The Christian journey of Lent is upon us. Lent commemorates Jesus’ journey into the wilderness. After his baptism, where Jesus heard the voice of God say to him, “This is my Son, the Beloved, with whom I am well pleased,” Jesus was led by the Spirit into the wilderness. After 40 days of fasting, he was tempted by the devil.
In good mimetic fashion, Jesus had received his true identity from God at his baptism. As radically relational creatures, mimetic theory claims that we receive our identity in relationship with others. If you were to ask me to identify myself, I would respond by referring to my relationships — I am a husband, a father, a son, a friend. Even when we identify ourselves by what we “do for a living,” relationships are implied. An accountant, for example, helps people allocate their financial resources. Our very identity as humans, and everything we do, is dependent upon our relationships with others.
I hope that mimetic theory’s emphasis on human relationality seems obvious, but it actually runs against the modern grain. René Descartes gave the impetus for the modern world with his statement “I think, therefore I am.” But that statement is false. You don’t exist because you think for yourself. You exist because you are related to others.
Jesus received his identity as the Son of God from his relationship with his heavenly Father, but in the wilderness he was tempted to doubt that relationship. The story tells us that “The tempter came and said to him, ‘If you are the Son of God, command these stones to become loaves of bread.’”
If. It’s such a small word, but don’t be fooled by its size. If is loaded with significance. The devil tempted Jesus three times. Each time the devil used the word “if.” And each time the devil tried to seduce Jesus into doubting his identity as God’s Son.
Lent and Identity
“Who are you?”
That’s the identity question the devil used to tempt Jesus, and it’s the question Lent poses to us. The answer involves our relationships. Human identity is always formed in relationships. But here’s the important point: we can take responsibility to choose our relationships.
When confronted with the temptation to doubt his God given identity as his Father’s Son, Jesus kept his faith by emphasizing his relationship with his Father.
In his book, Life of the Beloved, Henri Nouwen states that the words God gave to Jesus at his baptism are the same words God gives to everyone. “[T]he words, ‘You are my Beloved’ revealed the most intimate truth about all human beings, whether they belong to any particular tradition or not.”
God’s voice comes to everyone and declares that we are all God’s Beloved children. That’s a beautiful insight, but Nouwen also knew that, like Jesus, we hear other voices that tempt to doubt our relationship with God. Nouwen wrote:
Yes, there is that voice, the voice that speaks from above and from within and that whispers softly or declares loudly: “You are my Beloved, on you my favor rests.” It certainly is not easy to hear that voice in a world filled with voices that shout: “You are no good, you are ugly; you are worthless; you are despicable, you are nobody – unless you can demonstrate the opposite.
We all hear those voices in our heads. Like they did with Jesus, those voices tempt us into doubting our relationship with the God who loves us unconditionally. They tempt us into relationships that are based on proving ourselves worthy of love.
Relaxing into Lent
Don’t believe those voices. Nothing is more un-Christian than having to prove we are worthy of being loved.
Instead, believe God’s voice that says, “You are my beloved.” The journey of Lent leads us to the truth that we are already loved. Lent isn’t primarily about giving stuff up. Only give stuff up during Lent if it helps lead you to the truth that you are loved just as you are. The worst thing we can do during Lent is to be tempted to earn God’s favor through self-denial. The Christian journey isn’t about trying to be good enough to earn God’s favor. The Christian journey, including the Lenten journey, is about relaxing into the truth that God only relates to us like a parent who unconditionally loves her child. As theologian James Alison says, the Christian journey is about relaxing “into the realization that being good or bad is not what it’s about. It’s about being loved.”
Adam Ericksen blogs at the Raven Foundation, where he uses mimetic theory to provide social commentary on religion, politics, and pop culture. Follow Adam on Twitter @adamericksen.