By Vince Antonucci
Researchers tell us our identity drives our behavior.
We think we make decisions based on a rational analysis of pros and cons. But far more often we make choices based on what James March called the “identity model.” March, a Stanford University professor who died in 2018, said when making a decision we essentially (and mostly subconsciously) ask ourselves three questions:
Who am I?
What kind of situation is this?
What would someone like me do in this situation?
What you do is determined by what you think of yourself.
Growing up, I was quickly and consistently told who I was. My father informed me I was no good, could do nothing good, and would never be good enough. He told me often that I was stupid and worthless.
So I acted like it. I was careful not to get close to anyone, didn’t study or try for good grades, got in trouble in school, and had police show up at my house.
John Knew Who He Was, Until He Didn’t
John knew who he was.
John was the son of Zebedee and brother of James. John and James were fisherman with a reputation. In fact, their reputation was so well deserved and so well known, they actually had been given a name that described it. People called them the “sons of thunder.”
You don’t get that nickname by being president of the ladies’ tea society. These were the kinds of guys who ride around on Harleys and get in bar fights. You can picture them coming into town with “Sons of Thunder” face tattoos.
So, can you imagine how shocking it must have been when Jesus chose twelve men to be his disciples, and two of the twelve were John and James? Turns out, Jesus does not look for prim, proper, perfect people. He’s willing to choose raw, rough, and rugged guys with bad reputations.
Because Jesus chose them as his disciples, we get to see a lot of these guys in the Bible. One time, Jesus and the twelve came to a town that didn’t receive them very well. John and James went up to Jesus and said, “Let’s call fire down from heaven and destroy these people. Let’s burn ’em up!”
But, when you are a “son of thunder,” that’s how you respond to rejection. That’s how John thought of himself; that’s what he was called, and so that’s how he acted.
Then something happened to John. Jesus happened to John. They started spending time together, day after day after day for about three years. Jesus gave John a different way to think about life, but more importantly, Jesus gave John a different way to think about himself. Jesus had chosen him. Jesus loved him.
Then came the day Jesus went to the cross. It was a surprising and senseless tragedy to many, but John knew Jesus had said this would happen. This was not a mistake; it was part of a plan. This wasn’t done to Jesus; it was a choice he had made.
The Bible says, “This is how we know what love is: Jesus Christ laid down his life for us” (1 John 3:16). We read it, but John saw it and experienced it firsthand. He was at the cross when it happened. John knew it was love, not nails, that kept Jesus on the cross. John knew that Jesus was doing it for him.
John couldn’t think of himself as a “son of thunder” anymore. He couldn’t even think of himself as John. He was too overwhelmed by love.
How do we know? Because John started calling himself by a different name. Look at just two instances of what John wrote about himself:
“When Jesus saw his mother there, and the disciple whom he loved standing nearby, he said to her, ‘Woman, here is your son,’ and to the disciple, ‘Here is your mother.’ From that time on, this disciple took her into his home” (John 19:26, 27).
“Then the disciple whom Jesus loved said to Peter, ‘It is the Lord!'” (John 21:7).
He was no longer John the fisherman. No longer a “son of thunder.” He was “the one Jesus loves.”
The first verse happened at the cross, when Jesus’ identity-changing love for John was emblazoned on him forever. The second happened after Jesus rose from the grave, when John more fully understood Jesus’ identity and started to live in Jesus’ conquering, resurrecting power.
John also wrote 1 John, a Bible book that is only about two pages long but includes the word love more than 30 times! Here are a few examples:
- “Anyone who loves their brother and sister lives in the light” (1 John 2:10).
- “See what great love the Father has lavished on us” (3:1).
- “We know that we have passed from death to life, because we love each other” (3:14).
- “Dear children, let us not love with words or speech but with actions and in truth” (3:18).
- “Dear friends, let us love one another, for love comes from God” (4:7).
- “Whoever does not love does not know God, because God is love” (4:8).
What happened to the “son of thunder”? That’s not who John was anymore. He now had a new identity. In fact, over the years, people started calling John by a new nickname, “the apostle of love.” That’s who he was: the one Jesus loved.
I Knew Who I Was, Until I Didn’t
I grew up never going to church and not knowing anything about Jesus. When I first heard about Jesus, I assumed he was a tall tale like Paul Bunyan. Out of curiosity, I started checking out the Bible. To my surprise, the events were set in a time and place. I realized that meant I could probably prove if they actually did or did not happen. I started studying to find out. The obvious place to start was the resurrection. If Jesus truly rose from the dead, there would be confirming evidence.
I was shocked. I kept investigating. I uncovered more evidence. I investigated some more. Eventually, I was convinced. I put my faith in Jesus.
I started spending time with Jesus, day after day after day. And like John, something happened to me. Jesus gave me a different way to think about life, but more importantly, Jesus gave me a different way to think about myself. Jesus made me realize I am not who my father said I was; I am who Jesus says I am.
I am not unlovable. I am the one Jesus loves.
In fact, two years ago I got a tattoo . . . while I preached a sermon. I decided I wanted to tattoo my true identity onto me, so I would never forget. My tattoo says, “The one Jesus loves.”
Vince Antonucci serves as lead pastor at Verve, “a church for people who don’t like church,” in Las Vegas. He is the author of I Became a Christian and All I Got Was This Lousy T-Shirt, Guerrilla Lovers, Renegade: Your Faith Isn’t Meant to Be Safe, and God for the Rest of Us.