Who or What? — New Being or Just Nice Actions?

There are endless “what statements” that can be made about us and what we should do and not do. Smoke screen. The one statement that matters is, “And I say you are ….” God is not primarily interested in our morality. He is primarily interested in our identity. Morality follows. “What” statements are often mistaken for “who” statements and cause us to lead lives of “noisy desperation.”

The law of the Lord is Who God is. It is a character sketch of His identity. In Christ, it is the character sketch of you and me. Out of Christ, it is a list of “do’s and don’ts” that frustrate and condemn us over and over.

The law of the Lord. Is it about identity and what identity proclaims? It is difficult to think of the law that way. Perhaps that says something about how deeply rooted our misconception and misappropriation of the law of the Lord really is.

The interplay between identity and law in the gospel of St. John speaks volumes in this regard. Here is another example of the identity (who) and doing (what) interplay:

Psalm 19
1The heavens declare the glory of God, *
and the firmament shows his handiwork.

2One day tells its tale to another, *
and one night imparts knowledge to another.

3Although they have no words or language, *
and their voices are not heard,

4Their sound has gone out into all lands, *
and their message to the ends of the world.

5In the deep has he set a pavilion for the sun; *
it comes forth like a bridegroom out of his chamber;
it rejoices like a champion to run its course.

6It goes forth from the uttermost edge of the heavens
and runs about to the end of it again; *
nothing is hidden from its burning heat.

7The law of the LORD is perfect
and revives the soul; *
the testimony of the LORD is sure
and gives wisdom to the innocent.

8The statutes of the LORD are just
and rejoice the heart; *
the commandment of the LORD is clear
and gives light to the eyes.

9The fear of the LORD is clean
and endures for ever; *
the judgments of the LORD are true
and righteous altogether.

10More to be desired are they than gold,
more than much fine gold, *
sweeter far than honey,
than honey in the comb.

11By them also is your servant enlightened, *
and in keeping them there is great reward.

12Who can tell how often he offends? *
cleanse me from my secret faults.

13Above all, keep your servant from presumptuous sins;
let them not get dominion over me; *
then shall I be whole and sound,
and innocent of a great offense.

14Let the words of my mouth and the meditation of my
heart be acceptable in your sight, *
O LORD, my strength and my redeemer.



3 thoughts on “Who or What? — New Being or Just Nice Actions?

  1. I’ve been mulling this. I am sure it’s true; but it leaves the question, “Who am I?” As implied, only God can answer that, and I suspect that we cannot know the answer in this life. Maybe we get some clues from time to time, that’s all. Which, if true, leaves the question, “What do I do in the meantime/as I am learning who I am?” So if that is the case, we are back to questioning our doing.

  2. First, thank you for your thoughtful response. I appreciate it.

    Indeed, the primary question is, “Who am I?” And, as you so precisely put it, “…only God can answer that…” It is not the only question. The “what” question is also essential. In an effort to make my point about the importance of the “who” I may have left the impression that the “what” was not important. If so, I apologize.

    Now, on to the substance of your comment.

    Replacing the “who” question with the “what” question either as the primary question or the only question is the result of thinking of the Christian life as a moral project instead of a journey into authentic personhood – God’s, our own, and each other’s – and the life-giving relationships that are the result. It is nothing short of devastating. It is certainly not Good News. It is a tragic misunderstanding of the gospel.

    The Scriptures can be read to answer the “what” question, and in so doing, be treated as a moral duty document. The Scriptures can be read to address the “who” question, and in so doing, be treated as a narrative that is all about divine being and human being. “Who” is about persons in relationship (both divine and human).

    Of course, the Scriptures address the “what” question. But, they do so as the fruit of the “who”. Because God is Who He is, He does what He does. Likewise, because we are who we are in Christ Jesus, we are, we do what we do.
    Judeo-Christian faith is revelatory. The only way to “know” is for God to reveal. And, He does reveal. As a matter of fact, the Scriptures are the revelatory narrative of the truth regarding the identity of God and the identity of mankind (as a whole and in particular) and the relationship involved.

    I contend that we will find what we are looking for when it comes to both the Scriptures and the liturgical prayers of the Church. If we are reading them to answer the “what” question as the primary question that is what we will find.
    Likewise, there is quite a bit of revelation regarding “who”. If the Scriptures are read and the heritage of liturgical prayer are read seeking God’s revelation of “who we are” the texts come alive. There are “who” statements on every page. As a matter of fact, what appears to be “what” statements are really “who” statements. So, the Scriptures and the prayers can become quite burdensome because what we expect to hear is what we expect to hear, namely, performance criteria – what we should do to be good enough (or some variation of that).

    Read, for example, the account of the baptism and temptation of Jesus. Is it, primarily, a “what” account or a “who” account? I believe it is ALL about identity. Two statements stand out from each section:
    • “this is my beloved Son…”
    • “if you are the Son of God…”

    One is an affirmation of the identity of Jesus and the other is a challenge to the identity of Jesus.

    Another obvious example is the exchange between Jesus and His disciples at Caesarea Philippi. In that passage there is a twofold “who”: “Who do you say that I am?” AND “I say you are…”

    The Christian life is a journey of salvation in which we are coming to know “who” Jesus Christ is and receive the revelation of “who we are” in Christ Jesus. It is most definitely a struggle. It is a life long journey of revelation, adjustment, and integration – letting go of the false identity and cleaving to the truth identity. The evil one does not want us to know “who”. He wants us to exclusively focus on the moral question and never coming to know the most important thing, “who”.

    So, it all depends on the question you bring to your discipleship journey. If we are used to asking the moral “what” question then it may seem like coming to know “who” could never happen “in this life”. But, that is not the case. In fact, it is the opposite. “Who” is what God is speaking unceasingly. Do we have ears that are tuned to hear the “who” or just the “what” ? ?

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