This is part of a series on the Lord’s prayer, culture and spiritual warfare in which we look at the subversive prayer that Jesus taught to his disciples and how that prayer engages in the war of ideas with the philosophies that pervade our age.
Part 1 – Identity and ‘Our Father In Heaven’
The movie ‘The Bourne Identity’ begins with the protagonist, Jason Bourne, pulled out of the sea with no idea who he is, and over the course of the film he is trying to piece it together and work out who he is, where fits and how he relates to the world around him. This film is a parable of life for so many who are searching for answers to the question ‘who am I?’, and in many cases finding answers that are at best incomplete and at worst destructive.
It would be fair to say that identity has become a hotly discussed topic of our age, and we are living through a shift in where people look to find answers to identity questions.
Broadly, there are three places that people in different cultures and times have looked for answers to the ‘Who Am I’ question, that have been helpfully categorised by Glynn Harrison.
1) Ascribed Identity
Firstly there is ascribed identity, in which your identity is determined by where you come from, and both place and family are of fundamental importance. Perhaps you have noticed in the Biblical narratives that when a character is introduced you are more likely to be given a genealogy than a CV? In many cultures the way somebody would introduce themselves is by telling you about the nation, tribe and family from which they originate.
The effect of looking primarily to an ascribed identity, is that life chances can be very much determined by social position, and there is little opportunity to follow a different script. The film ‘Billy Elliott’ explores this theme, as Billy wants to do something that doesn’t fit the mould for the son of a Durham miner – he wants to dance. “In our family we …” and “People from round here don’t …” are the kind of sayings that stem from ascribed identity.
Like the other places people would look, ascribed identity is neither entirely good nor entirely bad. It has the advantage of removing the pressure by providing straight forward answers to the ‘who’ and ‘what’ questions, but it also carried significant disadvantages. What if you don’t fit what society suggests your identity is? In this case you would have to change to fit the expectations laid upon you. Privilege becomes entrenched. Ascribed identity may work well for a nobility but social mobility is eradicated and many are born into a tough lot in life with no way out.
2) Achieved Identity
In light of this, there was a move a few hundred years ago in some Western cultures to question ascribed identity. Why should our identities be given to us with nothing that we can do about it? Things began to move in the direction of merit and identity became based on what one has achieved. Instead of introducing yourself by talking of their family or place, people now go straight to the question of what they do as a job.
This spirit is reflected in the First Article of the American constitution, which states that “No title of nobility shall be granted by the United States.” No longer would there be kings and dukes and viscounts, but instead people would addressed as Mr, Mrs or Ms, or if they were to be given a title it would be Professor, Doctor, Your Honour, Senator, Mr President. Titles that would be earned rather than inherited. When we call somebody a self-made man or woman, we are working on the basis of achieved identity.
This way of finding identity has the advantages over ascribed identity that it allows for social mobility and anybody – based on their hard work and talent – can become anything. However, it has disadvantages too. The certainty and security of knowing where you fit is stripped away and replaced by a competitive rat race, that has the very core of who you are at stake as the prize. People are left going to work every day trying to prove that they matter by what they do, and when they are no longer able to do this it can have devastating effects on their sense of identity and worth.
3) Asserted Identity
In recent times, there has been a further move. Rather than having the pressure of living up to somebody else’s standards in order to establish identity, what if instead identity came from within? Whatever you determine yourself to be, that is what you are – and everybody needs to recognise this. As Andrew Bunt astutely observes, this is perfectly illustrated in the story of Babe – The Sheep Pig, who chooses the identity of a sheepdog despite being a pig, and the story shows the world needing to adapt to this reality.
Frances Fukuyama explains it like this, “Identity grows, in the first place, out of a distinction between one’s inner self and an outer world of social rules and norms that does not adequately recognise the inner soul’s worth or dignity. Individuals throughout human history have found themselves at odds with their societies. But only in modern times has the view taken hold that the authentic inner self is intrinsically valuable, and the outer society systematically wrong and unfair in its valuation of the former. It’s not the inner self that has to be made to conform to society’s rules, but society itself that needs to change.”
Again, there are advantages here. Who you are is not based on your ability (or inability) to meet standards that others have set. Your worth is not defined by your deeds and you have something to declare to a world trying to define you. There is a sense in which (at least in theory) the pressure is off. However, the disadvantages are significant too and a whole new pressure is created. People are being asked to come up for themselves with answers to the biggest questions, and to do so with no outside framework and no solid ground to use as a starting point. And we are pushing this on our children at younger and younger ages. No wonder there is a mental health crisis in our time.
The premise of this series is that ideas and world views can hold us in bondage and do significant damage and the conversations around identity can certainly do that. Whether the framework is ascribed, achieved or asserted identity, the benefits are not enough to outweigh the costs, and we need a better answer to this question. We need a solid starting point and a clear answer to the question ‘Who Am I?’
And this is exactly what Jesus gives in the first line of his subversive kingdom prayer.
Our Father In Heaven
In starting this prayer with the words ‘Our Father in Heaven’, Jesus is is teaching his disciples to pray the subversive truth that their own identity can only be found in relation to who God is. In particular, three truths about God are highlighted here.
1) God is our FATHER in Heaven
As we read this our thoughts shouldn’t go straight to our own dads to define this term, but rather God shows us truly what Fatherhood looks like, and it is by this standard that we can determine what a good human Father is like. There is a close intimate care from God to us. He loves his people. He gives good gifts to his people. God wants to help his people to grow and mature. This is a radical thing for Jesus to say, using the close word ABBA to express the intimacy of the relationship.
God is our dad.
2) God is our Father in HEAVEN
As well as showing the closeness of a Father to us, God reigns in the heavens. He is both immanent and transcendent. He is with us and is also over and above everything. He is not a well-wisher who wants good for us but is unable to do anything. Rather, he has the power, the ability and the desire to bless you. Put simply, a Christian is one who can say, ‘My dad is the one who runs the whole show’.
3) God is OUR Father in Heaven
These truths are no abstract concepts but are personally true for you and me. God is my Father. He is your Father. Together He is our Father. We have been adopted into his family. And so as we are trying to work out who we are in this world, we know that we have God as our Father in heaven, and so our identity flows from who He is.
The Christian Identity
Having prayed the truth that God is our Father in heaven, we can answer the question ‘then what does that make us?’. We are his children on earth. Our identity flows from his. He is our dad and we are His children. As Paul writes in Romans:
“For those who are led by the Spirit of God are the children of God. The spirit you received does not make you slaves, so that you live in fear again; rather, the Spirit you received brought about your adoption to sonship. And by him we cry ‘Abba, Father’. The spirit himself testifies with our spirit that we are God’s children. Now if we are children, then we are heirs – heirs of God and co-heirs with Christ, if indeed we share in his sufferings in order that we may also share in his glory.” (Romans 8:14-17)
He is talking about the Holy Spirit bearing witness to our sonship. He is in our very spirits affirming and testifying to our identity, the core of who we are as children of God.
In discussing these verses, Tim Keller picks out seven glorious implications of this truth: security (nobody ever fires their kids for poor performance); authority (we have the family name to represent God in the world); intimacy (we cry ‘Abba Father’, this is a strong word that expresses deep emotion and it speaks of both spontaneity and confidence as we approach); assurance (we can be sure that he loves us); inheritance (we are heirs with Christ); discipline (sharing in sufferings to develop and grow us that we may also share in glory) and family likeness (being transformed in the image of Christ).
In one sense, the Christian identity is an ascribed identity. We know who we are on the basis of the family that we are in – the family of God. But unlike the ascribed identity that would hold individuals as a prisoner of their birth, this identity is ascribed and freely given to any who would receive it.
The identity is also an achieved identity. On a standard way beyond we could ever dream, the identity has been achieved on our behalf. On the basis of Christ’s perfect life, death and resurrection he has been declared righteous, and in him those achievements are reckoned to us. Now there is no pressure to meet any standard to define our identity. The standard has been perfectly met for us.
It is also an asserted identity that can be declared in a world that attempts to put you into a box and define you. Here is a foundation and a starting point. You do not need to figure out these answers out of nowhere. Whatever the circumstances of your birth, the accomplishments (or lack thereof) in your life and the pressures and standards that you might face, here you have a true identity to assert and declare: “I am a son or daughter of God and my feet are on a rock!”
We are not made to be confused about who we are. The Bible speaks truths over us to break the confusion, such as:
- 1 Peter 2:9 – “But you are a chosen race, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, a people for his own possession, that you may proclaim the excellencies of him who called you out of darkness into his marvellous light.”
- John 1:12 – “But to all who did receive him, who believed in his name, he gave the right to become children of God.”
Jesus taught this prayer as a subversive prayer that tears down the strongholds that keep people captive. And so we can pray ‘Our Father In Heaven’ in a world that is held back and tied up in knots about questions of identity. We pray it as a declaration that we know exactly who we are, we have a Father in heaven and we are sons and daughters of the King.