Relaxing the Grip: Grace and Identity
“As long as we continue to live as if we are what we do, what we have, and what other people think about us, we will remain filled with judgments, opinions, evaluations, and condemnations. We will remain addicted to putting people and things in their "right" place.”
― Henri J.M. Nouwen
I remember the first time I was able to identify my personal struggle with identity. I believe it was around the time I read a book called Keeping the Sabbath Wholly by Marva Dawn. It probably also had something to do with something that Rob Bell had said... since most things in my life during college had something to do with something Rob Bell said. But I realized that I had, for too long, sought to ground my identity in my achievement, my productivity, my status in the eyes of others, and in the quality of my ideas. The patterns of my development conditioned me toward this and I knew no other way. Even my spirituality was, for me, an object of production... something which always needed improvement, something I could accomplish. I needed to follow Jesus and get other people to follow Jesus too. The concept of grace was foreign... it's foreign still.
The fact is, if grace is not foreign to us, it is not proper for it to be called grace. It is intrinsically foreign for it is intrinsically independent from us. It relies not on what we do, what we can accomplish, what we own, or what others think of us. Grace has no dependence on the quality of its object's ideas. It is purely and utterly a gift. It sneaks up in us.
But despite grace's foreign quality, it meets us and invites us to find our very being, our very identity, in it.
I still struggle, deeply and painfully, with my identity. I am constantly clutching my fists, trying to accomplish that thing that will determine my identity... trying to impress the right person so that others too will accept me and love me. In my struggle and in withholding grace from myself to see my identity independent from my productivity, I withhold it from others too. I am addicted to putting people and things in their "right" place. The grace of Sabbath reminds us that our identity is a gift we do not have to earn. We are free to relax our grip and allow ourselves to be held in our vulnerability.
We do not have to mask ourselves with a false confidence. We do not have to justify our existence to the world. We are justified and we are loved by a God who gives wonderful gifts.
I am so afraid to open my clenched fists!
Who will I be when I have nothing left to hold on to?
Who will I be when I stand before you with empty hands?
Please help me to gradually open my hands
and to discover that I am not what I own,
but what you want to give me.”
― Henri J.M. Nouwen