While I played host for a series of youth leader seminars at this year’s Kingdom Bound festival I also found myself being personally engaged and challenged. In the first seminar Joyce Wagner, owner and primary therapist of Restoration Counseling, spoke about how to avert suicide by properly assessing the warning signs and intervening on behalf of suicidal individuals. Then, Denis Johnson, Jr., pastor of creative arts, music and teaching at The Father’s House, led a conversation around the “selfie” phenomenon and what this obsessive trend tells us about ourselves and our view of God. And finally, Jay Trainer, founder of Infuzion, unpacked the three I’s of youth ministry—image, intimacy, identity—and challenged us to consider how our ministry goals can be shaped by these three cultural influences and keep us from pursuing life-giving relationships with God and one another.
From a broad perspective, Joyce, Denis, and Jay, were pressing us to seriously consider (1) the ways in which so many of our young people feel compelled to filter their identity, (2) the damaging consequences of doing so, and (3) a God-focused response. As I listened to their presentations and to the responses of those in attendance, it occurred to me that young people aren’t the only ones who experience this compulsion to filter their deepest selves for the sake of yielding to some external pressure or internal desire that ultimately expresses a single, critical fallacy: “I ought to be something other than what I am.”
For example, my Facebook feed tells me that my life ought to be filled with more exciting adventures, more exotic vacations, and more expensive toys. It tells me I ought to have a winning and bright white smile on my face no matter where I’m going or what I’m doing. It tells me that everything about me ought to be interesting to others. But Facebook isn’t the only culprit. Even going to church comes with its own set of pressures to be cheerful and worshipful. There’s often no room in the pew or the worship service for people doubting God or entertaining the unspoken questions that disquiet their faith.
So many messages I encounter throughout each day tell me not to be genuine. And when I persist in filtering who I am I may begin to idolize the image I ought to resemble and come to despise the genuine me.
Scripture tells us a different story.
God is love, and the Bible says that Love carefully arranged and pieced together the genuine me. You are, in fact, created to be precisely who you ought to be. The author of Psalm 139 eloquently reveals the intimacy of the Creator with us, the beloved created. It declares that our lives are searched and known; our ways are discerned and traced; our thoughts and words are anticipated; our journeys are accompanied and we are, no matter where we are, inescapably held close to the One who carved out our history before we were born. It is our unfiltered selves that were created for life and relationship with God and others. Can we hear this message above the noises of our culture and receive it? Can we bear the message to our children and our churches and the world that each person is the result of the divine imagination to create something wonderful?
God help us to embrace our genuine spiritual identity and to remove the filters that hinder the formative work you’re doing in each one of us.
Self-rejection is the greatest enemy of the spiritual life because it contradicts the sacred voice that calls us the "Beloved." – Henri Nouwen
Caleb Matthews (M.Div. ‘12) serves as director of admissions for Northeastern Seminary.