Over the summer, I have actively been practicing gratitude. This practice came about through necessity – a bit of a survival tactic to help me get through a rough season at work. I would sit on the bus every morning and try to list 10 things in my head that I was grateful for that day. This practice of gratitude led me to try to find the light and goodness in a situation that was really wearing on me. That practice is coming in handy today. While I am quite nervous to open up again on this blog today, I am grateful for the opportunity I’ve had to explore a topic that has been on my mind a lot lately. The topic is identity.
I, like you, carry with me many identities. I am a wife, an educator, a community advocate, a performing artist, a Westminster Griffin and Puget Sound Logger, a progressive, a futurist, a millennial, a feminist, a cat person, a tree hugger, a Ute fan, a Cubs fan, a young professional, an introvert, a friend, a procrastinator, and (yes) a Mormon. The list could go on, right? We all have these identities that define us and inform our actions, opinions, thoughts and connections.
It seems to me that life can feel like a series of identity crises. It’s not just mid-life crises anymore. We have our teen years, the quarter-life crisis, and my pending 30s crisis. I’ve dubbed this crisis my rebellious years where I dyed my hair and started listening to Christmas music before Thanksgiving. Rules be damned!
Throughout different period of my life, I’ve placed specific identities on a pedestal. Things like being an educational achiever, a hopeful future mother and a career ladder climber. All these identities are pretty good things. But I can say with surety (because I’ve experienced it) that placing your worth and value in these identities is dangerous. Elder Hallstrom’s, “I am a Child of God,” talk from the April 2016 General Conference raises this question for me:
Is my Heavenly Heritage as a child of Heavenly Parents my first and most profound identity?
As much as I wish the answer was a resounding “yes,” the answer, truthfully, is that this essential identity of mine is very rarely my “first and most profound” identity.
Here’s a personal example. Jeff and I married nearly six years ago. One year into our marriage, we started seeing babies everywhere. We decided to start trying to have a baby and to grow our family. Six months went by and nothing happened. Three more months went by, and still nothing. I started to get really worried. The internet can be your best friend or your most blunt enemy in times like this. I had read a lot about infertility and was terrified of the thought of being one of the women who would be affected and consumed by infertility. So we headed to the doctor, and a series of uncomfortable tests ensued. Through this, we learned the reason we hadn’t had any luck was rooted in a problem with my body. It was presented as a workable problem, but, nevertheless, I was absolutely devastated. Not only did I feel as if my body was broken, but I felt I could not live up to my eternal purpose and divine nature to be a mother. I had been taught, both culturally and in the church, that the most important thing I would ever do was to have children and be a mother. It felt that I had no purpose or meaning and comments about being able to mother other people’s children and wait until the afterlife to have my own children did not console me.
Elder Hallstrom says:
“In life, we face actual hardships. There is pain – physical, emotional, and spiritual. There are heartbreaks when circumstances are very different from what we had anticipated. There is injustice when we do not seem to deserve our situation. There are disappointments when someone we trusted failed us. There are financial setbacks that can be disorienting. There may be times of question when a matter of doctrine or history is beyond our current understanding.
“When difficult things occur in our lives, what is our immediate response? Is it confusion or doubt or spiritual withdrawal? Is it a blow to our faith? Do we blame God or others for our circumstances? Or is our first response to remember who we are — that we are children of a loving God? Is that coupled with an absolute trust that He allows some earthly suffering because he knows it will bless us, like a refiner’s fire, to become like Him and to gain our eternal inheritance?”
Again, I wish my answer was, “yes.” But, unfortunately, no. This trial was and has been a challenge to my faith. I did not have my truest, highest identity in mind. I had thought that my most important identity would be that of a mother. But Elder Hallstrom says no. Our most important identity is as a child. A child of God.
Matthew 7:24-26 describes Jesus telling the parable of the wise man and the foolish man. Jesus says that not everyone who prophesies in His name will enter into the Kingdom of Heaven. One of the prerequisites, he says, is to do the will of the Father and know our Savior and God. Those who do this are like “a wise man, which built his house upon a rock. “And the rain descended, and the floods came, and the winds blew, and beat upon the rock.”
In contrast, those who do not know God are “likened unto a foolish man, which built his house upon the sand. And the rain descended, and the floods came, and the winds blew, and beat upon that house; and it fell: and great was the fall of it.”
I don’t think anybody would argue that I was wrong to want to be a mother or that I was wrong to be hurt by this news. But it did teach me that building our worth, purpose, meaning and identity on our circumstances is dangerous. Lesser identities will always be subject to change through our circumstances. Like the rain and winds that fell upon the houses of the wise and foolish men. Rain fell on both, but the wise man had built a purpose and identity on something immovable and strong.
Elder Hallstrom emphasizes that our “earthly identities are not wrong unless they supersede or interfere with our eternal identity – that of being a son or daughter of God.”
My identity as a hopeful mother was not wrong until it began to block me from my true worth, purpose and identity. It began to disrupt my connection with God. Maybe you’ve experienced something similar, or maybe your tensions with competing identities are different. Maybe your value and identity was rooted in your physical appearance or degrees or job status or even your Mormon-ness (those are all something I can relate to). Or maybe yours is entirely different. But I’m guessing this struggle is part of being human. Again, these pursuits or identities are not bad, but they are lesser. It’s about the order in which we pursue these things.
Matthew 6:33 reads, “But seek ye first the kingdom of God.”
And in Luke 17:20-21, we learn what the kingdom of God is.
“And when he (Jesus) was demanded of the Pharisees, when the kingdom of God should come, he answered them and said, The kingdom of God cometh not with observation: Neither shall they say, Lo here!, or, lo there! for, behold, the kingdom of God is within you.”
There are three different translations of this verse that I learn from.
The first translation is what I just read to you. On face value, this scripture suggests that the kingdom of God is found within us.
Elder Hallstrom says that “We live in a world that can cause us to forget who we really are. The more distractions that surround us, the easier it is to treat casually, and then forget our connection with God.”
Our connection is that we are children of eternal, majestic, powerful and loving Heavenly Parents. We have God’s DNA in us. Just like I got my blonde hair and empathy from my mom and my ears and critical mind from my dad, I’ve eternal characteristics and worth that is not based on any earthly circumstance. As the scripture says, the kingdom of God is within us. Or, as Paul taught, we are the “offspring of God.”
The second translation of this scripture sheds a bit more light on its meaning. Many translations of this scripture actually state that “the kingdom of God is among you” rather than within you. This doesn’t feel like a contradictory thought to me. As we establish our worth and identity as children of God, connection to His children who share this journey with us will natural follow. Sister Stephens mentions, in a talk about our divine natures, that our opportunity is “not just to learn from our own challenges; it is to unite in empathy and compassion as we support other members of the family of God in their struggles.” (There are a lot of things I don’t like about that talk, but I happen to like this quote from it.) In that way, as we connect with those around us, we tap in to our eternal characteristics passed on by our Heavenly Parents. And as we connect, we build Zion – the Kingdom of God on earth.
The third translation of the scripture is from Joseph Smith Translation. It reads: “Neither shall they say, Lo, here! or, Lo, there! For behold, the kingdom of God has already come unto you.”
As children of God, we have a divine birthright. This scripture suggests that the kingdom of God can be here, on earth, in our lives, among our brothers and sisters. But it is something that we must pick up and grab ahold of. The presence of the Kingdom of God is not based on our circumstances. Rather, it is based on our willingness to tap into our eternal birthright, forsake our lesser identities and to follow. It is more than something we do. It’s something we are.
There is a story in Matthew 19 that illustrates this point. In verse 16: “An behold, one came and said unto him (Jesus), Good Master, what good thing shall I do that I may have eternal life?”
Jesus answers by saying, “Keep the commandments.” The man asks Him which commandments and Jesus elaborates: Don’t commit murder or adultery or theft. Don’t lie. Honor your Father and Mother. Love thy neighbor.
The young man says, I’ve done all this my whole life: “What lack I yet?”
Maybe this response is because of age. I don’t know. Maybe this young man hasn’t yet faced those trials of life – the winds and rain – that can beat upon our purposes and identities and cause us to fall and fail.
But Jesus answers him in verse 21 and says:
“If thou wilt be perfect” (which we know from other revelation means complete or whole – which can only be through Christ) he says, “Go and sell all that thou hast, and give to the poor, and thou shalt have treasure in heaven: and come and follow me.”
The verses continue, “But when the young man heard that saying, he went away sorrowful: for he had great possessions.”
I don’t think we know what happens to this young man after this encounter, but I can certainly understand his initial reaction. He was asked to give up all that he had. And along with giving up his things, he was asked to sacrifice his identity as a rich man.
Jesus continues by saying to his disciples, “Verily I say unto you, that a rich man shall hardly enter into the kingdom of heaven. And again I say unto you, it is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to enter into the kingdom of God.”
While I am personally fond of and drawn to the apparent anti-consumer, anti-capitalist, interpretation of this scripture, I want to interpret it much more broadly right now.
Jesus is saying, as is Elder Hallstrom, that it may be necessary for us to sacrifice our lesser identities in order to connect with God. “A correct understanding of our Heavenly Heritage is essential to exaltation,” as Elder Hallstrom puts it.
This may be discouraging. I know it can be for me. It is hard to give up parts of us – even if they are good parts – in order to connect. If this feels discouraging, know that Christ’s disciples felt similarly. Verse 25 says, “When his disciples hear it, they were exceedingly amazed, saying, who then can be saved?”
And here’s the good part. Verse 26:
“But Jesus beheld them, and said unto them, with men this is impossible; but with God all things are possible.”
President Thomas S. Monson has said, “We are sons and daughters of a living God… We cannot sincerely hold this conviction without experiencing a profound new sense of strength and power.”
I believe this power is granted through Christ’s atonement – the ultimate act that makes possible our connection with God. And this power, stemming from our internalization of our eternal nature as children of God is a power beyond what we receive from our lesser identities, circumstances, possessions, things, degrees, promotions, status, memberships, associations or even our familial roles.
I’d like to say I’ve tapped into this power, but the truth is I think I have more to learn. We’ve likely all experienced moments – as have I – of this true, eternal power. I pray that I will be able to internalize this divine nature and establish it as my most profound identity. As with most things, I am practicing as I move forward throughout this journey. But I know I can get there through Christ.