Up until a week ago, I was on vacation. During that time, in which I did little more than float on an inflatable mattress in the middle of a lake, I reflected on how our culture equates activity with identity. Quite simply, we are what we do.
As an Eastern Orthodox priest, I do many things. I am the husband of my wife and the father of my three small children. I am writer by profession and passion. Finally, I am a pastor by vocation, serving the many services on the Church calendar, calling and visiting my people, preparing sermons, studies and teachings, as well as praying daily and trying simply to be a good Christian. It’s a full and busy life.
Do all these activities add up to me? Our culture would suggest that they do. Our various jobs, hobbies, vocations, roles define us. Without them, who are we? If I subtract husband, father, writer and pastor from my life, who is left? The world around me would tend to answer, “No one.” On the other hand, when I am busy, doing all those tasks “successfully,” then the world acknowledges that I am Someone. It may not necessarily like what I am doing, but at least I am a “contributing member of society.”
Religion is often understood in these functional terms. If I go to church, give money, pray, do good deeds, then I am a “good” person in God’s eyes. If I fail to do the above, then He does not value me as much. This ancient and conventional religiosity goes back to the days when a sacrifice was thought to appease the deity.
Christianity, however, offers a radical alternative to the equation of activity with identity. In the lectionary this past Sunday, we saw Jesus heal a paralytic who doesn’t do or even say anything. (Matt. 9:1-8) He simply receives the healing, which is occasioned only by the loving faithfulness of those who carry him. Seeing the witness of his family and friends, Jesus offers the paralytic the forgiving embrace of God for all of broken human and refers to him as “my son,” which is to say, a co-heir of God’s kingdom. (see Gal. 4:7)
This encounter tells us emphatically that we are not what we do. If Jesus healed a man who did nothing to deserve it, then whether or not we are good spouses, parents, friends, or workers, has no bearing whatever on God’s view of us. As parents, do we think: “I love my children now, but I will love them more when they have achieved a Bachelor’s degree, written a book, or won the Nobel prize”? If we are even moderately functional, we simply love them, for no other reason than the fact that they exist! Of course, human parents often fall prey to the temptation of conditional love, but God never does. From the moment He created us, we have been good, beloved, precious and holy to Him. No amount of failure or betrayal can denigrate us, no amount of success can possibly exalt us in His eyes.
Of course, Jesus healed the paralytic because He saw the faith of that man’s family. Which means that although we can do nothing to engender God’s love, we do have the responsibility to bring God’s eternal and divine love into our daily encounters with self and others. I engage with all the activities of my life in this world—husband, father, writer, priest—to the best of my ability, not to prove that I am a worthwhile person, but so that I and those around me may know the goodness and love of God. In the end, I am not worthwhile because of what I do. I am worthwhile because God made me and loves me. And everything else I do—for myself and for others—I do to remember that awe-inspiring fact every day.