Whom Do You Serve?

The Temptations of Christ, 12th-century mosaic at St. Mark’s Basilica, Venice

The world tells us that our identity is always in flux and applauds those celebrities that “reinvent” themselves to achieve greater success. Someone who is “evolving” into whatever is touted to be accepted modes of thought and behavior can expect to be embraced by her peers in the workplace and rewarded by society.

But is this relativized approach to identity of ultimate benefit? Even humanists can see the pitfalls involved for the individual. As Jung put it, “The world asks you every day who you are, and if you don’t know, it will tell you who you are.” One of the most famous maxims the ancient Greeks gave us is “Know thyself.”

But is who you are rooted in an absolute ideal? Or is identity fluid and ephemeral? Christians, of course, believe that our identity is fixed. We believe all individuals have been created in the image of God. Whatever may be our personality, talents, and idiosyncrasies,  we aspire to be the individual God created us to be. And our model of desire, to use the philosopher Rene Girard’s phrase, is Christ Himself. Thus St. Paul writes, “Do not conform to the pattern of this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind” (Rom. 12:2). The pattern we are to conform to is wholly antithetical to the world’s pattern which defaces the image of God in us and should be solely based on God’s pattern, a pattern that bears the stamp of His image.

Interestingly enough, it’s our “model of desire,” one whom we pattern ourselves after, that determines who we are. This model of desire is who we serve by our day to day goals, thoughts and actions. As Bob Dylan puts it in “Gotta Serve Somebody,”

You may be an ambassador
To England or France
You might like to gamble
You might like to dance
You may be the heavyweight
Champion of the world
You might be a socialite
With a long string of pearls

But you’re gonna have to serve somebody
Yes indeed, you’re gonna have to serve somebody
Well it may be the Devil
Or it may be the Lord
But you’re gonna have to serve somebody

Might be a Rock-n-roll addict
Prancing on the stage
Money, Drugs at your command
Women in a cage
You may be a businessman
Or some high degree thief
They may call you doctor
Or they may call you chief

But you’re gonna have to serve somebody
Yes you are, you’re gonna have to serve somebody
Well it may be the Devil
Or it may be the Lord
But you’re gonna have to serve somebody

Our combatants in this struggle to establish our identity are the world, the flesh (our fallen nature), and the devil. They have a lot of alternatives to thrust upon us other than the identity God gave us. Remember, that if you don’t know who you are, the world/flesh/devil stand ready to tell you and they (consequently, their desires) become the ultimate master you serve.

This is the bedrock of the human condition. When the Son of God became incarnate flesh, he came head to head with the temptation to abandon his true identity. He had just experienced the baptism at the Jordan River when the heavens opened and He heard his heavenly Father say, “This is my beloved Son in whom I am well pleased,” and had been anointed by the Holy Spirit. But hard on the heels of that glorious affirmation, when He was driven into the wilderness and was weak with fasting, the devil comes to him and begins to tempt him with desires which would put Him in opposition to His Father’s will. Satan prefaces two of these three temptations with “If you are the Son of God …..”

Satan attacks his identity by focusing on the natural or worldly desires that would cause Him to abandon that identity. If Christ had not supplanted his own desires with submission to His Father’s desires or will, all three temptations would have led Him to serve not God but the devil. Christ Jesus not only resisted but rebuked the devil. And following His pattern, so should we who are bought by His blood and have been delivered from Satan’s empire of lies into the kingdom of light, the truth that has set us free.

Jesus must be the model of our desire. Or as St. Paul in Philippians puts it, we must be His “slaves” to realize our true identity in Him, the true pattern and image of God and indeed the Master of the Universe. Because every day, the world, the flesh and the Devil ask us who we are. And if we don’t have an answer, they will become our master.

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