“You are not your diagnosis.”
Have you heard this phrase? Commonly spoken to chronic illness warriors both in and outside the Christian community, it’s true. We are not defined by our illness. Our limitations. Our losses. Our physical changes.
On the converse, we’re not defined by our health either. Our abilities. Our talents. Our physical traits.
Identifying ourselves truthfully isn’t a struggle unique to the chronic illness community. But we face unique aspects of this struggle as our lives get turned upside down by forces, symptoms, and changes we can’t control–whether in a single, dashing blow or piece by piece over time.
When we lose so much of ourselves, it’s easy to question what remains–if anything remains–and wonder who we really are. Like firefighters responding to a scene, we pick through the wreckage, searching for survivors of the tragedy, anything of value left behind.
Have you felt like that? Are you there now, perhaps, digging through collapsed walls and charred beams left by the ravaging flames of chronic illness? You find that part of you, but it’s melted and twisted beyond recognition. You see that other part that used to be you, but now it’s burned too badly to be of any use. This other part over here is still intact, but it’s filthy and covered in ash, and you wonder if it’s worth the effort to clean and restore.
You stand knee-deep in rubble, nothing left, little to salvage, and cry to the smoke spiraling into the sky, Where am I?
Or maybe the deeper cry of your heart, echoing in the emptiness around you, is Who am I?
I’ve been there. I’ve watched the fire burn my body, my brain, my mind and my soul until it seemed like nothing could possibly be left. Stripped of ability after ability, dream after dream, until eventually even my passions, desires, and hopes drained away.
In Star Wars Anakin survives the flames of Mustafar as the bare minimum of a man, a barely-breathing torso given function again with mechanical arms and legs and a mask. I felt I didn’t even have that much left–nothing to attach fake limbs to or pump air into.
Job’s Identity: Before and After the Fire of Loss
Scripture gives us the portrait of a man who experienced a similar fire: the man named Job. Look at how his namesake book begins:
There was a man in the land of Uz, whose name was Job; and that man was blameless and upright, and one who feared God and shunned evil.Job 1:1
We know Job was an incredibly wealthy man, but interestingly, that’s not where his description starts. The narrator first shows us Job’s character: blameless and upright. The Spanish version (Reina Valera) uses the words “perfect” and “straight.” There was no deviation from God’s moral standard in Job’s life (what we call “perversion” or “perverted”), and his character was complete, not lacking anything to make him a godly man (the root idea of the word “perfect”).
What do we see next?
And seven sons and three daughters were born to him.Job 1:2
Job had not just a righteous character but also a large family. In this culture, seven was the number of perfection–surely a sign of God’s blessing on this man who faithfully served Him.
Then, last of all, comes verse three:
Also, his possessions were seven thousand sheep, three thousand camels, five hundred yoke of oxen, five hundred female donkeys, and a very large household, so that this man was the greatest of all the people of the East.
This would translate into “Oh, and he had a fleet of cars, tons of property, a massive staff, and a huge, thriving business with no shortage of tools, workers, expansion opportunities, and connections.”
Job had both character AND wealth. Literally, he had it all.
How does God describe him a few verses later?
Then the LORD said to Satan, “Have you considered My servant Job, that there is none like him on the earth, a blameless and upright man, one who fears God and shuns evil?”Job 1:8
We know how the story goes. God gives Satan permission to test Job, and in one single day Job loses everything but his wife and his health. In one instance (vs 16), it was a literal fire that swept through and burned–completely consumed–his goods and servants.
Everything that surrounded Job and gave him his renowned status in the land was now gone, reduced to ashes.
Let’s see how God describes him after these crippling losses:
Then the LORD said to Satan, “Have you considered My servant Job, that there is none like him on the earth, a blameless and upright man, one who fears God and shuns evil? And still he holds fast to his integrity, although you incited Me against him, to destroy him without cause.”Job 2:3
No, I didn’t copy and paste the earlier verse by accident. God uses the same words to describe Job after his losses as He did when Job had everything.
This tells me Job’s character was the same before and after the destruction of his material life. Whether a man who had everything or a man who had nothing, he was known as a faithful, righteous servant of God.
If anyone could have lost his identity, it was Job. He was no longer a businessman, no longer rich, no longer a shepherd, no longer a boss, no longer a father. And, soon after, no longer healthy or capable. In fact, he was barely a man at all anymore, hardly human, as demonstrated by the fact that his friends came to visit and because of his illness and suffering barely recognized him.
We see Job in deep mourning, asking deep questions out of deep pain that few of us can fathom. Yet in the darkness of these depths we also see Him worshiping God and clinging to Christ. And I believe what allowed him to raise his empty hands in worship and hold onto the promised Redeemer was the fact that he had his trust, his hope, and his identity in God.
He lost everything, but he kept his character, his identity, and his strength because of what these descriptions tell us: he was rooted not in his possessions, his abilities, or even his family but in God and God alone.
He was the tree planted by the rivers of waters (Ps 1:3, Jer 17:8) who didn’t fear the season of heat or stop yielding fruit in the year of drought. He was the house built on the rock (Matt 7:24-27) who didn’t budge when the rains fell and the winds blew and the floods swept through. He was the man who was hard-pressed but not crushed, perplexed but not in despair, persecuted but not forsaken, struck down but not destroyed (II Cor 4:8-9).
Satan literally threw his worst at him, flames upon flames of consuming, burning trial, but in his own words, Job came forth as gold (23:10, I Peter 1:6-7). Intact, not broken. Made purer, not dirtier. Refined, not destroyed. Because his identity was wrapped up in what can’t be lost or damaged and doesn’t perish (Matt 6:19-20).
Our Identity: In the Fire of Chronic Illness
Paul writes to the Corinthian church,
Now if anyone builds on this foundation with gold, silver, precious stones, wood, hay, straw, each one’s work will become clear; for the Day will declare it, because it will be revealed by fire; and the fire will test each one’s work, of what sort it is. If anyone’s work which he has built on it endures, he will receive a reward. If anyone’s work is burned, he will suffer loss; but he himself will be saved, yet so as through fire.I Corinthians 3:12-15
This passage has to do with our actions in this life, but I believe the principle applies to our identity as well: where we find ourselves, how we know ourselves, what we call ourselves (to ourselves and others). Where we find or place our value and our worth.
What’s interesting with humanity is that none of us has only one identity. We all carry multiple IDs in our wallets (or purses): sister, mother, daughter, friend, Christian, writer, teacher, musician, linguist, artist, and so on. If you can fill in the blank “I am ______,” that’s part of your identity.
And these identities are not bad. God gave them to us to be stewarded well for His glory and the furtherance of His Kingdom. The problem begins when any of these identities–or any other identity we take up or are given in chronic illness–takes first place over our identity in Christ.
We are, first and foremost, daughters of God (Jn 1:12), bought with the blood of Jesus (Eph 1:7) and forgiven of our sins (Col 1:14). We are a new creation (II Cor 5:17). We are “rooted and built up in [Christ]” (Col 2:7), His workmanship (Eph 2:10), chosen (Ro 8:29), and supremely, unfathomably loved (Ro 8:35-39).
This ought to be the first and biggest ID card we carry. After it, from it, and below it should come all our other identities, seen through the lens of this most important truth of who we are. We are complete in Christ and Christ alone (Col 2:10), and when our worth, our value, our personhood are grounded in Him, we will be secure no matter what happens.
Job had everything and a relationship with God. Then he had nothing but a relationship with God. Then God restored to him more than what he had before and Job ends the book the way he began it: having a relationship with God and everything.
I can’t help but wonder if part of why God has brought us into the valley of chronic illness is to lead us through our own version of Job’s journey: stripped of all else, all other identities, until we recognize how valuable, how essential, how elemental our relationship with God is–our identity in Him–so that when (if) He restores our lives to us we’ll have our identities in the right order.
Job’s losses crippled him emotionally, and Satan’s attacks crippled him physically. And though he lost his livelihood, his family, his reputation, and his health, he never lost himself, because his self was rooted in his God.
May we be like Job, who instead of searching for himself in the smoking ruins of his life knelt beside them, still mourning the tragedy, still grieving the loss, clutching the fire-proof safe that held pure gold.
What is your first identity, your ground-zero identity, the base-rock identity on which you build your life and the spring-fed ground from which you grow your worth? Are you placing your value in things (tangible or intangible) that will burn and leave you empty-handed? Or in the One who fills your heart and hands even as He holds you in His?