When I was in college, a large portion of my identity was wrapped up in what my professors thought of me. I desperately wanted to be seen as intelligent, and I would get nervous before meeting with them, pour myself into my work, and agonize as I waited to find out my grades. I was a nerd, sure, but it was deeper than that: I thought the only way I could possibly be valuable was if I performed well academically.
I was a Christian in college. I knew who Jesus was; I practiced spiritual disciplines. I even led a small group! But my identity remained torn between who I was in Jesus and academic performance. How could I be significant if I didn’t perform well?
Tragically, I am not alone. Many of us long for significance, and we might try to find it in more money, higher status, a relationship, or something else, fashioning identities for ourselves that are so much less than what God himself has given us.
So what do we do when we are pummeled by feelings of unworthiness? What do we do when our performance is dismal and our thoughts about ourselves are even worse? Is there an identity that we can have that isn’t affected by our failures?
For the Christian, the answer is yes. We are children of God—and no identity is greater than that. But how do we resist the often-subtle temptation to define ourselves in any other way? I believe resistance begins by recognizing how dependent on God we are.
A Place of Dependency
One of the most profound pictures we have of our dependence on God is in Genesis 15. In this passage, God promises Abram, whose wife is barren, that he will have numerous descendants and that God will give them land. To help Abram have faith that these things will happen, God initiates a covenant with him. In preparation for a typical covenant ceremony in the ancient Near East1, Abram cuts several animals in half and arranges them in two rows (Genesis 15:8-11). God repeats his promise to Abram, who is now in a “deep sleep” (Genesis 15:12-16). Then, we read:
When the sun had gone down and it was dark, behold, a smoking fire pot and a flaming torch passed between these pieces. On that day the Lord made a covenant with Abram, saying, “To your offspring I give this land…” Genesis 15:17-18
In Abram’s culture, the lower party would usually pass through the animals, but Abram is sleeping! Instead, God—the smoking oven and a flaming torch—passes between them, symbolizing that he would “end up like the animals” if the covenant were broken (Jeremiah 34:18-22). In this, God shows that he will bear the full responsibility of the fulfillment of the covenant. If Abram does not have descendants, God would “end up like the animals.” God covenants against himself, and Abram is entirely dependent on God to keep the covenant.2
What does an ancient covenant ritual have to do with our identity today? Well, there is another covenant in which we are the lesser party. This covenant is between us and God—creation and Creator. It says that if we obey perfectly and never rebel against God, we will have eternal life with him. But here’s the obvious problem: We have broken the covenant. Adam and Eve broke it first, but we have followed their example time and time again. We, like Adam and Eve, have gone our own way. We have sought to be like God, and in doing so, we’ve hurt other people. We’ve gossiped, we’ve overlooked the marginalized, and we’ve tried to have control and power instead of loving people. As a result, our relationship with God, the essence of the covenant, has been broken.
And what is God’s response? We read it in John 3:16: “For God so loved the world, that he gave his only Son, that whoever believes in him should not perish but have eternal life.” Just as Abram would not bear the burden of the covenant God made with him if it were broken, neither do we. In her book The Epic of Eden: A Christian Entry into the Old Testament, Sandra Richter puts it this way:
But when we consider this from a canonical viewpoint and recall that the God of Abram never failed in his promise but the children of Abraham certainly did, we need to ask the question, whose flesh was torn to pay the price for this broken covenant? Now our attention is fully arrested. For indeed it was the God-man, Jesus Christ—the representative of humanity and the embodiment of Yahweh—whose flesh was torn to appease the broken stipulations of the oaths taken. And here in the opening chapters of the Bible, the echoes of the gospel can be heard.3
Just as God bore the burden of the covenant on behalf of Abram, God has prevented us also from bearing the burden of the covenant we broke. God has made a way for us to be saved through Jesus Christ, on whom the curse of the broken covenant fell. There was nothing that we could do to overcome our failures, but our failures—the very same failures that broke our covenant with God—were no match for his power. Like Abram, we are in a position of full dependency on God to move on our behalf.
This life-giving dependency on God is captured beautifully in our identity as Christians: children of God. God has decided to make us his children, and so we are (1 John 3:1)! He has given us the spirit of “adoption as sons” (Romans 8:14). And, like children, we need God to fulfill the covenant we broke so that we could be saved, as well as for love, for guidance, for help, and for so much more. Like a loving Father, God meets each of our needs in himself. J. I. Packer writes,
In the same way, you sum up the whole of New Testament religion if you describe it as the knowledge of God as one’s Holy Father…For everything that Christ taught, everything that makes the New Testament new, and better than the Old, everything that is distinctively Christian as opposed to merely Jewish, is summed up in the knowledge of the Fatherhood of God. Father is the Christian name for God.4
Our identity is in our childhood; our identity is that our Father is also our God.
This monumental shift in our identity can take time to take root. Indeed, during my college years, I often wondered if I would ever defeat the part of me that suggested that I needed Jesus and academic achievement to be valuable. But the truth is that I could never depend on achievement for anything. It only ever left me wanting more—perpetually dissatisfied and disappointed with myself. As I learned to depend on God, I slowly—over the course of years—began to see that Jesus was truly better than anything else.
While I was often frustrated with how long the journey took, I discovered that one of the joys of living in dependency, in being God’s child, is that we don’t have to figure anything out on our own. We don’t have to fix ourselves–just as God alone created us, just as he alone passed through the animals in Genesis 15, and just as Jesus alone died for our redemption, we can depend on him to help us align our identity in him. We can simply come to Jesus and ask him to help us.
And so, I came to God again and again with my divided heart and fractured identity. And you know what? God never turned me away. In fact, my failures helped me see that God was like a Father to a poor, bumbling child like myself. He kept lifting my head and turning my eyes to see him. Over time, I began to see a pattern: My performance would sometimes fail me, but my God never did. And, as I neared the end of my college career, I came to the point where the title academic was a pitiful substitute for child of God. My identity had shifted; God had realigned my heart—and helped me discover the joy of being his child.
Our value and worth have been spoken for once and for all by God himself. Thus, let us find ourselves coming again and again before his throne of grace with all the other things that we think will make us feel valuable. Let us come to the only One who has a say about who we are, the only One who loves us more than we will ever know, to the only One who ever died for us so that we could live in him. And, just like Abram who was in a deep sleep as God covenanted with him, let us rest in our life-giving dependence on God as his beloved children.
About the author.
© Olivia Davis 2023, all rights reserved.
- J. D. Barry et al, Faithlife Study Bible. (Bellingham, WA: Logos Bible Software, 2012), as found in the Logos Bible study software program.
- In Genesis 15:18-21, God details the specific land area that Abram’s descendants will occupy. The land area of modern Israel, the nation of Abram’s descendants, aligns with God’s ancient promise, as we read in: SL Richter, The Epic of Eden: A Christian Entry into The Old Testament. (Downers Cove, IL: IVP Academic, 2008), 161–162.
- SL Richter, The Epic of Eden: A Christian Entry into The Old Testament. (Downers Cove, IL: IVP Academic, 2008), 79.
- JI Packer, Evangelical Magazine 7, 19-20; cited in Knowing God, 201.