We all have an identity. Be it as someone’s brother, sister, mother, uncle, cousin. We all have some kind of relationship to someone. It is tempting to think that our identity is very personal, and that we have even created our own. I’m sure we’ve all have spells of “finding ourselves”. Yet, despite all our efforts at finding ourselves, it turns out that our identity is firmly and unavoidably rooted in our relationships. We cannot be a child without parents, we cannot be a friend without friends. You get my point.
So pretty much everything we might say about ourselves involves other people, and sometimes even animals! And who we are ultimately evolves from our relationships with so many other people. Above all, our identities are also rooted in our relationship with God, and especially being his beloved children.
I think understanding identity as emerging out of relationship, may help us understand this week’s readings, especially Genesis and Matthew. In each one we are told a story of temptation, and each one seems to me to be about the identity of the one being tempted.
In Genesis we find the serpent offering Adam and Eve (yes, Adam was with Eve the whole time) the promise of all knowledge. The serpent starts his conversation with Eve by suggesting that God is not trustworthy. (Something familiar about that?) “Did God really say…?” the serpent begins. Really…. And so, the seeds of doubt are sown. Then he says, “You will not die,” contradicting the words of God.
And thus, having undermined Adam and Eve’s confidence in God, the serpent then invites them to “come into their own”, to use a term of today. They should claim their own selves, their own identities that would make them independent of God: “when you eat of it your eyes will be opened, and you will be like God, knowing good and evil.” Who needs God, after all, when you can be “like God” all on your own? And like most of us they are just insecure enough to fall for the serpent’s ploy, they do indeed attempt to define themselves apart from God, and we know how this went for them.
In Matthew we find tempter’s temptations include the capacity to turn stones to bread, call upon angels for safety, and the promise of power and dominion, each again is primarily about identity.
The devil begins by trying to undermine the identity Jesus had just been given at his baptism in the previous scene. “If you are the son of God….” In the same way as with Adam and Eve, he calls Jesus’s identity as beloved Son of God into question and to replace it with some identity of his own device.
And the wonderful thing for me is that, despite all the resources available to Jesus to withstand the devil’s temptations, Jesus takes refuge in his identity through his relationship with God. His identity as the Beloved Son. A relationship that implies absolute dependency on God.
As David Lose writes: Jesus will be content to be hungry as others are hungry, dependent on God’s Word and grace for all good things. He will be at risk and vulnerable as are all others, finding safety in the promises of God. And he will refuse to define himself or seek power apart from his relationship with God, giving his worship and allegiance only to the Lord God who created and sustains him.
Our temptations are not necessarily on the scale of those of Jesus. I cannot imagine the opportunity to turn rocks into bread, or jumping off a high-rise building to be caught by angels. But I know how easy it is to give in to the temptation to navel-gaze, the temptation to let my insecurities dictate my actions and emotions, the temptation to self-righteousness, the temptation to look away from those in need.
However, we have the example of Jesus, and the assurance of being God’s beloved, to help us navigate our temptations.
And of course, it is not just the devil who seeks to steal our identity. Each day we are bombarded by countless advertisements and social media like TikTok and Twitter and Facebook, and I don’t even know them all, that seek to create in us a sense of lack, a sense of insecurity, a sense of inadequacy, undermining our God-given gift of identity with promises that if we buy this brand of jeans or that kind of deodorant or have a Botox injection, we will be acceptable.
The message here is simple: we are not enough. Not skinny enough, smart enough, pretty enough, strong enough, rich enough to deserve respect, love, and acceptance. And here’s the thing: it’s a damned lie, it’s an attempt at a kind of identity theft far worse than having our id books stolen. And Jesus offers us a way out, a way to safeguard our identity; hang onto God’s gift of love. And believe him that we are enough. And believe it with gratitude.
Talking about gratitude; It is often said that one of the great temptations is the desire for money, and that money, or the love of money, is the root of all evil. However, I heard something quite profound the other day while listening to a podcast of two great minds. The one person posited that the root of evil is resentment, and that resentment comes from being tempted in such subtle ways that we are not always able to detect those temptations, yet we become subject to them and become filled with resentment. I think we have all experienced or seen how corrosive resentment can be. Asked what the antidote for resentment was, the person simply said gratitude.
So, let us be grateful that we are found worthy to be tempted for the sake of God’s love.