What Do We Say to Identity Spirituality?

Identity spirituality, which was discussed in yesterday’s post, is the ultimate religion of self. It poses as spirituality, but it takes shape as actions and words and ideas gathered together to fit an individual’s tastes. The world is full of religious and spiritual ideas, and identity spirituality simply collects the ones that feel good. This version of spirituality does not lift someone up or transform or ask for sacrifice. The practice of identity spirituality may masquerade as a stage in the evolution of human beings toward some higher form, but it is always self-satisfying and it always points to the human who invented it. What do Christians have to say to people who believe that they are their own gods?

We first must remember that Jesus was both fully human and fully God. People who want to find their own god within themselves can be reminded that Jesus truly was that person they all want to be. He really was both God and man. More than that, in his humanity he fully experienced all the trials and tribulations we experience. Pain, anger, fear, humiliation, disappointment, and so forth. We read in Mark 1:12 that “[Jesus] was in the desert forty days, being tempted by Satan. He was with the wild animals, and angels attended him.” The way Mark describes that experience is the most horrific of the three tellings. It vividly calls up an image of loneliness and that would feel like abandonment if not for the angels. It is the image many of us have actually experienced. The layoff notice. The terminal diagnosis. The end of a marriage. The child killed in an accident. The fervent dream the completely eludes any hope of fulfilling it. Almost every human being can recall some moment when he felt as if he were surrounded by rabid dogs because of a mistake or a failure that transformed former colleagues and friends into vicious enemies. It can feel like being in the wilderness with wild animals, under assault for so long it seems like a month of manic Mondays. We can share with the identity spiritualist that Christ can identify with them in the muck and the mire and the misery of being human.

The way Matthew talks about those forty days is a bit different. Matthew provides three examples of Satan’s attack. Those three examples cover the gamut of the challenge of being human, and they show us that Jesus knows exactly what it is to be human.

In the first temptation, Satan suggested that Jesus turn stones into bread. It was a test many people don’t pass. The executive in the top echelons of his company’s financial controls has immense power, but Satan has lured many such individuals to divert money away from the company and into their own pockets. Individuals such as Napoleon or Marshal Petain or Fidel Castro acquire huge power by promising to serve oppressed people, but they cannot resist Satan’s temptation to serve themselves first, betraying the trust of their followers by using the power ceded to them by the people against the very people who loved them. Jesus was tempted by the possibility of making bread out of rocks. He was hungry. He wanted food. But Jesus, as fully man as he was fully God, chose not to use God’s rich power to serve himself. The behavior of Jesus is exactly opposite to the notion of choosing among all the religious options and picking the one that serves your inner self the best. Jesus chose not to serve self at all, but rather to serve God. As a completely human being, he did not do something no human can do, but he did something that is very hard for humans, no matter how clearly they see the right thing to do. We can tell an identity spiritualist that it is not only right to put self last, but it is also possible.

In the next temptation, Satan appealed to the spoiled child in everyone. We all like attention. We preen when people are admiring us and applauding our accomplishments. Satan tempted Jesus to do something so dramatic that all the world would look up and clap, scream, whistle and whoop it up. He asked Jesus to be like the grandchild at Thanksgiving who dashes around the living room full of relatives as fast as he can screaming, “See how fast I can run!” never mind that lamps and vases are falling like winter snow in every direction. He asked Jesus to be the showoff who jumps off the platform at the top of the slide instead of sliding down when it comes his turn. He asked Jesus to be the big man at work who finesses sales the company can’t possibly deliver and collects payoffs under the table in order to become the Sales Engineer of the Year. Jesus was born for the specific purpose of saving all the people of the earth. A dive off the pinnacle of the temple would certainly get people’s attention, and then he could tell all of them how to put God and other people first in their lives. Jesus rejected the temptation to call attention to himself rather than to the kingdom of God.

Finally, Satan went to the bottom line: statistics. Sales numbers. Profit. He showed Jesus all the kingdoms of the world. A good way to envision this sight is to think of a huge world-sized yearbook. Jesus would not likely have been swayed by a vision that looked like a globe, but a vision of individuals, especially those suffering from hunger, disease and loneliness. One image of suffering humanity after another paraded past by the author of all that suffering. And the images were coupled with a real temptation: if Jesus would simply worship Satan, Jesus could have all those people for himself. These were the people Jesus had come for. These were the ones he cared for. Would it be a bad thing just to kneel before Satan one time?

It is the same argument that might be offered up in the back seat of Dad’s Chevrolet on prom night. Don’t you want to know what it is like? What could it hurt to do it just once?

Hey, it’s not cheating if everybody is doing it. If you don’t make our report look good, then we will be the only department that doesn’t get a full budget allocation for next year.

The world is full of such opportunities, and Jesus, who said NO to this temptation, knows how much we all want the shortcuts to happiness.

How do we respond to the lure of identity spirituality? We respond with the message Jesus gave to a man whose identity was spirituality in the extreme – Nicodemus the Pharisee. Being a Pharisee was all about satisfying self while scorning other people who did not deserve to be noticed. Pharisees performed all their good deeds in public where everyone could see how religious they were. And Pharisees sold out the entire nation of Israel in order to be the only legitimately spiritual people in any room.

Jesus’ message to the Pharisee is Jesus’ answer to everyone who thinks he can be his own god. Jesus spoke of the real God, the one God, his own Father in heaven, and said,

No one has ascended into heaven except the one who descended from heaven, the Son of Man. And just as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, so must the Son of Man be lifted up, that whoever believes in him may have eternal life. For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life. Indeed, God did not send the Son into the world to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved through him.” John 3:13-17

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