Below is an excerpt from my forthcoming book One Way Love: Inexhaustible Grace for an Exhausted World. It comes out October 1. You can pre-order it here.
In 2007, the New York-based website Gawker.com named John Fitzgerald Page "The Worst Person in the World."
John, a young professional in Atlanta at the time, was awarded the dubious title after an exchange he had with a young woman on Match.com, an online dating site, was made public. The young lady in question had made an overture by "winking" at John, admitting in retrospect that she probably should have thought twice "considering his screen name was 'IvyLeagueAlum.'" John responded with a short, introductory message, listing several facts about himself, some relevant, some less so (height, weight, schools attended, fitness regimen). He also asked a couple of pointed questions of his new admirer – where she had gone to school, the kind of products she enjoyed, and what activities she currently participated in to stay in shape. He seemed especially concerned that his would-be date was not misrepresenting herself physically. John had apparently been "deceived before by inaccurate representations" – given the circumstances, an honest concern. More problematic was the self-satisfied tone in which his concern was expressed.
Something about his message must have rubbed its recipient the wrong way, as she replied with a perfunctory "No thanks." Presumably the end of the story. But a spurned John shot back:
I think you forgot how this works. You hit on me, and therefore have to impress ME and pass MY criteria and standards – not vice versa. Six pictures of just your head and your inability to answer a simple question lets me know one thing. You are not in shape. I am a trainer on the side, in fact, I am heading to the gym in 26 minutes! So next time you meet a guy of my caliber, instead of trying to turn it around, just get to the gym! I will even give you one free training session, so you don't blow it with the next 8.9 on Hot or Not, Ivy League grad, Mensa member, can bench/ squat/leg press over 1200 lbs., has had lunch with the secretary of defense, has an MBA from the top school in the country, drives a Beemer convertible, has been in 14 major motion pictures, was in Jezebel's Best dressed, etc. Oh, that is right, there aren't any more of those!
In the face of rejection, poor John defended himself. In fact, he did more than that; he justified himself. He listed his achievements, his attributes and accolades – some of which are, on the surface, impressive. John's problem isn't his résumé; it's what he thinks about his résumé. He used it to justify his existence, leaning on it for righteousness, and therefore, life and love. Yet no one can love a résumé, and not just because we can know a million things about a person and still not know them. No, love that depends on certain standards of performance isn't really love at all. It's more like emotional bartering, a two-way dynamic if ever there was one. It alienates.
We might like to think John is an extreme case, but he's not – at least not as much as we might wish he were. Maybe there is someone in your life who makes you feel insecure; someone whose very existence you find to be threatening – a walking judgment, if you will. Maybe you find yourself dropping names around that person, talking about things you think might impress them. We may not (hopefully) be as brazen or impulsive as John Fitzgerald Page in flaunting our advantages or achievements, but all of us are performancists in some arena, wired for control and proving.
The truth is, narratives of self-justification burble beneath more of our relationships and endeavors than we would care to admit. In fact, the need to justify ourselves drives an enormous amount of daily life, especially the exhausting parts.
The area of personal identity is a place where the rubber of grace meets the road of everyday life in an especially palpable way. If an identity based on "works of the law" looks like John Fitzgerald Page, what might one based on the one way love of God?
For an answer, we need look no further than the apostle Paul, who once wrote a letter not too dissimilar from that of John Fitzgerald Page:
If anyone else thinks he has reason for confidence in the flesh, I have more: circumcised on the eighth day, of the people of Israel, of the tribe of Benjamin, a Hebrew of Hebrews; as to the law, a Pharisee; as to zeal, a persecutor of the church; as to righteousness under the law, blameless. (Phil. 3:4-6)
Paul, it would seem, had plenty to be proud of. His pedigree, his track record, his religious standing were all impeccable. If he had wanted to justify his existence, he would have had a comparably solid basis on which to do so – the first-century Jewish equivalent of blue blood, Ivy League, Fortune 500 status. But unlike John Fitzgerald Page, Paul doesn't end there. Or you might say, that's exactly where he ends:
But whatever gain I had, I counted as loss for the sake of Christ. Indeed, I count everything as loss because of the surpassing worth of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord. For his sake I have suffered the loss of all things and count them as rubbish, in order that I may gain Christ and be found in him, not having a righteousness of my own that comes from the law, but that which comes through faith in Christ, the righteousness from God that depends on faith. (Phil. 3:7-9)
The contrast Paul makes here is between a "righteousness of my own that comes from the law" and "the righteousness from God that depends on faith [in Christ]." One is earned, and the other is bestowed, or you might say one is a paycheck while the other is a gift. One is based on our own efforts and attributes; the other is based on God's. One has to do with getting, the other with receiving; one with action, the other with faith. The funny thing is that while the latter is so clearly preferable to the former, we almost always choose the wrong one!
Paul's identity is anchored in Christ's accomplishment, not his own; Christ's strength, not his; Christ's pedigree and track record, not his own; Christ's victory, not Paul's. He knows that who he really is has nothing to do with him at all – rather, it has everything to do with what Jesus had done for him.
Achievements, reputations, strengths, weaknesses, family backgrounds, education, looks, and so on – these things still exist, of course, but only for their own sake. They are divested of the weight they were never meant to bear in the first place, and as such, they can be enjoyed or appreciated without being worshipped. In fact, Paul counts them as loss, which is perhaps a little ironic, since most of the things we tend to define ourselves by are things we're going to lose anyway, if not through aging (beauty, strength, smarts, etc.), then through death (name, wealth, regard).
An identity based in the one-way love of God does not take into account public opinion or, thankfully, even personal opinion. It is a gift from Someone who is not you. As my friend Justin Buzzard wrote recently, "The gospel doesn't just free you from what other people think about you, it frees you from what you think about yourself." In other words, you are not who others see you to be, and you are not who you see yourself to be; you are who God sees you to be – His beloved child, with whom He is well pleased.