By Justin Rossow
I’ve been struggling a lot lately with the question of identity. Well before COVID made working from home a common, cultural experience, I left a job and calling to pursue a different vision of who I am and what I felt called to do in life. I don’t regret taking that next step following Jesus. From the beginning, I expected figuring out how to make a living would be difficult work. But I didn’t expect this change of circumstances to cause such an identity crisis.
In every job I have held, every career I have pursued, every school I have attended, other people and their expectations have given me a sounding board for who I am and who I am expected to be. It’s not like I drew my identity entirely from other people and their expectations, but the parameters of job descriptions and staff meetings and interpersonal affirmation (and conflict) gave me at least something to respond to.
Sometimes I affirmed what other people thought or expected of me; sometimes I rejected who others thought I should be or what I should do.
But working from home, as my own boss, I have no one but me to tell me who I should be, or what deadlines I need to meet, or what I should be doing at 10:09 am on a Friday morning. I am left on my own to figure out who I am. And while that seemed like a wonderful idea back when it felt like everyone else was telling me who I should be, the sudden silence can be deafening.
I think life in general could be conceived of as one long string of identity crises. And the question of who I am and who I want to be has never been more clamorous than when I became my own boss.
That crisis has only been intensified by the bizarre and disorienting reality of life with COVID. In fact, COVID brings its own kind of identity crisis. Maybe you know what I mean.
I chose to work from home, but maybe you didn’t; maybe you find yourself isolated from coworkers and personal contact in ways you didn’t expect. Maybe you are working less hours, or not at all; so much of the time our identities are tied up with our jobs, that questions about work naturally become questions of identity.
Maybe you chose to be the parent who took a primary role in making sure the household runs smoothly; you chose to work less hours so you could participate more in the life of your kids. But now, all of a sudden, your kids are at home all the time. That leaves you with little or no breathing room to get all of the stuff done you always did during school hours, including the things that fostered your own sense of identity.
You can’t have a cup of coffee with a friend. You can’t meet your group for lunch. You can’t sit in the stands with other parents at the game. You can’t be the you-in-relationship-with-other-people like you normally would; but that you-with-others is one of the key ways you practice and discover the you-alone.
Who you are as an individual is something you work out day by day, interaction by interaction, relationship by relationship. Without those chances to tell your story or add your opinion or find a compromise, you don’t have the same kind of opportunity to be you, or to figure out the person you are or are becoming.
In the midst of my own identity crisis, I have started to notice I am not alone. While there have always been plenty of us at any given time wondering how to work out our being and doing, COVID seems to have broadened and intensified the struggle for self. I spoke with some dear friends yesterday on Zoom—in London as well as in Houston—and shared a little of my own angst about angsting over identity. I found people who could relate. One of them put it this way, “Who am I during COVID?”
Those conversations helped me realize that, along with the rest of the confusing, difficult, and strange fallout from the pandemic, COVID also relentlessly raises the question of identity. One of the things I am struggling with as COVID continues to drag on is the question my friend asked so pointedly: “Who am I during COVID?”
I have been walking through some Psalms lately, especially Psalms that seem to sit naturally and clearly on the lips of Jesus. I have been wondering what it means for the Holy Spirit to shape the prayers of Jesus in me. And I’ve been taking some notes.
A couple of days before I realized I was struggling with questions of identity, I took some notes on Psalm 31:5-7. (Don’t you love it when God answers your prayer or provides for your need before you knew enough to pray?) If you can relate to the COVID identity crisis, then these notes are also for you. These verses are in the NIV; the comments are based on my work with the Hebrew text.
Into your hands, I commit my spirit;
deliver me, LORD, my faithful God.
(Psalm 31:5, NIV)
Of course, you’ll recognize these words as the prayer Jesus prayed from the cross as he died. It seems Jesus was specifically referencing Psalm 31, and the context here helps us understand what Jesus was thinking, feeling, and praying as he died.
Like the Greek, the Hebrew word for “spirit,” could also mean “wind” or “breath.” Jesus breathes his last by entrusting his breath/spirit to his Father and “faithful God.” The word for “faithfulness” in this verse has to do with being true, or trustworthy, or firm.
“Deliver me,” David the Psalmist prays; or, perhaps, “You have redeemed me, faithful God.” That’s how the ESV puts it. This phrase could be giving the reason you can commit your spirit to YHWH: the LORD has already delivered/redeemed you in the past, which makes you trust this faithful God with your present and your future.
The verb used here, and translated as “deliver” or “redeem,” is the act of buying back something that belonged to you in the first place.
After the last of the Ten Plagues in Exodus—the death of the firstborn—God’s people had to “buy back” or redeem their firstborn sons. You paid a price, made sacrifice, so the child (or even cattle!) that belonged to your family by birth could belong to your family again, and forever.
When the Bible talks about Jesus “redeeming” us, we are to understand the death of Jesus as the price that brings us back to God’s family, where we always have belonged, and now belong again forever. Because God bought us back into the family, we know the LORD is faithful and can be trusted.
Finally, to “commit” something is, in this context, to “entrust” something valuable, or even to put something valuable “on deposit,” to be kept safe and protected until a later time. David is putting his breath/spirit on deposit with his faithful God, entrusting this treasure to God’s safekeeping, since God has ransomed and redeemed him.
I will be glad and rejoice in your love,
for you saw my affliction
and knew the anguish of my soul.
(Psalm 31:7, NIV)
Just a couple of more notes.
The words for being glad and rejoicing just jumped off the page for me, especially since I did so much work with this vocabulary for my book Delight! Discipleship as the Adventure of Loving and Being Loved. These words express a Joyful Delight; the kind of feeling that makes you jump up and spin around and shout Whoohoo!
The “love” that causes this overflowing joy is expressed by the Old Testament word for “covenant faithfulness.” Here we have one of God’s key characteristics: YHWH is a God of promise and fulfillment. Covenant faithfulness is at the heart of who God is for us, and who God is for us in Jesus Christ.
Finally, notice the affliction and anguish of the “soul” David expresses here. The Old Testament word for “soul” is an identity word; it’s the essence of who you are as a person; it’s your life and your self. This psalm is expressing the already and not yet joy of putting your true self on deposit with the faithful God of covenant promise.
Jesus put his life, his breath, his soul—his identity, and calling, and purpose, and mission, on deposit with the God he called Father, the faithful God of covenant relationship, of promise and fulfillment.
Even as his mission seems to end in the darkness and failure of the cross, Jesus, the faithful Son, trusts the Father. In return, the faithful Father vindicates the Son as the breath of Jesus returns to fill his resurrected body and Jesus accepts his fulfilled purpose and identity by sitting at the right hand of the Father.
You who have been redeemed, bought back into the family, by the death and resurrection of Jesus—you are invited to trust and to pray, with David and with Jesus.
Of course, Psalm 31 isn’t a magic wand that waves away the growing COVID identity crisis. But while I am in the midst of my own anguish of soul, I have a place to entrust my life’s purpose and my true identity for safekeeping.
What do you do when your identity, your calling, your value, who you are and what you are supposed to be doing in life gets questioned at a disturbingly fundamental level? You put your breath, your spirit, your soul, your identity, your future, and the essence of who you are on deposit with the faithful God who has already bought you back and brought you back into a covenant community in Jesus.
In the midst of affliction and anguish of soul, you are seen and known. Already now, you jump for joy, because the One who holds your present and your future, your soul and your self, is faithful and true.
I’ve been struggling a lot with identity lately. Maybe you’re struggling, too.
Psalm 31 led me to write the following prayer a couple of days before I knew how desperately I needed it. I invite you to pray with me.
O faithful God and Father,
you bought me back into your family;
therefore I put my life, my soul,
my identity, my self, and my future
on deposit with you.
Already now I jump for joy,
because the God of covenant faithfulness
knows me and sees me.
Shape the prayer of Jesus in me:
Father, into your hands
I commit my spirit.