What does it mean to be human?
Does who we are lead to what we do?
Does what we do lead to who we are?
Or does Frank Sinatra have it right? It’s all mixed up.
I watched a video where the man speaking in it asserted that identity leads to action. He needed to identify himself as a writer in order to get on with actually becoming a writer. But as he continued to talk, he said exactly the opposite. He’d been writing for years without believing that he was a writer. He was doing the thing we call writing, but he wasn’t doing it to the degree or in the fashion that made him feel like he was a writer.
A lot of us have that weird sort of thing going on. We do something, but we don’t feel accomplished or adept at it. Or we have a job or a title that says we are something, but we don’t find ourselves doing it.
There are those who wouldn’t call themselves Christians, but who share basic Christian beliefs and exercise basic Christian practices. And yet because they don’t “feel” like Christians (whatever that means), they don’t claim that identity.
And there are those who call themselves Christians who reject basic Christian beliefs and refuse basic Christian practices. And even though they stand outside of what Christians throughout the past 2,000 years would have expected of themselves, they claim that identity.
It seems to me that Sinatra is right. Doing and being are interrelated. They simply can’t be separated.
The first non-Jewish person to become a Christian was a Roman named Cornelius. What’s interesting about him is that his basic practices were an intentional copy of basic Jewish practices. Up to a point. “He and all his family were devout and God-fearing; he gave generously to those in need and prayed to God regularly” (Acts 10:2).
When Cornelius and his family heard the message about Jesus from Peter, they were filled with the Holy Spirit and acted on this filling through speaking in tongues (Acts 10:44-46). It was only after these actions that they were baptized (Acts 10:47-48), baptism being the identity marker for Christians.
Doing preceded being.
But when it came to the Twelve, Jesus made them disciples before they acted on it. In fact, it took a lot of active discipling before the disciples looked like disciples.
Being preceded doing.
There are plenty of other examples of both in the Scriptures and in our own lives. Sometimes, we act our way into a new way of being. Sometimes, we step into a new identity and a new way of living emerges from it.
There are people who will argue with me over this, but I’m certain that it doesn’t really matter which comes first. What’s important is that both take place. There can be no real being without doing. And there can be no real, sustained doing without a supporting identity.
The book of Ephesians is nicely divided into two three-chapter halves. The first half deals with what God has done for us and who he has made us to be in Jesus. The second deals with our response. Being followed by doing.
But the thing about Ephesians is that it was written to a bunch of Christians who were already going about the doing stuff that Christians do. But the problem was that they were getting it wrong, at least in part. So, Paul wrote to them, laying out their identity in Jesus and the accompanying life of following Jesus.
We see this more easily in Paul’s two letters to the Corinthians. The church in Corinth was a hot mess. So, Paul takes up problem after problem, offering theological (identity/being) reflections and practical (practice/being) suggestions to them. From Galatians to 1 Timothy, we see this replayed.
When our doing is off, it’s generally because our being is off. We’re thinking badly about who God is and who we are as a result and this leads to behavior that is in line with that skewed identity.
When our being is off, it’s generally because we’re avoiding doing what we’re supposed to do or avoiding stopping what we know we’re not supposed to do. So, in order to avoid changing our behavior, we change our identity or what we say our identity constitutes.
So, where do we start?
My suggestion is to start with doing. Find a simple behavior to modify that is in line with who you want to become.
Instead of reading a book about prayer, just start praying for a few minutes every day as you drink your morning coffee.
Instead of looking up blogs about exercising, just start with 10 push-ups and a jog around the block.
What you’ll find is that your identity will follow. You’ll become a prayerful person. You’ll become a healthy person. It’s then that you won’t have to force yourself to read books on prayer or search out blogs on exercise. You’ll do that because you want to do that, since that is your new identity.
So, do be do be do … Because, really, it’s all about becoming, and that includes both being and doing.