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Our Identity Is Not Defined By What We Do

Jim Denison | Denison Forum | Updated: Apr 06, 2022
Our Identity Is Not Defined By What We Do

Our Identity Is Not Defined By What We Do


One reporter called it “the stuff of sporting legend.” Another called it “borderline surreal.” A director of sports medicine called it “a story that’s just beyond belief.”

They were describing the news that Tiger Woods might play in tomorrow’s Masters Tournament less than fourteen months after a car accident that nearly led to the amputation of his right leg. Woods ended the speculation with his announcement yesterday, “As of right now I feel like I am going to play.” More than thirty-five thousand fans were on the grounds at Augusta National on Monday hoping to get a glimpse of his practice round, and his fellow professionals were more than excited to see him.

Tiger Woods has eighty-two PGA Tour wins, tied with Sam Snead for the most in history. In 2001, he became the first golfer ever to hold all four professional major championships at the same time. He was the youngest Masters champion ever and is the career money list leader.

At age forty-six, Woods is fourteen years older than the average age for a major golf champion. Only two players in the last fifty-four years were his age or older when they won a Grand Slam title. And neither was attempting to come back from a life-threatening accident.

Why would Woods even consider doing this?

The question is actually relevant not just for him but for us all.

Our "collective worship of work"

Carolyn Chen is co-director of the Berkeley Center for the Study of Religion at UC Berkeley. In a recent article for the Atlantic, she discusses one of the most fascinating and troubling trends in American culture: our “collective worship of work.”

She cites a McKinsey report that 70 percent of employees said their sense of purpose is defined by their work. In her view, the “invisible religion of work” has “become an unassailable part of our culture.”

According to Chen, “At a time when religious-affiliation rates are the lowest they’ve been in the past seventy-three years, we worship work—meaning we sacrifice for and surrender to it—because it gives us identity, belonging, and meaning, not to mention that it puts food on our tables” (her emphasis).

In her view, “houses of worship” that can compete with the worship of work “would have to claim our time, energy, and devotion like work does. We would have to sacrifice and submit to their demands, as we do for work. We would have to build communities of belonging, together seeking meaning and purpose outside of our productive labor.”

Chen adds that such “houses of worship needn’t be only religious ones; they could also be our co-ops, neighborhoods, unions, reading groups, or political clubs.” The goal would be to build “civic organizations that can help us visualize human flourishing that rises above a company’s bottom line.”

"I am not who I think I am"

I do not know Tiger Woods personally (though I have watched him play at the Masters in person and am in awe of his talent). As a result, I cannot say with any certainty what is motivating his possible return to golf. But I do believe his story is a parable of a culture that defines who we are by what we do.

A man stood on a busy street corner and asked a thousand people as they went by, “Who are you?”

Without exception, every person who responded answered by describing their job: “I’m a doctor,” or “I’m a teacher,” or “I’m a pastor.”

A counselor once explained our culture’s sense of self this way: “I am not who I think I am. I am not who you think I am. I am who I think you think I am.”

And I think you think I am what I do.

By contrast, the Bible defines our identity not by what we do but by Whose we are. We are told that “to all who did receive [Jesus], who believed in his name, he gave the right to become children of God” (John 1:12). If our identity is our unchanging essence, this is our identity as Christians. Everything else about us can change, but this cannot. Once we become the children of God, we are a “new creation” (2 Corinthians 5:17). We will forever be the children of our Father in heaven.

A penetrating life question

How can Christians convince secularized people to choose God’s grace over our cultural worship of work?

We will need to show our skeptical society that our Father’s way is better than their way. To do this, as Chen notes, we will need to “sacrifice and submit” to God’s claim on “our time, energy, and devotion.”

In other words, we desperately need to reject the Western cultural division between the sacred and the secular, Sunday and Monday, religion and the “real world.” We need to adopt the biblical call to holistic faith that submits our lives as a “living sacrifice” to God every day (Romans 12:1). We need to vacate the throne and enthrone the one true King (Matthew 6:33) by being “filled with the Spirit” every day (Ephesians 5:18).

Then the Spirit can empower and direct us to, in Chen’s words, “build communities of belonging, together seeking meaning and purpose.”

Author James Clear recently asked a penetrating question: “If someone took control of your life tomorrow, what’s the first thing they would change?”

Let’s amend his question: “If God took control of your life tomorrow, what’s the first thing he would change?”

Publication date: April 6, 2022

Photo courtesy: ©GettyImages/track5

The views expressed in this commentary do not necessarily reflect those of CrosswalkHeadlines.

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Our Identity Is Not Defined By What We Do