The author was pointing out that if you derive your sense of value from your job then not being able to do it leaves you feeling worthless. If your purpose in life is your work, then your life now has no purpose. If your identity is bound up in your job, then not being able to do it leaves you feeling like a nobody.
How do you identify yourself? What are you? What is it that gives you value and purpose?
The pop singer Madonna described the pressure that comes from linking your identity with your achievements:
I have an iron will, and all of my will has always been to conquer some horrible feeling of inadequacy ... I push past one spell of it and discover myself as a special human being and then I get to another stage and think I’m mediocre and uninteresting ... Again and again. My drive in life is from this horrible fear of being mediocre. And that’s always pushing me, pushing me. Because even though I’ve become Somebody, I still have to prove that I’m Somebody. My struggle has never ended and it probably never will.1
In Madonna’s own estimation, she has “become Somebody”. Meaning that, apart from her accomplishments, she is nobody, which is not only a sad insight into what she thinks of herself but of what she thinks of others.
In the movie Chariots of Fire, just before the 100m final in the 1924 Olympics, Harold Abrahams spoke to his friend Aubrey about how he had never known contentment. He said he was “forever in pursuit, and I don’t even know what it is I’m chasing … I will raise my eyes and look down that corridor; 4 feet wide, with 10 lonely seconds to justify my whole existence. But will I?” His whole life was about getting the gold medal – that is what he had always thought would justify his existence, but he was even having doubts about that. Would this fulfil? Would it make his life worthwhile?
Maybe you can identify with the struggle. Perhaps you have thought that if you have children who are smart and successful then you will have justified your existence; if you have enough followers, likes, friends or views then you are Somebody; if you have the career you’ve dreamed of then your life will be meaningful…
But there will always be the crushing pressure to maintain your identity. There will always be the questions, “Does this make me valuable? Have I done enough? Am I worthy now?”
The gospel offers something better. It tells you that no matter who you are, you are valuable because you are created and loved by God. This is not based on your performance, achievements, status or popularity.
You can have a new identity in Christ. In coming as a sinner to Christ for salvation, you are accepted by God and that will never change. If you are a Christian, you can never be more accepted by God and you will never be less accepted. The Bible says that Christians are “accepted in the beloved” (Ephesians 1:6), that is, we are as accepted as God’s beloved Son is. This takes you off the uphill, fast-moving, never-ceasing treadmill of needing and seeking the approval of others – the only one whose opinion ultimately matters has accepted you.
This gives you a purpose that redundancy, failure and recession cannot take from you. Your purpose is not to make a million or reach the top. In Christ, your purpose is to glorify and enjoy God. That is something you can do even when you are in lockdown.
So, don’t get your identity from accomplishments or status. Get it in Christ – it will not only save you from judgment, but from having an identity crisis.
- Lynn Hirshberg, ‘The Misfit,’ Vanity Fair, April 1991, Volume 54, Issue 4, pp. 160-169, 196-202, cited in Timothy Keller, Counterfeit Gods, When the Empty Promises of Love, Money and Power Let You Down, Hodder, 2009, p. 72.