Don’t miss Part 1 of our interview with Jo Saxton, author of The Dream of You: Let Go of Broken Identities and Live the Life You Were Made For. The book guides readers on a journey toward overcoming the false identity the world has given them and embracing the one God meant for them instead. In Part 1, Saxton talked about how the church has helped her overcome some of her personal identity struggles—specifically around race, ethnicity and gender—and how it can reach people today. Here, she discusses some of the identity issues common in both leaders and the people in the pews, how the church can initiate healing and the possibilities for the world if this were truly lived out.
What should be a leader’s role in helping people discover their God-given identities, not the ones the world has tried to give them?
We’ve got to lead from the inside out. The big choices our leaders are making are coming out of their own sense of identity and their own sense of calling. We need to ask ourselves where we are in our sense of God-given identity. Are we living into it fully? Are we defined by our past? What do we do with the broken pieces of our lives? It’s hard to lead anybody into a place we haven’t been, particularly into a place we’re not prepared to go.
In setting the tone of the culture, we can set a level of expectation. Are people allowed to talk about their broken story? Sometimes we like a broken story if it’s tidied up at the end. And I would encourage us to think about stigmatized topics. Are we allowed to talk about mental or emotional health or broken families—or are those taboo subjects? Because if they are, then people, out of fear or shame, may hide and not acknowledge those broken pieces.
We need to help people recognize that there’s a journey of restoration and redemption. It’s not just a time of self-actualization where it’s like, “Oh, now I feel nice about myself.” As we renew our identity, we give rise to our purpose as well. Then we cannot just know God, but we feel compelled to represent him in the world, because whole people help other people become whole. We have massive opportunity in this: in our speaking, in our discipling of others, in our mentoring, in the kinds of topics we preach about or discuss in our organizations.
We often minimize our identity in Christ as another task on our to-do list, taking the heart transformation out of it. Things like helping others, church attendance, and giving money and time become the sum of our identity as Christians. How can leaders encourage these things in the right context?
As leaders we have an opportunity to paint that bigger picture. That sometimes comes in the things we say or don’t say, the things we celebrate or don’t celebrate. If we celebrate that person who is doing something all the time, then that’s what can accidentally be communicated as the best kind of Christian. Instead we can say, “OK, we know that it’s in Christ we find out who we are and what we’re living for. For some of you, that might be in the workplace. For others, that might be in your local community.”
We often think of identity in Christ as a checklist—give your money, live your best life, attend small group on Wednesday nights, be like Jesus. We have to allow people to breathe out as we acknowledge this can be crazy pressure. We have to give nuance so that the whole scope of our church family hears what it looks like to live in Christ. That reflects different seasons of our lives. That’s not to say the other stuff isn’t true. For some people, it’s actually time to get up and do something. But people don’t ever have to “perform” Christianity.
b>How do identity struggles manifest in leaders, and how can they overcome them?
Leaders have that added pressure of having to lead a department or team or church. We think, “I ought to be stronger and better than this.” Sometimes we feel pressed to hide certain things, because we have to perform having it all, being it all, doing it all. And that often doesn’t give us permission to be human and to have had a story before that moment.
Sometimes we’re so good at helping other people that we don’t know how to get help for ourselves. Do you have a place where, on a regular rhythm, you’re going to talk to somebody? Have you got a safe space where you can be a glorious failure, where you can attend to the broken pieces of your past or your present and your fears for the future? Do you actually have friends who can call you out on your junk and on the good stuff?
There are leaders who are doing the best they can, but they have encountered fears or horrendous racism, or they’ve been defined by family crisis, or they’ve lived out of brokenness—and those things are coming back to haunt them. Sometimes they think, “Oh my gosh, that was 10 or 20 years ago,” but something happens in our congregation that mirrors our own experience. When we’re triggered, we want to be able to reach for the phone, but if you haven’t already established those relationships, you won’t suddenly do it in a crisis.
I think those are hugely important for us as leaders. Otherwise we will mask our insecurity in our leadership and that will be our identity. We’ll wear our leadership like a cloak. It’s not sustainable. And somebody somewhere is paying the price—you, with your guilt, fear and shame, or your loved ones, or ultimately your ministry. Then we deal with it, but only when it’s overtaken our lives. By then, we’re often isolated. I wonder what things could be nipped in the bud if that brokenness was given voice and processed earlier.
Many of us can be turned off—or at least confused by—the picture of a loving God the Father, because our experiences with our own earthly father have negatively affected our understanding of God and our personal identities. Where do church leaders come into the picture here? How can they help?
This has always been a huge deal to me because my father wasn’t involved in my life. I met him three times. He’s passed away now, but we had an amazing reconciliation before he died. On one level, it felt very normal, because I wasn’t the only one in my friendship group or at school whose father wasn’t around. But I didn’t immediately notice its impact, and I think that’s one thing to note: Because it’s more common, we don’t always notice its impact. But it defined me in multiple ways.
Identity is given, and there was no one in a fatherly role that could tell me I was OK or enough. Also, you’ve got all these songs that talk about the heavenly Father, and it was like, “Great! That’s fantastic. As far as I’m concerned, a father is someone who abandons you, who doesn’t know your name.” I was defined by my father’s absence, so I found myself thinking, “I need to double, triple, prove myself to be worthy of God.” My experience defined my theology, my behaviors and the nature of my relationship with and my expectations of God. I felt I had to earn approval. Now I’m 43, and with distance I can look back and see that all the things I was trying to do for God were the things I wanted to do for my father.
I’ve seen people broken by this. People in their 50s and 60s, men and women in churches broken for their own stories, for their father who was preoccupied or distant. They know tomorrow is just another day, so they’ve got on with it, but in the 3-o’clock-in-the-morning feelings, they still question whether God knows them and loves them. They know their parents are broken human beings, but that didn’t stop the imprint on their lives.
As a church we have a responsibility to introduce people to the Father and to remind people that Jesus is the exact representation of the Father’s being. We have to acknowledge that for some people, that’s not just going to be a platitude. It’s going to be painful.
I received a lot of prayer and healing from counselors, and God introduced himself to me, wonderfully, in mundane and powerful ways. But I was still in a vacuum. It took people who were like spiritual fathers to mentor me. And family mentors were also really powerful. I could see how a husband talked to his wife, how a whole family interacted. So are we encouraging people and families to mentor, to be present for people with broken father relationships?
We’ve got to give room for people to grieve. And we have to celebrate their restoration and their redemption as well. It’s OK that this takes a while and that we allow the journey to be a journey.
Body image has affected your identity, as it does for many women. That’s a huge obstacle to a deeper relationship with Christ and to our ability to embrace our identity in him. How can the church speak into this? And is this an area meant for female leaders to address, or is there a place for men at the table here as well?
The message of our culture places an imprint on our very understanding of what we should look like, not just when we’re teenagers or in our 20s or 30s, but in our 40s, 50s, throughout our lives, particularly for women. It’s a huge thing for us to speak into.
When people see our church, what do they see? Do they see a particular look or size? Do they see every ethnicity? Do we expect the women to be particularly thin? I know it sounds really harsh, and I know we’ve got to be healthy, but are we allowed to look “everyday,” or do we have to look glamorous? Yes, our bodies are temples, but have we started worshiping that temple a little bit? Have we over-spiritualized our appearance? Do we want an airbrushed image, and have we thought about what message that communicates? I think we have to ask those questions.
I’m struck by the fact that as a woman, I’m very acutely aware of body pressures. It’s not just when your daughters are going through their teens. It’s over every era of a woman’s life. So I would ask our male leaders if they’re aware of quite how pervasive it still is today, and to be aware of what we communicate as a church when it comes to this area.
Being in covenant community is important to us living out our true identities. How can leaders foster this sort of authentic community within our churches, but also encourage individuals to create more organic communities outside of church walls?
We have to be honest about how humanity organizes itself. The smaller our groupings, the more intimate our relationships become. I think it’s OK for us to say that. To say, “It’s wonderful to have you all here together. It’s great that there are hundreds of people in the room. But there are people who come here and leave, and no one knows their name or their story. And while we gather on Sundays to worship and celebrate God, it’s not the place where we all work it out.”
Look at how Jesus did relationships. He had a relationship with the Father, with other believers and with those around him. We need to ask everybody what it looks like for them to have a relationship with other believers and relationships with the world around them.
What are your social gatherings and learning spaces like? When Jesus gathered people in the early church, those gathering spaces for believers also moved out to the world around them. I’ve seen it done wonderfully and I’ve seen it done terribly. Sometimes church small groups are so intimately tied that they’re not very welcoming. So instead of having a meal in the same old house, they could do something together to serve the community or go out and invite some friends. Look for relational spaces where you can get to know people beyond your church: Someone has the big game on, for example.
And we can also build relationships in the life we already have. Maybe your kids are in sports. I have my Target friends, because it’s my mission field! I’m there enough. Sometimes it’s spontaneous things that happen where as a team you’ve got a late-night project and you say, “Look, should we just get some food and eat?” and you stay longer. It’s capturing those moments. I think we’re afraid of them sometimes because we think we’re organizing something extravagant, but there’s so much we see in the ministry of Jesus where he’s just walking along. In the Great Commission where it says, “Therefore, go …” the Greek is actually “As you are going.” As you’re getting on with stuff, make disciples.
If people in churches were all living into their true identities, if they knew what God had called them to and embraced that, what’s possible in evangelicalism and in our broader communities? What’s the potential gain?
That is what every leader wants, really. This is why leaders went into ministry. They know that when someone knows who they are in Christ and lives it out, it’s a game-changer. And I think it’s probably why I’m so passionate about the book’s message [The Dream of You: Let Go of Broken Identities and Live the Life You Were Made For].
Because when someone knows who they are and discovers it, they’re changed. What does that do to a marriage, when you’re not bound by the brokenness of your past? What does it mean for your future and future generations? When you know you have a voice, when you know you’re worthy, you work differently, you treat people differently, you function differently? And when you know you have a voice and you’ve got something to share, things get done.
There’d be more missionary initiatives. There’d be more NGOs to seek and save the lost. There’d be more volunteers, because people would feel that they have a worthy contribution to make. People would have healthier boundaries, healthier marriages and greater margin.
There’d be bad days, because life happens to everybody all the time. But I think the church would also be a more attractive witness to a broken world. We would be compelling. We’d be like that fancy pink Himalayan salt everybody wants to buy. We would come to conversations about reconciliation and injustice and would actually define them in healthy ways. That’s because we would recognize that every person was made in the image of God, and we’d honor that.
People would want to know why you’re not weird—or why you are weirdly happy all the time, why you’ve got purpose and why you’ve gotten past your past. They wouldn’t recognize the way you live from the story you once told. Instead, there’s something different about you, and that’s attractive. I think as a church, if we lived like that, everyday men and women, everyday single mothers, everyday families, everyday college students, everyday CEOs, would be salt and light to the world around us.