Truths About Trauma: Identity

I’ve been seeing and thinking a lot about identity this week.  Who we are is so easily mistaken not just by others but by ourselves.  We long to be known, yet when the opportunity arises, we often feel intimidated by the reality of it and we shy away.  We shut down person after person who pursues a deeper relationship with us and we fail to share the most vital aspects of who we are.

Perhaps it is because the awareness of who we are is lost on us.  We haven’t learned to know our true identity has nothing to do with us and everything to do with Christ.  Or we have head knowledge of this truth; we can quote chapter and verse on it, but we haven’t really given that truth a chance to change us.  Maybe we know it, it has done some transforming work in our lives, but we’re still letting the fear of man hold us down.

Trauma and other mental stressors can further complicate matters.  We can suddenly define ourselves in terms of what we’ve been through, what we’ve done, the symptoms we experience.  We turn our identity back into a matter of me and I.  And others reinforce this.

The other day, my husband and I had reason to discuss vague details of an old, closed case I had worked.  It was a particularly traumatic case, involving gruesome details I still avoid like the plague.  As I shared some of the less disturbing details that I could give without giving away any identifying information, my husband was absolutely shocked.  It revealed to him a previously unknown level of the distasteful things I had to do while I was working in the foster care/probation field.  He was shocked but sympathetic and it gave him a deeper understanding of my pain.  But many times when someone learns something this deeply unnerving, they find it difficult to look on the other person with the same level of respect and care.

This is part of the reason that first responders have a difficult time building deep relationships outside of their field.  When people know what they have been through and what they have had to do, their anger is aroused not at the people responsible for the situation but for the one who had to go try their best to clean it up.  Their options are to build a bunch of surface level relationships, hiding what they have been through, or to stick close to the tight knit group of people that always has their back.  The shock and disgust and anger people display without understanding the true source of their reaction reinforce an identification as a monster, a mess, a mistake.

I understand why those strong reactions happen.  When we are confronted with the broken reality of our world, it messes with the safe space we have created for ourselves.  It forces us to acknowledge the fact that this world isn’t our home and we need to change our focus to eternity.  We want to be comfortable here and now.  We want to shield our eyes, minds, and hearts from the things which disquiet us and it is hard for us to willingly connect ourselves to someone who walks into the darkness daily.

Both the one defined by the trauma and the one not welcoming the traumatized are characterized by the same thing: an identity that has been lost.  Neither is living out the truth of who they are in Christ.  And the solution to the problem isn’t to get better at saying or doing the right things.

We might think that saying and doing the right thing makes us spiritual, but if we aren’t really understanding the reasons for those things, then we’re grasping at straws.  We need to understand the heart God has revealed to us in order to really do the good works He has prepared for us (Eph. 2:10).  His heart behind the good works is NOT so we will make Him happy or ourselves happy or others happy.  It is His glory.  And shouldn’t that be our motive too?

The God who created the universe, who sustains it, who controls it, who holds it in the palm of His hand knows the very deepest recesses of our hearts where the darkest thoughts, desires, and fears dwell.  He knew from before the moment He created us that we would be this way.  He created us anyway.  And beyond that, He made it possible for us to be saved by grace through faith.  Saved from an eternity without Him.  All that for His glory.  Not because we earned it or ever could.  Not because we were super special.  But because His all consuming glory must absolutely be praised.  And as such we are able to have an identity that is wrapped up completely in Him, in declaring His glory.

Think about it.  What could possibly be more of an example to those around you of God’s awesome power than for you to really, fully live in light of what He has done?  Your story is a beautiful example of grace, of mercy, of forgiveness, and the more you live it out, the more you share it passionately because you understand that you are nothing apart from those things, the more you become defined not by yourself but by God.

When we hide behind the fear of rejection, we tell those around us that what God did for us wasn’t really all that great.  When we live trapped by our trauma or our desire to avoid anything which upsets our delicate view of the world, we are really saying that God may be able to keep you out of hell but He can’t use the world’s brokenness to shine His glory in and through us.

We shudder to think that we could possibly say those things and yet that is often how we are living.  Our lives say so much that our words don’t.  We hate it when people judge us by what we do and not what we say, but we don’t change our actions to match our words.  So how do we do that?  How do we go from living out a false identity into living who we really are?

It starts with a right focus.  For example, our focus on verses like 1 Peter 1:16 which says in the ESV: “since it is written, ‘You shall be holy, for I am holy.’”  It is so easy to take this verse and say that we have to be holy in our own merits and by our own power.  But that’s not true.  God isn’t telling us to do the impossible; He’s telling us that our identity is in Him which means we have been clothed with the holiness of Christ.  It’s not our merit that’s going to make us live rightly; it’s living within our identity in Christ.  Our focus cannot be how to be holy or how to make myself do what’s right; it has to be on Christ.  When we dive into Christ and who He is, what He has done, the right living comes along with that.  As we love God more deeply, we desire more what He has for us, what He commands of us.

We get to know God by reading His Word, but it’s more than just reading.  I’ve read a lot in my lifetime, but my life was not changed by reading Charles Dickens or JRR Tolkien.  If I read the Bible with the same approach I read those authors, I’m not going to get very far.  If I read the Bible as an opportunity to get to know the heart of the One who did for me what I could not do for myself, it changes my perspective.  It reminds me of how great God is and why He is worthy of all praise and glory.  I forget about me, myself, and I; I learn my real identity.  I live it because I am no longer discouraged by my own powerlessness or my own failures.  I am encouraged by His power, His victory, and His gracious desire to lavish both upon me.  I am no longer the focus of my life’s story; God is.

You and I are not defined by our trauma, by our reactions to others, or our abilities.  We are defined by God’s redemptive work in our lives.  The rest is just an opportunity for Him to show the ongoing work His redemption is accomplishing in us.  Our identity is not about us; it’s about Him.