Apr 17 - Identity Crisis

Identity Crisis

April 17, 2016

Matthew 6:1-6,16-18



Matthew 6:1-6,16-18

April 17, 2016


Self-identity is a big deal. Our identity has to do with how we see ourselves – what we think is true about ourselves - who we think we are.  Many individuals struggle with their identity.  They really have a hard time answering the question: ‘who am I’?  Or the related question, ‘what is the purpose of my life?


So what shapes our identity?  To some degree, our identity is shaped by our genetic make-up.  Our genetic make-up determines our ethnicity, gender, our height, the colour of our eyes, and so on.


But there is a real desire in some people to alter their image even when based on things like genetics.  Surgeries, implants, hair colouring, contact lenses, and the like can be used to change appearance. 


We can all see the radical change in Michael Jackson’s appearance over the years.  The other person is Eva Medusa, formerly Richard Hernandez, has undergone a number of painful procedures including ear removal, nose modification, tooth extraction, eye colouring, full facial tattoos, tongue splitting and more.


The increasing focus on gender-fluidity in our school system has and will lead to bathroom and change room use that is no longer based anatomy but on a person’s own sense of sexual identity.


While genetic make-up still is huge when it comes to shaping our identity, some individuals are working hard not to be determined by it.


What else shapes our identity?  To some degree our home of origin will.  What was told to us about ourselves, how we were treated by parents and siblings, what was of great importance, imprinted on us and molded us to some extent.


Some adopted children have a very large desire to search out their birth parents in the hope that it will help them to discover more about their identity.


In some instances, people do not want to be defined by their home of origin.  I don’t know if you remember a woman by the name of Rachel Dolezal? 


There was a big deal about her last year because it was discovered that she misrepresented herself as being Afro-American when in fact she has two Caucasian parents. 


What else shapes our identity?  Well, to a large extent it is the things that happen to us, the things we experience.  At least at first glance. 


For example, a near death experience, a major move from one town or province or country to another, events at school, university and work, all will influence our identity. 


The people we hang out with will influence our identity.  Getting married or getting a divorce, having a child or losing a child, will change our identity.  Employment, unemployment, deployment will change our identity. 


Aging changes our identity.  Cancer changes our identity.  Addiction or sobriety changes our identity.  This is why our identity, in some way, is constantly in flux. 


Depending on how old we are, we realize that we are no longer the same person we were when we were 6 or 16 or 26.  The events of life has changed us. 


But hold on.  Is it really life itself, the events that happen to us, that change our identity, or is it the way that we think about, process, interpret, and react to what happens to us, that brings about real change? 


How many of you have seen Kung Fu Panda? 


The point about how we react to events being more important than the events themselves reminds me of a dialogue between Shifu and Oogway.


What you believe about the event – how you process an event, will determine how that event will affect us.  At times that is very difficult.  How can you see the abuse or the death of an innocent child as anything but bad and evil?  Even Oogway processed the breakout of the notorious Tai-Lung as something negative, but only if he beat the dragon-warrior. 


But I would still say that it is how we think about and process the events of life that determine how these events affect us and help shape our identity.  Some people are just able to find a silver lining to every cloud, others only see a cloud as capable of releasing static electricity and killing them … and that in itself determines who they are. 


So our identity is formed in part because of our DNA, in part because of our home of origin, and in part because of the events that happen to us, or more precise, how we think about and react to the events that happen to us. 


Of course there are other factors as well, but I want to mention just one other.  Whether we realize it or not, our identity is also wrapped up with how we want others to think about us – the image we want to portray for others to see. 


Which takes us to our passage for this morning.


In Jesus’ day, Jewish society was highly religious.  Of course there were some people, like the tax-collectors, who collaborated with the Romans, but even the tax-collectors believed in the existence of God and in a moral standard of right and wrong (which is why they knew themselves to be sinners).    


Within 1st century Jewish society, what impressed people the most was a religious piety, particularly if that piety was demonstrated by following God’s will in every detail of life.  It should not surprise us that the Pharisees had a very high standing in Jesus’ day because that is what they were all about. 


In the passages we are looking at this morning, Jesus tells his followers not to be like a group of people who “do what is right,” that is, who do the things that were right in God’s eyes, based on motive. 


Be careful not to do what is right in front of others in order to be seen by them, for then you will not have a reward from your Father[1] who is in heaven.

                                                                        Matthew 6:1


Jesus picks up on the idea of having a reward with God, something that he’s mentioned a number of times in the Sermon on the Mount.  His words reflect the general belief and hope that there will be some special rewards or treasures that are kept in heaven for the faithful.  The more people followed God’s will on earth, the greater will be their eternal reward. 


God will repay everyone according to what they have done.                                                                    Proverbs 24:12[2]


Jesus speaks about actions that are meant to honour God whose actual motive is to promote oneself.  The good deed was not done because of genuine altruism or compassion, but is turned into something self-serving.  As such it is no longer meritorious or praiseworthy in God’s eyes. 


The overall principle is that whatever reward there may be in heaven for doing God’s will, is forfeited if the motive is to have others take notice. 


Jesus then follows this up by giving three examples of acts of piety where this can be the case. 


 So, when you give to the needy,[3] do not have the trumpet blown in the synagogues and the streets to announce it.  This the hypocrites[4] do in order to receive praise from others. Truly, I tell you, they already have received their reward.  But when you give to the needy, do not let your left hand know what your right hand is doing, so that your giving will be done in secret.  And your Father, who sees what is done in secret, will reward you.                                                                   Matthew 6:2-4


Jesus calls religious people who do their acts of piety and charity in order to be noticed by others, “hypocrites.” The word indicates something done in pretense.  They are hypocritical because they pretend to be motivated by altruism or compassion or doing God’s will, but they are really more concerned about self-promotion.  What is to be a self-less action turns into a self-serving action.  As such it is no longer meritorious or praiseworthy in God’s eyes.


Do not have the trumpet blown in the synagogues and the streets to announce giving to the needy.”  Jesus uses both a public and a religious setting here … the street and the synagogue.  However, keep in mind, that the vast most of the people in the street were religious.


Actual trumpet blowing in the streets or synagogues as a way of announcing an act of charity has nowhere been recorded in actual practice.  It is therefore best to view Jesus words as an exaggerated metaphor for somehow making a big deal about giving to the poor, much like our modern saying that is derived from this passage:


In other words, the original audience would be challenged to think about the more subtle ways that announce their charitable giving.  Today, there are all kinds of ways that this same kind of self-promotion happens: telling our family members, co-workers, friends; making public announcements; having one’s name engraved on placards; naming a building or library or hospital after a donour; being honoured in the media;


By the way, I don’t have anything against donour walls or plaques, or anything else to celebrate charitable work.  However, the reality is that the blessings a person receives on earth negates any divine blessing.


Jesus was convinced that the later was more important than the former.  Do not let that be true of you, Jesus said to his followers.  Don’t let your left hand know what your right hand is doing when you give to the poor


The reference to the right and left hand, was also not meant to be taken literally.  It is just a symbolic way of pointing out just how secret any act of charity should be … even to keep it from oneself, if that were possible. 


The reality is that complete secrecy is likely not achievable every time.  In fact, in someone is bound to notice, even if it is just the person being helped or through whom the gift is delivered.  (Paying for someone’s haircut … the hairdresser knows; for someone’s meal, the waitress knows).


Since God can see everything done in secret, he rewards the secret act of charity.


God will judge every deed even if it is done in secret, both good and evil.                                Ecclesiastes 12:14



And when you pray, do not be like the hypocrites. For they love to stand in the synagogues and at the corners of public squares[5] when they pray in order to be seen by others. Truly, I say to you, they already have received their reward.  But when you pray, go into your (windowless) room,[6] shut the door, and pray to your Father who is unseen. And your Father, who sees what is done in secret, will reward you.               Matthew 6:5-6


Again, Jesus choses as examples both a religious and a non-religious setting, but either is filled with religious people. 


Public prayer may not have been an unusual sight in Jerusalem, particularly because Jewish men were obligated to pray three times a day:  morning, afternoon and evening (morning prayer from before sunrise to about 9 a.m. depending on the Rabbi).[7]  The problem wasn’t that others could witness public prayer, the real problem was the desire to be noticed. 


So as you look at these pictures maybe think about the motivation behind each of these public prayers.  Is it to be noticed? Is it a public display of solidarity with other believers?  Is it simply religious devotion toward God?


In Jesus’ day there was no norm for Jews when it came to a particular posture when praying.  Prayers could be said while standing still or walking, while sitting or laying down, while kneeling.  However, the hypocrites chose to stand because it is by far the most visible – they stood in order to be seen.


Jesus gives one more example. 


And when you fast, do not look depressed like the hypocrites do.  They distort their faces in order that their fasting may be noticed by others. Truly, I say to you, they already have received their reward.  But when you fast, put oil on your head and wash your face, so that your fasting will not be noticed by others but by your Father who is unseen. And your Father who sees what is done in secret will reward you.


The third situation is much like the second.  Jesus speaks of religious individuals who go through the streets with downturned mouths and bowed head, who but invite the question: “What is going on?” 


It isn’t that the person is truly suffering from starvation.  There may be hunger pangs, but that would not bring about a willful distortion of one’s face, unless it is intentional. 


While fasting was not a uniquely Jewish practice, it was so widespread that Roman historians took note of it in their writings.[8] 


Instead of drawing attention to their spirituality and piety, the followers of Jesus were to wash their face and place nice smelling oil on their head in order to hide the fact that they are fasting. 


So Jesus gives the three examples of pious actions that could be meritorious in God’s eyes.  All three of these were fundamental and regular parts of the lives of pious Jews in the first century.  So these were not actions that were out of the ordinary, really. 


The problem in each and every case was that these were done with the express purpose of being seen by other pious Jews and therefore to thought of as people of piety and virtue.  It was to make a good show and thus create a certain public image that would give them status in the society of that day. 


Jesus’ disciples were to do these things “in secret,” that is, so that no one would notice them other than God.  And the whole point was that a good deed dies to God when it is bragged about. 


But for us today, the implication of Jesus’ teaching goes way beyond not making a show of the good things we do.  Because the hypocrites of Jesus’ day wanted something that most people today want as well, regardless of whether or not they are religious – they want to portray a certain image that would get others to think highly of them. 


For example, Oscar Wilde (1854 - 1900) was a dandy.  He was very concerned about his outward appearance.  He wanted to make an impression.  He once said,


There is only one thing in the world worse than being talked about, and that is not being talked about.


In fact, what others think of us can be so important to us that the image we want to portray to them not only informs our decision how to present ourselves, but also how we think about ourselves.  In part, this is also why make-up can be incredibly important to some women.


For some of us, clothes can also be a huge component when it comes to the identity we want to portray and the image we want others to have of us. 


Unfortunately, not all of us have the figures of models or actors so things may go a bit awry.


Sometimes our identity is wrapped up with standing out, or being special, or being considered special.  For a few superrich individuals, their wealth defines them to the point that it is important to have everyone notice.


In fact, in a society that is becoming increasingly narcissistic and image driven, often more emphasis is placed on our image rather than our true identity.  In fact, we can purposefully create an image that doesn’t necessarily overlap with who we are. 


You probably heard of E-Harmony dating sites, where clients have to fill out a profile that asks them questions about their characteristics, beliefs, values, emotional health, skills and so on.  They then use matching algorithms to try to match up couples they believe to be compatible.  Identity is reduced to the answers to 258 questions.


There is now another dating app using Facebook called Tinder. 


It was launched in 2012 and apparently has over one billion “swipes” per day, generating about 10 million matches a day.  Tinder uses Facebook profiles and analyses compatibility based on geographic location, mutual friends and common interests and places them in lists of possible matches.


Users look at the photos of the individuals on their list and swipe either right, if they think the person is attractive, or they swipe left if they aren’t interested.  If two individuals swipe right on their pictures, they can then chat to each other in the app. 


Users can go through lists at lighting speed, without giving it much thought:  You’re hot, you’re not.  Swipe left, right, left, left, left, right.  You get the idea.  And when that happens, identity is truly reduced to image.


The problem is that some people misrepresent themselves, on the answers they give, or their Facebook profile.  They can use old photos or they can photoshop their images using Facetune, whiten their teeth, get rid of blemishes and wrinkles, reshape their face before posting them.  It is advertised as creating the perfect selfie.


There is another app called Faceswap, where you can take your head and photoshop it onto a different body. 


All of this is possible in order to manipulate ones image into what we think that the other persons wants us to be.  It has been shown that men are more likely to make themselves look better in the “About Me” and “Notes” section.  Women tend to make stress their attractiveness and social popularity.[9] 


People can “like” all kinds of things on Facebook that they personally don’t do.  They like the idea of going to the gym or hiking or kayaking and so the push the “like” button, but never actually do any of those things.  So they project an image that isn’t even true of them.


By the way, that’s how some people approach their faith.  They “like” the idea of following Jesus, or praying, or fasting, or giving to the poor, but they never do it in person. 


Social media not only creates images and molds identities, it also creates a lot of insecurity. 

  • Why don’t I get as many emails and texts as others?  It must be because I’m not as important as others. 

  • Why isn’t my blog as popular as those of others?  It must mean that I’m not as interesting as others.

  • Why don’t I have as many friends on Facebook as others?  It must be because I’m not popular! 

  • What if I don’t get as many “likes” on my witty remarks, photos and whatever else I post.  I NEED MORE LIKES to tell me that I’m worth something.


I guess the same is true of Instagram, a smart phone photo and video-sharing app, used by over 300,000 users a month.  Particularly popular on Instagram are selfies as a means of promoting oneself.  And yes, there are now selfie sticks with remotes so you can take better selfies.  And yes, a Justin Bieber’s selfie with Selena Gomez received in the neighbourhood of 1.8 million likes. 


Or Pinterest, a photo sharing website, where people can browse and upload, save, sort and manage images and videos known as pins.  This is particularly popular with women who can also use it to look at stuff they cannot have and promote themselves as someone they really aren’t.


The problem is that with all the image manipulation on social media, it might appear that everything is always wonderful for everyone and all their lives are amazing.  Friends seem to excel in professional accomplishments.  They are wrapped in declarations of eternal love and happy birthdays.  They take all kinds of interesting pictures from fascinating places.  Their Facebook updates are like receiving a Christmas brag letter every week.


Scientists have found in two studies that 1 out of three individuals who skim through photos of the successes in the lives of friends – especially vacation pictures - , and those who feel that they receive fewer comments and likes, end up feelings envious, frustrated, and lonely.[10]  They feel left behind, that they are missing out.  It damages their self-image and for them, social media leads to what I have heard termed, “compare and despair.”


Some individuals get apprehensive and anxious when they are not connected all the times to some social media because they feel out of touch and not in the know.  They are afraid that others are having a better time or a much more rewarding experience.  It’s called the Fear of Missing Out or FoMO for short.  


We are living in a time and place where the adult Millennials, those 18 to 34 years olds, want to say yes to everything due to FoMo.


Like the social media itself, FoMo is also said to shape self-identity, because it leads to feelings of having less or doing less than others, and therefore of being less than others. 


So the example of the hypocrites of Jesus’ day, and the reality of our struggles to define ourselves in terms of what others think of ourselves, really points out that many people are going through an identity crisis. 


They really haven’t figured out who they really are.  Can they really find themselves and a sense of their significance through their looks, their clothes, their successes, or through their social media? 


The question of our identity is so important because it drives our decision making process, how we navigate through life, and how we answer the question of our purpose: “Why in the world am I here in the first place?”  We make decisions because of who we think we are.  And we likely will not make the right decisions if we just don’t know who we are.  Am I the party animal I am when I go out with my friends?  Am I the angry, sarcastic person I am with my family?  Am I the person I pretend to be in my video games, or my online persona?  Am I the person who harms myself with the choices I make? 


None of us receives a playbook in life:  This is who you are, and when this happens, then this is what you have to do


People do all kinds of crazy stuff in order to “find themselves.” This is particularly true if they don’t like who they have become or where they are at in life, and they try to redefine who they are … or perhaps return to the carefree person they once were by divesting themselves of all adult responsibilities – something that is sure to backfire. 


We may think that once we become Christians that everything changes.  We immediately have a new identity.  And in part, that is completely true, especially when we can redefine ourselves as a beloved child of God.  Forgiven, redeemed, included, loved, made whole, empowered, and indwelt.  If that becomes how we think about ourselves, amazing things can happen. 



However, our problems won’t just miraculously disappear.  We may still struggle with old habits, issues, and frustration. 


A few weeks ago we had a camp Sunday.  Those of you who have been to camp, likely know about what’s called the camp syndrome.  You go to camp and you connect with others and then with God in a way that you’ve never had before.  You say to God, I am putting all my sticks in the fire, my life is yours. 


But then you need to go home and live that out in normal life.  In school with the bully.  At home with a mean sibling.  At work with the overwhelming stress.  And making the change stick is a real challenge. 


If we call ourselves Christians, then our identity, molded as it is by our past, should be in the process of being reformed because of it. 


You see, we all are, every one of us, a product of our genetic make-up, our home of origin, the events that happened to us in our lives and how we interpret them, the image we want to portray to others, and a product of our shared culture.


And as a result, we all conform in some ways to “the pattern of this world.”  The apostle Paul wrote:


Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind, so that you can discern God’s will, and know whether or not something is good, acceptable and perfect.                     Romans 12:2


Our greatest weapon against our identity being determined by the world is to choose one thought over another.


So, for example, I could think:  “I am getting old.  Everyone who accomplished anything in this world was younger than myself.  I don’t have a future.  I can no longer do for the purpose that God has put me on this earth.”


Or I can think: “I have a lot of wisdom and knowledge.  I can still make a difference.  I am not done.”  That is reformation. 


I could think: “When someone tells me that they find me attractive, then this is the most important thing about me.


Or I can think: “What is more important than feeling wanted is living out God’s principles in my life.”


I could think:  “My importance is measured by how popular I am online


Or I can think: “My importance is measured by the love God has for me as his child.”


I could think:  “I am of no significance.”


Or I can think: “God thinks of me as significant, otherwise he would not have created me.  If God believes in me, so can I.”









[1] The expression “your (singular!) Father” is striking and only found in this passage.  It may indicate a deeply personal and individual relationship with God as Father.

[2] Quoted by Paul in Romans 2:6.  See also Psalm 62:12

[3] Deut 15:7-10 - But if, when you arrive in the land the Lord will give you, there are any among you who are poor, you must not shut your heart or hand against them; you must lend them as much as they need. Beware! Don’t refuse a loan because the year of debt cancellation is close at hand! If you refuse to make the loan and the needy man cries out to the Lord, it will be counted against you as a sin. You must lend him what he needs, and don’t moan about it either! For the Lord will prosper you in everything you do because of this!

[4] We do not know what Aramaic word Jesus used.  The Greek word was originally a metaphor for the actors in a Greek play who would pretend to be someone (men playing women, for example).  But it is unlikely that the original audience would have thought of this reference at all. 

[5] Gk. Plateion – a more open space compared to tais phumais (streets) in 6:2.

[6] Gk. Tamaion – a room used for storage, likely without a window; sometimes used for bedroom (Song of Songs 1:4 LXX).  It is an odd place to pray and seems to indicate a place of complete privacy where no one can look in.

[7] Cf. Psalm 55:18 – Evening, morning and noontime, I speak and moan, and He hearkened to my voice; Daniel 6:11 – Three times a day he kneeled on his knees and prayed ….  In the Mishnah (Berakoth), there were prescribed times to pray the Shema and other benedictions and prayers.

[8] Tacitus, Histories, 5.4 (refers to the Jews’ frequent fasts); Suetonius, Life of Augustus, 76.3 (not even a Jew fasts so scrupulously on his Sabbaths as I have today).   Petronius, frg. 37.


[9] See the Time article at http://healthland.time.com/2013/01/24/why-facebook-makes-you-feel-bad-about-yourself/

[10] See “Why Facebook makes you feel bad about yourself,” by Alexandra Sifferlin, Time, Jan 24, 2013 (http://healthland.time.com/2013/01/24/why-facebook-makes-you-feel-bad-about-yourself/)