by Richard T. Foulkes
Identification is a prerequisite for communication. Do we have something to give? Would we like to be open to what others might share with us? Then we must identify with them.
Identification is a prerequisite for communication. Do we have something to give? Would we like to be open to what others might share with us? Then we must identify with them. Without identification our attainments are useless. Our collective IQ’s may be astronomical, the sum total of our doctorates impressive. We might even boast of deep spirituality and vast cultural achievements, but all to no avail unless there is identification.
Billy Graham’s illustration of the Incarnation is that a man, to communicate with a worm, would have to become one. "That’s easy," we say, "for God. He can do anything. He simply becomes man." But how easy was it in the details of our Lord’s everyday life for Him to identify with us? There was no mere cosmic stepping down once and for all. The egeneto of John 1:14 may be an aorist, for the author was summing up a thirty-four-year span of time, but surely John of all the evangelists saw the Lord’s humiliation as a constant process, culminating in the cross. Jesus had to adjust repeatedly to Hi, environment. He must have found it stranger than we sinners do.
Look, for example, at the things that surprised Him. On rare occasions He was happily surprised, perhaps by the faith of a Gentile in whom one would not expect to find it. But mcne often He was surprised, and disappointed, at the lack of faith on the part of those who should have been believers. Think of the reply to His mother in the Temple-full of wonder and perhaps of hurt, "How is it that you didn’t know . . .?" Earh in His public ministry His first sermon in the home synagogue brought a terrible reaction, with the people incredulous at first, then sneering, and finally murderous. The Lord’s replies indicate His virtual inability to comprehend such hardness of heart. His own disciples, after months and years of knowing Him, distressed Him by their lack of faith. The synoptics agree that the episode of the demoniac boy whose tormentor the disciples could not exorcise happened after the Transfiguration. It must have required special grace for Jesus to adjust at all to the environment of contention and spiritual impotence that awaited Him at the foot of the mountain, when at its peak He had talked with "just men made perfect" and heard His Father’s voice. Is it any wonder that He broke into words such as, "Oh, how long do I have to put tip with you?" At this point He might have been relieved to return, as it were, to heaven, leaving men to their own plight.
But the amazing thing about our Lord is that, because He is love, every such disappointment simply inspired renewed identification with the people. He did not draw away; that is our sinful way of coping with people who disappoint us.
In the first case, Jesus identified with His parents after the Temple incident by continuing to be in subjection to them. What one doesn’t learn by sheer obedience!
In the second case, Jesus changed his headquarters from Nazareth to Capernaum, it is true, but He kept on preaching to and dealing with His Galilean fellow-Jews, and the people of Nazareth saw Him often. Parable after parable and sign upon sign renewed their chances of repentance and faith.
In the third case, did Jesus dismiss the disciples from His seminary on the basis of this flunk? No, the instruction continued, beginning on the spot where the failure occurred. He demonstrated the very faith He recommended to them by not abandoning the project.
Do I find a gap between myself and some seminary student? Some faculty member? Some fellow missionary? Seeking him out and putting myself into his situation will bridge the gap, and I must take the initiative.
Is identification always "down," a wormward movement, so to speak? Perhaps we would be less prideful if we were to speak of adjusting to different situations and people without judging "upness" or "downness." When we leave an environment in theStates, for example, and enter a new one on the field, we may move from the complex to the simple (or vice versa) or from insecurity to security (or vice versa). What remains constant is the need for flexibility as we identify with the unfamiliar. For identification is a becoming, it is a process. Paul describes his experience in 1 Cor. 9:19ff. in terms of voluntary transformation: "To those under the law I became as one under the law. To the scrupulous I became scrupulous." We admire his self-abnegating adaptability, and yet we do not want to identify with just anything or anyone. Paul deliberately chose these law-bound or hypersensitive people to identify with because they were brethren for whom Christ died. His motivation was that lie "might by all means save some." In other words, his was a scriptural motivation. We too decide whom to identify with, and up to what point, on the basis of the Word of God.
Paul can scarcely be accused of being wishy-washy and characterless. The reason a Christian identifies with others is not insecurity as to who he is. On the contrary, because he knows who he is, he can afford to enrich his life by empathy with others, and becomes more himself in doing so. The One who girded Himself with a towel and knelt to serve did so on the basis of full knowledge of His origin and His destiny.
Putting ourselves in someone else’s place does not depend on natural gifts, like gregariousness or facility with the language, for instance. We can remember too many missionaries with stumbling Spanish but warm communication with the Latins, and too many with facile tongues but closed hearts, to depend on a talent for languages as a magic key. It must be added, however, that the practice of empathy reveals new gifts and develops latent talent; more than one inhibited person has thus learned freedom and outgoingness.
Nor does success in identification depend ultimately on our circumstances of time and place. "I could really get to know these people if only I weren’t so busy," we hear someone say, not too convincingly. Or again, "If I had a different kind of job, if I lived in a neighborhood like so and so, what a witness I’d be." These factors are not final at all. Not even similarity of interests is basic in this matter of identification. The essence of Christian fellowship is not the warm feeling between two (or more) people of like mind and common concerns. The world can imitate that. Koinonia is better illustrated by the way the cross and resurrection of Christ bring two (or more) disparate individuals to love and understand each other. When I get together with another Christian pianist, for example, it is hard to know what percentage of our enjoyment is sheer shoptalk and what percentage is genuine fellowship. But, on the other hand, for me to be excited about talking with an elderly lady whom I have just met, or with a ten-year-old boy whose only passion is baseball, must take something of Christ’s grace in me. The world offers no counterpart to that. However, having rejected natural gifts, circumstances, and common interests as adequate formulas for identification, let’s hasten to press them into service. God can use all these factors as bridges into other people’s lives.
This becoming, the process mentioned above, does not just happen; it is due to an attitude active at all times. As an illustration consider the Lord Jesus’ loving treatment of the family in Bethany. When the note about Lazarus’ sickness arrived, Jesus probably realized that his friend had already died. He delayed in leaving Perea to cross the Jordan in order to bestow a more wonderful gift than that of mere healing. He knew the dangers that awaited them in Judea-as did Thomas the pessimist–and yet his attachment to the family, drew Him, in the will of God, to take the risk. Upon arrival lie strengthened by His words the weak faith of Martha and called secretly for Mary to come. His deep sympathy for the mourners and His love for Lazarus caused, at least in part, His tears before the tomb; in this the crowd did not guess wrong. Then as if to prepare all present for the shock of the miracle, the Lord prayed, thanking the Father for what He would do. Even after the corpse had been given life again, Jesus remembered, when others in their astonishment forgot, that the shroud needed to be removed. As on other occasions, His identification with others led to a special thoughtfulness.
God incarnate identified not just with men’s strengths but with their weaknesses (and yet always apart from sin). He admitted His thirst to the Samaritan woman, willing to put Himself in her debt. He entrusted Mary to John’s care as they stood near the cross, without asking if this rather large favor were too great. There is something about asking a favor that binds others to us, that puts us on the same level with them. An admission of weakness, of problem areas in our lives, can be used by God to break down barriers. It has been said that missionaries anxious to keep up their image before the national church have no idea how they are ruining it. On the other hand, doesn’t the seminary professor who treats students as his confidants run a risk? The value of taking this risk must be decided from within the personal relationship, and before the Lord.
In contrast to John the Baptist, who shunned society, Jesus wept and rejoiced with people, and reclined with them in their seats. As much at home with the publican’s motley guests as with the Pharisees and scribes at the other end of the social scale, He never feared the obscuring of His testimony in such gatherings. In His teaching He encouraged hospitality because it promotes good will among men. There is something about distance between people – I speak literally and metaphorically -that encourages prejudice. As faculty members we could use our homes to break down walls of misunderstanding. Looking back on my own training, I remember professors whose major access into my life was not via the classroom lecture but through apparently casual or planned extra-curricular contacts.
Many precious sayings of our Lord were table talk. He always insisted on the highest use of hospitable occasions: "Today salvation has come to this house," He said to Zacchaeus. While He rebuked Simon’s lack of courtesy as a host, He steadfastly refused to control exaggerated expressions of love and gratitude. It would be well to reread His warnings against using hospitality as a bludgeon or as a ladder to success in our efforts to identify with others.
Let me suggest three areas of identification that will help us to be better servants of the Lord. (I ) With Latin culture. Are we reading widely in Spanish? If not, our class lectures show it only too clearly. Are we working constantly on bettering our vocabulary, grammar, phonetics? Do we attempt to widen our experiences in Costa Rica, getting to know the country and its people? (2) With our coworkers. Team teaching is not limited to a few elective seminars; we practice it all the time, but not always with a great measure of success. We have coworkers in other departments of the mission, too. (31 With our students. What a privilege this is!
A final word: all identification rests ultimately on our identification with the Father’s purpose. This is involved in the commission, "As the Father has sent Me, so I send you." Unless accomplishing the work given us is our main drive in life, we settle back comfortably into isolation from others and a bottling-up of the love of God that has been poured out into our hearts. But if doing His will is our very food (John 4:341. we will make the extra effort involved and in turn enjoy the fuller, richer life.
Copyright © 1966 Evangelism and Missions Information Service (EMIS). All rights reserved. Not to be reproduced or copied in any form without written permission from EMIS.