“Growing up, we were German,” said Kyle Merker, in a television commercial for Ancestry.com. “We danced in a German dance group. I wore lederhosen,” he says in a voiceover of him dancing the traditional Bavarian Schuhplattler in his festive German regalia. 

“When I first got on Ancestry, I was really surprised that I wasn’t finding all of these Germans in my tree,” he said in the ad – as names of relatives pop up behind him on the screen. “I decided to have my DNA tested … and the big surprise is that we’re not German at all. Fifty-two percent of my DNA comes from Scotland and Ireland,” reported a grinning Kyle, who is then festooned on screen in a Scottish Tartan outfit. 

“So I traded in my lederhosen for a kilt.” 

Interestingly enough, Merker is not an actor. His was a serious case of mistaken ethnic identity – with no German DNA whatsoever. He had to rethink a lifetime of self-identity and a closet full of lederhosen.

Along similar lines, the late Dutch theologian and author Henri J.M. Nouwen (1932-1996) would testify that no matter how unimpeachable our family tree may be, we are all susceptible to being hoodwinked when it comes to our spiritual self-identity. “Who am I?” is a complex question. Nouwen believed we are tempted to respond in one of three ways:

1. I am what I do (accomplishments or failures within relationships and career).

2. I am what others say about me (good reputation or gossiped about behind the back). 

3. I am what I have (big house or foreclosure notice, picturesque family or estrangement, balanced check book or pile of debt).

For Nouwen, our identity is absolutely not found in any of these indicators. Instead, he argued, you are – most profoundly – the Beloved of God. (For emphasis, he would probably recommend reading that a second time.) Your worth as a man, your value as a woman, and your capacity to be loved by God have nothing to do with what you do, what others say about you, or what possessions you have. Long before you had a career, a reputation, or a mortgage, you were loved by God – from eternity to eternity.

No less than St. Paul made the extravagant proclamation: “Neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor principalities, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers, nor height nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord” (Romans 8:38-39).

For some of our friends, negative pronouncements said over them – sometimes from childhood – have become a curse that has created a spiritual prison. Past failures can become the very bars of a cell – making freedom an illusion. “When we have come to believe in the voices that call us worthless and unlovable, then success, popularity, and power are easily perceived as attractive solutions,” Nouwen writes in Life of the Beloved. “Self-rejection is the greatest enemy of the spiritual life because it contradicts the sacred voice that calls us the ‘Beloved.’ Being the Beloved constitutes the core of our existence.”

Nouwen did not write that flippantly. He was a brilliant theologian and scholar (taught at Yale and Harvard) who struggled profoundly with loneliness and depression. “Many of my daily preoccupations suggest that I belong more to the world than to God,” Nouwen writes in his spiritual classic Return of the Prodigal Son. “A little criticism makes me angry, and a little rejection makes me depressed. A little praise raises my spirits, and a little success excites me. It takes very little to raise me up or thrust me down. Often, I am like a small boat on the ocean, completely at the mercy of its waves.” 

Sometimes we are like the Scotsman dancing the Schuhplattler – not living in our true identity and dancing to the wrong music in lederhosen. In Gifts of Imperfection, Brené Brown writes that we “hustle for our worthiness by constantly performing, perfecting, pleasing, and proving.” Living as the beloved, we no longer have to hustle for worthiness. 

That is completely easier said than done. However, liberation begins when we allow the truth of our spiritual identity to be fully absorbed and take root in our hearts. “You will still have rejection,” Nouwen once said, “and you will still have loss but you will live no longer as a person searching for his or her identity. You will always live as the beloved. You will live your pain, you will live your anguish, you will live your success, you will live your failures as one who knows who you are.” 

Every Sunday, the congregation at Shepherd’s Grove Church in Orange County, California, recites a creed in unison: “I’m not what I do. I’m not what I have. I’m not what people say about me. I am the beloved of God. It’s who I am. No one can take it from me. I don’t have to worry. I don’t have to hurry. I can trust my friend Jesus and share his love with the world.”

Bobby Schuller, the pastor of the church, penned it as an intentional self-correcting statement of identity for his own soul. “Saying these words to myself as a daily practice pulled me out of the stressed out patterns of this world, of trying to prove myself, of feeling rejected and not enough, and brought me into the easy rhythms of grace,” Schuller writes in his new book You are Beloved. “I was training my will and character around the love of God in Christ.” 

Schuller wrote half his creed in response to Nouwen’s observations, and the other half because of his interactions with the late Dr. Dallas Willard, professor of philosophy at USC and author of The Divine Conspiracy. Willard had a great handle on Christian spiritual formation and was “always encouraging Christians to stop hurrying and stop worrying so much, to live every day with the serenity of the kingdom of the heavens at the forefront of our minds,” writes Schuller.

As a pastor, Schuller wants his congregation to be free from the bondage of mistaken identity. The temptation to measure ourselves against our co-workers, neighbors, family, and friends is intense. “As we compare our true, hidden self to others’ public shiny versions of themselves, we run out of energy trying to keep up with one another,” he writes. “We wake up hoping to outpace our peers while regretting the wasted years we could have spent being happy. The net result is everyone is tired because they are hurrying to be loved. Little do they know, they already are.” 

Being able to receive God’s acceptance and love is the grand slam in the ninth inning. After all, we concoct a million excuses why we are not loveable. “God sent his son Jesus to remove not only your sin, but also your feelings of shame and unworthiness,” writes Schuller. “The cross is a reflection of the vastness of God’s love for you. You were worth it. You may not think so, but God does.”

Self-doubt comes with the territory. It rushes in when vulnerability enters the room, when love comes to town. That is where faith in the goodness of God must stand with resolve. We can open our arms for the embrace – or pass on love. The invitation comes from the one who wore the crown of thorns. He heard them yell “Hallelujah” and “Crucify him!” in successive breaths. All the while, he knew his true identity was being the Beloved.

“Come to me, all you who are weary and burdened, and I will give you rest,” said Jesus. “Take my yoke upon you and learn from me, for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy and my burden is light” (Matthew 11:28-30).

Discovering our true spiritual identity frees us from the condemnation of past failures. We are loved by God. We always have been and we always will be. “In the shakiness of living, remember one simple thing: you are not what you’ve done, and you are not what you do,” writes Schuller. “You are a beloved child of God. No one can take that from you. You didn’t earn it. You’ve never lived a day where that wasn’t true.”

God is the First Love, Nouwen taught. It is the radiance of that love that moves all other loves. When we fully absorb our true identity as the beloved of God it frees us to love other people without expecting them to fill a void that only God can satisfy. “Every other love will be partial,” said Nouwen. And love and wounds are never separated – that is the price of true vulnerability. “We will be healed, but it will be painful. But if we are willing to let the pain not make us bitter – to prune us – to give us a deeper sense of our belovedness, then we can be as free as Jesus and walk through this world and proclaim God’s First Love wherever we go.”