How a loser discovered his true identity
By Steve Norman | March 09, 2016
Last year, I ran a half marathon in Detroit. The course is a scenic route that runs over the Ambassador Bridge into Canada and then back into the U.S. through a tunnel under the river. The half and full marathons are run simultaneously, starting at the same time and eventually ending at a common finish line.
Nobody would ever mistake me for a hard-core runner. I’m not particularly fast, and I happily plodded through the majority of the race without fanfare. But then came the finish line. The last stretch of the race is in downtown Detroit. Grandstands filled with runners’ friends and family line both sides of the street leading to a banner marked “Finish.”
I was about a block shy of that banner when suddenly the crowd got louder. So I picked up my pace. To my surprise, they grew more and more energized as I approached. So I dug deeper. They love me! I thought. There’s nothing quite like hearing people cheer for you. You feel like you matter; somebody out there knows your name, believes in you, and wants you to win.
I sprinted as fast as I know how—and then I sensed a runner coming up on my left. To my great shock, I realized that it was the lead woman finishing the full marathon. Let me be clear here—she had run twice as far as I had in the same amount of time.
I wanted to feel like I mattered, but I didn’t. I wasn’t part of an elite class, just the mob of participants. The medal they gave me? Everybody gets one.
A few weeks ago, our staff took a road trip to Chicago. On our return trip, I sat in the third row of seats in a white fifteen-passenger van. I was looking out the window, listening to music on my headphones as we barreled eastbound on Interstate 94. Then, above the music, I heard my friend yelling. I looked up to see a large truck coming right at me from the other direction, kicking up grass and dirt as it crossed the median. It only stopped when it rolled over on its side.
My friend driving the van screeched to a halt and we scrambled out. I ran down the freeway shoulder, against traffic, racing to see if the driver was OK. I got to the cab first and looked inside, prepared to pull out the injured passengers.
But it was empty. Frantic, I scanned the pavement, looking for the bodies, trying to see where the driver had been thrown.
Time seemed to stop as I absorbed the truth. The runaway truck was being towed and had broken loose from its cable. There was never anyone inside. No one needed my rescue.
Certainly I was relieved there were no casualties; but a small part of me felt something else. I wanted to feel like I mattered. I wanted my efforts to count for something. But in this case, I was just some random guy in khakis running down the shoulder of the freeway.
Have you ever had that feeling? That you’re putting your best foot forward, but you’re still invisible? You can’t seem to land the accolades of the people who could validate you as truly significant.
You got close to taking your attractive high-school classmate to the big dance, but she chose someone else instead. You made the first cut at basketball tryouts, but then the coach chose others for the team. You’re in the running for that promotion, but management chose your colleague.
If you’re like me, somewhere in your life, in spite of any accomplishments and success you might have achieved, uncertainty lingers. The old insecurities cast a shadow over your confidence. Someone, somewhere decided you didn’t have what it takes.
Sadly, we know the dynamics of rejection all too well.
Fortunately, the pages of Bible history identify someone who knows that feeling. Many people know David as a powerful king, but his story didn’t start that way. Israel’s very first king, Saul, made some significant missteps, and God disqualified him from leadership. So God’s prophet Samuel reluctantly set out to identify a successor (1 Samuel 16:4-13). Per God’s directive, Samuel goes to Jesse’s house in Bethlehem, and the parade of potential candidates begins. When Samuel sees Eliab, who looks appropriately presidential, he thinks, “Definitely. Let’s go with him.”
Author Malcolm Gladwell calls this response the Warren G. Harding effect. In his research of business and political leaders, Gladwell discovered that men in those roles tend to be taller than their peers. People like tall leaders, even if those tall individuals (like Harding) have shown little or no aptitude for high-level leadership. Gladwell contends that our (and Samuel’s) unconscious assumptions often prompt us to crown the wrong kinds of people.
But in this case, God intervened, reminding the prophet, “I have a different set of criteria than appearance and stature.”
So the next brother Abinadab comes and goes. Then, Shammah and four others. David was number eight. He was a leftover, a nobody, a sheep sitter. David wasn’t popping up on anybody’s radar. People kept forgetting he was there. Nobody, not even David, knew that this was the day he would be anointed king of Israel.
Until that moment David had been “just a shepherd.” What he hasn’t seen is that God is using his shepherding of sheep to prepare him for a lifetime of shepherding people. And while David is leading sheep, God is leading David into an understanding of his own identity. God calls him a king.
For too many of us, our sense of identity is terribly fragile, subject to the whims of others’ opinions.
Often we spend significant chunks of time and energy attempting to secure and defend our place in this world, trying to claim the roles or titles that represent our identity. Even when we’re successful, we worry: What happens if I lose my place? What if I’m surpassed or replaced by a rival? What if I lose my dream job, the pageant crown, the golden child status, the label as excellent parent, leader, or Christian? Who am I then?
Is it possible that we have placed our identity in the hands of others, those who don’t truly have the wisdom or the power to hold it? If I entrust my identity to mere mortals, I can’t be disappointed if they ignore, mistreat, or discard it—if they don’t recognize me and respect me as I think they should.
On the other hand, if my identity is anchored in the truth that a sovereign God chooses me to be his own, calls me by name, and adopts me into God’s family, then I have nothing to fear.
What do you believe? Are you confident that God knows your name and declares you valuable? Do you believe your Creator has chosen you to be a part of something God is doing in your life, your family, your work, and your world? Could it be that no single change you make in your behavior in this season of Lent is as significant as how you choose to view yourself? This question of identity drills down to our core sense of self. God calls us to reframe our sense of worth from “Who I am” to “Who I belong to.”
God knows my name, even when nobody else does. In verse 11, Jesse doesn’t even name David, he simply refers to him as “the youngest.” (If you’re the youngest in your family you may know the feeling of being overlooked. My wife, Kelly, and I are always embarrassed when we compare the volume of photos of our first child to our fourth and youngest. Here’s hoping she doesn’t resent us for it.) David isn’t celebrated for his unique contributions to Jesse’s house, his brothers just call him out by his rank, the lowest one. It can be immensely frustrating when people of influence in your circle don’t know your name—yet God always does.
God knows your name and your struggle. God sees you as you fight for sobriety, as you try to wrestle down a good work/life balance, or as you battle to keep your head above water financially. God knew about David’s sense of being overlooked and underutilized, and God met him at his need. Why? Because David mattered to God and God chose him despite his flaws and failures and inadequacies. God chose him, fully knowing the havoc his character gaps would wreak on an innocent man, woman, and child, on David’s own family and his subjects. David wasn’t chosen because he was or would be perfect. He was chosen because he was loved and treasured, because he was never beyond redemption. Even when others wouldn’t choose him, God saw an undercover king.
When we choose to believe that we are chosen too, it alters what we see when we look in the mirror. It alters how we carry ourselves, how we spend our time and energy, and what we choose to focus on.
My running warrants no accolades. Nobody writes headlines about guys who pull imaginary truck drivers from rigs that aren’t even on fire. But I’m still the one God knows and calls. I’m still one who is loved and affirmed. I’m rebuked and challenged for my own good.
Even when I feel like I’m coming in last, God reminds me that I’m actually part of a royal line.
And so are you.
About the Author
Steve Norman is the lead pastor at Kensington Church in Troy, Michigan. He is also a volunteer police chaplain and group fitness instructor. He dabbles in completing half and full marathons at glacial speeds.