Grey’s Anatomy fans will recall the fateful season 2 episode in which Dr. Michael Burke, renowned cardiothoracic surgeon of Seattle Grace Hospital, is shot by a mentally ill patient. Burke survives the shooting, but develops a nerve tremor in his hand as a result of the wound. For a surgeon as successful as Burke, this tremor was a terminal prognosis.
After the shooting, the proud and stoic Burke unleashes his anger and despair. “These hands are who I am,” he laments. Without the ability to perform surgery, Burke has lost his sense of self. Who he is has always been defined by what he does. If Burke’s hands are who he is, their failure has rendered his life pointless.
I go to church because like Burke, I tend to define myself by what I do: I lead Bible studies. I make good grades. I am a careless driver. I can be a flaky friend. Like Burke, my default is to assume that I am the curator of my identity; that my performance determines who I am. If, like Burke, my ability to do fails me, I am crushed. How could I have let myself make a B… these grades are who I am.
Unfortunately, the world confirms this way of living for me. Just think back to the most recent stranger you met. Undoubtedly, one of the first questions you asked of each other was what they do. In every sphere of life, we are set up to believe that who we are is a product of what we do, leaving us exhausted from our constant identity- maintenance. We feel that if we are not doing, achieving, or performing, we lose our sense of being.
Thank God for church. Church flips this paradigm on its head. I go to church because I need to hear the good news of the gospel of Jesus Christ—that who I am is determined not by what I do or have failed to do, but by what Jesus’ life, death, and resurrection have accomplished on my behalf. I go to church to be reminded that because of the gospel, my identity is bestowed, not earned.
Church welcomes me after a wearying week of identity curation. If I have had a “successful” week, the gospel I hear at church humbles me that my achievements were only a product of the grace of Jesus and the power of his Holy Spirit within me. If I have had a week of “failure,” the same gospel reminds me that God’s power is sufficient in my weakness.
Church is a place of refuge, the only place I know of where who I am is not determined by what I do. I go to church to hear the gospel—that my identity rests securely in the pierced hands of Jesus Christ.
I go to church because I know I need the gospel preached to me—loud and clear. I need the “weekly remembrance” of who I am sung over me, preached to me, fed to me, spoken to me.
I know students need it too.
I go to church not only to receive the gospel but also to enjoy the privilege of extending it to high schoolers. If there is ever a time when identity seems determined by performance, it’s high school. On the field, their performance determines their play time. In the classroom, their academic success determines their class rank. In the hallway, their decision to not underage drink determines what parties they are invited to.
Thank God for church. I long for students to breathe a sigh of relief when they walk through the doors of church, for they know that they can cease from strivings to fabricate an identity tied to their performance. I go to church to offer students refuge in the good news of Jesus Christ: that in him, their identity rests solely in who Christ has declared them to be.
I go to church to welcome weary students into a life of rest and fullness that is found only in the gospel. I go to church to say to them as Paul says to Titus:
But when the goodness and loving kindness of God our Savior appeared, he saved us, not because of works done by us in righteousness, but according to his own mercy, by the washing of regeneration and renewal of the Holy Spirit, whom he poured out on us richly through Jesus Christ our Savior, so that being justified by his grace we might become heirs according to the hope of eternal life (Titus 3:4-7).
I go to church because I know that no less than 10 minutes after walking out the door, both my students and I will forget our true identities: Spirit-bestowed, regenerated, justified, given the hope of eternal life not because of works done by [us] in righteousness.
Soon, we will default to constructing an identity for ourselves. And we will fail. So we will need to come back to the refuge of the church and its preaching of the gospel. We will need to be reminded that because of the righteousness of Jesus freely given to us, we can face losses as grave as a hand tremor for a surgeon. Who we are is—blessedly—out of our hands.