What We Learn About Identity From Julius Thomas
What does it look like to trade one identity for another?
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Identity — the term itself conjures ideas about relating with or a developing a sense of security or belonging.
At some level, we all find ourselves engulfed in and relating to a personal identity. For some, that identity is formed around their vocation. For others, they seek significance through relationships — maybe as a parent or spouse. Some define themselves by appearance, financial status, grades, or successes. Still others relegate themselves to a specific race, religion, or people group. Or worse yet they allow others to define them by what the culture or media says is true of them. At the core, most are seeking acceptance, love, and significance to the ever changing world.
Recently former NFL tight end Julius Thomas came to the reality that his own identity — though largely wrapped in being a professional athlete — was much more than simply playing football. Ultimately, he made the difficult decision to retire from the game he loved — forgoing fame and fortune in the process. He chose to exchange studying defenses on the field to studying psychology in the class where he hopes to earn a Ph.D. to help others through the harmful effects of contact sports.
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Thomas said that he eventually had to “learn to accept that my identity was not my profession.” At his retirement announcement, he said, “I’m ready to admit that I’m okay with giving up the identity of ‘Julius the football player.’ I’m O.K. with not being recognized as an NFL athlete — because I’m more than that. I have stepped out of my identity before, and I will continue to do it again and again throughout life. I believe helping others is what I’m supposed to be doing at this point in my life. Hopefully I can help by encouraging more of my peers to connect with who they are outside of the game. If ultimately that’s what I’m remembered for, I’d be very thankful.”
Through introspection the two-time Pro Bowler came to terms that beyond the paycheck and notoriety, something was still missing. At a deeper level there was a longing for purpose in helping others. He noted, “These material things I was focused on — the cars, the homes, the paycheck — I finally had them, but something was still missing. When I was deeply honest with myself, it was clear those things didn’t make me happy.”
At some level, like Thomas, we must all come to terms and “take stock” of those things that really matter in life — from relationships and personal health to family and spiritual matters.
How is this done?
We ultimately need to define our identity against something outside ourselves
We ultimately need to define our identity against something outside ourselves. More importantly, we need to rest assured by what or rather Who we allow to define us.
Author David Benner states that “an identity grounded in God would mean that when we think of who we are, the first thing that would come to mind is our status as someone who is deeply loved by God.”
This means that regardless of external measures — regardless of failure or success — the very foundation of our identity doesn’t change as our circumstances change. It remains unshaken on the Truth of God’s Word that says, for the Christian, “we have been chosen, adopted, redeemed, forgiven, grace-lavished, and unconditionally loved and accepted. We are pure, blameless and forgiven. We have received the hope of spending eternity with God” (Ephesians 1:3-14).
For Christians, these aspects of our identity can never be altered by what we do — or don’t do.
It is only by seeing ourselves from God’s vantage point, and taking our cues from Him alone, that we can ultimately rest secure in our own identity. When our personal significance is not tied to our external circumstances or society’s standards, we can genuinely trust that no matter what comes our way we can have peace in our daily purpose and reason for existing.
And that’s an identity worth clinging to!