Who You Are vs. What You Do

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For Bukayo Saka, it was an exceedingly painful moment.

He failed.  In front of a crowded stadium and a worldwide TV audience.

Saka, a 19-year-old Londoner born to Nigerian parents, is one of the most highly regarded young players in the world’s most popular sport – football (or as Americans call it, soccer).  Earlier this summer he was chosen to be one of the wingers on the English national team as they launched their quest to win the European Championship.

When it comes to international achievement, English football has traditionally been the mirror image of the NFL’s Cleveland Browns – a team calculated to break the hearts of its fans. 

The nation’s one and only moment of glory came back in 1966 when they claimed the coveted World Cup.  A half century of championship disappointment and consequent national disgrace finally seemed to be coming to an end three weeks ago.  The English squad took the field against Italy.  Since the final match was played in London’s Wembley Stadium, the Brits enjoyed a home field advantage.

At the end of regulation the score stood at 1-1.  Neither team found the net during extra time (or overtime, as we might call it). 

That meant the match, the championship, and the meaning of life for virtually every English football fan would be settled by a penalty shootout.  Each team sends five players, one at a time, to attempt to kick the ball into the net past the opponent’s goalkeeper. 

Three of Italy’s players scored.  Just two of England’s first four kickers succeeded.  That left Saka to make the fifth attempt.  The weight of an entire nation was on his right leg. 

Gianluigi Donnarumma, Italy’s lanky goalie, dived to his left, guessing that that would be the direction Saka would aim his kick.  He guessed right.  Italy celebrated the championship before tens of thousands of crushed fans. 

Gareth Southgate, England’s coach, walked onto the field and put his arms around Saka.

The next day Reverend Fleming Rutledge, an Episcopal priest and theologian, posted the picture you see above.  She added these words:

“I wonder if there is any image more beautiful than the embrace of the one who trains, equips, releases you, and when you fail still embraces you and reminds you that your value comes from who you are, not what you did.”

Losing is an outcome.  It does not determine your identity. 

People who tell lies and just keep lying are liars.  Those who habitually cheat, cut corners, and break their promises are cheaters.  People who take what isn’t theirs and refuse to stop doing so are thieves.  Lying, cheating, and stealing are character flaws – crippling illnesses of the soul that can ultimately keep us from seeing God’s kingdom.   

What about people who just keep losing?  Doesn’t losing make them losers?   

Here the English language gets tricky.  “Being a loser” has come to mean not just a description of recurring events, but a scathing assessment of one’s worthiness as a human being.

Some people are so terrified of being branded a “loser” – certain athletes, CEOs, politicians, and religious leaders come to mind – that they are willing to lie, cheat, and steal in order to sustain the illusion that their inner and outer worlds are unblemished.    

Consequently, missing a penalty kick, or not being invited to the most important party of the summer, or earning fewer Olympic medals than another country, or botching a crucial business deal simply cannot be tolerated.  You should feel ashamed of yourself.

To which the Bible’s authors retort, “That is so tragically ridiculous.” 

Who you are is not the sum total of what you do

If you have opened your inmost self to Christ, then you are a new creation (2 Corinthians 5:17).  You are God’s temple, where God’s Spirit dwells (I Corinthians 3:16).  You were blessed, chosen, forgiven, and loved even before you were born (Ephesians 1:3-11).  You are the light of the world and the salt of the earth (Matthew 5:13-14).  You are God’s treasured child (John 1:12) whom he will never abandon (Hebrews 13:5). 

Your identity doesn’t come down to how your life has been going lately. 

Who you are is dependent on Whose you are.

And that includes knowing that His arms will always be wrapped around you – especially in life’s most painful and difficult moments.