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My 16-month-old granddaughter, Luna, is going through a phase in which she’s fixated with belly buttons. She toddles up, lifts her shirt slightly, points to her belly button and blurts out “beyee butt!” Then she points to my navel and wants to see my belly button. It’s a sweet little game we play.
It’s also given me a rather profound Lenten practice. Taking my cue from an exercise college professor Kelly Kapic assigns his students, Luna has helped me pay attention to my belly button in these weeks leading up to Easter. It may sound weird, but Kapic insists that this exercise helps students, especially during times of tension with one’s parents and wrestling with identity, resist the temptation of Western culture to imagine that we are self-made people. “Nothing is quite as ontologically revealing as your belly button.” It reminds us that we are creatures, that we have a history, and that all of life is gift.
This practice of noticing my belly button has helped me be mindful of my own finitude and limits. It’s just one of the treasures I’ve received from Kapic’s outstanding new book You’re Only Human: How Your Limits Reflect God’s Design and Why That’s Good News (Brazo Press, 2022). I’m reading it in tandem with another book, You Are Not Your Own: Belonging to God in an Inhuman World by Alan Noble (IVP, 2021).
These two books go well together and have been such a gift to me. Kapic, a theologian, and Noble, a philosopher, do a masterful job exploring a robust Christian anthropology. What does it mean to be truly human? And how can we flourish by embracing our creaturely limits instead of denying or trying to transcend them?
Both authors confront problems with the modern conception of “the self,” which is primarily self-generated and all about autonomy. We ask: Who am I and what gives my life meaning? The modern understanding of identity answers: Look inside yourself and create who you want to be. You make yourself. You belong to yourself.
But as Noble points out, identity inherently requires a witness. You need someone outside of yourself who can give witness to your identity. The heavy burden of defining yourself (as an autonomous being) is that you still need others to affirm it for it to be valid. That’s why we get so upset when others don’t affirm who we project ourselves to be. So we hustle and strive and work even harder for affirmation and approval. It’s exhausting, this non-stop treadmill of trying to justify ourselves.
But Scripture tells a different story. It tells us that identity is not purely self-generated. We are not autonomous, and ultimately our truest identity is not something we discover or create but it is given. And we do have a witness–the only witness “faithful and true” (Rev. 3:17)! The triune God who created us, who redeems us, and who marks us as his own in the waters of baptism. What is most true about us is not what others affirm or what we make of our lives but what God says about us.
Our truest identity is given as a gift of grace, and we can only know ourselves in relationship to others. “The liberated self is always necessarily a self-in-relation,” says Kapic. A self-in-relation to others and a social context, yes. But ultimately a self-in-relation to the living God—union with Christ by the Spirit. While we have seasons where our identity may feel fluid to us and we struggle with who we are and what we’re supposed to do with our lives, our identity before God in Christ is the constant. In the words of the great catechism: “I am not my own but belong—in body and soul, in life and in death—to my faithful Savior Jesus Christ.”
And this is where Kapic and Noble offer a kind of wisdom that is refreshing my soul this Lenten season. Maybe it’s ok that I’m hitting midlife and I don’t feel like I have myself all figured out yet. Maybe I don’t have to fully know myself. In fact, none of us can! But God knows me, loves me, and calls me his very own. I belong to Christ. And I can rest in the comfort and confidence that even when I don’t know who I am, with all my swirling insecurities and contradictions, God knows me fully and completely. And that’s enough.
My belly button reminds me of this. I am dust and to dust I shall return. All of life is gift. I’m only human, and I have limits. I can only truly know myself in community—with God and others. And most of all, to borrow from John Calvin, the Holy Spirit is the umbilical cord who unites me to the One Witness, faithful and true, who calls me “Beloved.”
Who am I? They mock me, these lonely questions of mine.
Whoever I am, Thou knowest, O God, I am thine!
– Dietrich Bonhoeffer