When I lived in Berlin, Germany an appointment was arranged for me to meet an elderly man at a café in Potsdamer Platz. Potsdamer Platz is an iconic area in the city of Berlin that was devastated during World War II and was then occupied by Communist East Germany throughout the Cold War. Today, it has been rebuilt and is one of the most urbane and architecturally beautiful areas in the world.
The man I was to meet was unique. Prior to World War II he was a child growing up in the nation of Germany before the Nazism of Hitler had fully arrived. When Hitler took power he became one of the Hitler Youth that were the paramilitary corps of young boys and girls from which Hitler would source his Nazi war machine. When the war was over this man lived behind the Berlin Wall in East Berlin where he came under the strong hand of Communist rule in the gray and drab colors of godless Communism. As we sat at our café table he was now living in a free and democratic Germany in a wall-less Berlin. He had lived within four very different identities as a German citizen.
As the two of us sat there in Potsdamer Platz we sipped our espresso and exchanged small talk. A mutual friend who was one of the correspondence secretaries for the first President Bush arranged our meeting. After about an hour of conversation this dear man made a comment I will never forget. He said, “At this age I am not sure who I am. I began my life as a German. Then I became part of the Nazi Youth Movement. Then I was forced to become a Communist and now I live in a unified and democratic Germany. Who am I?”
In the years that have transpired since that meeting in Berlin, I have come to understand this man’s confusion over his identity. The reason I understand his confusion about identity is this - not a week goes by when I don’t struggle with mine. I also see others in this same struggle.
Each of us needs to possess an identity that will move with us through all the changes we experience in this life. That identity cannot come from this world – it must come from the greater and more stable reality of eternity. The identity of a follower of Christ is not gained by an education, professional accomplishments or by doing a lot of right things. This is what Peter wrote in I Peter 2:9 when he said, “You are a chosen generation, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, His own special people.” God had to make his people into what Peter wrote about. God chose our identity for us.
When Paul wrote his letter to the church in Ephesus he said that we are seated with Christ in heaven. This is not some future position, it is current and now. It is not something we gain by our own efforts. This position, and its resulting identity, is a gift from God to us the moment we came into relationship with God through Jesus Christ.
For a believer in Christ we are new creations of God. The “new” is so radical that the new person God created in Christ has never been seen before. Our identity appeared for the first time on earth the day we said “yes” to the offer of salvation in Christ.
We have been reborn as saints, no longer “sinners saved by grace.” This new identity is in us and before us, not behind us. God had to make us saints. We couldn’t do enough right things to gain this label. It is a gift of God’s grace. We are also realistic saints who have come to understand that we can still sin. But something has profoundly changed. Our default setting is no longer set on sin, but rather, upon a new identity in Christ that is free from sin. We take captive every thought that raises itself up in an attempt to rob us of who God has declared us to be.
Our new nature is far more powerful and transforming than the old one that still lies to us and tries to motivate us through shame. Our new identity is eternally secure and not diminished by whatever we go through on this side of heaven. That knowledge gives us the peace to endure the labels placed upon us by changing culture, politics or the personal failures that cross our paths in the journey of life.
Over the years I lost contact with the old German man I met in Berlin. I am guessing he has passed away. He provided me with a real desire to know who I am independent from the capricious circumstances of this life. Once we know who we are in Christ we can endure the upheaval and change that so often visits each life. We can also endure those foolish moments where we are tempted to believe the lie that says if we can just get it all right that God will love us more.