Wednesday, August 20, 2008

The verb 'to be' and identity

Hi everyone.

I want to thank Marcel for the invitation to contribute to this very thought-provoking blog.


I have great difficulty in saying any sentence that begins "I am ..." (e.g. "I am a teacher"; "I am poor at mathematics"; "I am a Seventh-day Adventist") when it is about my identity. The reason is that the verb 'to be' and its variations (I am, you are, he/she/it is) have enormous potential to be totalising — to become the exclusively defining feature of our identity.

We can hear a similar aversion to this type of language when people who have a disability object to such language as "I am disabled" or "I am dyslexic". Frequently using this type of language about oneself can lead to becoming defined by the characteristic which is part of the phrase.

It is dangerous for others to use this language about another person. If I think of another person in terms of "she is disabled" or "she is aboriginal" we become tempted to stereotype the person and overlook other characteristics that richly define who they are.

It is an interesting exercise to deliberately change language like this about ourselves and others. Changing our language can change our perspective. Consider these examples:

I am a teacher --> One of the things that I do is teach

I am a bad speller --> There are some words I find difficult to spell

I am disabled --> There are some things I am not able to do

I am Australian --> I was born and raised in Australia

Stereotyping is a well known temptation for all of us. We tend to make quick judgments based on one characteristic of a person that becomes the box into which we force them. Deliberately avoiding the verb "to be" when talking about ourselves or others can liberate us from narrow views.

I sometimes wonder whether God was preventing us, as humans, from falling into the same trap when God answered Moses' question about God's name:

13 Then Moses said to God, “If I come to the people of Israel and say to them, ‘The God of your fathers has sent me to you,’ and they ask me, ‘What is his name?’ what shall I say to them?” 14 God said to Moses, “I am who I am.” And he said, “Say this to the people of Israel, ‘I am has sent me to you.’” 15 God also said to Moses, “Say this to the people of Israel, ‘The Lord, the God of your fathers, the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob, has sent me to you.’ This is my name forever, and thus I am to be remembered throughout all generations. Exodus 3:13-15

God resists saying, "I am ..." and filling in the phrase with something specific. God just says, "I am who I am. You can't define me. You can't squeeze me into a box of your own making. You can't pin me down." God is willing to identify Godself as the same God that communicated with Israel's "fathers" — Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob.

Clearly, we do not come anywhere near any equivalence with God. But, as humans made in the image of God, defining ourselves with any sort of categorical box is simplistic, reductionistic, and totalising. I challenge everyone to practice the discipline of avoiding the verb "to be" when talking about self-identity and, instead, celebrate the richness of each one of us that makes it impossible to put us into any box.


  1. Welcome Steve, and thanks for your post! I enjoyed the read as labels usually irritate me. However there is one label that I don't mind:

    I am a Christian.

    My fear with some points of this line of thinking, specifically with spiritual truth and absolutes, is that it can lead to dangerous ground and moral relativism. I am curious about your thoughts on this. Can we eve be confident enough in something that we can declare it with integrity and conviction?

  2. Great post, Steve. I have often contemplated the simple description of self as "I am" with no descriptors--as who I am is constantly growing and changing.

  3. I am...appreciative of your blog thoughts...

    I find though, so much of our tie and energy is spent defining who we are...pursuing education to better employment, defying the odds at work to be favored for a promotion...using facebook to define our personality and image...

    Perhaps it is ok to have labels...labels that remind us of who we are...labels that change as we evolve...because it is easy to get caught up in defining ourselves that we lose our true identity: God's child.

  4. Hi Charles. Thanks for your question about the label, 'I am a Christian.'

    I have to say that I don't even like that label. Even this label comes with an enormous amount of baggage.

    I perhaps need to qualify what I am saying a bit - particularly in view of you suggestion that avoiding labels could lead to 'dangerous ground and moral relativism'.

    It is the verb 'to be' in particular I wish to avoid (in reference to self-identity) rather than any reference to something like Christianity. Transforming the verb into another form is what I found powerful and, in fact, guards agains dangerous ground and moral relativism.

    For example, instead of saying I AM a Christian, I can say:

    1) I follow Jesus Christ.
    2) I try to practice what Jesus taught.

    I don't need to use the verb, 'to be', to articulate those aspects of my life that are tied to Jesus Christ and who he is. Rather than use the label, I would rather live and speak the richness of what I think, do, and feel so that others can understand what the label, on its own, can never say.

  5. I appreciate this thoughtful post--what it says and implies about people and what it says and implies about God. Incidentally, there is another similar conversation going on over at the Spectrum blog about the labels we apply to one another. I mention it because it dovetails nicely with the content of this post and the comments here.


  6. Thanks for the kind words, Jared. I noticed the conversation at Spectrum yesterday and you are correct... it does dovetail nicely. I think we are living in a world where labels are becoming increasingly problematic!

  7. I felt some resonance with something I blogged on a while ago.

    Sometimes I too find it difficult to don the label: "I am a Christian", since I cannot believe what most Christians believe (i.e. that God tortures people in hell for all eternaty); therefore, I cannot easily associate myself with the term. But if we redefine "Christian" to simply mean, as you said: "[Someone trying] to practise what Jesus taught" or someone that believes in and accepts God's grace as worked through and demonstrated in Jesus Christ, then yes, I am a Christian.