Who am I?

Frank Lake’s dynamic cycle

In these days when Covid-19 continues to disrupt all manner of missionary activity, along with all the practical challenges which many cross-cultural workers are having to come to grips with, there are also some very deep existential questions about the nature of their life and ministry which are lurking in the background.

“Can I really call myself a mission worker when I’ve been living in my sending country for the last six months?”

“If I’m called to do something I can’t actually do at the moment, what is the nature of my calling?”

“How can I plan things when I don’t know what is going to happen?”

Today we’re starting a series of blogs which will help us address these issues and regain confidence in our identity and calling in the midst of uncertainty and disorientation.

We’re going to start with identity.  For many western Christians, what we do is paramount in establishing identity.  We get to know strangers by asking what they do.  We make knee-jerk assumptions about them based on the answers – about their social class, intelligence, voting intentions, economic status – even though we know we shouldn’t, and we may well decide whether they are worthy of our interest on that basis.  I myself once suffered the indignity of somebody just turning and walking away without a word when I answered “I’m unemployed”!

Perhaps some of us are ‘unemployed’ right now, in the sense that we’re not doing.  And that can be a very vulnerable place.  So who are we when we’re not doing?  For activists, as most of us are, this is particularly hard.  If you’re a Mary, you can be quite content doing nothing, sitting with Jesus, but Martha needs to be busy.

Here then, is a list of some of the things we are even when we’re doing nothing:

  • Salt and light (Matthew 5:13-14)
  • A child of God (John 1:12)
  • A branch of God’s vine (John 15:1)
  • A friend of Jesus (John 15:15)
  • A slave of righteousness (Romans 6:18)
  • A co-heir with Christ (Romans 8:17)
  • God’s temple (1 Corinthians 3:16)
  • A member of Christ’s body (1 Corinthians 12:27
  • A new creation (2 Corinthians 5:17)
  • A minister for reconciliation (2 Corinthians 5:17)
  • God’s co-worker (2 Corinthians 6:1)
  • A saint (Ephesians 1:1)
  • God’s craftsmanship (Ephesians 2:10)
  • A citizen of heaven (Philippians 3:20)
  • A living stone (1 Peter 2:5)
  • Part of a chosen people, a royal priesthood (1 Peter 2:9)
  • An alien and stranger on this planet (1 Peter 2:11)

 

You can probably think of more!  If you meditate on just one of those, and what it means, every time you’re prompted to wonder who you are, you will re-establish your identity quickly.  OK, I don’t advise you to introduce yourself to people as ‘God’s temple’ unless you want to be instantly labelled a religious nutter, but these are who we really are.

But all those things we are cannot be achieved through our own effort or godliness; they are a free gift of God’s grace.  They are not a reward for good performance.  We have referred before to the ground-breaking work of Frank Lake in this respect.  He observed that our identity is founded on the fact that God accepts us unconditionally.  This by his grace enables us to be significant in Him.  From our position of significance we are equipped to go and do things with God, and the harvest we reap points us back to the grace of God who accepted us in the first place.

Lake observed that in most Christians this cycle flows the wrong way round: we achieve in order to be significant, so that we can be accepted.  And if you doubt that is true, ask yourself how significant and accepted you feel when you stop achieving!  If your self-esteem is currently low, it may be because your dynamic cycle is flowing the wrong way round and your lack of achievement is having a negative impact on your wellbeing.

If this is the case, the remedy is simple – look to the cross!  Remember that no matter how hard you work you cannot repay Christ.  Receive gratefully his acceptance of you, acknowledge the truth about your totally-unmerited significance, and do what work you can in a spirit of thanksgiving.

 

Other blogs in this series on identity:

Episode 2: What do I do?

Episode 3: What is my calling?

 

Hard at work?

Frank Lake’s dynamic cycle

In our recent mini-series exploring the impact on mission of the Protestant Work Ethic (PWE), we’ve considered why mission workers can be tempted to drive themselves to overwork, and how the PWE can affect our prayer life and how we interpret the Parable of the TalentsToday we’re going to look at another way in which mission workers can put themselves under unnecessary pressure to deliver results – overwork.

Some years ago we here at Syzygy realised that many mission workers are overworked, not merely because there are not enough resources, people or money, but because there’s an extent to which they choose to be, at least subconsciously.  Our studies led us to believe that there is often something in their background, probably in their childhood, which is driving them on to deliver results.  Perhaps it was a parent who continually demanded excellence, a teacher who was never satisfied with the effort made, a performance-fixated church leader or some other person who regularly said something like “You’ll never achieve anything!”

Learned behaviour in childhood is notoriously hard to unlearn as an adult, and even a Christian who is absolutely convinced of the unconditional love of God may still exhibit behaviours which were originally adopted to appease the demanding authority figure, because they’ve never been openly challenged.  We see this effect quite frequently in mission workers: although the original person who gave rise to that behaviour may have been dead for years, the victim is still trying to prove them wrong.  And those responses subconsciously affect their work for God – they’re trying to achieve in order to earn approval.  Unaddressed, this situation can lead to significant stress, burnout, and possibly even mission workers leaving the field.

In the 1950s a Christian psychologist called Frank Lake came up with a model to explain this.  We’ve adapted it somewhat to make it a little more accessible and we call it The Dynamic Triangle.  It’s very simple.  It starts with the assumption that we are accepted, in Christ, by God.  God loves us and cares for us.  From that flows our identity in Christ: we are children of God; friends of God; co-workers with God.  That awareness creates a security out of which we can achieve things for God.  Our achievement underlines the fact that we are already accepted.

Frank Lake observed that in many cases, the triangle flows anti-clockwise.  Building on our learned childhood behaviour, we try to achieve something in order that we can establish our identity.  Our identity in turn reassures us that we are accepted.  Though we may not intellectually agree with the proposition that God loves us because we achieve things for him, that’s what our behaviour shows.  So we drive ourselves harder and harder to achieve more and more so that we can feel secure in God’s love… even though we say we don’t have to!  And because our sense of security and identity is dependent on our performance, we drive ourselves hard in order to demonstrate our salvation.

Behaviour which conflicts with beliefs can lead to significant inner tension and can play a key part in mission workers burning out.  Syzygy runs a day workshop to help mission workers, agencies and member care workers understand this dynamic.  For more information see our page Why do we Choose to be Stressed?

So why, if God loves us unconditionally, do we do any work at all for God when we clearly don’t have to?

Healthy, well-adjusted children are motivated by their supportive and accepting relationship with their parents and know they do not have to achieve to earn it.  But they want to be with their parents.  They often copy what their parents do, and adopt the same mannerisms and expressions.  We too, have the same opportunity: to be with God, to start to become like God, and to see what God is doing and want to join in.

That is why we do mission.  We’re not trying to earn God’s love, we’re trying to express it.  We follow the model of Jesus, who said and did what the Father did (John 5:19-20, 8:28).