: taking a personal defect or sin and telling themselves: ‘This is me. This is all I’m good for.’
More than merely a personal problem, taking the part for the whole is the epidemic of a culture where image is everything. Many features of our personality are good, some are undoubtedly not. Not one taken all by itself is the self. Taking one good quality or one defect and setting it up as “who I am,” distorts the human person into a caricature.
If you’re going to choose one thing and call it you, it should be the deepest thing—the truth that God planted first in you and formed everything else around it. Our adoption as His children is that reality, that truth, which can never be lost, replaced, or substituted. It is our reference point in all things. Failure to live deep in this reality, neglecting to contemplate it, exposes us to the temptation of opting for merely cosmetic solutions to settle the issue of our self-worth. And since “our outer nature is wasting away,” we need to make sure that “our inner nature is being renewed every day” (cf. 2 Corinthians 4:16).
Contemporary trends in identity-seeking are unquestionably disconcerting—discussions of changeable gender identity being among the most disturbing. But our basic insecurity about selfhood points to our positive need for role models to guide our personal growth.
That we are children of God can remain a dead letter—a nice idea with no practical application—unless we know what God wants us to do with it. The life and Gospel of Christ fill that vacuum. The Son of God became the Son of Man to teach us all about who we are in God’s eyes, and where our renewed identity should lead us. Vatican Council II beautifully described the mission of Jesus in these terms:
Only in the mystery of the incarnate Word does the mystery of man take on light. Christ, the final Adam, by the revelation of the mystery of the Father and His love, fully reveals man to man himself and makes his supreme calling clear. (Gaudium et Spes, no. 22)
Our supreme calling begins by recognizing the ‘role models’ whom Jesus recommends for our imitation in the gospels. But be careful: our Teacher often proposes those whose worth cannot be appreciated, except with a contemplative, discerning eye.
Among others, the aspiring disciple is thrown in among the good Samaritan, a dishonest steward, a penitent woman who makes an embarrassing display of herself at a dinner party with perfumed ointment, a persistent widow, another woman who won’t take no for an answer when the apostles beg the Lord to send her away….
Is there a common denominator behind all these unlikely role models? How can a clever but dishonest steward join forces with the selfless Samaritan? How can the widow who claims her rights before a reluctant judge find common ground with the penitent woman who appeals for nothing but mercy from the Savior?
In some way, everything is resolved in the child of God. More than any others, little children are the Lord’s favored scale-model of the Christian. Unless we become like the ones who crawled up to and clung to Jesus and received His blessing, we won’t get anywhere spiritually, nor will we understand the boldness of those who throw themselves at the Lord in ways that seem shameless. The character profile, the identity, of the child of God is that of the penitent, the lover, the persistent—all have a pleasing confidence that win the heart of the Savior.
What parents have always told their children, “Tell me who your friends are and I’ll tell you who you are,” is a good reminder for us to imitate these gospel patterns of childhood and discipleship. Everyone searches for self. Children instinctively look up to their elders and peers, to those who strike them as good, heroic, expert, or even just cool. But the axiom of spiritual writers that ‘we become what we love,’ tells us that we must choose our friends, our role models, wisely.
Loving, after all, means willing, wanting—and our character is formed more by our choices than anything else. A great Doctor of the Church like St Augustine could say that he loved God not as something vague, or “with some vague feeling,” but with assurance and confidence (cf. Confessions 10, 6). And this was the same Saint whose dramatic conversion was all about identity. His reading of St Paul’s “put on the Lord Jesus Christ” settled everything for him.
There exists no deeper truth about us than that: Having put on the Lord Jesus Christ, our identity is renewed in God’s beloved Son. The adults against whom Jesus contrasts God’s children are those who have fallen into the pitfalls of age: skepticism, over-thinking, second-guessing, and self-reliance. We find these types berating Jesus for associating with sinners or dumfounded over His preference for the smallest and least among men.
But the Gospel is unambiguous: In the same breath, Jesus couples “that you may be children of your heavenly Father” with “be perfect as your heavenly Father is perfect.” And the Son of Man does not leave us in the dark as to what this perfection looks like in the flesh.
Jesus gave us the most eloquent ‘visual’ at the Last Supper first by washing the disciples’ feet, and then by marching out of that upper room to His death. In the most graphic way possible we see what it means to love perfectly as Jesus loves us, to lay down our lives for others—to be “friends who, like him, give our lives for each other, when heroism is needed and throughout our ordinary lives.” This, according to St Josemaria, is what “being children of God transforms us into.”