Let me start by saying praise God our identity is not defined by us…
In the beginning of the book of Ruth, Naomi lost everything - her husband, sons, and the land she was familiar with. The loss is more than tangible - I imagine she felt like she lost all sense of security, too. Her circumstances left her feeling empty and her heart was quickly becoming bitter. In Ruth 1:20-21, we see that her identity was wrapped up in the reality of how she felt:
“She said to them, “Do not call me Naomi; call me Mara, for the Almighty has dealt very bitterly with me. I went away full, and the Lord has brought me back empty. Why call me Naomi, when the Lord has testified against me and the Almighty has brought calamity upon me?”
This wasn’t just a name change for the sake of a name change. Mara means “bitter.” Naomi was choosing to be identified by how her circumstances left her feeling.
Let’s be honest… you might be sitting there thinking, “Well, yeah, but I get where Naomi is. She DID go out full and come back empty.”
So let’s talk about that for a second…
“I went out full.” She did once have everything she wanted. She did live in a land that was full and familiar, with a husband and both her sons - eventually even two daughters in law. But the “I” here as it relates to being full and the “Lord” as it relates to being brought back empty is a very dangerous, skewed perspective.
She did not make herself full. The Lord gives and takes away (Job 1:21). Believing that we have anything to do with the fullness in our lives outside of choosing to abide in the Lord leads to an arrogance that discounts God’s sovereignty.
Also, consider that Naomi has a rather myopic view at this moment. I am sure that it felt like God just stripped everything away from her, and in fact He did allow it all to unfold, but God’s heart is never to leave us empty. That opposes everything He is and intends for us. Sometimes He allows us to be emptied in a season to prepare for us for a new fullness that’s coming. We don’t have this view of what is ahead, but He does. As a friend of mine pointed out to me, notice how throughout the rest of Ruth, she is still called Naomi instead of Mara. The Lord did not bend to her here because He defines who we are - not us, not what is happening to or around us.
This is why Proverbs 3:5-6 needs to be more than a coffee cup Bible verse in our lives:
Trust in the Lord with all your heart, and do not lean on your own understanding. In all your ways acknowledge him, and he will make straight your paths.
This is the temptation we face as man; to allow what we’ve been through, the perspectives of the world and our own myopic outlook of our brokenness to define who we are. But this is not the reality of our identity according to God (El Roi - the God who sees). We know this because we see something very different in John 1 between Jesus and Peter.
John 1 tells us the story of how Jesus called His first disciples.
Andrew was one of the first two called (John 1:35-42). He was also the brother of Simon (soon-to-be Peter). And so after he began to follow Christ, he led his brother to Him as well and Jesus called Simon to follow Him, personally. Here’s what Jesus said:
He brought him to Jesus. Jesus looked at him and said, “You are Simon the son of John. You shall be called Cephas” (which means Peter). - John 1:42
It’s important to note that Cephas means “stone” or “rock.”
This is pretty interesting because, if you know anything about Peter, you know that he doesn’t behave much like a rock throughout most of the Gospels. Rocks are stable, somewhat immovable, but he was actually a pretty unstable, impulsive guy. I doubt anyone else would identify Peter this way, himself included. Yet, here Jesus is giving this man such an identity from the beginning.
In other words, Jesus is saying, “ This is who you are right now, but you will now be identified by what I know you will become - in and though Me.”
Later, in Matthew 16, Peter confessed Christ as the Messiah (v13-15), and we see Jesus say this:
“And I tell you, you are Peter, and on this rock I will build my church, and the gates of hell shall not prevail against it.” Matthew 16:18
It gave me chills when the Holy Spirit recalled this passage to my mind while studying Ruth and John because what a beautiful moment this is; the moment that Jesus reminds Peter of when He first called him, and knew he’d grow into the “rock” he was in the middle of becoming.
Jesus never called him according to how he was behaving, thinking, struggling. Not for a moment was Peter defined by his past, circumstances or even current tendencies in the eyes of Jesus. From the moment Jesus called him, he was defined by who he would become in Christ.
Left to ourselves, we will get stuck defining ourselves by:
What has happened to us
The circumstances we find ourselves in
How we feel
Who others have said we are
Who we think we have to be
Those things all have a very real impact, and the Lord is not requiring that we dismiss that reality. Allowing ourselves to be defined by these things, however, can deprive us of stepping into who He said we are.
The loss that Naomi experienced caused deep hurt, anger, bitterness. We get that. But the Lord would not allow her to make that the identity she lived in because that is NOT who she was. Peter was a pretty unstable, impulsive guy without much firm direction. Many of us can relate to such things. But Jesus would not allow him to be defined by who he was in those moments because He knew the person he would become. Through Christ, we have the ability to be more than anything happening around or inside of us.
And this is so important for us to understand because our identity and what we believe about it heavily influences the way we live; our behavior, lifestyle, attitude, relationships.
This is going to seem like an extremely strange illustration but go with me on this…
Consider Tarzan for a moment.
He was a man, born of a woman, raised by apes. How did he behave? Like an ape. Why? Because he believed he was an ape. That did not change that he was in fact a man, but it certainly influenced how he lived.
You and I are born into a fallen world, shaped by fallen people, battling against a fallen mindset. As such, it is easy to be defined by all that flows from that.
Until we meet Jesus.
Once we know Jesus, we learn who we really are; we come face-to-face with our true identity for the first time and everything changes. Suddenly, what has happened to, within and around us loses its defining power in our lives as it submits to Him and we learn to be called by our new name…