In my spiritual formation classes for pastors and Christian leaders I begin by sending the students out to pray for an hour, using Psalm 23 as their meditative focus. My instruction to them is simply: when God speaks to you, write it down. Upon returing from their hour with God I have found that many of them will have heard God say the words, “I love you.” Some of them have not heard those words in a very long time.
Henri Nouwen wrote that he was “firmly convinced that the decisive moment of Jesus’s public life was his baptism, when he heard the divine affirmation, “You are my Beloved on whom my favor rests.” (Spiritual Direction, 28) When God tells someone “You are my beloved,” or “I love you,” the most intimate truth about that person is revealed. “The ultimate spiritual temptation is to doubt this fundamental truth about ourselves and trust in alternative identities.” (28)
Who are you? Nouwen counsels us not to define ourselves by the following alternative identities.
1. Do not define yourself as: “I am what I do.” He writes: “When I do good things and have a little success in life, I feel good about myself. But when I fail, I start getting depressed.” (Ib.) To define yourself by what you do is to live on a spiritual and emotional roller coaster that is a function of your accomplishments.
2. Do not define yourself as: “I am what other people say about me.” “What people say about you has great power. When people speak well of you, you can walk around quite freely. But when somebody starts saying negative things about you, you might start feeling sad. When someone talks against you, it can cut deep into your heart. Why let what others say about you – good or ill – determine what you are?” (Ib., 29)
3. Do not define yourself as: “I am what I have.” Don’t let your things and your stuff determine your identity. Nouwen writes: “As soon as I lose any of it, if a family member dies, if my health goes, or if I lose my property, then I can slip into inner darkness.” (Ib.)
Too much of our energy goes into defining ourselves by deciding “I am what I do,” “I am what others say about me,” or “I am what I have.” Nouwen writes: “This whole zig-zag approach is wrong.” You are not, fundamentally, what you do, what other people say about you, or what you have. You are loved by God. God speaks to the deep waters of your heart and says, “You are my beloved son or daughter, and on you my favor rests.” To hear that voice and trust in it is to reject the three alternative ways of self-definition and enter into freedom and joy.