By Ken Costa
Each of us has a history, a personal story that gives meaning to our lives—and also to our fears. Often those main storylines are colored not by strong and encouraging narratives but by anxious thoughts of uncertainty, bad experiences with home and family, traumatic events at school, and demoralizing words from our elders and peers.
Woven into my own life are childhood memories of the apartheid system in South Africa. I grew up in a rural area of the country firmly in the grip of those who believed in the separation of races. I never embraced those prejudices even though I attended, as required by law, an all-white school and eventually university. Like it or not—and I do not—the very system I loathed so much also provided the privileges of education denied to the vast majority of black people. In small ways I tried to stand against the system—leading our student union in protest against the government of the day—but I have always been troubled by the fact that I could have done more. There were many times when I was afraid to put the call of justice above my own interest, for fear that my own life and livelihood would be put in danger. And even now, many years later, I cannot but think of those occasions when the oppressed cried out for a response, but I simply did not have the courage to break the laws of segregation and face the draconian consequences of prison.
How often do we hear a voice that taunt us about our past mistakes, our failures, our missed opportunities? It can be so tempting to listen to them, to allow them to define us. But we are new creations in Christ: “The old has gone, the new is here!” (2 Corinthians 5:17). The old, negative history has been reformed; the story of our lives has been retold. Those discouraging, dominant thoughts seem to determine our futures, but God can, in his abundant grace and love, reshape them.
That God’s love reaches out to us is a defining characteristic of our Christian lives. He calls to us from the depths of his love for us. We are powerless without the energy of his love, which has been poured into our hearts by the Spirit who has been given to us (Romans 5:5). The Holy Spirit is the source of our confidence in the world.
Ultimately I have a choice. Which narrative of my life do I believe? Is it the negative or the positive? It is easy to say the latter. But how do I deal with the former, which seems integral to my identity and, if unchecked, determines my response to my calling? I need to take responsibility for living this renewed life to the full as Christ promised. To do so, I see my story in the light of his journeying with me through every season. In this way, the apparently dominant negative theme becomes a subsidiary motif and loses its power to shape my decisions for the future.
True identity cannot be self-motivated; it is given by God. Our tasks are to live out our true callings as uniquely shaped by God. Identity comes before destiny. We need to understand the person God created before we can begin to understand the person God created us to be. Who I am, before why I am. So often we try to skip the first to end up with the second. We talk about our jobs in a functionally defining way, as if to say, This is my destiny and my identity rolled into one. But that is a mistake. I think of a friend whose identity was so tied up in his work as an accountant that he had a near breakdown when he left his job. After he left the office, he began the painful process of asking, “Who am I?”
Our destinies are what he calls us to, but they are never a substitute for our identities—knowing who we are, knowing that we are uniquely and passionately loved by God.