Perhaps you’ve heard a story like this before. Jason is 19-years old. He wants to take a year-long break from school before going to college so that he can backpack Europe and go find himself. He asks for money from his parents and away he goes, seeing sites, meeting women, perhaps bedding a few, maybe a little experimentation with drugs, and the odd job here or there, maybe even a minor skirmish with the law. He comes home a year later. Did he find himself? Have you found yourself?
Recently, I sat under a teaching about identity that attempted to provide a little insight into who we are as individuals. Perhaps you’ve sat under such a lesson yourself? It uses catch phrases like, “You’re not a human doing, you’re a human being.” The teacher, well-intentioned, tells you that you are not what you do. Your identity is not wrapped up in your job, or ministry, or volunteer work. Your identity is so much more than that. But the teacher is only half-correct. Yes, our identity is much more than what we do. But let’s not kid ourselves, what we do—our vocation—is a significantly large part of our identity. When we deny that we deny a fundamental truth of scripture that is designed to help us realize our identity and become a person who is a fruitful and meaningful contributor to God’s kingdom. So, let me put this bluntly, then explain what I mean.
You are what you do.
Now, let me show you from the Bible why this is true.
There are five areas of life from which we get our identity. These are true whether you are a Christian or not. We get our identity from the five alleys of life.
Developmentally: Our growth from childhood to adulthood. This includes the non-tangibles like personal character traits and emotional development, as well as our physical attributes (Deuteronomy 4:9; 5:29; 6:1-2; Luke 2:52; Ephesians 6:1-4)
Relationally: All interpersonal relationships from family to friends to associates (Exodus 20:12; Leviticus 19:18; II Chronicles 13:7; Proverbs 17:17, 18:24, 22:11, 27:10; I Corinthians 15:33; Ephesians 5:24-26)
Educationally: Not just our schooling, but from all knowledge that we acquire through life (Proverbs 2:1-12, 18:15; Colossians 2:3; II Peter 1:5)
Socially: Our interaction with society around us. This includes our culture, nationality, religious affiliation, community associations, and worldview (Jeremiah 29:7; Romans 12:18; I Thessalonians 4:11-12; I Timothy 3:7)
Vocationally: Our function in society. This includes employment, volunteer work, retirement, and the exercise of fundamental responsibilities (Genesis 1:28, 2:15; Exodus 35:31; I Corinthians 12:1-11; Colossians 3:23; II Thessalonians 3:11-12)
Purposely left out of this list is spiritually. This is because I do not see our spiritual lives as separate from the other areas of life.
Our spiritual life should encompass and drive every other area. If we are Christians with a proper view of God and humanity then we know that the spiritual dimension should guide every area of life instead of being cordoned off in a box, on Sundays only, or in a sixth separate category.
It is from these five alleys that we discover who we are. When asked who we are we may provide answers like, “I’m a stay-at-home mom.” Such an answer draws from the areas of relationship and vocation. Another answer might be, “I’m a doctor.” Such answer draws from our vocation and education.
Now, try this. Ask someone familiar with the Bible questions like, “Who was Abraham?” or “Who was Moses?” and so on. Women tend to answer these questions relationally with answers like, “Abraham was the father of Isaac.” A man will tend to answer these questions by vocation, “Moses led Israel out of Egypt,” or “David was king,” or “Jesus is our Lord and Savior.” Vocation is an important part of our identity. In fact, I believe God designed us to get a significant part of our identity from our vocation.
Consider that before there was sin in the world, God gave man a vocation. Even before his wife was created, before marriage, God gave Adam vocation. “The Lord God took the man and put him in the garden of Eden to work it and keep it” (Genesis 2:15). It was after this assignment that God created Eve to help him (Genesis 2:18-22). This does not mean that work is more important than our relationship with a spouse. It is simply to note that vocation, work, is a fundamental part of our identity.
Can you imagine David apart from being a shepherd, a warrior, and a King? David’s identity, to us, is wrapped up in what he did in God’s kingdom. Can you imagine Moses as being something other than a prince of Egypt, or savior of his people? We identify Moses by what he did. How about Jesus? We know that Jesus is God in human form, but we relate to him by what he did for us as Savior, and as Lord. Before being known as Savior Jesus was known as a carpenter—by his vocation (Matthew 13:55) along with his relations.
Vocation is fundamental to our identity. We can say who were our in terms of the other alleys of life, but we cannot leave out our vocation as if it is not who we are, or a part of who we are. If you ask me who I am and I say, “I’m just Tom,” what does that mean? It doesn’t mean anything.
Someone might protest and say that my job doesn’t define me. But, on the contrary, our jobs, our roles in life, do define us, very much so. Look back at the beginning of creation. How did God define for us who Cain and Abel were? Cain was a “tiller of the ground,” in other words, a farmer. Abel was a shepherd (Genesis 4:2). In order for us to understand something about their lives the first thing God does to identity them to us is to tell us what their vocations were, and then how their spiritual lives were expressed through their vocations. Even when we think of God, what do we call him? We say he is Creator. The very first words in the Bible that define for us who God is are vocational language, “In the beginning God created…” (Genesis 1:1). The last words in the Bible about Jesus are positional and vocational language, “Amen, come LORD Jesus” (Revelation 22:21).
Part of what it means to be created in God’s image is to imitate him in what he does. Being in God’s image means that we are designed to think what God thinks, feel what God feels, and do what God does. What we do in life is, in part, an expression of how we feel and think. It is the outward expression of the inner life. What does it mean to be in God’s image? Look at Genesis 1:28, which tells us. “Be fruitful and multiply and fill the earth and subdue it, and have dominion over the fish of the sea and over the birds of the heavens and over every living thing that moves on the earth.”
This is what it means to be in God’s image. It means to do what God does (vocation). When was God fruitful? When he created all things. When did he multiply? When he created Adam and Eve in his image. When did he fill the earth? When he created all forms life in the sea and on the land. When did he subdue? When he brought the unformed mass of the earth under his control to prepare it for habitation. When did he exercise and rule? When he established order in his creation and gave commands to Adam and Eve.
Doing (vocation) is fundamental to our existence. Without it we can’t say that we are becoming like our Savior. So, the next time you hear someone say that you’re a human being and not a human doing, you will know that both are true, because they are the same thing.
If, like Jason, you want to “find yourself,” then take a long walk down the five alleys of life. There it is that you will find everything you need to know to become what God intends for you to be.