Who we are becoming is more important than what we are doing.
This statement has been part of my spiritual formation for the last five years, and yet it is antithetical to the values of the culture and country in which I live. An aspect of the American dream is to pull yourself up from nothing to make something of yourself. Unfortunately, that noble rags-to-riches quest has become a stamp of identity.
For many of us, our identity is found in what we can do, provide, give, and improve. Who are we if not a successful businessperson, parent, grandparent, or student? In my 15 years of ministry, I’ve found that people discover who they are when those self-identifying labels are removed because of a painful job loss, divorce, rebellious child, or another difficult circumstance. We are not the total of the labels we acquire over a lifetime. There is a reason we are called human beings and not human doings.
Joseph of Arimathea no doubt learned this life-changing truth as the Easter narrative unfolded.
A secret follower
We don’t know much about Joseph, but what little we know matters. He grew up in Arimathea, about 20 miles north of Jerusalem. Scripture describes Joseph as good, moral, and a nobleman, from which we can assume he was mature and had good parents. Joseph was someone your sons and daughters probably would respect and admire. The Gospel writers even tell us Joseph was a follower of Jesus . . . but there was tension in Joseph’s spirit.
All four Gospel writers shared information about Joseph’s role in assuming responsibility for Jesus’ burial. John said Nicodemus, whom Jesus encountered in John 3, was also with Joseph.
Luke provided hints as to the tension in this story. Joseph was a member of the Sanhedrin. John 19:38 says Joseph was a follower of Jesus but kept that a secret because he feared the Jews.
Through these texts, we can infer that being a follower of Jesus and having a seat on the Sanhedrin caused Joseph to be fearful. The Jews did not believe Jesus was the Son of God. The Sanhedrin council could not accept that Jesus was God in the flesh and they did not believe in the Trinity. God would never become human; they did not believe God would put himself in such a lowly position. To them, flesh and bones are reserved for finite creatures. Skin is wrapped around people who have time limits, hidden agendas, and buried secrets. Bones are supported by the drive to make these ambitions come true.
Joseph likely loved what he did for a living. He probably was proud to have been born in a small town and moved to the big city outside of Jerusalem. He would have been the pride of his parents’ conversations back home. Surely, his family could not wait to hear the stories he would tell them every time he returned home.
Though he enjoyed his job, Joseph didn’t think Jesus should have been crucified for the claims he made. The Gospel writers tell us Joseph kept his allegiance to Jesus hidden.
What if the council finds out I am a Jesus follower?
What if I lose my job or—even worse—they crucify me?
What if I have to move back home and need to explain to my Jewish family that following Jesus cost me my job and my livelihood?
Joseph had allowed his job, titles, and labels to form his identity. He feared all these things might be stripped away if he were more vocal about his faith in Jesus. Fear was hindering his spiritual formation. Joseph believed, “I am what I do.”
What Was he thinking?
The Gospel writers tell us Joseph approached Pilate boldly. Boldness can sometimes be confidence mixed with fear. Joseph and Nicodemus wanted to take Jesus down from the cross because the sun would set shortly and Passover would begin. Deuteronomy 21:23 lingered in the backs of their minds. They didn’t want Jesus to be cursed for hanging on a cross after nightfall.
Joseph was wealthy and likely hired others to help remove Jesus’ body from the cross and prepare him for burial. Nicodemus helped alongside Joseph and his team.
Joseph secretly loved and cherished Jesus, but not enough to vocalize it. What possibly was going through Joseph’s mind as he and his team wrapped Jesus’ feet, hands and arms, torso, and then his thorn-pierced head? What memories of his time with Jesus were evoked in his mind?
Who am i?
As a pastor, I can identity with the story of Joseph. Pastors are often described in the same manner as Joseph. They are thought to be kind, noble, and persons of integrity. Pastors often think about their ministry the way Joseph thought about his role as a disciple of Jesus. What if everything is stripped away from me? What if my secrets are exposed? What happens if I share some of the things I’m struggling with theologically?
The greatest gift God can give pastors is the same gift he gave Joseph—the knowledge that, even if everything were stripped away, we discover (or have comfort) that we are not our jobs, and our jobs are not our identity.
When I started out in ministry, I was eager to work hard and prove myself. I thought I had buried my false self and that no one knew what was going on inside of my spirit.
However, I never considered that my false self would have a life of its own.
Shortly after beginning my ministry, everything false and secretive came up for air. In the words of one of my college professors, I was “bad film”: I was overexposed to the Bible . . . yet underdeveloped by it.
I did not know who I was if I were not a pastor. God did a beautiful thing in my life. He removed me from ministry for a brief season. During that season I discovered, through people who came alongside me, that I was not my job. My identity was never in jeopardy.
Those months were difficult, but they were transformative. One of the greatest joys I have now is helping younger pastors avoid the temptation of believing that God’s love for them is dependent upon the number of people who attend their church, the sermons they preach, or the people they lead.
Our True Identity
It would be easy to make an example out of Joseph and Nicodemus. I don’t know that I am that different from these men. I have allowed labels, titles, and accolades to shape my identity. All of these are great things to hide behind.
We have made “being a good person” and “making something of ourselves” to be the safes in which we lock away our most cherished and prized discovery—a life-changing relationship with Jesus. It was not necessarily a sin that kept Joseph away from Jesus. Although Jesus does tell us if we do not acknowledge him, he will not acknowledge us.
The labels, titles, and positions we use to describe ourselves are what we do. They are not who we are. Our truest reality is that we are the beloved sons and daughters of God. If that fact costs us our job, salary, friends, or family, then let it be so. Joseph was loved before he left Arimathea to make his way toward Jerusalem, and we were loved before we ever started doing ministry.
The one who left Heaven to make his way to Jerusalem is forming you and shaping you through his death, burial, and resurrection. May you, this Easter, discover that who you are becoming is more important than what you are doing.