Who are we?
This is a question about ultimate identity rather than constructed identity—about a defining bond rather than behaviors or circumstances. Our national identity, our socio-economic standing, our employment, our marital status—and all other circumstances in life—are only background items for this deeper question.
Deeper in this sense: the answer shapes all else and is eternal.
Eternity is the clue, of course: it’s the question of God-to-us. I first bumped into it in reading A. W. Tozer as a young believer. He claimed—and I paraphrase—that the greatest matter in anyone’s life is what he or she conceives God to be. He was right.
I’ve seen, for instance, how Hindus live in India with their plurality of deities and a caste cycle of life. I’ve been around Buddhism in Japan and India. I’ve been with Muslims in London. I’ve crossed paths with some animists, watched a few Shinto processions, and have known a number of secular naturalists. It’s not that these varied exposures set me up to say much about their quality of life. I just know they operate with a view of God that shapes them.
From a distance most people seem to be busy and engaged with life. There are, of course, certain to be variations in the quality of life within particular belief systems: some under a given divinity are poor, struggling and desperate. Others are affluent, powerful, and arrogant. Some are affluent and happy while others are poor and happy. Others are poor and angry while still others are wealthy and angry.
So the quality of person’s life isn’t the point of our question. It is, again: who or what is God to us, no matter what our varied settings and circumstances might be?
Our perception of God, then, is the lens through which we all engage life. Is God an ultimate power to be obeyed? Is he—or, perhaps, she or it—a lover to be enjoyed? Is God a moralist to be feared? Is it an impersonal force that gives vitality to life but is otherwise disengaged? Or is he a myth who leaves one with the role of creating a personal vision of life and meaning? The options are myriad!
And even among Christians the options are innumerable. Some Christians see God as a power figure: whose defining ambition is to apply his sovereignty. Others see him as a moralist: defined mainly by his holiness. Others see him as focused on glory. Still others see him as a planner who anticipated everything that now exists—picture a vast domino-tipping scheme—and then launched it. So now he’s free to sit back and watch the chain of events he once decreed come about.
None of these options is to be completely dismissed. God is wholly in charge; he knows and guides everything from the beginning to the end. And he is also holy. His glory is wonderful and invites praise. But which of these, if any, defines what he does? What motivates God?
A proper perception of God is that he is triune: a Father, Son, and Spirit God. And with that comes God’s intrinsic, eternal communion. The Father has always communed with the Son and the Spirit facilitates this bond of mutual delight. The label for this bond is love.
Why this view? Because of the cross. God gave up the Son to give us eternal life in an exchange of Life for life. The eternal Son swallowed death for us as promised in Isaiah 25:7. Death, when he entered it, wasn’t able to consume him; he, instead, consumed it. It couldn’t hold the infinite, holy Son. So he now offers freedom from death to his bride: to all those who love him.
The cross offers a picture of a holy God—the Father—whose love for the Son motivated him to create a realm by which he would extend this Triune love. His ambition is to have a people who would respond to the Son—or, in Psalm 2, those who “kiss the Son”—to be his bride for all eternity.
The means of sharing this love came in the sharing of life. The bonding presence of the Spirit—who eternally unites the Father and the Son in mutual love—was also shared with God’s newly created Adam. But the call to become the Son’s bride allowed space for alternative loves to exist. God doesn’t impose love on anyone: it’s always a heartfelt response to a pursuer’s love. And Adam’s heart turned away from God’s selfless love in favor of a selfish love: an ambition to “be like God” as a free agent.
The moral quality of God’s shared mutual love is holiness. That is, there aren’t any competing loves to be found in this eternal divine love—no discordant notes of discontent or disaffection. So Adam became unholy because of his self-love: no longer living in the communion of God’s mutual love.
The Son came, then, to gather those whose hearts were won—drawn by the Father’s mercies and the Son’s love. As God poured out his love in their hearts by his Spirit with words of self-sacrificial devotion the hearts of some, but not all, are won over.
This, then, is only a snapshot of God’s Triune love, yet it corrects the manmade distortions of God as a selfish being. Instead of delighting in his plentitude of power, the Son emptied himself to be made a man—as he and the Father had purposed from before the creation—in order to allow his beloved ones to partake in his divinity. Instead of being captivated by his own glory the Son delights to bring his beloved ones to share the glory he had with the Father before the creation came about.
What, then, is an identity that overwhelms all other false or superficial identities? Just this: God loves us and we who respond to this love have a new basis for life. And it changes everything—both now and forever.