If someone asked you “Who are you?” and you had to answer without taking time to think about it, what would you say? The chances are good that you would define yourself in one of two ways: through your relationships or through your work.
By and large, the church has been good about teaching us to avoid the latter error, reminding us frequently that we’re more than what we do for a living. This is a much-needed reminder (especially for those of us who live in places like the Washington, DC, area, where, according to the secular mindset, what you do for a living is everything).
But when it comes to defining ourselves through our relationships . . . that’s a different story. This is the kind of error that today’s church is all too prone to let us get away with, or even encourage.
And this error creeps into our thinking in the most insidious ways, coloring everything we look at or think about. Here are just a few examples I’ve seen in recent months:
- A woman’s name is dragged into a political scandal, and people protest, “Leave her alone, she’s a wife and mother!” And the single, childless woman following all this thinks, What if she weren’t? Would she still be worth defending?
- An anti-porn speaker asks men to consider the fact that a given woman in a pornographic video is someone’s daughter or sister, and some think, But what if she weren’t? Does she have value without any of those relationships?
- We hear of a man who died in an accident or of a terrible disease, and then we’re told that the worst part is that he left a wife and children. But what if he hadn’t? Would that make his suffering and death somehow more acceptable?
This is an extremely tricky minefield to navigate. For one thing, it’s natural to concentrate on how others may be suffering because of their loved one’s trauma or absence — most if not all of us have been through such suffering before and can easily relate to it and sympathize with it in others. And it’s especially hard to think of children suffering such a permanent and traumatic loss. For another thing, because our relationships are so vital and valuable, so integral to our lives, we can hardly think of ourselves or others apart from them.
And that is not a bad thing in itself. It’s our very nature to live in relationship to one another and to God; it’s how we were created. So as I’ve stressed throughout this book, community matters, especially to Christians. We need it to thrive. And because we’re all so familiar with that need, we often end up seeing everyone and everything through that particular lens.
The problem starts when we make the leap, as many of us all too easily do, to believing that our identity lies in those relationships. That’s what leads us to place more value on those who have more and better relationships and less on those who haven’t had the opportunity to form as many. And as for those who once had them, such as the divorced — well, as Christian divorcée Dena Johnson writes, “It seems as if people everywhere want you to wear a large, scarlet letter ‘D’ around your neck. . . . You are often scorned by the church because of your past.”
All this draws us away from the truth that our real identity is found in God, our Creator and Redeemer. This is the ultimate relationship we were created for, the relationship that is accessible to everyone who places his or her faith in Christ.
This is, at least in part, what pastors mean when they say, “The ground is level at the foot of the cross.” Before Christ, the differences that keep us apart fall away. That doesn’t mean they don’t exist or don’t matter but it does mean they don’t have to divide us. We can reach past them to accept, support, and love each other. As Paul unforgettably wrote, “There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free, there is neither male nor female; for you are all one in Christ Jesus” (Gal. 3:28).
If we keep our focus on this truth, we can learn to readjust our thinking. With that readjustment would come some important changes in the way we in the church view each other, and consequently in the way we treat each other. Doubtless it would take some time and there would be bumps along the way, as there are in most worthwhile endeavors.
But with divine guidance and grace, the result could be a truly unified, truly functioning body of Christ — as opposed to a body that’s not working right because there are a bunch of leftover parts sitting around that no one knew what to do with. Okay, my metaphor is a little strained, but you get the idea. When we know who a person truly is — a beloved creation of God, bearing His image — other parts of his or her identity are less likely to get in the way of a loving relationship with that person. And that ultimately leads to a church where single people feel welcomed and cared for, not inferior or invisible.
Book cover image copyright Baker Books. Illustration designed by Heidi Allums. Excerpt taken from “One by One: Welcoming the Singles in Your Church” by Gina Dalfonzo (Baker Books, 2017). Used with permission.