I sat in my office sulking. My day had been so demanding. My week tiresome. My month an all out marathon, minus the fans. Pastoring eternal souls, preaching week after week, leading leaders, and living an outwardly focused life is demanding enough, but occasionally the demands pile higher. As a pastor, I am a sinner that counsels sinners. This means that, despite our common hope in the gospel, there are times that I fail to apply my own counsel to my own soul. It means that I'm not enough for any disciple much less a whole church.
The past couple of weeks had been one of those "pile up" weeks. More counseling, more speaking, more demands. Add to the stack a particular situation that was, shall we say, extreme? The inbox had hate mail and church slander waiting for me. In tandem, I had to watch self-destructive behavior dismantle a person, whom I had poured a lot of life into.
Exhausted, I thought: "No one understands what it's like to be a pastor." "I deserve better treatment than this, after all I've done. Why can't I have better circumstances." I was emotionally drained.
In hope, I turned to Chuck Palahniuk for help, author of Choke, Snuff, and Fight Club.
Chuck Palahniuk writes sketchy fiction that challenges the prevailing norms for identity in our culture. His book Fight Club exposes misplaced identity through the central characters: The Narrator (played by Edward Norton in the movie version) and Tyler Durden (played by Brad Pitt). Durden starts underground fighting clubs where men show up after hours to fight bare-chested and barefoot.
In the now famous scene from Fight Club, the movie, Durden gives a speech that clarifies just what kind of war we should be fighting:
We are the middle children of history, man. No purpose or place. We have no great war, or great depression. Our great war is a spiritual war. Our great depression is our lives. We've all been raised by television to believe that one day we'll all be millionaires and movie gods and rock stars — but we won't.
Our great war is a spiritual war. But what kind of spiritual war?
The spiritual war, according to Chuck, is to ground your identity in reality not in the American Dream. This is precisely what Edward Norton struggles to do. It was what I was struggling to do. Norton wants to be sexier and cooler than he actually is. He wants to be Brad Pitt, and he wants it so badly that he creates an alter ego called Tyler Durden, who starts Fight Clubs and lives like a rock god. He believes the lie that ubermasculinity and rock star living will give his life meaning, a greater sense of identity. So he creates Tyler Durden in his mind. You might say he has "identity issues," but he's not the only one.
We all have identity issues. Many of us have created an alter ego. It's more subtle than Norton's, but it's an alter ego nonetheless.
This alternate personality contends for our identity. It pulls at your heart, your longings. It tells you that if you were just a little more like this or that, then you'd be somebody. If you were better looking, if you were more successful, if you were married, if you were more spiritual, if you had more of a following on Twitter or Facebook, then you'd be somebody.
How do you detect your alter ego? Where do your thoughts drift when you have down time? What do you daydream about? Follow your thoughts, your dreams, your calendar and you will find your alter ego. In an interview with Paste Magazine, Chuck Palahniuk shares where part of his vision for Fight Club came from. He notes that the fighting in Fight Club was more about:
... people need(ing) a consensual forum in which to express themselves and to exhaust their pent up anxiety, and also to test themselves and kind of destroy their identity-of-the-moment, so that they can move on to a better, stronger identity ...
His book really is about identity — destroying the unwanted identity-of-the-moment (alter ego) and finding a better, stronger identity. This is what's at stake in our discipleship, every, single, day. A better identity.
Recovering Identity in Christ
What if we became adept at identifying our identity of the moment, the egos and images we slip into for meaning and worth? What if we were quick to confess those to friends and community? Just think what could happen if you consistently saw through your sin to your "identity-of-the-moment," and turned to Christ for true identity. It could be life-changing! Here are a few tips that have helped me recover identity in Christ in my insane moments:
- Reflect on Identity-of-the-Moment. I look for the sinful patterns in my life and trace them to "identity of the moment." For instance, my sin was sulking and my false identity was victim. I try to ask myself the hard questions, but often I need others to do that for me. Our self-image is as accurate as a carnival mirror, says Paul Tripp. We need good questions to straighten out our self-perception. We need to ask questions "What are you longing for most right now?" "Why are your emotions so extreme?" Check out David Powlison's helpful "X-ray Questions."
- My symptom was sulking. Sulkers are sour because they focus on how they've been mistreated. They see themselves as victims, their identity-of-the-moment. Complaining is a sure sign my victim identity is creeping in. "Can you believe they did that?" "There's no way I deserve that." Complaining can quickly turn to ripping on people. If we're not careful, best friends and spouses will end up colluding with us for other's verbal demise. "Venting" is an extreme expression of victim identity. We need a better identity in that moment.
- Reject Alter Identity. Once I detect my sin/identity issue, I try to reject it. Confession to God is the first step. "Lord, I am finding my worth in my wallowing, in being pitied, and not trusting your providence. I don't believe these circumstances are a kindness appointed to lure me deeper into you. I confess and I receive--forgiveness and cleansing" (see: 1 John 1:9). When we confess our sin, we reject our false identity. It's the first step toward gospel sanity, shaking off the delusions of sin, and returning to the grandeur of grace.
- Return to Christ. Returning to Jesus for gospel identity instead of an identity-of-the-moment is the most difficult and important part of being a disciple. Robert Murray McCheyene said: "For every look at sin, look ten times at Christ." How does Christ offer you a better identity than the false identity? My sin was sulking and my identity was victim. In 2 Peter 1:3, I'm reminded that my identity is godly; I'm a partaker of the divine nature. I was sulking in ungodliness because I thought I deserved better circumstances. I felt weak. This time I turned Peter the Apostle, not Chuck Palahniuk.
Peter reminded me that we have "divine power granted to us for life and godliness." This scripture reminded me of my identity — godly — but it does not stop there. It also offers a Savior to trust, a counter-promise of divine power necessary to live a godly life, not a sulking life. What a relief! Our identity is godly, and our promise is divine power for godliness.
Interestingly, some of the material for Palahniuk's book came from his experience in hospice patient therapy. During one Christmas, he picked a paper ornament off of a church Christmas tree, the kind that obligates you to a good deed like buying a gift for an underprivileged child. His ornament called him to give hospice patients a ride to their therapy sessions. As he sat through some of these sessions he reported that:
I started to recognize that, in a way, 12-step groups, recovery groups, support groups were becoming the new kind of church of our time — a place where people will go and confess their very worst aspects of their lives and seek redemption and community with other people in the way that people used to go to church and sort of present their worst selves in confession and then celebrate communion and then go home for another week.
This is what got Chuck going with some of Fight Club — the need for redemption and community. It's time the church took those things back. It's time we became a community that confesses the worst part of our lives to one another, but doesn't stop there. We need more than confession, more than identity-of-the-moment exposure. We need sanity, to return to our true selves in Christ, in community. We need people who will point us to the redemption that is in Jesus. People that won't let us sulk for too long, people who will reminds us that our identity isn't victim. It is son or daughter of the Living God, "partakers of the divine nature," godly ones. I've traced out one way we can do this in Gospel-centered Discipleship, a community-based, gospel-centered approach to following Jesus. However you do it, make a habit of exposing false identities and re-grounding true identity in Christ.
Jonathan K. Dodson (M.Div, Th.M) is happy husband to Robie, and proud father to Owen, Ellie & Rosamund. He is also the lead pastor of City Life church and a leader in The GCM Collective, PlantR, and Gospel Centered Discipleship.com. Jonathan is also author of Gospel-Centered Discipleship, Raised? Finding Jesus by Doubting the Resurrection (Feb, 2014). He enjoys listening to M. Ward, watching sci-fi, and following Jesus. Blogs at jonathandodson.org